Research Methods in Digital Food Studies (2021) was published recently as a text for thinking through methods for digital food studies.
The collection of essays is useful for considering a methodology for studying digital food media, but less about how to use digital tools for answering food related humanities questions. The authors in Digital Food Studies have approached the concept from the perspective of their own research questions, but many of these questions revolve around social justice and modern society. These are of course important questions to consider, but there are less direct ways of revealing the contours of such questions. Ethnographic, anthropological, and sociological methods are applied, but a historical perspective seems to be missing. As I considered this critique, however, I wondered what I would even add to methodology within Digital Food Studies?
Historians depend on sources and archives, but sometimes we have to build our own as we gather sources during fieldwork; this comes with a number of ethical and social consequences. Some of the primary considerations I have as a digital humanist and historian concern the ethical use of sharing and digitizing content, data management, issues of access, open-source software, and building projects using software and platforms. Collecting and digitizing materials is a time consuming process that requires many human hours to complete. Historical texts like menus, cookbooks, photographs, and advertisements must be scanned, saved to a database, have metadata written for it, be transcribed to be both machine and human readable, and made available to the public on a digital platform. In the modern age, many sources and texts begin in the digital format, which helps obscure the labor involved in digitizing. Source or data management comes rather naturally to the field of history since the stories we tell are based directly from these sources (although I’m sure the same can be said for many other fields!)
The number of digital food projects has increased steadily over the past decade. Michigan State University is home to the Allan and Shirley B. Sliker Little Cookbook Collection and the What America Ate project. Menu collections from corporate dinners, cruise lines, and restaurants can be found on the Culinary Institute of America’s digital Menu Collection, the New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu collection, and the National Restaurant Association’s collection made available by Johnson and Wales University. Cornell University has a HEARTH Home Economic Archive: Research, Tradition, History ranging from 1850-1950. The Southern Foodways Alliance’s website hosts the organization’s various multimedia projects in a way that is accessible to everyone via web or podcast.