Food Walking and the Itineraries of Radical History

This HWO piece reflects on the #eattalkwalk ‘history of food walking-workshop’ that took place in London on 1 July 2019 and accompanies Charlie Taverner’s article ‘Consider the Oyster Seller: Street Hawkers and Gendered Stereotypes in Early Modern London’, which is available free access until 30 March 2020 in History Workshop Journal issue 88. 

We gathered outside Spitalfields, by the statute of a goat. The mobile workshop that followed demonstrated that walking can send our feet (and our taste buds) along new historical trajectories. By allowing food to set our course, we produced an eclectic set of histories about cities and food, which gestured to broader questions of politics and culture. When walking, we do not stumble on hidden histories – moving on foot simply tilts the camera, lets us see what we thought we knew differently, connects what we didn’t know went together.

As forms of doing history, there are problems with walking and eating. Historians of the senses are faced by uncertainties about how the city of the past was tasted, consumed and experienced. Walking is not accessible to everyone. We only covered three miles, but along with all the standing that was plenty for some of our group. Self-styled experimental or radical walking can also be fetishized. What do we really gain in the performance of tramping around a city, especially when we are interested in the distant past, when most material remains have been erased?

Walking workshop – route map. Google My Maps.

Our first stop was at the old Jewish soup kitchen on Brune Street, before we pushed through the Liverpool Street crowds to Finsbury Circus and after a pause in the shade cut down to Drapers’ Hall. From there, we marched to the Royal Exchange, to Guildhall Yard, the churchyard of St Paul’s, and down the Thames to Fishmongers’ Hall and Billingsgate. We climbed onto London Bridge and crossed over to Southwark, where we huddled in The George, and went our separate ways. This was the route two-dozen historians took across London one Monday in July – not a famous or prestigious itinerary. Our steps were instead directed by the flavours and textures of the pre-industrial city. At each point, in the open air and on the street side, we heard one or two short papers and tasted foods linked to our subject: salep, a spiced, thickened milk; white pots and soul cakes, sweets that marked festivals; and pomegranates and herring, items that reached London by water.

Pomegranates by the Thames. © Charlie Taverner.

All the fun had a point: in my research on street vendors, I think a lot about alternative urban histories; ways of understanding cities from the point of view of ordinary people, especially women, the poor and minorities, rather than social elites and governors. Studying street life is one way to do this. Food history, because it makes us think about the routine, mundane and material, has similar radical potential. The workshop drew together current work on food and cities across medieval and early modern Europe, but tackled those topics from an unusual angle. Walking and eating reminded us that food, as well as being powerfully symbolic, is also physical stuff, which is bought and sold, consumed and sensed by human bodies which are rooted in particular places.

Shrove Tuesday food and sport at Finsbury Circus Gardens. © Charlie Taverner

On the day, we found the strange and unexpected perspectives on historical experience. The talks spanned eggshells and hourglasses, Shrove Tuesday cockfights, culinary teaching, guild feasts, and pet food. We heard exciting revisions of familiar historical occurrences (London was exporting sugar earlier in the seventeenth century than we thought). We tried Wood Street Cake, making sense of why this rich concoction, dense with raisins and currants, came from a wealthy district. It was striking that our route unintentionally diverged from familiar food locations, such as coffee houses and markets. Food permeates cities, we learned, in more than the obvious ways. But the obvious was interesting too: signs for Oystergate Walk, Fish Street Hill and Bread Street show how food has shaped London’s fabric and culture, but also slipped into urban myths and toponymns.

Ambulant Medicine by the Royal Exchange. © Charlie Taverner

The workshop’s format of short, outdoor talks was partly inspired by the teach-outs during the higher education strikes of 2018. One of our goals was to give food historians, part of a thinly spread but growing field, a chance to informally meet, discuss and build relationships. We had participants from sixteen universities across Europe and North America, from professors to postgraduates (generous support from the Social History Society and University of Kent meant we charged no fees and offered early career bursaries). Walking and eating together, sharing an experience outside a seminar room or lecture theatre, created a different quality of conversation and personal connection. Perhaps what we really learned along the way was that more conferences should have panels in the park or the pub.

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