Earlier this month, I came across the Kickstarter campaign for REPAST, a magazine devoted fully to food history. That's quite a broad topic to wrangle into one publication, but Emelyn Rude, the magazine's editor, seems particularly up to the challenge. She's a journalist with bylines in TIME and Munchies, and, just last year, she wrote the book Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America's Favorite Bird.
The first issue of REPAST, set to be released early next year, is themed "The Food of the Gods," and will have an essay from Butter author Elaine Khosrova on ancient Tibetan butter-carving and a piece from food scholar Ken Albala on Jesus' diet. I should add that the magazine's aesthetic, judging from the mock-ups, is stupid gorgeous.
"Writing good history takes time, a precious commodity in today’s media landscape," Rude writes in her statement of purpose for the campaign. Rude's taken to Kickstarter to cover printing costs and payment for the contributors who make the magazine possible; it's an all-or-nothing campaign that ends on May 11. So far, it's reached $8,375 of its professed $20,000 goal. It's got a ways to go.
I had a brief email correspondence with Rude earlier this week about where she got the idea for the project and where she sees it going. Here's a lightly edited transcript.
EMELYN RUDE: The idea just popped into my mind one afternoon out of the blue. I have always been obsessed with culinary history, but it's not a subject that seems to get much love these days in the popular food media. There are plenty of articles declaring the Top Ten Pieces of Fried Chicken You Need To Eat Right Now! and far fewer exploring the origins of Southern fried chicken (it's actually a Scottish dish) or explaining how the food came to have its terrible racial undertones or detailing how Colonel Sanders, a man who was a disbarred lawyer, unlicensed midwife, failed ferry boat captain, and struggling tire salesman, managed to build an empire using his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices.
I am a huge fan of what Lapham's Quarterly does to make history accessible and to demonstrate that stories from the past are incredibly relevant to our lives today. I thought, why can't I do that for the subject I love most, food? I sent a few emails out gauging interest in the idea and it grew pretty rapidly from there.
ER: I think this has happened for a few reasons. One of the big ones is that people haven't taken food history seriously as a subject until very recently, so, relatively speaking, it's a much newer concept. Another is that writing good history takes time, and time is really hard to come by in today's media world. A third, I think, is the common misconception that history is kind of boring, which is something I highly disagree with!
All this being said, I think there is a lot of cool work being done in academia on the subject of food history right now. Most of this writing is being produced for other scholars, however, and, to be completely honest, it is not always the most engaging reading.
So I wanted to make something that fills this gap—an accessible, fun, and fascinating publication that explores the roots of what we eat and why we eat it.
ER: As I mentioned above, there are definitely some great academic sources dealing with food history today. Gastronomica is a longtime favorite of mine and a lot of interesting material comes out each year from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.
On the more popular spectrum, there are also a whole host of culinary history books that have come out recently that I think are excellent. Elaine Khosrova's Butter: a Rich History and Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe's A Square Meal: a Culinary History of the Great Depression are two good examples from the past year.
ER: This was actually the easiest part of this whole thing so far! I just sent them an email explaining who I was and what I was trying to do and both responded yes almost immediately. I think it's both a testament to how passionate they are about their research and also how few outlets there are out there that highlight the kind of work that they do.
ER: For the first edition, themed "The Food of the Gods," we already have planned a profile of a group of Norman monks who are reviving their ancient brewing traditions in northern France, a photo essay on the sacred origins of another fermented drink called pulque in central Mexico, and a recipe spread for a "feast for the gods" from a cookbook from ancient Babylonia. So we're being pretty ambitious and trying to cover a lot of distance here!
I think inclusivity is essential to the stories we want to tell. History is wonderfully multifaceted and dizzyingly complex, and culinary history is certainly no exception. I don't think we would be doing the subject justice if we didn't come at it from all possible angles and world views. We want to be an outlet where a piece on the traditional cookery of the Sami, an indigenous group of the Arctic, coexists comfortably with the strange saga of the sunchoke and a profile of scientists in China trying to get to the roots of the human diet one archeological dig at a time (all three of which are potentially in the works for volume 2!). They are all valuable stories that help us better understand what we eat and why we eat it, and these are the stories we want to tell in REPAST.
To donate to REPAST, head here.