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.)
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.
“Indeed, these mythic conceptions of the upland South begin to be constructed just following the Civil War…through a complex series of popular culture phenomenon such as local color writers, popular music, and folklorists. These tropes served to ‘legitimize northern middle class life by presenting the mountain South as the ‘other’’ and eventually spawning a type of ethnic identity that was both imposed upon and ambivalently adopted by the inhabitants of Appalachia and the Ozarks—characterizing them as backward, antiquated, lazy, and exclusively of Anglo-Saxon stock.”
-Jaime C. Brandon and James M. Davidson (quoting Horning 1999:31)
Talking about the history of the southeastern United States with non-southerners invariably brings up certain popular tropes of folksy backwardness and monolithic white conservatism. These tropes often irrationally irritate me—I say irrational because I know I shouldn’t get upset when tropes are tropes for a reason, and I should be using my energy for patient explanation. Aside from my academic interest in the southeastern region, it is part of my own identity. I was born and lived in the South as a young child, but even after moving north I spent summers in Tennessee and Arkansas, in cities and in rural towns, with my family. Certainly, I grew up watching reruns of shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, but there was ever a disconnect between what I saw on TV and the behaviors of the people I experienced in real life.
The Beverly Hillbillies helped turn the myth of exclusively white, anti-modern Ozarkians into a popular trope. Photo from the Wikipedia entry about the show.
I came across the above quote while reading for my bibliographies as part of my comprehensive exams. Brandon and Davidson then go on to discuss the assumed purity (read: whiteness) of mountain blood, which had a distinct hand in the erasure of Ozark slavery from popular history. This is where the danger of tropes such as these should be glaringly obvious. Underlying the mockery of “other” whites, stories of diversity are ignored completely. At conception in the latter half of the 19th century, mountain stereotypes may have been confined to Ozark and Appalachian regions, as Brandon and Davidson write, but over time they have become nebulous and imprecise enough that they are now applied to the South at large. The long continuation of these tropes has led people to blindly forget that the region historically has a black majority population with incredible direct and indirect influence on the development of contemporary American culture, politics, and landscapes. Continuing to adhere and cling to tropes dismisses southern diversity and identities as being uninteresting, unimportant, and false. Tropes contribute to oppression when there are stories that need and deserve to be told.
An African-American-owned drugstore in Georgia, ca. 1900. (source)
Brandon, Jaime C. and James M. Davidson. 2005. The Landscape of Van Winkle’s Mill: Identity, Myth, and Modernity in the Ozark Upland South. In Historical Archaeology, 39(3): 113-131.
Miss Elsie’s House is a conceptual comic book about the women of Storyville, New Orleans written by me and illustrated by my good friend Jessica Jarvinen. The project came about because I was interested in exploring different ways of archaeologically-informed storytelling and decided to use my own dissertation research as a topic. In the book, five women with diverse backgrounds come together and interact in a fictional brothel house while they prepare for work. An introduction to the historic Storyville community and creator statements are included. Please feel free to contact us with comments, questions, or critique.
I’ll be on my way to Theoretical Archaeology Group USA at UIUC is this weekend with a paper and a collaborative art project – two firsts for me! I will be presenting my work on Chinese-American identity through food during the Converging Flavors session. You can read a little bit about the research here. And here’s a teaser for our art project! Check back this weekend to view the completed piece.