While I read for my bibliographies, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I actually want my dissertation to be about. Of course, in a broad sense, it’s about Storyville and the race-class-gender intersection ubiquitous in historical archaeology lately, but I have yet to find an actual story in the sea of theory and data I’ve considering. Two books I’ve been reading this week are The Menial Art of Cooking: Archaeological Studies of Cooking and Food Preparation, edited by Sarah R. Graff and Enrique Rodriguez-Alegria, and Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, by Melissa Gira Grant. Both of these books have been engaging and inspirational, especially (oddly enough) together. In the introduction to the The Menial Art of Cooking (2012:1-18), Graff and Rodriguez-Alegria offer a brief history of why cooking has been largely absent in archaeological studies about food until recently; the short answer is that it’s assumed to be “women’s work,” which automatically reduces its relevance in the present and recently past capitalist political climate. Grant proposes the concept of the “‘prostitute imaginary’—the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution” (2014:4). At the end of the 19th century, when prostitution had evolved from earlier forms as a product of capitalism, the common image of a person working in the sex trade was overwhelmingly female. In essence, cooking and sex are both implicitly women’s work in popular imagination, whether or not the work was actually gender-specific in historical context.
I don’t know yet if there’s a narrative here, but I think that I’m starting to muddle out how to make a connection between foodways and brothel landscapes for my dissertation proposal. Deconstructing the assumptions of women’s work, asking the right initial research questions, and explicitly defining the relevance of such topics in archaeological research is a necessary and important step. Indeed, cooking and sex work are both complex social behaviors that defy a simple dichotomy like women’s/men’s work, and beg more nuanced analyses of how and why.
Grant, Melissa Gira. 2012. Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Verso, New York, New York.
Graff, Sarah R. and Enrique Rodriguez-Alegria, eds. 2012. The Menial Art of Cooking: Archaeological Studies of Cooking and Food Preparation. The University of Colorado Press, Boulder, Colorado.