Corn and chocolate, hot dogs and beer: We think of these foods as quintessentially American. But a new exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology shows that they actually reflect the wildly disparate origins our favorite foods. “Resetting the Table: Food and Our Changing Tastes,” which opened Nov. 16, takes a fresh look at dining and food production, exploring what our meals — and how they are served — reveal about us.
Take corn and chocolate, for example, and consider a Central American greenstone carving on display. Depicting a Maya lord holding a staff from a cacao tree, it documents the ancient roots of these indigenous foods, which became essential ingredients in the American kitchen. A 19th-century engraving of enslaved people cutting sugar cane in the West Indies marks how another distinctive ingredient — sugar — came to our table through the labor of African Americans who, as cultivators, sellers, and cooks, both free and enslaved, “created distinctive American foodways,” said guest curator Joyce Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History. Another artifact, a 19th-century wine bottle from Germany, testifies to the contribution of foods from German-speaking immigrants, whom the curator identifies as the “ethnic group with the greatest number of American descendants.” These immigrants “gave us a host of things that now seem totally American,” she said, including hot dogs and beer.
How these influences came together to reflect class and race is on display in the exhibit’s centerpiece, the re-creation of a 1910 restaurant dinner celebrating the end of the freshman year for the all-male, and likely all-white, Harvard Class of 1913. Staged on a large oak table (sourced from Widener library), each setting reveals a different course of the elaborate meal, ranging from locally sourced foods (Cotuit oysters) to a fancy European dessert (a mocha “tree” cake), all to be followed by cheese and, since there would be no “ladies” present and the “gentlemen” could indulge, cigarettes. French Champagne was served throughout.