Think New Orleans food culture, and French influences naturally come to mind.
But if you stood in the French Quarter in the late 1800s and listened to the street food vendors hawking their goods, chances are the most common language you would hear would be Sicilian. New Orleans was home to one of the world’s largest Sicilian immigrant populations at the time, and the French Quarter was colloquially referred to as Little Palermo.
This connection, now largely overlooked, is one of the many linkages between street food culture in New Orleans and other parts of the world, and history Ph.D. candidate Ashley Rose Young is exploring those connections in a photo exhibit on display in Perkins Library through March 31.
The 24-photo exhibit, located on the Student Wall outside Perkins 118, is an offshoot of Young’s dissertation research. That research focuses on food culture in the Big Easy but has taken her all around the world, whether it’s investigating food markets in Paris, transcribing street food vendors’ cries in Palermo, understanding gender politics that determine who can sell street food in Morocco, or tracing possible linkages between a corn beer in the Andes and its cousin in New Orleans.
“They might not be the strongest connections,” Young said. “They are more like wispy tendrils, but they are important nonetheless. New Orleans may be just one point on Earth, but because of its fusion food culture, it allows you to see these global cultural connections to places that you would never think of.”
While some of the connections in Young’s exhibit might be obscure, her own connection to the topic is anything but. In fact, her personal history is so perfectly apt to her current professional pursuit that her origin story almost seems scripted.
Her father was a historian, which meant that instead of Disney World, Young’s childhood family vacations were spent at places like the Smithsonian, Gettysburg, and Colonial Williamsburg.
The food influence came from her mother’s side. Young’s grandfather worked his way up from roadside orange vendor to owner of two gourmet food stores in Pittsburgh. Her mother and aunts later took over the stores and built a niche by offering imported gourmet foods from Europe while supporting local producers of meat and vegetables. Think Whole Foods before Whole Foods was cool.
Today, the stores are still making sausages using the recipes her grandfather picked up from fellow vendors who had emigrated from Europe and still whipping up the German and American salads her grandmother used to make. Many of the extended family’s 22 grandchildren have worked in the family business, and Young, the youngest of the lot, was no exception. Starting at an early age, she was helping make pizzas, deveining shrimps, and assisting in the bakery.
With a childhood spent visiting historical sites and helping Aunt Bonnie in the cheese section, what else would Young be when she grew up if not a food historian?
Actually, for quite a while, she thought she would be bird-watching in Mexico right now.
“A Balm for My Academic Curiosity”
“The use of ultraviolet colors in birds of paradise’s mating rituals.”
That was the exact topic Young knew she wanted to pursue when she began her undergraduate studies at Yale with an eye on becoming an evolutionary biologist. There was a researcher at Yale who specialized in that subject, and Young was going to work with him and conduct research on the Yucatan Peninsula.
When she began taking classes, however, Young found that it was the history courses that really spoke to her, and her career goals gradually drifted in that direction.
“I think I was constantly subconsciously resisting the fact that I loved history so much,” she said. “I was trying to pursue evolutionary biology, and I was taking chemistry and calculus and physics—all these required courses. And then I had my history courses and they were such a balm for my academic curiosity.”
As she approached her final year at Yale, though, she still wasn’t set on pursuing history as a career. Then, serendipity gave her the nudge she needed.
In search of an internship for the summer before her senior year, Young pulled up Yale’s internship database. The first entry on the default list—before she entered a search term—was for an archive and collections intern at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, an opportunity that spoke to her in many ways.
“I love food; my family comes from a food business,” Young said. “I’ve always been intrigued by New Orleans and I really wanted to go there. And I was a total nerd about museums.”
While interning at the museum, she began reading its collection of cookbooks from the 1880s about Creole culture and became fascinated. Unlike the food tradition she grew up with in Pittsburgh, which was heavily defined by European ethnic identity, the food culture in New Orleans was defined by race, and it centered on the Atlantic world rather than the Europe-to-America connection.
Smitten, Young ditched her senior thesis topic—British loyalists in South Carolina during the colonial era—and instead wrote about race and racial imagery in those Creole cookbooks. She hasn’t looked back since. After Yale, she came to Duke to continue her study of New Orleans food history.
“I did the internship at the museum, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” Young said. “It makes me so happy, and most importantly, I’m never bored.”
Sights and Sounds
As Young puts it, food is ephemeral, which can be a challenge when researching food culture. Fortunately, there are more permanent sources she can draw on, such as those late 19th-century cookbooks that initially sparked her interest in the topic. Those cookbooks often include introductory essays about the history of Creole cuisine, but Young said those essays painted a very specific vision of that history, one that’s not necessarily based in fact.
“The first Creole cookbooks came out after the Civil War, in the 1880s,” Young said. “In response to emancipation, racism intensified in that period. Racist narratives permeated all aspects of life, including writings about the city’s food culture. White Southerners, for example, used cookbooks as a means to make claims on a food culture that was shared by both whites and Blacks. When they authored the first Creole cookbooks, several of them left out the contributions of West African and Caribbean culinary traditions. Others chose not to mention the ingenuity and integral role of Black cooks and Black street vendors.”
Fortunately, evidence of the contributions of those Black cooks and street vendors can be found in other sources, such as paintings, sketches, and travel writings from the era, which often described in detail the city’s food scene, including hundreds of itinerant vendors who walked the streets and called out to advertise their foods.
19th-century Street Vendors' Cries, performed by Ashley rose Young
As Young dug deeper, she became enamored with the street vendors’ cries, which were often humorous and even musical. Travel writers of the time transcribed some of the cries into sheet music and included them in their published travel journals. More than a century later, those works are helping Young discover not only what the food scene of New Orleans looked like in the 1880s, but also what it sounded like.
“I love the sense of hearing and what we can study through sound and music,” she said. “We don’t always think of sound as something important to our understanding of food, but 100, 150 years ago, throughout the world street food was how people fed themselves. And everywhere—in France, in Istanbul, in parts of West Africa, in Asia—you had these incredibly vibrant street-food cultures that regularly involved someone calling out about their wares.”
Aside from their relevance to her research, the street vendors’ cries are also intertwined with another of Young’s passions—singing. She sang competitively in high school, as an undergraduate, and in graduate school. The summer before coming to Duke, she went on a seven-week world tour with an a cappella group. Coincidentally, it was during that trip that she began to notice the importance of markets and street vendors in urban food economies.
Now, in addition to appreciating the vendors’ cries for their melodious qualities, Young is also looking into the business strategies behind them—part of an aspect of her research that delves into the business history of New Orleans food culture.
“It’s all part of their mobility,” she said of the street vendors and their cries. “These were African American vendors who couldn’t necessarily afford to purchase or to rent a storefront. They didn’t have the income to do that, and if they did, there were often structural biases in place that prevented them from acquiring property. They had an alternative, which was to be mobile, itinerant vendors.”
“So how do you get the attention of people when you don’t have a storefront with a big sign? You have to vocalize what you are selling so that people know you are coming. And many people could recognize the call of a vendor they’ve purchased from before, so it was a type of brand recognition. Vendors also employed humorous lyrics in the way that some modern advertisements do. Humor could entice people to purchase blackberries from that vendor versus another who had a less entertaining street cry.”
As her dissertation research progressed, Young found herself gravitating toward the local markets whenever she traveled. She also began to turn her gaze beyond America, as she tried to trace New Orleans’ international connections and its place in the food cultures of the Atlantic world. She went to France to find out what modern Parisian farmers’ markets might tell her about 19th-century New Orleans municipal food markets. She went to Palermo to soak in the melodious cries of the street vendors, something she cannot do in contemporary America. She observed how and why men primarily sold street food in Morocco while women primarily did so in Peru. Oh and there’s the fermented maize drink that seems to have migrated to New Orleans from South America.
“That’s what I wanted to explore in the photography exhibit: What are these global connections? Are there similarities between street cultures? Is it sonic? Is it in how we prepare the food? Is it in who vends the food, the men or the women?” she said.
“I wanted to play around with all these connections that were swirling around in my head from my personal history, to my history dissertation, to just the observations I made of food cultures in the world today.”
Ashley Rose Young’s work at Duke has been supported by, among other sources, three Summer Research Fellowships, a Bass Instructional Fellowship, and two Rubenstein Library Internships from The Graduate School. To learn more about her work, visit http://ashleyroseyoung.com.