Bonus Episode: Cuisine, Consumption, & Consuls
In this bonus episode, we look back on the stories from season one with an eye for food. Alongside a cast of guest taste-testers, producers Deepthi Murali and Kris Stinson both try and discuss many of the dishes and drinks that have appeared in the accounts of consuls from places like Jerusalem, Algiers, Martinique, and Canton. Together, they explore the many ways that food has been a powerful force in the history of consuls, belonging, and empire!
Lincoln Mullen is an associate professor in the Department of History and Art History, as well as the director of computational history at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.
God’s Will Katchoua
God’s Will Katchoua is the system’s administrator at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.
Kris: I’m Kris Stinson, and the other voice you heard was my co-producer Deepthi Murali, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls.
Kris: Consolation Prize has looked at the lives and careers of American consuls as they encountered far off lands and foreign cultures. In this bonus episode, we are going to zoom in and take a closer look at the ways these consuls participated in different cultures and how they forged the relationships that fostered diplomacy. That’s right, today, we’re talking about food.
Kris: Food has been central across time and has served a variety of functions. Beyond the task of sustaining daily life, food has been found at the heart of religious and community rituals. Additionally, food has solidified the boundaries between rich and poor, saved and damned, the powerful and the wanting. In other words, food has served as the means of illustrating who belongs in a certain group and who does not.
Kris: Although I didn’t realize it at the time, food and drink have been present in all of the stories we have told in season one. In Jerusalem, it was a marker of civilization. In Martinique and Canton, it was the backbone and draw of imperial power. And in places like Algeria and Zanzibar, it was the distinction that upheld class and authority.
Kris: So in this bonus episode, we’ll go back and take a look at some of our previous stories with a more “hungry” eye in order to see how central food was to the cultures American consuls found themselves in. Just as a reminder, all of season 1 of Consolation Prize is up and available at consolationprize.rrchnm.org if you want to learn more about the American consuls that we will reference in this episode.
Kris: Before we get started, we need to set up two, big ideas that will help structure this episode’s stories. First, food helps to determine belonging – meaning it shows who is and who isn’t a part of the community. For consuls, food was very connected to their sense of home. As our colleague Megan Brett reminded us, James Maury, the consul to Liverpool, got Virginia hams from his family back in Virginia, even though the cuisine of the United Kingdom wasn’t all that different from Maury’s usual diet. In a sense, even though he was far away, home was brought to him through ham.
Kris: Our second big idea is that food has historically been tied to empire. This means that food has served to reinforce who has power and who does not. We saw this at work in our episode on Selah Merrill, the consul to Jerusalem. In that episode, the question of how food was produced showed who had political power. From Merrill’s, American standpoint, the local ways of farming and agriculture were simply not up to snuff with the vast production networks of the supposedly civilized West. As a result, the agricultural schools Americans set up, and consuls helped to keep alive, helped propel this notion of civilization. The schools were tangible signs of a foreign power’s presence in these local communities. It turns out that food, and methods of making food, could be effective means of imposing authority, shaping the relationships that consuls and Americans had with locals across the globe.
Kris: With these big ideas in place, it’s important to keep in mind that food works very differently for those who dwell on society’s margins as opposed to those at the centers of power. We are going to address each of these experiences in two episodes, so be on the lookout for that follow up episode that will shift our perspective to look at food from the bottom-up. But now let’s “dig in,” pun intended, to see how these larger themes played out around the world.
Kris: As many of the consuls in season one realized, food often came up in relation to religion. Whether it was the American interaction with the Jewish population in Jerusalem or Consul Mohammed Russell Webb’s conversion to Islam, food often stood out in the form of Halal and Kosher laws. These laws dictated what members of a religious community could and could not eat and drink. Such laws were so important and pervasive that special cookbooks began to be compiled in order to cater to religious communities. They provided alternatives to Muslims and Jews in the United States and around the world.
Kris: Food laws helped solidify communal boundaries even as they made some relationships and interactions more difficult in an increasingly connected and commercial world. Take Richard Waters’ first interaction with local representatives in Zanzibar as another example.
Kris: In what he thought was a show of hospitality after welcoming these local merchants aboard his ship, Waters offered them wine which they promptly refused because they were Muslim. In that first moment, it was driven home to Waters that he was the outsider in this community, and his traditional notions of food and drink did not apply. Waters had to learn to navigate these different worlds if he hoped to be a successful consul.
Kris: Yet learning to navigate through different traditions could be incredibly complex. Not only did Waters have to take into consideration different religious traditions, but also how various empires had affected local communities.
Kris: The dish boko-boko, which Deepthi made for our team, is a good example of the interplay of these different dynamics. The dish has Middle-Eastern origins and was eaten in contemporary Zanzibar, where Waters served as consul in the mid-19th century. In Eastern Africa, the dish continues to be known by the name Harees… harkening back to its Arabic origins that indicate centuries of commerce and colonial relations between the Middle East and the Swahili Coast. As a dish, Boko-Boko represents a mix of cultural and culinary practices that combined Arab, Indian, and African influences. At the same time, Boko-Boko also incorporated dietary laws in that the “meat” the dish calls for is only lamb, beef, or chicken, since pork was expressly forbidden. As we will see later on in Martinique as well, consuls were constantly entering into worlds whose shape had been forming long before the U.S. decided to open a consulate.
Kris: Boko-Boko also represents another aspect of 19th century food culture. Like many other dishes and meals in this era, Boko-Boko was an incredibly social object in both the amount of time it took to make and the large portions it typically provides. It is a dish that was made for eating at large gatherings as a social activity in the community.
Kris: Many other food and drink items were made to foster a community’s social life. Turkish Coffee, for instance, was made for a very different setting than the modern coffee stores that channels more of a quick and individual ‘drive-thru’ mentality. Deepthi explained it best as we were sharing a cup of Turkish coffee from a local coffeehouse.
Kris: Yet coffee in the 19th century represented more than just sociality. In places like Algeria it was the ritual that upheld the power dynamics at play in the courts of local rulers.
Kris: In episode 9, we looked at the careers of James Leander Cathcart and Richard O’Brien as consuls to the “Barbary States,” including Algeria. Much of that story came from the personal memoir of James Cathcart. As he described his time in captivity and his experience in the court of the Dey of Algiers, coffee was not only a central feature in court life, but a ritual that reinforced the local power hierarchies and upheld Algeria’s class structure. In order for any foreign person to negotiate with the dey, he first had to be willing to drink coffee with the dey. Deepthi and I talked more about the implications of this ritual after trying our first sips of Turkish coffee.
Kris: The power dynamics at play around food were not always local. The American experience in Jerusalem suggest that food could serve as a tempting force that invited representatives of foreign powers to intervene and ‘civilize’ the local cuisine. As we saw on the island of Martinique and the ports of Canton, food and drink drew various empires of the 19th century to certain parts of the world. In season 1, it was things like sugar and tea that drew France, Britain, and the United States to a string of islands in the western Atlantic and to the waters of south-east China in order to stock the kitchens and bakeries of far off metropolises.
Kris: Deepthi and I sat down with God’s Will Katchoua and Lincoln Mullen to share some tea and dessert and talk more about the changing food ways in the context of 19th century empires.
Kris: First, we sampled the teas that made trade ports like Canton so important to consuls like Samuel Shaw.
Kris: With the tasting of the third and final tea we all revised our guesses.
Kris: After we had finished with the tea we moved on to talk about the growing importance of sugar by trying the 19th century French dessert, blanc mange, along with the French drink, ti-punch, which just so happens to be the national cocktail of Martinique.
Kris: Our discussion of cuisine, consumption, and consuls in this episode highlights the crucial role that food played in building networks of commerce, power, and empire. But what is less visible is the connection of some of these same food products to systems of enslavement, alienation, and oppression. For example, hidden behind the nutty sweetness of Blancmange is the history of Martinique’s sugar plantations which were introduced in the 17th century. Between 1635 and 1789, 700,000 Africans were enslaved and brought to Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue to cultivate sugar plantations. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, plantation owners shifted to using indentured laborers from India and China – perpetuating the exploitative means of agricultural production. The history of this sweet dessert is tied to the unsavory history of sugar production in Martinique.
Kris: Behind almost every dish or cup of coffee lurked power relationships that reinforced individual, communal, religious, and cultural boundaries. As was the case in Martinque, food could have a darker side when it came to the question of who was to produce the ingredients that made the French desserts and sweetened their cocktails and the English’s tea. A very different food world existed when viewed from the bottom up. In the next episode we will explore some of these lesser known foods and people the consuls encountered.
Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This episode was produced by Kris Stinson and Deepthi Murali. Special thanks to our executive producer Abby Mullen, and team member Megan Brett for production assistance and partaking in our food tasting. Thanks also to Lincoln Mullen and God’s Will Katchoua for joining our taste-testing. Music for this episode is by Andrew Cote.This episode was recorded partly on location at Washington DC’s Municipal Fish Market, Crepes and Karak cafe in Vienna, Virginia.
Bennett, Norman R., and George E. Brooks Jr. New England merchants in Africa: a history through documents 1802 to 1865. Boston University Press, 1965. https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/23140.
Civitello, Linda. Cuisine and culture: a history of food and people. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2011.
Edwards, Megan E. “Virginia Ham: The Local and Global of Colonial Foodways.” Food and Foodways 19, no. 1–2 (February 9, 2011): 56–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710.2011.544175.
Laudan, Rachel. Cuisine and empire: cooking in world history. University of California Press, 2013. https://www.degruyter.com/isbn/9780520954915.
Murali, Deepthi. “The Culinary Adventures of Major Samuel Shaw During His First Voyage to China.” Consolation Prize, 2020.
Shaw, Samuel, and Josiah Quincy. The journals of Major Samuel Shaw the first American consul at Canton : with a life of the author. Boston: W. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Journals_of_Major_Samuel_Shaw/1rcEAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.