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Food and Cultural History

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Melissa Calaresu is an early modern cultural historian and the Neil McKendrick Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. She has written on the cultural history of the Grand Tour, urban space, ice cream, and street-vending in early modern Italy, with a particular focus on Naples. Her books include New Approaches to Naples c.1500–c.1800: The Power of Place (2013) and Food Hawkers: Selling in the Streets from Antiquity to the Present Day (2016).

She was the co-curator of two successful Fitzwilliam Museum exhibitions – Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment in 2015 and Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800 in 2019-20. Melissa has extensive experience of teaching and research expertise in a wide range of neighbouring disciplines from art history to archaeology and anthropology. She is currently writing a cultural history of the city of Naples through the household accounts of the Welsh artist Thomas Jones (1742-1803).

She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and one of the editors of Global Food History.

Cultural historian, and the co-curator of the 2019-20 Feast & Fast exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Melissa Calaresu, will explore the making and meaning of food through images and objects from early modern Europe, 1500-1800. While historians have been able to piece together the history of elite dining through a range of sources, it has been more difficult to access everyday eaters who have left us with far fewer ‘leftovers’ of what and how they ate. Today we associate eating particular foods with the creation of personal identities – for example, as meat-eaters, as non-dairy eaters, or as eaters of seasonal food. However, uncovering the nuances of what eating particular foods and in particular ways might have meant to people across the social spectrum in this period is more challenging. This lecture will show how cultural historians try to uncover these hidden histories of meaning and identity through both the abundance as well as the absence of early modern historical sources, reminding us that we are not always what we eat.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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