The colonization and exploration of non-European territories were inextricably linked to food. Food and diet were used as means to establish and justify physical and cultural differences between Europeans and indigenous people, reinforcing European superiority. Indigenous foodways were often depicted as unclean, disgusting, and dangerous to the European body and identity. However, colonialism led to changes in diets on both sides, with European foodways being used to cultivate new lands and assimilate indigenous populations. Indigenous knowledge about nourishment and the environment was also appropriated by European colonizers. While extensive research has been conducted on the relationship between food and colonialism, there has been less focus on colder colonized regions like Siberia and Alaska, as well as empires such as the Ottoman, Habsburg, or Russian Empire. The workshop brought into dialogue scholars of colonialism and food working on different regions of the world: from Siberia to Zambia, and from Japan to Habsburg Empire and the United States.
The workshop was organized by the professorship for the history of Russia and Central Eastern Europe at University Regensburg and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich and the project “Food and food-related knowledge in seventeenth and eighteenth century Siberia“, which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). In her opening remarks, JULIA HERZBERG (Munich/Regensburg) emphasized the actuality and relevance of the topic. Especially after the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, it would be important to integrate discussions about colonialism in Eastern Europe into international debates, to enable comparisons between different regions, and to make interconnections visible. Besides, the inclusion of Siberia into the body of scholarship on colonialism and food has been an important premise of the workshop.
The keynote speech by REBECCA EARLE (Warwick) referred to the intersection of food, cookery, and imperialism. Earle underlined the strong connection between food history and post-colonial studies, the relevance of the colonial past in relation to food, and the importance of the concept of decolonizing diets. The keynote sparked questions about the role of food in racial theories, the decolonization of medicine, and the ways in which different forms of colonization dictate approaches to decolonizing diets.
GALINA KABAKOVA (Paris) explored the perception of Siberian indigenous peoples by travelers and ethnographers in relation to food. Through their descriptions of the dietary practices of Siberian peoples, both Russian and European travelers constructed a distinct image of the “Other”. Kabakova emphasized that in the sources, both the local people and their food were frequently depicted as “unclean”, in contrast to the “proper” diet of Europeans and Russians.
CHECHESH KUDACHINOVA (Mannheim) focused on the cases of hunger and cannibalism in 17th-century Siberia. In particular, Kudachinova examined two cases of colonial cannibalism that occurred in North and East Siberia in the 1640s. She drew from the idea of the philosopher and political economist Amartya Sen, who argued that there is no such thing as an “apolitical food problem”. Kudachinova emphasized that the hunger in the region was a consequence of the systematic exploitation of the indigenous population by Russian colonizers. Thus, the cases of cannibalism were linked to the hostilities between both groups.
CHAMA KALUBA (Bloemfontain) focused on cassava production in Zambia and its impact on the status of the local women. The presentation sheds light on the overlooked connection between cassava production and women's status, despite previous studies in the field. It challenges the notion that cassava adoption increased women's burden and subordination, arguing instead that it empowered them and transformed their socioeconomic standing. Women's labor in processing cassava provided them with increased control over the crop, enabling them to sell it and convert the profits into valuable items that were safeguarded in cases of divorce or widowhood.
The issue of food scarcity in Siberia was further explored by ANGELINA KALASHNIKOVA (Tbilisi), who presented her research based on archival excavations, delving into the supply challenges faced in the Yakutsk region during the 17th century. Kalashnikova highlighted the specific supply problems that Russian colonizers regularly encountered, as well as the methods employed by Russian authorities to address them, such as farming, salt production, hunting, and fishing. She emphasized that Yakutsk, as one of the most remote settlements in the 17th century, offers a valuable perspective for scholars to examine the difficulties and complexities of implementing common practices in newly colonized Siberian regions, providing insights into the strategies employed to overcome these challenges.
The next session centered on the theme of food history within the context of diplomacy. SIMONE ZIROLIA (Florence) explored the Portuguese Jesuits’ mission in Japan during the 16th and 17th centuries and focused specifically on the challenges surrounding fasting practices and their accommodation within the new social and cultural environment. The mission encountered difficulties when Japanese holidays coincided with fasting periods, leading to discussions among the Order's fathers in Japan. Zirolia emphasized the significant role that food and dietary customs played in the cultural dialogue between the Jesuits and the local population they sought to convert to Christianity.
GABRIELLE ROBILLIARD (Oldenburg) delivered a presentation on the case study of the Danish-Halle Protestant Mission in Tranquebar, located on the East Indian Coromandel coast. The study drew upon the Hallesche Berichte, a printed compilation of activities in the Tranquebar mission published as a serial from 1710 onwards. Accounts from the early years of the Danish-Halle Mission in Tranquebar highlighted the central role of food and beverages in cultural interactions within the colonial context. The writings of the missionaries reflected on eating and drinking practices, serving as a space for Europeans to renegotiate their relationship with familiar “European” foods and beverages.
MARKUS DIEPOLD (Regensburg) revisited the topic of “food diplomacy” during the conference. He presented his research on the negotiations that took place between the Haudenosaunee and English colonies in Lancaster during the 18th century, focusing on the practices of hospitality and communal eating. Diepold examined the dinners hosted by governors, menus, toasting customs, drinks, and tableware used during these interactions. He showed that mastering a culinary diplomatic language acquired particular importance in a situation of French-British colonial rivalry, where rituals of hospitality could secure better relations with the First Nations.
OLGA TRUFANOVA (Regensburg/Munich) focused on accounts of 18th-century ethnographers regarding Siberian cuisine. She drew upon the records of the Second Kamchatka expedition (1733–1743) as a primary source for her research. Methodologically, Trufanova adopted Sara Ahmed’s approach, which posits that the expression of disgust establishes a power dynamic between the subject feeling disgusted and the object causing disgust. Trufanova applied the concept of “the politics of disgust” and concluded that the descriptions of Siberian food as repulsive were strategically employed to facilitate the colonization of Siberia and the establishment of the Russian empire.
In his talk devoted to three 19th-century expeditions led by Wrangel, Middendorf, and Shrenk, NATHANIEL KNIGHT (South Orange) further developed the theme of Siberian ethnographic expeditions as well as their accounts about food. Knight’s research delved into the tasks assigned to the explorers and how they executed them, the ways in which they presented their findings, particularly in relation to the indigenous peoples they encountered, and, importantly, how the explorers perceived and approached their role as ethnographers. Knight also considered the broader implications of these journeys in relation to imperial governance and expansion.
The final panel explored food recipes and representations. LEA HORVAT (Jena) centered her study on the “semiperiphery” of the Habsburg Empire, specifically Ljubljana and Zagreb, and examined the production of coffee knowledge during the 18th and 19th centuries. Local coffee culture in these cities was influenced by Viennese, Ottoman, and North Italian traditions. Horvat analyzed cookbooks published in Slovenian and Croatian languages and traced the presence of coffee in recipes circulating in Zagreb and Ljubljana throughout the 19th century. The gender aspect of coffee consumption and women's role in the “semiperiphery” of the Habsburg Empire were highlighted.
VIKTORIYA SUKOVATA (Leipzig) analyzed the representation of women’s bodies and food in European Orientalist paintings. She argues that the image of the “Oriental” Other played a central role in shaping the empire and constructing the colonial Other in the European imagination. Sukovata concludes that the European mass consciousness of the Orient was based on visual metaphors rather than real knowledge about Eastern people. European Orientalist art in the 19th century depicted the “Oriental harem” and “eastern bazaar” as symbols of sexual slavery and economic underdevelopment, featuring partially clothed women and emphasizing Oriental masculinity through power symbols.
SARA EVENSON (Albany) delved deeper into the subject of cookery books during her presentation. Her research focused on the Van Cortlandt Family Receipt Book, a collection of recipes spanning multiple generations and ending in 1865. Evenson examined four historical recipes from 18th- and 19th-century New York, emphasizing that cultural identity was conveyed outwardly through the human body. The central research question explored how colonizers sought to modify, appropriate, and reshape food traditions in establishing the Dutch empire in New Netherland, as well as how food practices were employed to reinforce social status in the formative years of the United States of America.
The workshop concluded with SASHA GORA’s (Augsburg) presentation on food as a space of contact. Gora examined the desserts “Baked Alaska” and muktuk, a traditional Arctic food made from whale skin and blubber that has been repetitively called “a delicacy” in the European texts. The central inquiry of Gora's research is how muktuk signifies culinary connections between northern lands, cultures, and territories. Specifically, she explores the post-1867 period to analyze muktuk as a pivotal point of colonial encounter, conflict, and negotiation, prompting the question: what defines a culinary border?
The workshop provided a platform for in-depth discussions on a range of topics pertaining to food, culture, and identity. Scholars from diverse backgrounds shared their research findings and perspectives, delving into the cultural, historical, and social significance of food. The workshop fostered interdisciplinary dialogue, exploring the colonial lens through which the “Other” has been perceived in relation to nutrition practices and taboos.
Rebecca Earle (Warwick)
Panel I. Siberian Cannibal: Myths and Truths
Galina Kabakova (Paris): The Others in the mirror of food: description of the nutrition of the peoples of Siberia in Russian and foreign sources of the 15th–19th centuries
Chechesh Kudachinova (Mannheim): “Eat the dead”: hunger and colonial cannibalism in seventeenth century Siberia
Panel II. The Power of Agriculture: Body Politics of Food Production
Chama Kaluba (Bloemfontain): “Women’s stronghold”: cassava transforming the status of women in Zambia, from pre-colonial times (c. 1740) to 1900
Angelina Kalashnikova (Tbilisi): The food supply challenges of remote Siberian forts in the first half of the 17th c.: Lensky fort case study
Panel III. Culinary Diplomacy: Colonial Encounters at the Table
Simone Zirolia (Florence): An ‘ideology of consumption’: The culinary experience of the Portuguese Jesuits in Japan (1543/1639)
Gabrielle Robilliard (Oldenburg): Old foods, new places: How Europeans re-negotiated food and drink from the Old World in colonial contexts
Markus Diepold (Regensburg): “For they fed lustily, drank heartily, and were very greasy before they finished their dinner”: Food and drink in eighteenth-century Haudenosaunee-European diplomacy
Panel IV. Colonial Food in Ethnographic Discourse and Practice
Olga Trufanova (Regensburg/Munich): “Disgusting” Siberian food and the making of the Russian Empire
Nathaniel Knight (South Orange): The ethnography of emptiness: scientific exploration in Siberia and the Far East, 1820–1860
Panel V. Receipts and Representations at the Intersection of Gender, Race and Ethnicity
Lea Horvat (Jena): Coffee knowledge, ignorance, and gender on the semiperiphery of the Habsburg Empire
Viktoriya Sukovata (Leipzig): Women and food in painting of European Orientalism: postcolonial analyses
Sara Evenson (Albany): The kitchen, bodily experience, and family recipes at Van Cortland Manor
Sasha Gora (Augsburg): “Baked Alaska”: The making and unmaking of bodies and territories in Arctic borderlands