The title page of Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (1866). Published in Paw Paw, Michigan

I am a visual person. I thrive off of color and aesthetics. For me, writing words is just one part of how I want to share my research. Graphs, maps, photographs, and hand-written recipes or notes provide tangible information that I think is necessary for expressing ideas or sharing information to a wider audience. Not to draw from the old adage, “A picture is worth 1,000 words,” but really, visual images are worth 1,000 words. It is for this exact reason that I am so interested in the digital humanities. There are two ideas that I am most interested in: food mapping and digitizing culinary resources. This is how I plan to bring Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (1866) to life in a digital format. Russell was the first African American woman to have a book published in the U.S.—and it was here in Michigan! But first, what is food mapping? What is food mapping’s value beyond understanding food insecurity? How can we apply food mapping to historical research? In this post I explore the question of why we should use food mapping in historical research.  

What is food mapping?
Food mapping can be many things. There are no size limits on the spaces being mapped in food mapping. For example, you could choose to make a food map can express the flow of customers in a popular coffee shop. Just a few hours of people watching and recording your observations could reveal the multiple uses that the coffee shop customers have. By charting the flow of the customers’ movement, a story unfolds. Food mapping can be used to express more whimsical or entertaining ideas. Take, for example, the numerous infographics available on social media that reveal peculiar cultural attributes such as regional dishes or favorite fast food chains in the U.S.—those infographics are food maps! The only real parameter in the practice of food mapping that the subject matter includes a discussion of food. This may include the above examples but can also tell stories of cultural exchange based on shared recipes or cuisine. Food mapping can tell a story about a particular point in time or it can tell a story over time. Food mappers can use an established map or create their own. Even the abstract is okay!  

Applications of Food Mapping
One of food mapping’s significant uses is to answer questions of food security, but that is not the extent to food mapping’s uses. Mapping food systems allows researchers to visualize and measure food-related issues within a specific geographic location, which is why it is a useful tool for assessing food insecurity. This is how scholars have been able to recognize “food deserts”—or those locations with high rates of hunger and low access to healthy food options. Although I am new to the geospatial web, using food mapping as a tool for research and analysis is not new to me. One time I made an attempt at deciphering the provenance of the tamale as a graduate student at Boston University. The project began with a question I had during a trip in the Mississippi Delta. What I found was that a single food item, when traced through time and space, can reveal multiple networks of relationships and cultural exchange (in this case, around the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico). Each country or region I looked at had their own variation of the tamale and mapping these variations made it possible to tell that story of cultural exchange.   

My (very rough) first attempt at food mapping. This was one of the three maps I created to express the presence of tamales in the Americas.

Food Mapping in Historical Research
While food mapping is a useful tool for visualizing data, qualitative analysis must also be included. I think that it is this multi-pronged method that makes food mapping such a great tool within historical culinary research. Food maps are based on quantitative or qualitative data, but it is when the two are combined that compelling information can be found. Locations are simply no more than points on a map if they do not have the quantitative data to explore and explain them. Coordinates themselves do not necessarily embody or express movement. When they do, it is left to the audience to determine what they data means. Historians are interested in the why—how to make sense and tell a story about the data. For my own project, as I attempt to bring Malinda Russell’s story to life, I want to connect her story of movement to the details of her life as a free Black woman during the Civil War in the 1860’s.   

I will admit here that I am not yet as familiar with the how side of the geospatial web as I would like to be. But that is why I am participating in the CHI Fellowship. At this point, I think that food mapping will be just a piece of my digital project. I am not completely sure what my project will be and, luckily, that’s okay for a few more weeks. In what ways will food mapping become an important aspect of bringing Malinda Russell back to life? Only time will tell, but I look forward to using this project as a way to learn how to visually express the movement of historical figures. Stay tuned to my future posts to learn more about Russell’s life and also how I will use food mapping in my digital project.