I’ve reached the point in my PhD program where the mad scramble for fieldwork funding has begun. Recently, I finished my first major grant proposal, which has finally forced me to think about what I actually plan to do with my research. Some of the glamor daze of working on an iconic site has worn off, allowing me to think more critically about what to do with it and how to go about it, and about why Storyville matters beyond a general giddy enthusiasim of “hey, this is super cool!”
In sudden flurry of productivity spurred by feeling slightly burnt out on preparing for comps, I read a big stack of published archaeological research on sexuality and the sex trade in 19th century urban America that I’ve been meaning to get to for months. I came up with two solid workable goals for my dissertation project: to gain an understanding of how brothel foodways related to change in the social landscape of New Orleans contexualized through the Jim Crow South, and to explore how the division between public and private foodways contributed to the sexualization of the New Orleans landscape.
One thing that struck me about some of the feminist archaeological research on the sex trade in the 19th century is that there seems to be an implicit conversation going on about whether or not engaging in the sex trade was empowering to women, primarily economically. This is a reflection of the contemporary argument of empowerment versus exploitation that has been prevalent in feminist discourse for some time now. In actuality, simple theoretical dichotomies such as this mask diversity and do not reflect lived experience. As archaeologists we also need to be careful of applying our contemporary assumptions and values to the past at the risk of further muddying already murky waters. Food, as a necessity of all human life, can provide important links between brothel households and the social landscape. By adopting a historical landscape approach to sexuality in New Orleans, I hope to be able to investigate diversity in brothel households through foodways and how these linked topics integrate with larger social systems, as well as reframe public and private as a spectrum of behaviors.
About the photo: Tom Anderson’s Arlington Annex was a saloon and restaurant located prominently in Storyville and boasted “private rooms for the fair sex” in advertisements. Brothel workers were welcome to dine at these kind of establishments. (Image from Storyville, New Orleans by Al Rose, 1978.)