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  • Empowering Appetites:The Political Economy and Culture of Food in the Early Atlantic World
  • Jennifer L. Anderson and Anya Zilberstein

This special issue of Early American Studies explores the dynamic relationship between food and power in the early modern Atlantic world. Originating from papers initially presented at a conference co-convened in October 2018 at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, "Empowering Appetites" interrogates the complex political, economic, cultural, and environmental histories of food and diet in a range of maritime, plantation, and settler-colonial contexts between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Part of the inspiration for this conference—and this publication—arose from the resurgent scholarly interest in food and drink as vital topics of historical inquiry in early American and Atlantic studies.1

Building on groundbreaking works in these fields—from Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History to Judith Carney's Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas—the selected articles reinterpret the role of Native foods in mediating encounters between Indigenous and colonizing peoples; examine competing definitions of legitimate forms of sustenance, along with contests to control [End Page 195] access to its sources; and trace the history of attempts to modify and manage the diets of various groups of people and, ultimately, entire national populations. Whether on the micro-level of households, farms, plantations, trading posts, and local markets or the macro-level of nation-states, empires, and far-flung commodity chains, controlling food supply was a crucial means of exercising power. Moreover, as this special issue emphasizes, struggles over the meanings, production, and distribution of food proved consequential throughout the early Atlantic world, establishing eating practices and attitudes toward foods that persist in the modern era.2

To explore how the power of food manifested during the early modern period in various sites from Quebec to the Leeward Islands, the articles are organized into two sections. In the first section, "Cultures of Sustenance," Thomas Wickman, Carla Cevasco, and Michael LaCombe reread classic accounts written by colonial authorities, missionaries, and captives about early encounters with the Native inhabitants of North America against the deep-seated biases in the English and French colonial archives. Whereas LaCombe considers the complex role of food as a signifier within cross-cultural diplomatic contexts, Wickman and Cevasco retrieve aspects of Algonquian and Haudenosaunee foodways that European observers rejected, misunderstood, or deliberately obscured in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the second section, "Provisioning Populations," Bertie Mandelblatt, Nicholas Crawford, and Rebecca Earle turn to transatlantic debates about reforming ordinary diets in the long eighteenth century. By examining the rise of state interventions in specific populations' food-ways—scurvy-afflicted French naval sailors, enslaved Africans on sugar plantations, and the laboring poor and indigent in European cities—these articles reveal how the management of food supply became increasingly politicized in this period.

Understanding the history of food politics in the early Atlantic world, in turn, is fundamental to grasping much broader environmental, social, and cultural transformations, the origins of which have typically been dated much later: the erosion of 'traditional' foodways and their reconfiguration in new 'fusion' cuisines; the alienation of consumers from locally sourced whole foods that accompanied the rise of commodified, mass-produced, imported foodstuffs and globally integrated supply networks; the political uses of hunger as a tool of suppression from above or a provocation for [End Page 196] resistance from below; and dietary interventions in specific populations by medical experts and government officials, often with the overt strategic goal of enhancing the military, productive, and reproductive capacities of the state. In addition to these developments, other key aspects of cosmopolitan tastes and cultural mores surrounding food, new medical theories about diet and the body, and the nascent field of nutritional science—as well as a range of responses to them, including ameliorationist policies, food riots, and consumer boycotts—first emerged in the crucible of the Atlantic world during the turbulent centuries encompassing colonization, the slave trade, revolutions, and abolition. At the same time, as the histories of self-provisioning by enslaved people and the persistence or repositioning of food sovereignty among Native nations have taught us, the...


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