I loved my time as a Ph.D. researcher. Over the course of the four years and eight months it took me to bring my dissertation to completion, I was supervised by Peter Scholliers who like no other masters the art of giving people guided freedom. He allowed me to (re)search, fail and succeed, and to make that process my own. The result is a Ph.D. I am very proud of. I investigated how different ideological communities constructed their food heritage, when they did so and why. I solely used women’s magazines and stated that heritage only becomes heritage when it is named as such.

I participated in several international conferences where I presented my research design and results. Generally, the audience agreed with my stance and awed at the number of recipe names I had analyzed (40.245 recipe names from three women’s magazines published in Flanders (Belgium) between 1945 and 2000). However, no matter the thematic scope of the conference I went to, there was always at least one fellow historian who questioned my sources and who asked why I had not conducted interviews with privileged witnesses. Why had I not developed an oral history instead of or in addition to my analysis of women’s magazines? Why had I not talked to our grandmothers and grandfathers about their food memories? My standard answer was: “How do we decide who privileged witnesses are? And how representative are their memories for a community as a whole?”

A colleague at Brussels University once taught me that if you get the same question twice at two different conferences from two different people, you will for sure get that same question during your Ph.D. defense. And so on 26 November 2013, during my public defense, one of the jury members asked why I had not conducted interviews. I thanked him for his question and developed an answer I had been thinking about, talking about and working on for almost five years.

“I did not design an oral history because (food) memories are the manifestation of an ongoing process of remembrance and forgetfulness. We are asked to remember something about the past in a contemporary context and as a consequence, our memories are colored by the period in between and the present-day societal context.  Do I think oral history is by definition flawed? No. Interviews are valid sources of information, but only if there is no time gap that will affect the memory. If I would have found interviews conducted fifty years ago about food practices at that time, I would have considered them for my research. Additionally, I state that heritage only becomes heritage when it is named as such. In a research that builds on language use, the role of the interviewer is highly critical. To what extent would my word use (heritage, tradition, authenticity) have molded interviewees’ memories? Previous research on the notion of tradition, using interviews, shows it is sensitive and hazardous.”

The ongoing discussion about the importance of oral history in food heritage research is a heated one. However, neuroscientific research backs up my social-scientific explanation of the process of remembrance and forgetfulness. Yesterday, I attended a workshop on the neuroscience of learning. Keynote speaker Thomas J. Carew, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean and Professor of Neural Science at NYU, explained how our brain processes memories. Although the first part of the talk was a tad too neuroscientific for me to fully understand, the second part developed concrete case studies about multiple memory systems and actual memories. Professor Carew explained that memories are not reliable or permanent. We make them make sense in the present and adjust them to a present-day context. The example he gave: what were you doing on 9/11? The striking result was that more than half of the respondents had their memory wrong. Where does that leave us with something as everyday as food practices and the way we remember them?

Illustration by Pixabay.

6 thoughts on “Food memories and oral history

  1. Dear Anneke,
    Thank you for this blog post. I am just starting my own doctoral research which is examining food history during World War Two in rural Kent (UK). I have been considering oral history as a source of information especially as many first hand accounts wil be lost in the next few years. However, I am very aware of the amount of time that has passed between the end of the war and present day, considering how the memory can be influenced by media and conflicting stories. Your writing really encompassed the dilemma I am facing and helped to clarify a few of the hurdles facing this type of research. I look forward to future posts from you.


  2. Dear Anneke. Not sure I fully understand your reasoning. (Coming from a neophyte in History, so please bear with me here).
    I’m thinking that an argument against the relevance of an oral history assumes that heritage is something that is declared so (“named as such”, as you say) based only -or mainly- on printed records. But even assuming that “official” heritage declarations were based solely on printed recollections (and that’s a big assumption, but let’s keep it just for now), we would be forgetting that heritage is also -and maybe even more so- what people collectively believe/construct it to be in the present. Whether they are mistaken or not (i.e. whether their current recollection matches what printed records point at) is an interesting point to raise but, if we are trying to determine “how different ideological communities constructed their food heritage”, it seems that their recollections of the past, however innacurate (and precisely for that reason), would give us essential information that we might otherwise miss.
    (Please feel free to send me straight to Bentley’s food history class before discussing any further :-/)


    1. Gloria! How are you? I’m actually glad I’m getting these reactions. There is absolutely no point in posting pieces everyone likes or agrees with. You can’t learn from praise and glory. First of all, I did not say the written word is the true word and I am absolutely against scholars determining what “true” heritage is. My work looks at how, when and why different ideological communities construct their food heritage. I absolutely did not make claims about the -please forgive me for this word- “authenticity” of their constructions. I investigated why they constructed a past through food in a contemporary context. Do I think we can only use the written word to do food heritage research? No, we can use tons of visual or audio material to investigate food heritage. We just have to be more critical of oral histories as true representation of reality. Oral histories can exist next to the written word, videos or whatever archive you can come up with. That is the interesting thing about heritage. It is variable, multifaceted, it is conflicted, contested, embraced, rejected, … It is not one organic thing! People make it through the lens of various media and in doing so, we get a fragmented field of multiple heritages. And your stance that heritage is “what people collectively believe/construct it to be in the present” is exactly my point. Heritage says more about the present context than it does about the past. That is a continuum. 1946: “The prewar years were so good and we had enough food.” 1970s: “If only we could go back to the affluence of the 1960s.” 1990s and beyond: “If only we could go back to our grandparents’ food habits, with fresh ingredients, seasonal products, etc…” Those statements surface feelings of unease and anxiety in a contemporary context, feelings that build on nostalgia and food memories we construct in such a way so they make sense in that contemporary context of anxiety. They don’t give a representation of past realities, but of what we now think the past looked like, say, 50 years ago. That is why, according to me, oral history is not suitable as a methodology to ask people today how they felt about their food heritage in 1946. We had to ask them back then. Bottom-line, I think we’re on the same page, we just address our points of view in different ways


  3. Hi Anneke, Thanks for the interesting post. I am a doctoral student in Childhood Studies with a focus on food practices. I am a little skeptical to the idea of TRUE representations of the world, and in this instance of food and memories of food. I totally agree that memories are affected by the lived lives since the experience, and narratives of past events therefore have a reflexive aspect to them, they are seen as a piece in a bigger picture and linked to other events and so on. For me, this is what is interesting about food narratives – they illustrate the interviewees’ process of meaning making and are as such one true representation of the experienced world. Whether this is an objective or “authentic” reality of “what actually happened” is not interesting, important or even possible to explore, because food practices, culture, heritage, identity and so forth, are subjective. In my humble opinion 😉 The question then boils down to our perception of knowledge, how do we find new knowledge and what is considered worthy of our attention. I would argue that women magazines are only a tiny puzzle piece in the true representation of the world in any specific context, in the same way that other historical documents are – they can point you in a direction but do not show the complete picture 🙂 Similarly, looking at women magazines on food today will not show a true representation of how people of today practice and relate to food.


    1. Hi Marit,

      Thank you for reading my piece and for posting this comment. I agree with everything that you say. I just want to add that it is impossible for a food historian (or food sociologist, anthropologists… for that matter) to get a complete picture. Our métier builds on making choices and considering the many schools within history and food studies, there will always be debate and discussion about theories, methodologies and sources. What “we” sometimes forget is that “we” have to justify our choices and clearly indicate what “we” will contribute to the field with the work “we” do. We simply can’t do everything. What I sometimes/often miss in food studies is an answer to the how and so what questions. That is also why I end my piece with a question, to trigger some debate/discussion/contemplation. As you may have noticed on Facebook, on the Association for the Study of Food & Society page, it worked 🙂 We still don’t agree about the place of oral history in food studies, but at least we talked about it and shared insights which will hopefully drive us to justify our work better.

      Warm wishes,


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