You Eat What You Are: Consuming Identities of the Recent and Ancient Past

You Eat What You Are: Consuming Identities of the Recent and Ancient Past
Chicken and waffles from Eastside Fish Fry in Lansing, MI.
Chicken and waffles from Eastside Fish Fry in Lansing, MI.

Two days ago, Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Camp, and the Campus Archaeology fellows went to Eastside Fish Fry in Lansing to have some chicken and waffles, and we had a deliciously good time. Why did we embark on this endeavor? The Flower Pot Tea room, operating from 1922-1923 (Kuhn 1955) in the Station Terrace building the CAP field school excavated this summer, listed this dish on one of their menus. It struck us as odd that a dish so closely associated with southern cuisine would have been served in Michigan during this early period.

Although I love trying new foods, I must admit that I never tried chicken and waffles until about a year ago. This was partly because I had little opportunity to do so—it still is not a common dish in the Midwest—and partly because, well, it sounded weird. I didn’t grow up eating it and the combination, quite honestly, sounded strange to me.

This demonstrates an interesting point: the foods we choose to eat and the way we prepare them are often closely associated with the contexts in which we are raised. In other words, what we choose to eat is shaped by and representative of our identities.

This concept is evident when looking at personal accounts of early MSU students. Peter Granger, who kept a diary during his first year at MSU in 1858-1859, demonstrates this in his writing. Although from Detroit, getting used to the food at the College seemed difficult for Granger, who several times laments the lack of chicken on the menu and also wrote:

     December 28, 1859: “Didn’t get home till they were most through eating supper. Ate       a little down there and then had something good in my room.”

     January 1, 1859: “Finished my supply of good things and suppose I shall have to           live on the Institution or starve.”

Granger also several times laments the lack of chicken served in the boarding hall (he likely would have gladly enjoyed chicken and waffles!). While these accounts may simply reflect the poor food options served by the boarding hall, we must also consider our own experiences. Isn’t your mother’s or grandmother’s way of cooking a dish your favorite? No one can seem to rival mom’s roast beef or grandma’s pie. Students continuing to eat food from home or longing for the moment when they can visit home and have a home-cooked meal is something nearly all college students, past and present, can relate to. Food that evokes memories of home and comfort might best represent our personal identities.

What else is often integral to a college student’s identity? Why, getting into trouble, of course! There are a great many accounts of students stealing food from various sources across the university. Granger once “hook[ed] a loaf of bread and some molasses” while another night he and his friends feasted on a “booty [of] about a peck of fried cakes” after an “expedition to the lower regions.” Anecdotes from the class of 1895 demonstrate a similar penchant for mischief. Instead of stealing food from the kitchens, these young men concentrated on fruits from the orchard. In one hilarious tale, the boys tied the bottom of their pant legs and stuffed them full of apples. Upon getting spooked by an approaching figure, they had to dash off in pants full of fruit! (Kains 1945).

Students in the MSU Apple Orchards, 1912
Students in the MSU Apple Orchards, 1912. Image Source

These personal accounts of food habits are easy to access in the written records, given the right sources. Understanding eating behaviors of individuals in the archaeological record, however, is a bit trickier. Food remains found in ancient trash pits and historic privies can be connected to general groups, but not necessarily individuals. Sometimes trash pits can be associated with individual households, such as at Fort Michilimackinac, an 18th-century fort in northern lower Michigan. Here, archaeological faunal remains showed that French households consumed local wild animals, while later English houses ate a variety of imported domesticated livestock, as did Jewish families, with the exception of pigs (Scott 1996). The French were adaptive to their new environment, while the English wanted to express their superiority and sophistication through the consumption of animal species they had dominated and domesticated. Jewish consumers expressed their ideological identity by choosing NOT to eat pork, as dictated by their religious customs.

Colonial Fort Michilimackinac
Colonial Fort Michilimackinac. Image Source.

These archaeological and archival evidences can show how people may have expressed their identities through what they chose to eat and what they refused to eat. We have yet to find food remains in contexts associated with certain population subsets (such as students vs. faculty or men vs. women) at MSU, so determining food identities on campus archaeologically is not yet possible. Thankfully, we have the archival information to help us fill in the gaps. And as we dined on chicken and waffles, we expressed our identities as archaeologists eager to connect with the students of MSU past, as we ponder their food choices and attempt to understand them.

Author: Susan Kooiman


Kains, Maurice G., editor.
   1945   Fifty Years out of College: A Composite Memoir of the Class of 1895 Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. New York: Greenberg.

Kuhn, Madison
1955   Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan state University Press  East, Lansing.

Scott, Elizabeth M.
1996   Who Ate What? Archaeological Food Remains and Cultural Diversity. In Case
Studies in Environmental Archaeology, edited by Elizabeth J. Reitz, Lee A.           Newsom, and Sylvia J. Scudder. Plenum Press, New York.

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:

UA10.3.56, Edward Granger Papers, Folder 1
Diary of E.G. Granger, 1859

3 thoughts on “You Eat What You Are: Consuming Identities of the Recent and Ancient Past”

  • “Live on the Institution or starve” sounds like my army days. I learned to eat many different foods in my 3 years working for Uncle Sam. One of them was rice, which it seemed we had everyday when I was stationed in the Philippines. I learned that you can take a simple food such as rice and doctor it up with spices to make a great meal. Wonderful article.

  • I was a student at WMU from 1972 – 1976. For two years I lived in a dorm where I ate cafeteria food. The cafeteria was located in a central building, and students from four different dorms ran down unheated hallways to eat during the winter months. I don’t remember much about what tasted good or bad; what I remember is purloining food to take back to the dorms for friends who didn’t live on campus and therefore didn’t have access to food if they didn’t pay for it. They were always broke, so my friends and I would take food back to them. We would usually take out burgers, mostly because they were easy to wrap up and carry out, but one night I carried out a whole ice cream sundae in a glass! I put it in my purse and got it all the way back to the dorm without spelling a drop. I am STILL proud of that feat, altho heaven knows why! (For those of you who are tempted to scold me about the evilness of theft, let me explain. The people we were carrying food back to were very good-looking guys, so this was evil motivated by hormones, which is much more resistant to good advice than behavior in general.

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