Curator’s Thoughts on A Fine and Fertile Country: How America Mapped its Meals

 

Some of you were able to join us last autumn for the opening of A Fine and Fertile Country: How America Mapped its Meals at the Harvard Map Collection. We are delighted to tell you that it now has several digital components that can be viewed freely online, including a slideshow of the exhibition itself:

 

(Best viewed in a separate tab, by clicking on the box with the arrow at the bottom right)

 

You have a few more weeks to catch the exhibition in person, but I want to take this opportunity to answer a question I have gotten very frequently about my curatorial decisions: why food?

There’s a short answer: because I LOVE food.

But, there’s also a long answer:

My interest in the topic solidified when two things happened that made me realize that maps can determine how we understand our food. The first occurrence was when Harvard acquired an amazing 1930s sugar industry map that showed the history of the global sugar trade in unrealistically favorable terms. It glossed over centuries of inhumane treatment of the people who harvest sugarcane, and it showed sugar as a nutritious resource!

The second occurrence was when I found out about the history of the Tater Tot. One of my absolute favorite foods, I learned that Tater Tots have a history deeply entwined with Mormon migration, the mechanized production of American potato varieties, government irrigation projects, strategic inventions like flash freezing potatoes to feed American troops during World War II, and what is perhaps the most unexpected of culinary trendsetters: the Lutheran church lady cookbook. (Read the links in these sentences for the full story!)

With visions of Tater Tots and sugar cubes dancing in my head, the idea for an American food-themed exhibition was born, to show maps of settlement patterns in the United States and how the promise of food drove the expansion of American territory from the colonial period all the way through the Cold War. While I wanted the exhibition to show American ingenuity at its finest, with a healthy dash of whimsy, I also aimed to be honest about the terrible cost of this history, namely in terms of forced migration. Native American societies were decimated and displaced, African Americans were captured and enslaved as agricultural laborers, and the leaders of foreign countries were manipulated and strong-armed in order to create the food systems that have made American prosperity possible.

My thanks to my incredible colleague, Dani Brown, who completed archaeological research about the origins of our food species, and who also made these online materials possible. Happy learning and happy eating!