The plan to blog from CHESS did not turn out exactly as hoped for one reason. There was very limited internet access at the McGill residence called Solin Hall. We’re talking 2 functioning public computers in the residents. There was the McGill wireless system, but you need a username and password to get on it and it takes 3 business days to get that vital information – not something that was going to happen when CHESS ran from Thursday to Saturday. But that is enough for the excuses, there are more important things, like the part where “Edible Environments” meant by the end of day two a Carleton grad student commented it felt like we’d spent the day moving from eating to eating.
That summary is not an exaggeration but I would add we spent two and a half days moving from eating to eating with interesting discussions of food and eating in-between.
CHESS started with an excellent presentation by Harriet Ritvo from MIT titled “You Are What You Eat: Consumption, Appropriation and Wilderness.” It was all about the relationship between humans and animals that is manifest through ingestion, specifically British practices around ingestion of meat. Hunting or raising and eating meat is culturally specific; British have for a long time ate more meat than the French and placed greater importance and value on the ingestion of meat. There is also a distinct hierarchy in both class and gender around eating meat. I especially enjoyed her discussion of the emergence of vegetarianism in the 18th century and its failure to grow as a movement at that time because of the nationalist and patriotic aspects of regularly eating meat despite the overall amount of meat ingested declining at the time. The conclusion was acts of ingestion are about more than nourishment or flavour. There are cultural implications that come with ingestion in regards to going with the status quo, transgressing, and assumptions about class and civilization/barbarism that come with eating meat.
By the end of Rivo’s talk, the whole room was ready for dinner. Unfortunately we had to stand around the tables drinking beer and wine, conversing with one another, smelling the naan bread, rice, butter chicken, Palak Paneer, Chana Massala and other great Pakistani foods for a good 30 minutes while the caterers located the eating utensils they forgot. A few of us decided that despite being pretty full from the dinner we should go find gelato because it was so hot out. It was a good call, except for the ‘frais et poivre’ option which only appeals to a very small segment of the population. This was just the beginning of the good food. The second day began with Montreal-style bagels (the best style of bagels), then traditional Mohawk lunch of mostly corn based things, then an afternoon snack to go with the coffee, and ended with an excellent dinner at Robin des Bois in the Plateau. Day two really was the highlight food wise as day three consisted of fresh scones and more bagels, a bagged vegan lunch for the field trips, and more baking for afternoon coffee. No dinner since the CHESS was over. There was also a side trip for poutine because you really can’t go to Montreal without eating poutine – as a non-poutine eater this was a big deal.
Enough about the food – though it did feel like we were eating our way through Montreal at times – and back to the academic tourism that is CHESS. There didn’t seems like as many discussion sessions as last year but the group was smaller and a day shorter. While there were a number of interesting conversations over the course of the three days, I got the most out of Rivo’s opening talk. The others were good too. All the presenters raised solid questions about the ways food, the basic need to eat to subsist, connects humans to the environment. The approaches to analysis were varied, from social metabolism to urban planning and regulation of space, and there is always something to be learned from discussions of approach.
The part of CHESS I was most excited for was the first ever face-to-face NiCHE New Scholars Virtual Reading Group. Jim Clifford from York University submitted the fifth chapter of his dissertation for us to read and give him constructive criticism on. His work is on West Ham and the Lea River Valley, a lesser river downstream of the Thames. The face-to-face meeting was strange after months of meeting via Skype but was an excellent chance for us to talk up the value of the group and the type of feedback it offers grad students on their works-in-progress. Will Knight and I also used it to shamelessly promote “Place and Placelessness” since the un-workshop is structured after the Virtual Reading Group. Hopefully the shameless promoting combined with an example of what people can get from the discussion of Jim’s draft chapter gets more submissions to the un-workshop and more participation in the virtual reading group.
For me, CHESS ended with the CHA Graduate Student welcome pub night at Brutopia and a fun evening of visiting with former office-mates from Carleton and chatting with new people. At events like CHESS and the CHA, I am often struck by how large and at the same time how small the Canadian historical community is. It is big in the sense the CHA this year is running 9 concurrent sessions for each block of presentation time. It is small in the sense we all seem to be connected by one or two degrees of separation. I knew most of the people at CHESS this year whereas last year I went in only knowing a handful. Some of those people I was meeting face-to-face for the first time but had talked to multiple times over the past months through the New Scholars Group. I head back to Edmonton – with an Ottawa detour – intellectually refreshed, ready to get back to work on comps, and psyched for the “Time and Place” week long workshop at UPEI in the middle of June. Ah summer, the season of academic tourism!
Field Trip along the Lachine Canal to look at deindustrialization.
Just for fun.