Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World

Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World

Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World

Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World


"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.


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.

As they watched the English approach, Roanoke’s Algonquian inhabitants displayed the same mixture of curiosity and apprehension as their approaching guests. Most of the small group standing on shore were women, who had been cooking, tending fires, and minding children until they saw the English approaching. Among them was a woman whose clothing, hair, and bearing distinguished her from the rest. the wife of Granganimeo, a prominent man, and sister-in-law of Wingina, the Carolina Algonquians’ overall leader, she had visited the English ships a few days before with her husband and children. in her husband’s absence, she arranged a warm welcome for these uninvited but important guests: a fire, a bath, a meal, and a place to sleep.

Interactions like this one were not uncommon in the early period, and it was no accident that food lay at the center of each. Granganimeo’s wife believed that a woman of her station was obligated to offer hospitality, and her guests shared these assumptions. This meant that as the English travelers sat and rested, warmed themselves, and ate (gesturing for more helpings of various dishes, smiling and nodding politely to their hostess, and offering comments to each other on the meal), they were also taking part in a form of communication. Everyone present at this meal knew that it was an important occasion and that meanings were being shared along with foods, and everyone conducted him- or herself accordingly. However vast the gulf of culture, religion, history, and technology that separated English from Indians, a table brought them surprisingly close together.

Political Gastronomy explores what food meant—and how food meant—to . . .

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