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Historian brings a passion for food from kitchen to classroom

“Food history is exploding right now as an area of academic inquiry.”

By NATALIE SAMSON | JUN 11 2014

Associate professor Robert Nelson has been resident foodie in the University of Windsor’s history department since he joined the school almost 10 years ago. He speaks as passionately about last night’s family meal as he does of his latest research on Modern European cultural history. When it’s time to wine and dine a departmental guest, Dr. Nelson can be relied on to push for the best Windsor has to offer. And at a recent staff potluck, his mélange of greens and lavender transcended the staple bean and potato salads.

But Dr. Nelson’s real claim to the unofficial title of foodie-in-residence: this year the 42-year-old historian was named an ideal reader by Saveur, a celebrated magazine of gourmet world food and travel – in short, a foodie bible. As part of its 20th anniversary special issue, the magazine ran Dr. Nelson’s photo and article on Indonesian satays alongside work by celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali, Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Marcus Samuelsson.

By Dr. Nelson’s count, he’s tried more than 750 recipes from Saveur. He inadvertently alerted the magazine’s staff to this fact back in 2011, as he prepared to take a sabbatical year in Germany. “I realized that all of my information, all of my comments were in the hard copies of these magazines,” Dr. Nelson says. It occurred to him to create a sort of online repository for his notes on the magazine’s website. Over the course of a few days, he input his notes into the comments section for each recipe. “Every time a comment comes in, the editors get a notice,” Dr. Nelson explains. Intrigued by this man who had posted hundreds of insightful comments to their site in such a short time, Saveur invited Dr. Nelson to visit their test kitchen in Manhattan. As the cliché goes, the rest is history.

Dr. Nelson is taking his newfound foodie fame with a dash of humility. He recounts, for example, an odd encounter with a historian who approached him at an academic conference. Turns out, the man had recognized him from Saveur. “It’s a strange realization that vastly more people will read that Saveur piece on satays than will ever read all my academic work put together,” he says.

Though Dr. Nelson’s colleagues, including his department head Miriam Wright, may gently rib him for the attention, Dr. Wright says they’ve seen it as the perfect excuse to put food studies on the menu: they’re cooking up an interdisciplinary course on food to be taught by Dr. Nelson. “Food history is exploding right now as an area of academic inquiry after really being considered not serious for a long time,” he says. “And I bet very few food historians can actually cook.”

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  1. Rachel Black / July 16, 2014 at 08:47

    Dr. Nelson is correct in thinking that there are few food historians who actually cook. I ran a food studies program in the US for four years and it was always a challenge to find a historian who was not afraid of hands-on activities. The fact that there are few universities who offer food studies courses and even fewer that have kitchen facilities that can be used in class compounds this issue.

    My big question is when will we have a proper food studies (all disciplines) program in Canada? It’s time. Who will step up to the plate? (no pun intended)

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