#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Dr Emelyn Rude

Dr Emelyn Rude is a food historian, editor of Eaten: the Food History Magazine and author of Tastes Like Chicken: a History of America's Favourite Bird. She did her PhD on how past fish stock collapses have impacted national eating habits.

She will be speaking as part of a panel addressing the question How can we improve our food security on 27th March at 7.30-9pm. Other speakers include Professor Tim Lang, Professor David Rose and researcher Anoop Tripathi. Nazia Mintz-Habib, director of the Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development will chair.

Why does your research matter?

Everyone eats, so whether you care about the food system or not, it still impacts your life on a daily basis. It’s a common refrain in food policy circles to say that the food system is broken. While I don’t disagree that there are a lot of flaws with modern food production and consumption, I think looking at the history of food systems reveals that the story is more complex than that. Based on my research, I would argue that the food system is not broken but is in fact working exactly as it has been designed to. The problem, of course, was that this system was designed in an era that had vastly different concerns than our modern ones. I think understanding this history can help to explain the system’s resistance to change in spite of all of the existing issues with inequality, health and environmental harm.

What first drew you to researching the history of food?

My views on food have always been shaped by the fact that I decided to become a vegetarian at age eight. I’m still not completely sure why I did it, as no one else in my family is a vegetarian and I didn’t know anyone else who didn’t eat meat, but it is a decision I’ve stuck with now for more than two decades. Vegetarianism and veganism were not popular when I gave up meat and finding meatless options outside of my house was often a struggle. I found this quite confusing as a kid; not eating animals made so much sense to me, but seemed to perplex almost everyone else I encountered. I think my interest in food history stems less from an interest in history per se, but more out of an interest in understanding why. Why do I not like eating meat and why does everyone else on the planet seem to enjoy it so much?

How did you come to write a book about the history of chicken?

My interest in chicken was a direct result of my childhood eating habits. In my hierarchy of foods, chicken was always at the very bottom, so I was always fascinated by the fact that other people ate so much of it. As an undergraduate, I took a class on food history that really excited me and for my senior thesis I decided to investigate the mysteries of mass chicken consumption. The book eventually grew from there.

Give us an interesting fact about chickens from your book?

One of the ones that always takes people aback is the fact that people eat so much chicken today that chicken bones are considered one of the primary geological markers of the Anthropocene. So when future scientists look back at this current era of geological time, they will find things like nuclear waste, plastic and chicken bones.

How and why did you set up Eaten?

When I first graduated from college, I was living in New York City and working for various restaurant groups. It was really fun and I ate incredible food, but I was also perpetually broke. To make a little extra income I started freelance food writing on the side and found that I was always interested in writing history-focused stories. The problem with these is that they are often hard to make topical and so many popular outlets aren’t as interested in running them. I knew I wasn’t the only person interested in food in this way, so the idea of starting my own publication focused on food history slowly grew. After a lot of mental back and forth over whether I should actually do this, in 2017 I ran a successful Kickstarter to get the magazine funded and in November of that year published the first edition of Eaten.

Has the magazine been covering issues around food security? Can you give some examples?

When you go back to any time prior to the 1960s, food security was a primary concern of most eaters and farmers, so it plays a role in many of the pieces in Eaten. One example that comes to mind is an article in the third edition relating to the nineteenth-century English obsession with eating exotic animals, which the upper classes thought could be a good way to keep the masses well fed. There was another in issue 10 focusing on efforts to revitalise forgotten rice strains in India as an effort to increase crop diversity and one in issue 14 about American “junk food diplomacy” with the USSR and the politics of food aid. But, as I said, having enough food for everyone was a guiding principle for much of history so it plays a smaller role in many of the articles in the magazine.

Tell us about the subject of your PhD

My PhD focused on the impact of marine species declines on the American food system. My main goal was to understand how food production and consumption changed when a specific animal could no longer be turned into a commodity.

Why are you interested in this subject?

I’ve always loved the ocean – I grew up in Indonesia and some of my favourite memories are of visiting the reefs there – and I wanted to bridge the gap between my fascination with marine species and my broader interest in food. Fish stock collapse and marine degradation are hot button issues today, but most research efforts into these topics are interested in understanding why these happen. My research is slightly different (and perhaps slightly darker), as I’m more interested in what happens after a species has been destroyed.