Feature: The Origin of Food Studies Movement in the USA 1943-1996


On November 5th, 1943, a teacher and aspiring artist named Paul met with an astrologist named Jane Bartleman for some life advice. Their conversation would set into motion a chain of events that would give rise to the burgeoning new academic field called Food Studies that exists today.

Paul and Julia Child and Marion Nestle

The prediction was that Paul would obtain a new job, his work would be “highly secretive”, he would make many friends, adventure would abound and he would fall “heavily in love” in a year (Spitz, 2012). The following year, he would fall in love with a Julia McWilliams, whilst both were working for the OSS, a precursor to the CIA, on a wartime espionage mission in Ceylon – now Sri Lanka (Conant, 2011).

After their marriage and a brief spell in living in Washington DC, Paul and Julia Child would to move Paris, he having already lived there years before and was now being stationed there as a US diplomat (Child and Prud’homme, 2006).

The pair had encountered new and exciting foods during their time in Ceylon, and later China (Conant, 2011), but it was France that really piqued Julia’s interest in food and cooking. In her memoir My Life in France, she recalls how her time in France changed her life:

At the Cordon Bleu (cooking school) and in the markets and restaurants of Paris, I suddenly discovered that cooking was a rich and layered and endlessly fascinating subject. The best way to describe it was to say that I fell in love with French Food (Child and Prud’homme, 2006).

Having completed her training at France’s most prestigious cooking school, aged 38, Julia began to teach French cookery to American women living in Paris, along with two friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The trio, known as Le Cercle des Gourmettes, began working on a cookbook (Child and Prud’homme, 2006 p 114-117). Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961. It was an instant best-seller.

Around this time, television had been gaining popularity in the United States and the first TV chef, James Beard, was making a name for himself. The popularity of Mastering the Art of French Cooking led to Julia Child gaining her own cookery TV show back in the USA (Eater, 2017). The show, simply titled The French Chef, captured the popularity of French food at the time, plus her charming and natural personality resonated with the postwar audience (Eater, 2017).

Sharing the same cookbook editor, Judith Jones, it seemed inevitable that Julia Child and James Beard would cross paths. Jones (Eater, 2017) tells of Beard’s reaction upon reading her book: “It’s remarkable. I wish I’d written it”. In the Introductory note (1999) of his book Beard on Food, Child describes the origins of their long-lasting friendship: “although we had never met him before, it was Jim who greeted us warmly and introduced us to the New York scene and its personalities.” While he may not have directly had any influence on the legitimization of Food Studies as an academic field, it was this ability to connect like-minded people that would prove influential in later years.

While the two TV chefs were gaining prominence, at the University of California, a recent graduate that was about to begin her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, had encountered Mastering the Art of French Cooking and would later list it as one her early food influences. She recalls

This “mere” cookbook completely changed my generation’s understanding of food… It made many of us realize how impoverished we were with respect to foods that were readily available anywhere in France or Italy. The connection between the way food is produced and how it tastes on the table became the central theme of her cookbooks (Nestle, 2010).

Marion Nestle, citing Shapiro (2007), tells us how the cookbook transformed the genre from “trivially unimportant” to “occupying a position as a respected cultural indicator worthy of serious scholarly investigation”. Nestle (2010) also lists Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, as an early inspiration, commenting how it “set a standard for how to use food to make complicated political and social issues interesting and accessible to scholarly audiences in many fields”.

Amy Bentley and Sidney Mintz

At the turn of the 20th century, a young Jewish man named Soloman arrived in New York from Eastern Europe. He, and his wife Fanny managed to save enough money to buy their own diner working as a clothing salesman and a seamstress respectively. The venue would close during the great depression but Levy (2016) documents how growing up in the diner would leave a lasting impression on the couples’ young son, ‘Sid’, who he quotes as saying “I became interested in how people acquired, prepared, cooked and served food, and that all came from my father”.

While Paul Cushing Child had his fateful encounter with the astrologist in 1943, a young Sidney Mintz was graduating with a degree in Psychology from Brooklyn College. Having been drafted into the US Air Force during WW2, he was able to afford to gain a Ph.D. in Anthropology, from Columbia University, thanks to benefits available under the GI Bill (Yelvington and Bentley 2013). It was here that he would become part of the Mundial Upheaval Society, a group of fellow anthropologists with Marxist leanings, that would inspire his later work. All of this under the supervision of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, famous for her observations of Japanese Culture in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Baca, 2016).

Mintz’s 1985 book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History would establish his prominence as an anthropologist of food. The book draws on history, anthropology, botany, geography, economics, and nutrition to link the ‘new world’ realities of slavery in the Caribbean to the industrialization of the ‘old world’. This one one of the early examples of using multidisciplinary theory and methodology – which would become the interdisciplinary model of Food Studies scholarship (Yelvington and Bentley 2013). In his other food-related book, Tasting Food Tasting Freedom, Mintz (1986) voices his skepticism about the existence of “national cuisines”, explores the role of sweetened drinks in the USA and Britain, before examining soy as an industrial crop.

Soon after these two books where published, a student at the University of Pennsylvania was about to begin her Ph.D. in American Civilisation. Sidney’s Mintz’s writings would prove to be a large influence on Amy Bentley’s, who would go on to teach American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder (Bentley, 1994) before becoming a central figure in Food Studies Movement.

Such was Bentley’s expertise on Mintz, that she would later be invited to be the guest editor and contributor of a special edition of the Food and Foodways Journal (2008) entitled ‘Sweetness and Power: Rethinking Sidney Mintz’s Classic Work’. Here she states how the book “is central to food studies as a core text in an emerging field of academic study… It helped to pave the way for food as a topic of academic study to be taken seriously”. Later she and Kevin Yelvington would craft the entry for Mintz for the Encyclopedia of Social Theory and Cultural Anthropology (2013).

Bentley and Hobart (2014) tell us how, in addition to Sidney Mintz’s work, two texts from the late 1980s would change the narrative around food: Janet Poppendiecks Breadlines: Knee Deep in Wheat (1986) and Warren Belasco’s Appetite for Change: How Counterculture took on the Food Industry (1989). These would inspire a wave of anti-globalization/industrialization food publications, that continues to grow at a rapid rate.

Clark Wolf and James Beard

In 1939, Portland native, known to his friends as Jim, was struggling to find work as an actor in New York. He and friend, Bill Rhode decided to capitalize on the city’s post-prohibition cocktail party scene by opening a catering business: Hors d’Oeuvre Inc. This proved to be a lucky break for James Beard, who quickly realized that his passion lay with food and cooking. Serval cookbooks later he landed himself a role as a TV chef in 1946 (Wolf, 1993 pp106-122). He became an ambassador for American food. In 1955, Beard, now a close friend of Julia Child, established the James Beard Cooking School where he would continue to teach for the next 30 years (James Beard Website, 2018).

Whilst in San Fransisco, in the early 1980s, Beard happened upon a small cheese shop run by a twenty-something entrepreneur from Southern California called Clark Wolf, who recalls the encounter as: “…terrifying. I knew it was James Beard. I don’t know why. I guess I was aware of him, and I think he must have had a column in the paper… we had a short little chat, and he walked out” (Wolf, 2017). This chance meeting launched a friendship that lasted until Beard’s death in 1985.

Soon after, in an unrelated incident, Marian Burros the new food writer for the New York Times came to the Oakville Grocery to interview Clark for a piece on California food (Wolf, 2017). This meeting would prove to key to Clark’s involvement in the Food Studies Movement, 15 years later.

With encouragement from James Beard, Wolf had been was considering a move to New York. This materialized when he landed employment in a new grocery shop owned by Barbara Kafka, famous for her microwave cookery books (Wolf, 1996). He remembers how Beard’s thirst for knowledge inspired him “I thought this food thing is really cool. It’s okay to ask questions and learn for all of your life. You’re young for all of your life. You’re never going to learn all of it. It’s food. It’s all of nature”. In addition to passing on his love of food, Beard also introduced Wolf to the opera, theatre and of course his friend Julia Child (Wolf, 2017).

After his death in 1985, Julia Child was pushing something to be done with Beard’s house. She along with cooking teacher, Peter Kump, organized a fundraising campaign to purchase his Greenwich Village townhouse (Spitz, 2012 p468-9). On that fateful date, November 5th, 1986, the James Beard Foundation officially opened the James Beard House. The James Beard awards began in 1990 and are now the most prestigious food awards in the USA (James Beard Website, 2018).

The following year Clark Wolf started a “Food, Restaurant and Hospitality Consulting” company under his own name. He would work with some of Americas top restaurants, hotels, casinos, public institutions, and specialty food companies. He also organized events with The American Institute of Wine & Food (Wolf, 2017) founded by 1981 by Julia Child, with winemakers Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff, on the premise that “gastronomy is essential to the quality of life” (AIWF, 2018).

In 1990, the Institute spawned a spin-off organization: Oldways, created by then chairman K. Dun Gifford. His aim was to “promote healthy eating and drinking, with programs that help consumers improve their food and drink choices, encourage traditional sustainable food choices, and promote the enjoyment of the pleasures of the table” (Oldways, 2018). 

Nancy Harmon Jenkins (2013) remembers the Oldways conference in Spain, in 1992 that marked the turning point for the organization

It was the year of the Barcelona Olympics, the year of the Seville World’s Fair, the year that celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America….that was an intellectual gathering to remember, with speakers and panelists….including such academic lights as Sidney Mintz, Harvey Levenstein, and Sol Katz, along with prominent food historians such as Sophie Coe and Elisabeth Luard.

Marion Nestle was also at that conference and would become heavily involved with Oldways, which she saw as a precursor to Food Studies “it was clear to me that there was great interest in studying more deeply about the role of food in society” (Nestle, 2013).

A Plan Comes Together

While Julia Child has been a big influence on Marion Nestle, her fondness was not reciprocated for a very long time. It was widely known that Child was not fond of nutritionists, famously stating “If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States” (Lawson, 2018). Food writer and cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins set to rectify this, by hosting a dinner party to introduce the two. As Nestle recalls, the encounter was far from perfect: “I wish I could say that the evening was a great success but it did not go well. Julia did sign my copy of Mastering, but grudgingly (even though it had been so well used that it was falling apart)” (Nestle, 2012).

That same year Child was successful in launching “the first academic food studies program in the United States” (B.U. 2018) with her friend Jacques Pépin – the Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) in Gastronomy at Boston University.

Soon after, The New York Times (Kleiman, 1991) wrote an article, largely questioning the validity of such a course. Child is quoted as saying: “There’s a lot more to the field than cooks piddling in the kitchen. It’s high time that it’s recognized as a serious discipline”. In that same article, Sidney Mintz appears skeptical of the changes brewing at Boston University, stating somewhat ambiguously: “I am not against a degree in the anthropology of food or the psychology of food or the sociology of food, what I’m against is a degree in the Food of Food. Any serious academic inquiry into the role of food requires a firm footing in traditional academic disciplines”.

It was at a party, organized by New York Times food critic Marian Burros, that Clark Wolf would encounter Marion Nestle, who told him of her frustrations and how she wanted to “food up” the Department of Nutrition at NYU, where she now worked. He, later that night, committed to helping her achieve this (Wolf, 2017).

Food Studies at NYU

Under his suggestion, Nestle set up an advisory panel that would meet at various points over the next few years. The academic interest in the Gastronomy program at Boston had grown steadily, but Nestle felt the word “gastronomy” inappropriate for academic institutions preferring ‘Food Studies’ in line with many other new programs using ‘studies’ in the title (Nestle, 2017). In 1996, due to some serendipitous circumstances (Nestle, 2017), the advisory panel’s ideas were pushed through and approved in 1996, establishing the first Food Studies discipline program, at Bachelors, Masters and a Ph.D. level.

The programme received two major boosts before the first semester had started. In June of 1996, the Food Network had a new CEO, Erica Gruen. She would rebrand the channel and launch its website. Under her guidance, ratings soared and a new obsession with food and cooking shows swept across America. It became the only basic-cable network in history to become profitable in advertising revenue alone (Quantum Media). The second boost came in the form of a glowing New York Times report on the new programmes at NYU – written Marian Burros – who had introduced the two founders years earlier. The first person to be hired was Amy Bentley, who would run the undergraduate section of the school. She told Burros (1996) “Food is an emerging field in the humanities. Food was undeveloped because traditionally it was a domestic thing. History was about wars. Food now is seen as a way to study history”.

Nestle (2013) attributes the inspiration from her time spent working with Oldways, which Julia Child helped to set up. “I’m happy to credit Oldways for the inspiration for Food Studies. Then, our program was almost unique. Today such programs flourish in dozens of American universities. I consider my work at NYU to be part of Oldways’ lasting legacy”.

She recalls that the icing on the cake was to finally gain Julia Child’s approval after introducing Food Studies at NYU (Nestle, 2012). The New York Times reported that she was “delighted” with the new NYU programme (Burros, 1996). Just before she died, she wrote of Nestle’s (2014) book Food Politics:

In this fascinating book, we learn how powerful, intrusive, influential, and invasive big industry is and how alert we must constantly be to prevent it from influencing not only our own personal nutritional choices but those of our government agencies. Marion Nestle has presented us with a courageous and masterful exposé.


Julia Child was no doubt instrumental figure in changing the way America ate. Her determination and drive, her books, her societies and her facilitating of friendships will leave a lasting legacy.

This paper proves the importance of networking and forming connections. When like-minded people get together, be it at a conference, a classroom or at a dinner table, powerful things can happen. While I have focused equally on chefs and scholars, it proves the impact that both can have in bringing about change, when they work together. It is important that a Food Studies and Culinary Arts both grow as academic fields, that they continue to work together and intertwine.

World War II had an impact on the origins of Food Studies. Sidney Mintz, Paul and Julia Child, James Beard all served during WWII. The technological advances in food production, and agriculture that followed – the so-called Green Revolution – created the exact problems that people like Marion Nestle and fellow her Food Studies Scholars seek to fix.

This study definitely merits a ‘Part II’, perhaps linking the impact that the Food Studies programme had the world post 1996 and how it has spread to other universities, including our own MA and doctoral programmes in TU Dublin, in 2018.

The good news is, if you are a part of the Food Studies movement, chances are you will live a very long life. Child died at 91, her husband was 92, Sidney Mintz was 93, James Beard, who was overweight all of his life lived to 83. Marion Nestle is 82 and still as active as ever.


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