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Political Gastronomy

Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World

By Michael A. LaCombe

Publication Year: 2012

"The table constitutes a kind of tie between the bargainer and the bargained-with, and makes the diners more willing to receive certain impressions, to submit to certain influences: from this is born political gastronomy. Meals have become a means of governing, and the fate of whole peoples is decided at a banquet."—Jean Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy

The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621 was a powerfully symbolic event and not merely the pageant of abundance that we still reenact today. In these early encounters between Indians and English in North America, food was also symbolic of power: the venison brought to Plymouth by the Indians, for example, was resonant of both masculine skill with weapons and the status of the men who offered it. These meanings were clearly understood by Plymouth's leaders, however weak they appeared in comparison.

Political Gastronomy examines the meaning of food in its many facets: planting, gathering, hunting, cooking, shared meals, and the daily labor that sustained ordinary households. Public occasions such as the first Thanksgiving could be used to reinforce claims to status and precedence, but even seemingly trivial gestures could dramatize the tense negotiations of status and authority: an offer of roast squirrel or a spoonful of beer, a guest's refusal to accept his place at the table, the presence and type of utensils, whether hands should be washed or napkins used. Historian Michael A. LaCombe places Anglo-Indian encounters at the center of his study, and his wide-ranging research shows that despite their many differences in language, culture, and beliefs, English settlers and American Indians were able to communicate reciprocally in the symbolic language of food.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-22

Hungry, wet, and weary, a small group of English men rowed into the Carolina Sounds in the summer of 1584. They had arrived less than a month earlier, sent to explore the region and make contact with its native population. After a few tentative encounters with Carolina Algonquians, the English party decided to leave the safety of their ships and set out for the village of Roanoke....

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1. “Commutative Goodnesse”: Food and Leadership

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pp. 23-48

One of the earliest and most weighty decisions facing the backers of England’s early colonies was choosing a leader, and most writers on the subject were in agreement on the fundamentals. Richard Eburne, for example, wrote that “Governours and Leaders of the rest” should be chosen from “men of Name and Note.” In other words, leaders were expected to be men whose “power and authoritie, greatnesse and gravitie, purse and presence” supported their claim...

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2. “Art of Authority”: Hunger, Plenty, and the Common Stores

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pp. 49-68

Whitaker’s account of Lord De La Warre’s arrival in the Chesapeake borders on the providential, and his description of De La Warre’s installation as Jamestown’s governor on the magical. Nevertheless, when he wrote of Virginia’s colonists that “never wanting government, they never wanted bread, for him that would take paines and do his dutie,” Whitaker drew on fairly ordinary assumptions....

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3. “By Shewing Power Purchasing Authoritie”: Gender, Status, and Food Exchanges

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pp. 69-89

In An Encouragement to Colonies (1624) Sir William Alexander both mocked the dreams of a life without labor inspired by early Bermuda and praised the more pragmatic leadership of Rene de Laudonnière, who led the French settlement at Fort Caroline in Florida. Alexander especially valued Laudonnière’s efforts to find information “concerning the Savages, what their force was,...

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4. “Would Rather Want Then Borrow, or Starve Then Not Pay”: Refiguring English Dependency

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pp. 90-107

English leaders like William Bradford consistently sought signs that their Indian counterparts had understood and accepted their claims to (at least) commensurate status. Since exchanges were so frequent and conveyed such rich meanings, they were one of the most important sites for such negotiations in the early period. And since both sides recognized that the relationship between...

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5. “A Continuall and Dayly Table for Gentlemen of Fashion”: Eating Like a Governor

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pp. 108-134

In 1611, George Percy, the son of a nobleman and sometime deputy governor of the Jamestown settlement, wrote a letter asking his brother, the ninth Earl of Northumberland, to send food. Claiming that “the place which I hold in this Colonie . . . cannot be defraied with smale expence,” Percy wrote that his reputation depended on his ability “to keep a continuall and dayly Table for...

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6. “To Manifest the Greater State”: English and Indians at Table

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pp. 135-167

Formal meals are, as one scholar of the subject has called them, “a fundamental instrument and theater of political relations,” but the distinction between playwright, players, and audience in this particular theater was not always clear. English leaders like Sir Humphrey Gilbert, John Winthrop, and Edward Maria Wingfield recognized that they could not always hope to stage a successful...

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Conclusion. “When Flesh Was Food”: Reimagining the Early Period after 1660

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pp. 168-178

In the 1660s, John Winthrop Jr. carefully but pointedly refuted the great sixteenth- century herbalist John Gerard’s claims that maize was “a Graine not so pleasant or fitt to be Eaten by mankind,” being “hard of Digestion” and yielding “little or no Nourishment.” Winthrop noted that “there had beene yet no certaine proofe or experience” with maize in Gerard’s time, but by the 1660s,...


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pp. 179-215


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pp. 217-221


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pp. 223-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780812207156
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244182

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 822017764
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Political Gastronomy

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • North America -- History -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775.
  • Food -- Political aspects -- North America -- History.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- America -- History -- 17th century.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- America -- Social conditions.
  • Colonists -- North America -- Attitudes.
  • Indians of North America -- Food -- Political aspects.
  • Indians of North America -- First contact with Europeans.
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