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Project Proposal

African Diaspora Foodways Library and Database

Rachel Finn, Social Sciences Librarian (Library)

Project Description

This project focuses on multidisciplinary foodways research of the food traditions of the global African Diaspora. Since the mid-1990s strong popular and scholarly interest in food studies and food history has remained quite strong. At the scholarly level, there has been an expansion and development of food studies programs at colleges and universities around the world and research libraries and archives have made foodways and food history a collecting priority. Within this context, however, certain food cultures tend to be given less attention and even more difficult to study and document due to a variety of factors, including, in the case of afro culinary traditions, the historical and social contexts in which they have developed.

The African Diaspora itself, is a diverse cultural region connected by shared (yet very particular and distinctive) histories of enslavement and colonialism. A large majority of Afrodescendents trace origins to Africans originally enslaved and forcibly dispersed by the Arab and European slave trades primarily to Asia, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Today, immigration has facilitated intermingling of these Afrodescendents with emigrants from Continental Africa creating ever richer, more diverse populations in the African Diaspora. The diversity and interconnectedness of the African Diaspora is clearly evident in its culinary traditions, which will be the focus of this project. For the purposes of this project the focus will be the Atlantic World and Afrodescendents whose ancestral origins in the Americas and the Caribbean are linked to the slave trade. 

We will begin building a digital library website that documents African Diaspora foodways by organizing, cataloging, and tagging images, developing regional annotated bibliographies, and compiling scholarly foodways resources. The library website will also contain a multi-lingual, searchable database of ingredients and food plants, recipe names, cooking techniques, botanical names, and images, and other information that will be an important research tool for foodways researchers using the site.

We will work with African American language patterns and food/folklore traditions of regional American South, the Americas and the Caribbean, and relevant western or central African languages and culinary traditions. 

Anticipated Project Activities

  • Identify and create directories of food-related collections held by land-grant universities, particularly HBCUs and small special libraries (such as museums) to identify afro-foodways materials
  • Identify and create directories of relevant digital and physical archives and repositories around the world
  • Research foodways projects, organizations, and events around the world
  • Organize, catalogue, and tag original images for digital image library
  • Update and expand existing regional foodways bibliographies
  • Gather, compile, and organize data for foodways database using Vassar and regional library collections.
  • Become proficient in digital tools to create infographics, maps, or posters based on research
  • Schedule permitting, a visit to NYC may be taken to explore food and ingredients and conduct interviews and research

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

  • Strong research, writing, and organizational skills required
  • Strong knowledge of colonial history and enslavement in the Americas and the Caribbean strongly preferred
  • Interest and knowledge of African American, African Diaspora, and African history and culture
  • Knowledge of French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch will be helpful but not necessary
  • Knowledge of Adobe Photoshop helpful but not necessary 

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

  • Contribution to digital library site and database
  • I anticipate that the student will be able to give a special presentation on the topic at a foodways conference, regional meeting of culinary historians, or culinary library or museum

Project Location

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

June 12, 2017

Project End Date

August 4, 2017