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All photos courtesy of EATEN
“Food tastes better with a generous side of history.” ~ Emelyn Rude
The roots of Emelyn Rude’s fascination with food can be traced back to her childhood. “My parents were agricultural economists,” the American historian tells DLISH. “My mom was in the Foreign Agricultural Service, which is the foreign service branch of the USDA. So, we lived in China, we lived in Pakistan, we lived in Indonesia. And she would always go to these random places to look at rice fields and stuff, which I found fascinating.”
Fast forward to present day and Rude is a researcher, author, and the creator of food history magazine EATEN. When DLISH caught up with her back in October, she had recently handed in her PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge in the UK and was contemplating her next step in the pursuit of captivating food stories. “I've always liked food,” Rude adds. “And I've always known it's not quite as simple as people think it is.”
Rude’s passion for food history was first ignited while she was a social studies student at Harvard University, in a moment which she recalls as a “turning point”. “I was floundering around trying to figure out what I wanted to do and then I finally took a class called The History of Dietetics, which is basically the history of what people used to do to be healthy,” remembers Rude. “It really clicked with me for whatever reason, it just was easy and fascinating and the first class I’d ever taken that I wanted to do all the reading for.”
The class proved a good fit as Rude’s undergraduate thesis was later turned into Tastes like Chicken, a book exploring “the weird social phenomena that is chicken eating”, as she describes it. “The impetus of it was that when I was little I hated chicken and it would always kill me because it's everywhere: every meal, all the time, no matter what,” explains Rude, who has been vegetarian since the age of eight. “It doesn't even taste like anything, and everyone jokes that everything tastes like chicken. Now that I'm more educated, I'm sure there is delicious chicken out there but, in general, it's sort of like this weird, ubiquitous, almost flavourless meat that people eat without thinking about it.”
Rude didn’t intend to start working in food after graduating from Harvard but ended up doing the media and office management for chef Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster in Harlem, New York. “I just happened to get an internship and then that happened to turn into a job,” she tells DLISH. “I learned a ton about how the food industry works: the good things and also the bad things associated with it.”
While working in a restaurant gave Rude a lot of valuable experience, it didn’t pay very well, so she began freelance writing to support her income. Rude wrote about food history for publications such as TIME and VICE but found that the features always had to relate to what was currently going on in the world. “I just wanted to write about history, but it's really hard to find a place to publish history because it always has to be timely,” she says. “And it's really hard to make history timely, in many ways.” When Rude couldn’t find the right outlet for her food history passion, she decided to create her own. “I started the magazine because there are so many aspects of food that you can talk about that don't really fall into modern journalism,” she explains.
EATEN: The Food History Magazine aims to be much more in depth than your average clickbait article yet more fun and accessible than an academic journal. The print publication is also beautifully designed with gorgeous vintage imagery accompanying every story. Each edition follows a theme chosen by Rude: “Ideally, it'll be slightly punny or it will have multiple meanings. It's not set, it’s just what my instincts tell me is interesting, which seems to be working so far, I guess,” she muses.
Rude launched the magazine through Kickstarter, an experience which she recalls as “absolutely terrifying”. “Internet, here's my dream. Please tell me what you think about it by giving me money.” Of course, the biggest challenge of starting a print magazine has been the tight finances, however, Rude also cites having to overcome her own imposter syndrome as a significant hurdle. “I think the thing that held me back was because I was my harshest critic, and I felt like no one would like it. I mean, I met my goal, I exceeded my goal, and, currently, the magazine still exists!”
When she’s not been putting a magazine together, Rude has been researching how fish stock collapses have impacted eating habits in the US for her PhD at Cambridge. “When I was doing research on chicken, they kept mentioning sardines because part of the growth of the chicken industry was due to sardine meal – fish meal is really essential to poultry and swine food,” she explains. “It's a horrible hidden secret. Basically, they're fishing out the world's ocean to feed chickens and pigs. But, there was a big fish stock collapse in the 1940s in California of sardines. It went from being the biggest biomass on Earth to absolutely nothing in a matter of two years. And in my mind, I was thinking, What happens next? How does the system adapt to that? How do we make up for the hole? And it went from there.”
The sardines are just one case study in Rude’s thesis. She also researched the eastern oyster and menhaden fish. “At the moment I'm trying to figure out how to transform all these case studies in my thesis into a cohesive macro theory about the food system.” Rude continues, “The whole thrust of my argument is that it's not just a culinary loss. These are really significant events that have changed how we eat because our system has had to adapt. We used to be able to depend on the natural environment, then the natural environment gave out on us. How did we figure out how to keep feeding ourselves?”
On the subject of today’s consumption and what our future eating habits will look like, Rude comments, “The point is that we've really fucked over our planet so much and, fundamentally, that's how we get our food. And I think the fact that we're moving into synthetics is because of climate change, species extinction, all these factors. We just can't rely on the planet as much as we have historically. And so, I think this move towards synthetics, whether it's good or bad, is obviously a response to shortages, to evening out the supply chain, but at the same time, it marks a departure from agriculture.” She adds, “The food shortages thing is also interesting. The fact that we have a stable food system is a relatively new concept. Granted, I don't think we should go back to an era of shortages, obviously, we need to continue to eat food. But I do think, historically, if you look in the context of history, this is not a new or unprecedented phenomenon, in any way.”
While she waits for her PhD viva to present and defend her theories, Rude is thinking about her own future and is considering expanding her research to the British food system. However, the multi-talented historian insists she’s not set on the academic path: “Food has many facets so I’ll see what happens.”
Discover more about EATEN: The Food History Magazine here.