Barrett faculty member edits book about archaeology of cooking

"The Menial Art of Cooking"

Cooking is more than simply the act of combining ingredients and heating them up to make them edible. Cooking activities are indicative of wide-ranging aspects of society, including social, cultural, political and economic life.

That’s the premise behind The Menial Art of Cooking: Archaeological Studies of Cooking and Food Preparation (University of Colorado Press), a volume of scholarly essays about cooking edited by Sarah Graff, Honors Faculty Fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, and Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to the publisher, the book “examines techniques and technologies of food preparation, the spaces where food was cooked, the relationship between cooking and changes in household economies, the religious and symbolic aspects of cooking, the relationship between cooking and social identity, and how examining foodways provides insight into social relations of production, distribution and consumption.”

Essay contributors approach cooking from an archaeological viewpoint and use a wide variety of evidence, including archaeological data, archival research, analysis of ceramics, fauna, botany, glass and other artifacts, stone tools, murals, painted ceramics, ethnographic analogy to identify signs of cooking and food processing by ancient cooks.

The overall focus of the book is “using cooking as a lens to look at all other aspects of life – economy, politics, social structure, religion and power,” Graff said.

According to Graff, the importance of cooking sometimes gets overshadowed – particularly among archaeologists – by events or artifacts that seem to hold more significance.

“We tend to be more interested in things that sound really big, like treaties between kings, or major events, or treasures found at archaeological sites, but we miss the importance of day-to-day activities like cooking,” Graff said. 

For example, because cooking through the ages tended to be done mostly by women, that should not negate the activity and its influence on social groups and household economies, Graff said. In short, cooking should not be classified as a mundane or menial act.

Graff hopes that the book will be used in classes focused on food and culture and for research. She plans to take the book to two conferences in November: the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting in Chicago and the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.