Thursday, September 30, 2010

History on the menu

I spent the first part of this summer in North Yorkshire leading the University of South Carolina’s England Field School. In the early evening while we gathered in the TV room waiting for dinner to be prepared, I valiantly argued that East Enders was the best thing on the BBC – a downright cultural phenomenon that they should appreciate. The students decidedly disagreed. They favored Great British Menu, a reality cooking show where regional chefs competed, course by course, with the ultimate winner cooking for Prince Charles and 100 guests.

Although sulking a bit about the students’ choice, I slowly got hooked on GBM. What intrigued me about the show was its sponsorship by the National Trust, a charitable organization founded in 1895to preserve “places of historic interest for the benefit of the nation.” The competing chefs were each assigned to a National Trust property, and they had to draw inspiration for their food from the gardens and surrounding area.

This move into sponsoring a reality cooking show actually fits nicely with the National Trust’s ongoing campaign to support a local foods movement. NT has developed a food policy that guides the procurement of food sold at the restaurants and tearooms at NT properties. Capitalizing on the beautiful gardens at many of the NT estates, they market the working gardens that provide tasty snacks for visitors.

Indeed, the description in the NT guidebook of the restaurant and garden at Clumber Park was so intriguing, that my friend and I decided to visit one Saturday. The day was perfect. With beautiful sunny weather, we strolled through the gardens, visited the small exhibit rooms, and enjoyed a three-course lunch in the courtyard restaurant.

The meal was delicious – and I urge US parks and museums to consider hosting “real” restaurants instead of mass-produced institutional fare. But everywhere I turned, the message “Eat Local” was hammered home to the point it became the dominant topic of conversation.

Granted, my companion and I are not average visitors. As museum professionals with rather strong backgrounds in foodways, we always visit such sites with a critical eye. Sometimes those critiques come at oblique angles.

For example, Clumber Park has a great exhibit on WWII and the home front. Clumber Park happened to be a huge munitions store as well as the testing ground for war machinery. I applaud NT for creating an exhibit that goes beyond the typical country home or garden variety. How does this connect with Great British Menu? The connection comes with the juxtaposition of the exhibit on the WWII decontamination facilities next door to the tearoom. Did any other guests look at the munitions map of the estate and question the quality of the water supply? I’d be much more reassured about the National Trust’s campaign against bottled water if I were guaranteed that the local water source was not contaminated with lead.

I’m not against historic sites as being places of advocacy, nor am I against the local foods movement (did I mention how good the restaurant was!), but I encourage curators to continue to back up their positions with honest scholarship. It is great advertising to claim the walled garden provides the food for the restaurant, but one look at the chalkboard of what’s in season proves that the property is not self-sufficient.

Do an exhibit on the challenges of the local food movement--both the current trend and its historical base. How self-sufficient were these grand homes? How many acres of farmland were necessary to supply an aristocratic meal? Or a corollary question: what did the diet look like seasonally? I suspect that if visitors had to choose between a historically accurate meal and one sourced today, there would be no competition.
Challenge visitors to think about the lasting effects of war. Do the decontamination facilities and buried munitions pose any health problems with regard to the water supply or the food grown on the estate? If so, explain how National Trust has mitigated the contamination. If not, explain the science so people aren’t worried about what might be buried in their own backyards.

It would only take a few more text panels or a 30 second plug on Great British Menu, to turn a public relations campaign into a learning opportunity.

~ Allison Marsh


  1. I was one of the students wrestling for the remote during USC's England Field School, vying for food shows over soaps. Allison's post made me think of something the curator of Kiplin Hall mentioned as we toured the grounds: "Visitors come for houses and return for gardens." I think visitors are even more likely to return if the garden is a restored kitchen garden growing heirloom vegetables, fueling a restaurant. At least I would.

  2. As an EFS student (who grew to love Dr. Who during my stay), I saw several practices I thought would be wonderful to incorporate here in the states. One of which was the incorporation of popular culture, like the the Great British Menu show, into a national historic conservation organization like the Trust. We saw firsthand how this drew people in, formed relationships, and benefitted a site, museum, or historic home during a time of great economic downturn. I can see something like this working to promote our historic conservation in areas such as our parks, rural and urban America, vernacular studies, cultural heritage, etc.

  3. Posted on behalf of Modupe Labode:

    The “Eat Local” phenomenon is a mélange of local boosters, health activists, promoters of organic food, environmentalists, among others, and Allison Marsh convinces me that historians need to be part of that mix. When listening to enthusiastic promoters of local food, I sometimes worry that in promoting the local, the complexities of any food culture—local or transnational—gets lost, buried, or elided. Including historical perspectives may help counter the parochialism which sometimes accompanies focusing on the local. When and why have consumers cared about their food’s origins? For example, consumers in nineteenth-century Britain refused to buy sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies, and in the 1970s, U.S. shoppers followed the United Farm Workers’ appeal and refused to buy table grapes. When faced with food choices, how have consumers and producers balanced support of the local against other aspects of the food economy, such as the conditions under which agricultural workers labor, conservation of the land, and the relationship between food commodities (coffee, sugar, cacao) and international poverty.

    This post also led me in a very different direction to ideas about local culture and food. For years, UNESCO has strategized about preserving the world’s intangible cultural heritage. In a different but complementary fashion, the Southern Foodways Alliance has used smart, engaging research and practice to “document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the American South.” Perhaps considering local food and foodways as part of a region’s intangible (and edible) heritage might be a way for the diverse adherents of the “Eat Local” mantra to see how their movement engages with the world.

    ~ Modupe Labode