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An Archive of Taste: Race and Eating in the Early United States

by Lauren F. Klein

Lauren Klein is Winship Distinguished Research Professor of English and Quantitative Methods in the Departments of English and Quantitative Theory & Methods.

There is no eating in the archive. This is not only a practical admonition to any would-be researcher but also a methodological challenge, in that there is no eating—or, at least, no food—preserved among the printed records of the early United States. Synthesizing a range of textual artifacts with accounts (both real and imagined) of foods harvested, dishes prepared, and meals consumed, An Archive of Taste reveals how a focus on eating allows us to rethink the nature and significance of aesthetics in early America, as well as of its archive.

Lauren F. Klein considers eating and early American aesthetics together, reframing the philosophical work of food and its meaning for the people who prepare, serve, and consume it. She tells the story of how eating emerged as an aesthetic activity over the course of the eighteenth century and how it subsequently transformed into a means of expressing both allegiance and resistance to the dominant Enlightenment worldview. Klein offers richly layered accounts of the enslaved men and women who cooked the meals of the nation’s founders and, in doing so, directly affected the development of our national culture—from Thomas Jefferson’s emancipation agreement with his enslaved chef to Malinda Russell’s Domestic Cookbook, the first African American–authored culinary text. 

The first book to examine the gustatory origins of aesthetic taste in early American literature, An Archive of Taste shows how thinking about eating can help to tell new stories about the range of people who worked to establish a cultural foundation for the United States.

An Archive of Taste is a gorgeously written account of the relation between eating, the archive, and the histories of racial exclusion that shape them both. Lauren F. Klein offers a new frame for understanding the eighteenth-century category of taste, as well as a sharp exploration of the affordances and limits of digital humanities methodologies’ efforts to redress the imbrication of race and the archive.” Monique Allewaert, author of Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics

“Klein’s probing, careful, self-reflective analysis becomes a model for us as readers as well, and enables us to engage in a speculative reading of a book that, no doubt, will be much-cited because it offers an inspiration and paradigm for future work.” American Literary History

An Archive of Taste makes an important intervention into the fields of nineteenth-century literary studies and food studies through thoughtful citational and archival practices. Importantly, it also bridges established and emergent conversations on the challenges of archival recover, typically written in analog, with digital research.” Criticism