This course is devoted to the life and work of distinguished culinary professionals of the recent past and the present who have changed the way we eat and drink in the United States. We will examine the lives and legacies of food culture giants Henri Soulé, James Beard, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, and Marion Cunningham. Some are well-known to the public, others less so, but they all have left a long-lasting mark on what and where Americans eat, how they cook, and even the way they think and talk about food.
Each unit focuses on one of the five innovators, drawing on panel discussions and interviews with food writers, researchers, and practitioners who knew them. Structured around notable figures we refer to as “culinary luminaries,” the course leans toward the past. This is not because we intend to create a canon establishing the most important contributors to the development of the food world in the U.S. Much research is developing in the field of culinary arts, which is emerging as a field worthy of attention not only from journalists and practitioners, but from authors and scholars. We could not fully understand the contributions of our five innovators without looking at the social and cultural contexts of their work. The video material dedicated to each of the five innovators will delve into these topics, shedding light on distinctive aspects of the U.S. food world at different points in time.
Henri Soulé, James Beard, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, and Marion Cunningham worked in fields ranging from media to catering, and from restaurants to publishing. Their diverse contributions hint at the complex dynamics that lead to the evolution of the food world, a world influenced by food producers, restaurateurs, marketers, opinion makers, food writers, and book editors, to mention just a few.
Why does the course focus on past innovators, rather than contemporary trends? Today’s culinary world is so dominated by the media and their news cycles that we tend to live in a compressed present, always looking for the next hot thing and creating celebrities to fuel the self-perpetuation of the industry. We seldom take the time to pause and look back. How did we get here? Was it always like this? America’s relationship with food is particularly interesting because many feel that until the late 1950s the high-end culinary world of the U.S. lived as a reflection of French haute cuisine and its approach to restaurants. What happened in that period that generated radical changes in the way Americans eat out and think of what constitutes good food?
We do not intend to set U.S. culinary arts as a model. Through the close examination of the American experience and the contributions of innovators to its gastronomy, we want to help you acquire critical tools you can adapt and use to explore your own food culture, wherever you are. This is an open and burgeoning field with much to observe and learn about. We hope this course will be only the first step in your own research.