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May 24, 2016
Environment@Harvard

Incorporating Environmental History

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Everyone who has ever lived, says Joyce Chaplin, has done so in the natural world. It should follow, then, that all historians operate with the environment in mind, no matter the period or place they are studying. “If I have any criticism of academic history, it is how environmental his-tory is segmented off,” says Chaplin, the Phillips Professor of Early American History. “Certainly for undergraduates especially, every survey course should include something about the environment without necessarily saying, ‘And this is the environmental history part of the course.’ No, it’s just part of the past.”

Should she want to describe herself as an environmental historian, she would have the bona fides. Her path to academia started with an interest in the Green Revolution’s potential as a salve to world hunger, which led to an interest in agriculture and then to the history of both agriculture and the environment. “How people lived in a past time when they had an awareness of nature, including of finite resources, and then how we have developed the natural world away from those assumptions, seem to me to be central,” says Chaplin. As a graduate student, she continued work that began with an undergraduate thesis on rice cultivation in South Carolina, expanding it to look at agricultural improvement in South Carolina, Georgia, and British East Florida—examining both the socio-economic history of the crop choice and production as well as the intellectual impact of the Enlightenment.

Of late, Chaplin has developed a focus on the field of food history, including culinary history. “It is really the history of food prepared according to cultural norms of what a meal or cuisine should be,” says Chaplin. She recently co-edited a series of essays on food history and co-wrote (with Alison Bashford from the University of Cambridge) a book on English philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus that examines how food supply influenced his views on population growth. Last year, she began teaching an undergraduate course on American food in a global context. She taught the course again this year with the subtitle “How Did The Past Taste?” Each week has offered students a new edible sample. “And they’re not always intended to be pleasant,” Chaplin says with a laugh. One lesson includes offerings of both Graham Bread, the “original health food” prepared by nineteenth-century food reformer and purveyor Sylvester Graham, and its sweeter, modern descendant, Graham crackers. “Food is an element of culture, and culture varies over time. To understand food and understand how people respond to food, you need to recreate the context around it.”

Food also allows the students a more personal interaction with the material. “There is this new sensory history—how did the past sound, how did it smell, how did it feel,” says Chaplin. “I’m looking at how did it taste and what does that mean about what it meant to be human in the past, what it meant to experience pleasure—how hungry did you have to be to eat this,” she says. “It is recreating a level of experience about the past above and beyond what we can read or see about it.”

- Dan Morrell

This profile originally appeared in Environment@Harvard: Volume 8, Issue 1

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