My First Publication

Those of you that follow me on twitter have probably already seen this, but my first peer-reviewed article came out at the beginning of June.  This work is part of my long-running side project on food and identity among Chinese-Americans in Chicago.  The first incarnation of this paper was completed for a course on the history of American food while I was finishing up my MA during what now seems like an entirely other life.

Click below to read it online!

A Cup of Real Chinese Tea: Culinary Adventurism and the Contact Zone at the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

2018. In Graduate Journal of Food Studies, vol. 5, no. 1.


I don’t know what’s next for this project.  I have a large amount of messy, unpublished data lurking on old hard drives and in the brown paper grocery bag I found buried in a closest at my parents’ house.  I have the tools and skills now to do more with it than I ever thought possible twelve years ago when I was still running that ancient, frankensteined Windows desktop and doing stats by hand.


Grand Challenges: Blurring Fiction and Reality


This post is for the January blogging carnival hosted by Doug’s Archaeology. The topic is: “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?” 


I think the grandest challenge in my archeology (aside from trying to decipher my own handwriting) is figuring out where to draw the line between fiction and reality. Sometimes that also means figuring out where the line might be blurred. Delving into the historical archaeology of the commercial sex industry in North America has, for me, been nothing if not an exercise in trying to understand the gray areas.


In the process of writing my dissertation proposal last spring I discovered complications in some of my documentary data sets that inspired a shift in the way I thought about the project. I began to understand that Storyville was and still is as much an ongoing legend as it was a tangible place. Historian Katy Coyle said that New Orleans has “repeatedly sought to erase and exploit” the District since it closed in 1917 (quoted in Powell 2002:30). Exploitation and erasure have both vastly affected how Storyville has been researched, remembered, and presented. As a socially disgraceful tourist attraction, this was true when Storyville was open for business as well.


I left for my summer fieldwork armed with new questions that led to abundant documentary data, but no immediately satisfying answers. Archaeologists are used to putting together fragments and reading between the lines to create a complete picture from frequently sparse evidence, but I suddenly had the opposite problem—a fully realized picture of the past from primary and secondary sources. However, I soon came to understand that I had the enormous task of trying to muddle through a world in which fiction and reality were not clearly defined categories.


The first and perhaps most illustrative hint that my approach to the documentary evidence of Storyville had been naïve during preliminary research came when I stumbled upon a review of a source I had initially found very exciting: Nell Kimball’s memoirs. Kimball was supposedly a madam that worked in Storyville, later drafting her memoirs in the 1920s and 30s, which were then edited by Stephen Longstreet and published by Macmillan in 1970. The book contains a wealth of information on how women lived in brothels, including meals and daily activities…with key passages most certainly plagiarized from The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury (1936) according to an analytical review by James Wunsch in the Journal of Social History (1972). After many months of archival research in New Orleans, I personally have yet to see evidence that Kimball was anything but a character in a this curious novel.



One of the important questions Wunsch raised in his review was how and why did this book succeed and fool so many people? Part of the answer he proposed was that, initially, it was largely ignored by the academic community, yet enjoyed the attention of popular publications like The New York Times Book Review. Since then, the book has occasionally resurfaced through citations in reputable academic publications that generally take Longstreet’s work at face value. The fact that several exceptional scholars have uncritically cited “Kimball” is one way that fiction and reality become blurred in the process of researching Storyville. Longstreet was clearly exploiting American historical memory for an American audience, though to what end we cannot be sure. Undoubtedly an accusation of plagiarism in the 70s fits right in with the production of Storyville as part of a sordid past. That Longstreet was paraphrasing his text from a source Wunsch considers to have some credibility further complicates matters. Are works such as the Kimball memoirs completely valueless in archaeological research, or can they tell us something about the role of fiction in the exploitation and erasure of historical memory? From my experience with the book, I’m inclined to think that they do have something to say when we look beyond the works themselves to see their impact on academic research, as well as Storyville’s memory and presentation over time.



Works Cited:


Asbury, Herbert. 1936. The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld. Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, NY.


Powell, Eric A. 2002. Tales From Storyville. In Archaeology, 55(6): 26-31.


Kimball, Nell. 1970. Nell Kimball: Her Life As an American Madam, by Herself, Edited with an Introduction by Stephen Longstreet. The Macmillin Company: New York, NY.


Wunsch, James L. 1972. Review. Nell Kimball: Her Life As an American Madam. In Journal of Social History, 6(1): 121-126.

The Anthropology of Zombies

          It’s no great secret that I have a weakness for zombie movies, the good and the bad and the strange. Since it’s Halloween season, I’ve been thinking about and watching zombies an awful lot. Personally, I don’t find zombies scary at all, with their slow shambling gait and lack of complex consciousness. I’ve been wondering why I like them so much, or why anyone would like them enough to birth an entire subgenre of film. My anthropological curiosity won over and in my spare time I started reading what other scholars have written. The true horror of zombies is not the monsters themselves, but in the racial understructure that created them.

          Zombies have been represented on film since the 1930s. Zombies of the first half of the 20th century had inconsistent traits, though they were commonly associated with generic “voodoo” practices and the African diaspora. Scholars generally agree that zombie movies experienced a renaissance in the 60s and 70s, a period that also defined our contemporary understanding of the zombie in American culture.

White Zombie (1932)

A zombie plantation worker in White Zombie (1932).

          One of the unifying traits of the genre is eating, particularly unbridled consumption of human bodies. While early film zombies did not necessarily eat people, the idea of cannibalism among the undead certainly has roots in white fears and fantasies about the eating habits of dark-skinned Others. Suspicions of cannibalism ran rampant in the imaginations of early anthropologists and their audiences with little evidence besides pointed fingers and the assumption of unenlightened, anti-modern, and non-white food practices that must be shocking and immoral. Voodoo zombies played on white American racial fears by merging extremes of death, consumption, and skin color into a single monster. After the 60s, zombies were usually disconnected from their origins, but the specter of the Voodoo zombie remained in the renewed attention to literal cannibalism, albeit now often wearing a white face. The metaphor for shocking and immoral consumption was then turned on accelerated industrialization of food at home, gobbling up American society in a cannibalistic frenzy, while the primitive, foreign, and simple gained purity and nobility on a modern apocalyptic landscape. These modern movies suggest fears about the collapse of a top-heavy racial hierarchy where capitalist consumption is the downfall of white American culture as civilization.

Traditional farming techniques gain significance in The Walking Dead (2010).

Traditional farming techniques gain new significance in The Walking Dead (2010).

          The cultural history of zombies as anthropologists now understand them began in Haiti as a way to engage with and invert the violence of slavery and revolution, rather than the sensational black magic or devil worship popularized by Hollywood films. In the Haitian belief system, Vodou, zonbi are subversive, symbolic of the overlap between capitalism and cannibalism in slavery and contemporary repression. In essence, they enable descendants to take charge of their history through interaction with the dead.

While reading a totally unrelated book (or so I thought), I realized other food anthropology concepts could be applied to zombies on a smaller scale. The book, Edible Memory by Jennifer Jordan (2015), is mostly about heirloom tomatoes, but edible memory as an idea has special versatility. Edible memory is not just about consuming and thus participating in your own heritage, but gaining insight into the heritage of others as well. It is a way to approach stories about the past. In Elizabeth McAlister’s (1995, 2012) understanding of zonbi astral, fragments of human spirits trapped in a specialized container, food offerings prepared without salt is important to caring for the spirits inhabiting the bottle. Zonbi kò kadav is an alternate form in which a person’s spirit is removed from their body and then they are sold into slavery to work in sugar production. McAlister describes zonbi as able to eat the “life force” of living humans in both cases, especially in rebellion when the owners are unable to provide food for them. The concept of food and eating traditions are interwoven in the spiritual and historical processes of Haitian Vodou—in other words edible memory. Zombies in film also have the capacity to consume the present as a way to remind us of the past.


Sources, inspiration, and other interesting reading:

Davis, Wade. 1985. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey Into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic.

Dwyer, Kevin. 2003. “Alimentary Delinquency in the Cinema,” in Eating Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Food. Doring et al, eds., pp. 255-272.

Dwyer, Kevin. 2014. “Alimentary Delinquency,” in The Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, Thomson and Kaplan, ed., pp. 114-121.

Jordan, Jennifer A. 2015. Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods.

McAlister, Elizabeth. 1995. “A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti,” in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, Cosentino, ed., pp. 305-427.

McAlister, Elizabeth. 2012. “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies,” Anthropological Quarterly 85(2): 457-486.

Peressini, Mauro and Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique. 2012. Vodou. (exhibit guide)


I’ve been trying to think of where and how to start writing with some regularity.  That’s probably the wrong way to go about it.  Thinking about writing is not the same as writing, no matter how much we would like it to be.  As of right now, I’m committing myself to two blog posts per month.  October is half over already, but let’s start now anyway.

Yesterday I realized that I never hurt myself in the field, but I manage utterly avoidable injuries on campus and in museums.  I am currently sporting a wrist brace from twisting it at the library yesterday.  The unspoken dangers of graduate education right there.

After several days of confused computer wrangling, I managed to install QGIS, which is supposed to do everything ArcGIS does, but for free.  I never properly learned ArcGIS in college, though I somehow skated through a graduate-level course with a B.  It’s been long enough now that I couldn’t tell you how to begin inputting data without a refresher.  Another project to add to the pile, since I’m dealing with landscapes in my dissertation and it sounds like fun, or at least a nice change of pace.  Our map library recently hired a GIS specialist, who will be offering workshops.  QGIS comes highly recommended, for those of you also interested in learning, but don’t have access to other options.

A Busy Year

Aside from Day of Arch, it feels like I haven’t blogged about anything in forever.  I have quite a few updates planned as I start seriously digging (har har) into my dissertation analysis.  Some things to look forward to if you read Sprouts regularly – a series discussing archival resources pertaining to commercial sex in New Orleans, posts about developing a portfolio project for my Graduate Certificate in Community Engagement, and as yet undetermined fun stuff about food history and culture.

In the past year, I successfully passed my comprehensive exams and dissertation proposal defense, so I am finally, officially, a candidate.  I had a very successful summer doing archival research and helping out with two field projects in New Orleans, in the French Quarter and the Tremé historic neighborhoods.  You can read about the French Quarter project and see pictures of artifacts at the official site, The Art of Digging, which has been added to the blogroll.  Also new to the blogroll, UNO’s Archaeology News blog, where you read about a lot of other awesome archaeology projects happening in New Orleans!

Currently, I am back in the lab working on faunal analysis for the Iberville project and attempting to gain a better understanding of fish skeletons.  Soon I hope to get some old research out for publication and submit grant applications for finishing up flotation samples and archival work next spring.  Settling back in at home base has been strange and I miss New Orleans already, but I feel things are going well.  Maybe this will result in more consistent blogging?


Expanding the reading list…


And back in the lab!

Day of Archaeology 2015 Recs Part 2

A few more links to add to my list of recommended posts for this year’s Day of Arch event:

Is there such a thing as LGBTI archaeology?

Making That Connection

8000 Year Old Hazelnuts in a Prehistoric Landscape

The Past Sense Project: Pioneering Approaches to Therapeutic Archaeology

ArchaeoKids: Our Archaeology for Children

Using Archaeology to Promote the Study of STEM Subjects