This Covid year has made me feel closer to the past. More exactly, it’s made me feel like I have a better chance of getting close to an unfamiliar past. The strange months dividing my old and new normals have made me more aware of my distance from history, from all past lives and past normals. Any doubt I might have had that historical change occurs in meaningful and lasting ways is gone and the distance I’ve traveled over this past year has spoken loudly in my ear about how quickly societies can transverse the space between “unimaginable” and “everyday.” With each mind-bending occurrence we’ve lived through, I’ve been reminded of how little my current lived experience maps accurately onto the past.
In the early months of Covid, it was the tangible changes to my daily life that made me think differently about the materiality of the past, and about some of the assumptions I had been bringing to my work without any awareness. The daily burden of cooking every meal, of limited food choice in the face of reduced grocery runs, made me examine my assumptions about food choice and food preference. How accustomed I am to being able to eat whatever I want, and how nonexistent that concept is, for large swaths of humanity and long stretches of human history. My first latte after lockdown had me imagining how exciting, even other worldly, new flavors and food experiences must have seemed in centuries past.
The social isolation imposed by quarantine made me think differently about the importance of an internal life, the history of imagination, and the way social burdens weigh differently when they are carried by fewer people. Our social networks, even for the socially awkward among us, shifted in dramatic and unprecedented ways this year, speaking to the fluidity of social structures, and making me wonder if I understand the connections between and within my sources, even when I recognize the language and know all the definitions. I’ve relied on the universal truth that we all need to eat and always have. But my own changing relationship with food and eating this year prompted me to wonder, did eating always mean what it means to me now? There were also lessons found in the monotony of ingredients, monotony of social companions, and the time spent fantasizing about future meals with people outside my Covid bubble. Through all this I glimpsed potential historical meanings of celebration, of togetherness and of what it meant to be alone. This past year has taught us all that the meaning of a feast changes when we eat so many of our meals alone.
This week the sun came out. Temperatures rose. Being outside was a pleasure. And it seemed undeniable, once again, that the environment plays an awesome part in people’s lives and in our shared past. I felt this in personal ways, as I’m sure you all did. For months, leaving the house with my two small children required a 20-minute routine of finding and donning mittens and hats, coats and boots, a process we rarely escaped without a meltdown on someone’s part (often the little humans’, occasionally mine). But the warm temperatures freed us from the snowsuits and tears, and had me thinking about what spring must have meant to parents and diversely structured household units throughout history. Living through a Covid winter, trapped inside by frigid temperatures and wet weather that made leaving the house not worth the work (though to be sure, my definition of what counts as “bad” weather certainly shifted this year) prompted me to imagine the meaning of spring in centuries past. What must the sun and green shoots of spring have meant when you lived without effortless heat, without electricity, running water? Imagine being penned in for a season with smelly humans and smelly beasts. Under those circumstances, the revelation that is spring must have felt like no minor miracle. If ever I questioned the reasons ancient people revered a sun god, it is crystal clear to me now.
It’s been a hard year for most things, history included. But there’s a chance this year will have left me with the ability to bring more curiosity to my research, and in so doing, to see history more accurately. Here’s hoping.
Image: The Feast of the Bean King, painted by Jacob Jordaens between 1640-1645. Source: Wikipedia.
Loren Galesi joined the PhD program in 2020. Her research interests sit at the intersection of environmental history and Atlantic history, with a focus on how plants moved around the early modern world. She is particularly interested in food plants, and in understanding why one crop can come to have many different meanings, depending on where it is planted. When she is not reading, Loren is plying her husband and two children with baked goods. The children appreciate this. The husband does not.