An Ode to Breakfast

And now for something completely different…I thought it time for something more light-hearted. The vast majority of my posts are about the social and cultural history of early modern Britain, however this is a Shakespearean post about breakfast. This is something I scribbled down a while back on a particularly indecisive morning. I had, for a time, considered starting a Shakespearean food soliloquy blog, but alas, that hasn’t happened…which is probably for the best. Finally, Manchester Festival is wrapping up this weekend, and I wasn’t one of the lucky few to snag tickets to see Kenneth Branagh in the Scottish Play, so to compensate I’ll post a spoof about the Prince of Denmark. Enjoy.

French toast or not French toast: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the kitchen to suffer
The whisk and fry pan of delicious breakfast,
Or to take frozen waffles and put them in the toaster,
And by toasting them end hunger? French toast: To eat;
No more; and by to eat to say we end
The hunger and the thousand hour fast
With said delicious breakfast, ’tis a consumption
Devoutly to be wish’d. French toast, to eat;
To eat: perchance a sugar rush: aye, there’s the rub;
For in that delicious breakfast what sugar is there?
When we have ingested such maple syrup and icing sugar
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so tasty a meal;
For who would bear the low-cal syrup and reduced fat margarine,
The dieter’s wrong, the proud man’s rice cakes,
The pangs of unsatisfied hunger, the meals delay,
The impatience of low blood sugar and the spurns
That eager gorging of the unhealthy takes,
When he himself might his fat girth make
With a large breakfast? Who would Aunt Jemima bear
To grunt and sweat under a massive waist line,
But that the dread of clothes with elastic waistbands
The unattractive clothing from whose closet
No thin person wears, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those hunger pangs we have
Than fly to obesity that we fear much of?
Thus tasty breakfast does make fat-asses of us all;
And thus the craving for thy French toast
Is sicklied o’er with the sober second thought,
And breakfasts of great food and enjoyment
With this regard their hankering turn awry,
And lose the name of action.


Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?

What is Culture?

If the past is to be understood as an enormous landscape that historians are charged with the task of exploring, then cultural historians are the academics gazing at every vista and examining every pebble asking the question, ‘but what does it mean?’

Influenced by anthropology in the 1970s, and building upon the new directions taken by social history in the 1960s, cultural history gained increasing momentum until reaching virtual domination as one of the leading methods of historical inquiry in the present day. This expansion has now reached a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.

With this growth has come extensive theoretical debate about what constitutes ‘culture’ and whether it is even possible for historians to understand what something meant to individuals in the past. In the midst of such a crisis of identity, it is perhaps useful to go back to basics for an understanding of the fundamental features of cultural history, and perhaps the best way to get at the essential core is to consider what cultural history is not.

As historians gained more and more knowledge of ordinary people some became dissatisfied with what they saw as the limitations of social history because they believed it ignored details of everyday life and experiences. The desire amongst academics to explore new frontiers such as religious beliefs, sexuality and human agency led to new approaches being adopted from other academic disciplines such as anthropology, literary theory and philosophy.

The importance of interdisciplinary borrowing is particularly evident in two of the central figures in the development of cultural history who were not themselves historians by trade, but whose theories and writings would have a profound effect on historians and their work: Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist; and Michel Foucault, a philosopher turned ‘historian of the system of thought.’

Geertz saw humankind as existing in self-spun webs of significance, which could be analyzed and interpreted for their meaning. Culture for Geertz was a commonly understood yet unspoken by-product of a community, an acted document that can be read for its symbolic meaning. Culture was not a power that influences actions or events, but rather a system of signs that could be intelligibly (or ‘thickly’) described. His approach to culture introduced entirely new types of source material for historians who were more accustomed to using traditional textual sources – paintings, popular literature, diaries and the materials of everyday life as well as rituals, behaviours and practices could now be analyzed like texts as evidence of the culture that produced them.

One of Foucault’s greatest influences on cultural history is his emphasis on language and discourse as a means of analyzing change over time. His history was like no history ever done by a historian, and it forced a paradigm shift in the ways historians understood and interpreted the past. Instead of seeking the origins of, and causes for specific events he searched for cultural formations or systems of power and classification in the past. The relevance of Foucault’s work is not in the legacy of a specific theory or methodology, but rather in the aftershocks caused by his challenges to traditional understandings of how to approach questions about the past. By rejecting an understanding of history based on what happened and why and replacing it with an excavation of different systems of language, power and knowledge over time he completely shifted the focus of historical analysis.

Foucault Meme

Much has happened in the field of cultural history since Geertz and Foucault, and there has been much debate concerning the methodologies and limitations of cultural history. The history done in the wake of the cultural turn was termed the New Cultural History, which has since become somewhat old.

Over the past decade or more historians have become increasingly uncertain about the direction the cultural turn has taken them. These doubts are based partly in an ongoing epistemological debate about the fundamental basis of all knowledge, however of more pressing concern is the sheer breadth of the field. Virtually anything can have a cultural history, and it appears that most history done in recent years is of a cultural ilk.

The popularity and vastness of the field, both in academia and in the proliferation of popular television programming, has left many thinking that at present all history is cultural history, and many are questioning what the next direction may be. Perhaps it is at this point, when historians cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees that it may be more useful to step back and provide a clear and simple definition of what cultural history is and is not.

Some of the confusion surrounding what cultural history is may result from attempting to define it as a tangible ‘thing’ rather than an approach. Cultural history as a noun is a daunting concept because absolutely everything created by humankind is subject to interpretation through a cultural lens. Everything created is a product of a community within its own web of significance, and therefore in this regard everything is cultural history. The abundance of books with titles beginning with ‘The Cultural History of…’or ‘(fill in the blank): a Cultural History’ is proof enough of this.

The Cultural History of...

The Cultural History of…

However, cultural history as a verb is potentially a different matter. The pursuit of cultural history can be a clearly definable approach that goes beyond questions of what happened and why in an attempt to understand what things meant to past individuals, communities and societies. By this definition, at its most basic and broad, cultural history is the analysis of the significance of events in the past to those who experienced them, and how these meanings changed over time.

Defining culture in this manner assumes that humans living in any community will have at least some level of shared beliefs, values and understandings that shape their experiences and inform their actions. This definition of cultural history owes a great deal to Geertz. The influence of Foucault is also evident because the emphasis here is not necessarily on what happened and why, but on the underlying patterns of belief and behaviours that define groups and communities. All history that concerns itself with meaning and belief is cultural history. Any history that does not ask, ‘but what did it mean?’ is not cultural history.

This definition is useful because of its simplicity. It reduces an increasingly complex concept to its lowest common denominator to allow for a clear categorization of history into cultural and not cultural. It is perhaps an oversimplification, however given the extent to which complex philosophical debates regarding meaning and knowledge have gone it is a pragmatic means of rediscovering our bearings.

The cultural turn has had an undeniably massive impact on historiography, as well as on various other academic disciplines. It can be difficult at times to locate current history that is, by this definition, strictly non-cultural history, or histories that analyse the ‘who’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ without the ‘what did it mean.’ Although cultural history is the dominant approach it is not the only approach. In reality both cultural and non-cultural approaches sit comfortably side-by-side.

If, in fact, cultural history were the only approach to history the field would be at risk of drifting off into the philosophical abstraction of Foucault. In order to analyze what systems of meaning, belief, rituals and practices meant to anyone at any given time they must be put into the context of the who, the how and the why. In return cultural history can provide a more diverse and extensive understanding of a historical question by searching for beliefs and practices surrounding historical phenomena.


Further Reading

Jonathan Barry and Joseph Melling, ‘The Problem of Culture: An Introduction’, in Joseph Melling and Jonathan Barry, eds., Culture in History, (Exeter: Short Run Press, 1992)

Richard Biernacki, ‘Language and the Shift from Signs to Practices in Cultural Inquiry’, History and Theory 39 (2000), pp. 289-310.

Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999)

Peter Burke, What is Cultural History? (Cambridge: Polity, 2008)

Paula S. Fass, ‘Cultural History/Social History: Some Reflections on a Continuing Dialogue’, Journal of Social History, 37 (2003), pp. 39-46

Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

John R. Hall, ‘Cultural Meanings and Cultural Structures in Historical Explanation’, History and Theory, 39(2000), pp. 331-347

Richard Handler, ‘Theory in History Today’, The American Historical Review, 107(2002), p. 1512-1520.

Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989).

Peter Mandler, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004) pp. 94-117.

Patricia O’Brien, ‘Michel Foucault’s History of Culture’, in Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, pp. 25-46.

Mirin Rubin, ‘What is Cultural History Now’, in David Cannadine, ed., What is History Now (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Carol Watts, ‘Thinking about the X Factor, or, What’s the Cultural History of Cultural History?’ Cultural and Social History, 1(2004), pp. 217-224

Jeffery Weeks, ‘Foucault for Historians’, History Workshop, 14(1982), pp. 106-119


What’s in a name?

I thought it time to change things up a little and post something a bit more light-hearted and less academic, and in light of recent events in my home town of Calgary, Canada, I thought this would be fitting.

Late last month Calgary, and areas across southern Alberta, were hit by severe flooding the likes of which have never been seen before. Over 100,000 people were evacuated, thousands lost their homes, four people lost their lives and the clean up bill will easily be in the billions.

I watched in helpless shock and horror as the natural disaster unfolded before my eyes via streaming online news footage from my current home on the other side of the world.  The one beacon of hope was the way in which the crisis was aptly, tactfully and charismatically navigated by the Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who can only be described as a legend. One need only look to his Twitter account, and the ‘Nap for Nenshi’ campaign that emerged imploring him to go to bed after he spent several sleepless days and nights leading the crisis response team for evidence of this.


Nenshi’s response is very much reflective of that good ‘ol fashioned Prairie fighting spirit. We Canadians, especially those in the west, seem to have an indelible sense of resolve and determination. Personally I think its embedded in our cultural DNA by generations of pioneers who endured the elements to create a better life for themselves and their families. From the earliest First Nations Peoples who managed to flourish and persevere despite the elements, to early European settlers eking out an existence in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, to recent immigrants from around the globe who pick up their roots and settle in the harsh extremes of the Canadian prairie: When bad stuff happens we all roll up our sleeves and get to work – we “get ’er done.”

This sentiment is reflected in the quaintly belligerent war cry coined in support of Calgary’s annual city-wide epically-boozy pancake-breakfast-fuelled-corporate-cowboy party, the Stampede, which was set to kick off two weeks after the flood hit. The entire stampede grounds, the parade route and all official Stampede facilities were virtually decimated by the flooding, yet City and Stampede officials insisted that the show would go on – Come Hell or High Water’.

I know, right? You can now purchase tee shirts sporting this slogan in support of the Canadian Red Cross’s recovery efforts.

Hell or High Water

If you’ve ever wondered about the precise origins of this phrase fear not! I have an answer (note: ‘an’ answer, not ‘the’ answer).

Now, I have absolutely no idea if the information I am about to convey is in any way accurate, but it’s something I read as a child and it stuck. If this is definitively incorrect, or if you have any hard evidence to support this, please comment away. If anything, I see this as an opportunity to channel my inner Cliff Clavin.

As a youngster my grandmother gave me a book about the nautical origins of every day expressions, which was called Scuttlebutt. Over the years many friends, acquaintances…unsuspecting supermarket cashiers, have fallen victim to the after-effects of its anecdotes being emblazoned on my psyche at an early age. Well, it just so happens that ‘come hell or high water’ is one of them, as are the related expressions ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, and ‘hell to pay’.

According to the authors of Scuttlebutt, during those golden years of imperialism when Britain ruled the waves, ‘hell’ or ‘the devil’ was the nickname given to a horizontal seam running high up along the ship’s wooden hull. For whatever reason this seam was prone to letting water in, particularly in rough seas (high water). The solution was to have someone dangle overboard from a rope with a bucket and a brush and slather it in tar (or pay) to seal it. The unfortunate soul was then literally stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Paying hell in high water was a dangerous and loathsome task reserved as a punishment for sailors who broke the rules. This difficult, ardours and necessary job took so much determination to complete without sustaining major injury that ‘come hell or high water’ entered the vernacular, and voila! Stampede slogan.

Again, I cannot vouch for the authority of this information, but I hope it has amused you as much as it amused me.


All silliness aside, donations to the Canadian Red Cross to help victims of the southern Alberta floods are greatly appreciated!

And if kitsch tee shirts aren’t your thing and indie music is, my band is giving away free music to people who donate as well.