Food History

No commodities are more important than foods: without them we literally could not exist, and they form a vital part of our identities. “Food history” is probably not something historians should write about as a distinct field. Food is about culture, nature, politics, and more. This page catalogs my research on food subjects, often spin-offs of my work on other topics. Please contact me if you would like a digital copy of any of my publications for personal or classroom use.

  • 2018: “Food comes First”: the Development of Colonial Nutritional Policy in Ghana, 1900-1950. Global Food History 4, no. 2, 168-188.
    • How did colonialism affect food and nutrition in West Africa? This article uses archival evidence from Ghana to show what colonialism did–and didn’t–do to local foodways. British officials initially assumed food was abundant, relying on inaccurate stereotypes about Africa and African farming systems. By the early 1920s, new personnel with new priorities began to investigate local foodways, laying the groundwork for policies emphasizing nutrition, food production, and domestic education that were often continued into the post-colonial period. Colonial officials recognized the benefits that could come from uniting Ghana’s three major ecological zones–the coast, the forest, and the savannah–into a single food system, balancing nutritional deficiencies in one place with imports from another. After independence, Ghanaians largely accepted the idea that “traditional” diets were flawed and needed fixing.
  • 2018: “Imbibing the Lesson of Defiance”: Oil Palms and Alcohol in Colonial Ghana, 1900-1940. Environmental History 23, no. 2, 293-317.
    • This article examines a controversy over oil palm landscapes in colonial West Africa. Oil palms provide two important food products, palm oil and palm kernels, but they are also tapped for palm wine, an alcoholic drink produced from the sap of the tree. In Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast), the preferred wine-tappirobins-mensah felling palmng method destroyed the tree, leading to conflicts among Ghanaians and with the colonial state over the best uses of oil palm trees. Many Ghanaian elites agreed with colonial officials that felling palms for wine was wasteful, but others defended palm wine as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. Although colonial officials tried to suppress the production of palm wine and spirits distilled from it, their efforts were halfhearted, reflecting skepticism about the environmental and economic cases for protecting oil palms. Felling palms for wine did contribute to the systematic degradation of Ghana’s once dense “palmeries,” but this was a complex transformation rather than a case of reckless overconsumption.
    • Read this article online to see high-resolution, full-color images. The printed version unfortunately did not appear in color! (Image: a man cuts down a palm tree to tap it for wine)
  • 2010: “Colonial Cuisine: Food in British Nigeria, 1900-1914.” Cultural Studies <> Critical Methodologies 10, no. 6.
    • This article looks at the politics of food during the British conquest of Nigeria in the early twentieth century. In it, I argue that food was an important marker of status for the colonizers. Britons brought all sorts of canned and bottled foods and drinks with them to Africa, and they did not like it one bit when Africans started to consume them. Britons saw their own food tastes as a “civilizing” influence on Africa. A good number of Britons developed a taste for West African dishes, especially “palm oil chop.” But unlike the case of Indian curry, these foods never made it into the mainstream British diet.


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