Below is the opening sequence from Terrence Malick’s 2005 film, The New World, loosely based on the account provided by John Smith of the Jamestown colony:

In class, we’ve been discussing the imbalance between the extensive written records of early America provided by the English (and other European) settlers, and the lack of analogous records kept by the range of Native American cultures they encountered. What I like about this sequence is how Malick portrays the moment of “first contact” between the British soon-to-be-settlers and the Powhatan Indians they first encountered. He’s able to portray the sense of wonder and anticipation experienced by the British on the one hand, and the combination of curiosity and fear likely experienced by the Powhatan on the other– and all of this wordlessly. As the ship approaches, the British crowd along the side of the boat, eagerly looking out into the land they would explore. Their affect is one of intensity, albeit muted by the duration of the voyage and their presumed fatigue. The Powhatan, by contrast, with no way of anticipating the British arrival– and also not yet knowing the devastation that colonization would bring about– display embodied techniques of careful observation. Some of their motions appear strange– unaligned with any culture today. The entire encounter takes place wordlessly, as if Malick is attempting to place the two cultures on equal plane, although it’s interesting to consider how easily we’re able to interpret the performance of the British, while any interpretation of the performance of the Powhatan people is reduced to caricature– their closeness to nature, their “primitive” culture, etc. It serves as yet another reminder that, try as we might, we do not have two equal sides of this particular story.

From the time of “first contact,” European explorers—and later, colonists and citizens—were alternately fascinated and repulsed by the new foods they encountered, and they wrote about them in their journals, narratives, histories, and letters. Early American writers, in turn, imbued acts of eating with new significance as they attempted to distinguish their social, cultural, and political identities both from their European, African, and Caribbean counterparts, and from the native American cultures that abutted their own. This course will explore how ideas about food and eating were deployed in a range of textual forms, as well as at the table, so as to direct and reflect major early American concerns. We will also devote a significant portion of the course to the study of historical recipes and cookbooks. As a final project, we will work together as a class to update and contribute to a digital historical recipe archive, updated and reframed for the Food Network age.

For more information, see the syllabus and schedule pages (also linked in the header above).