Food for Thought

May 1, 2016
Food for Thought

Zach Nowak, a Bok Center Departmental Teaching Fellow, brought the canned meat product Spam to the first day of section for a course on American food history.

Spam, first created in the United States in the late 1930s and used to fuel troops during the Second World War, has since fallen out of favor, going the way of ersatz coffee as a food most people would probably rather avoid if given the choice. Today, Spam often conjures up associations of tastelessness and poor quality rivaled only, perhaps, by Dickensian gruel.

It came as no surprise to Nowak, then, when his students expressed a uniformly negative reaction to the ill-reputed foodstuff. “None of them had ever had it, but they passed judgment on it immediately and refused to even try it,” he explains.

According to Nowak, a PhD student in American studies, the complex issues that arise from undue prejudice surrounding the once ubiquitous staple is just one example of the ways that food history can serve as a concrete lens for broader cultural and historical developments. Spam, he explains, is a perfect example of the networks of cultural and racial connotations that inform every one of our food choices—kale and whole wheat are “good,” while Wonder Bread and Spam are “bad.”

A Lens to the Past

Though Nowak insists he isn’t a foodie, he’s been thinking and writing about food for most of the past decade. After graduating with a master’s in Italian studies from Middlebury College in 2010, Nowak, a fluent speaker of Italian, found himself in the role of research assistant to a professor of food history at an American study abroad program in Perugia, Italy, called the Umbra Institute. The professor’s approach to using food as a serious and productive way to learn about world history excited Nowak, who says, “Food was a great lens through which to look at the past. It really intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more.” After three years at the Umbra Institute, during which time he became the director of their food and sustainability program, Nowak decided to apply for a PhD back in the States.

Since coming to Harvard, Nowak has hit the ground running. He credits his advisor, Joyce Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, with much of his positive experience in the program so far. According to Nowak, Chaplin was instrumental in encouraging him to pursue his developing interests—recalling a conversation they had when Nowak was a prospective student, he says, “Professor Chaplin said to me, ‘Rip up your statement of purpose. If in three years you pitch the same project for your prospectus that you did to apply, something is wrong.’ That was the best advice she could have given me, and it was incredibly freeing.” Indeed, although Nowak enrolled at Harvard thinking he would continue his food-centric pursuits, since then his ideas have changed considerably—he is now envisioning a dissertation that looks at the 19th-century American train station.