Meet SFPFS member and food historian Erica Peters

Erica J. Peters, Ph.D., is the director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and author of San Francisco: A Food Biography (2013) and Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century (2012). She received her bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard University and her doctorate in history from the University of Chicago. Peters has taught at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, San Francisco State University, Portland State University, and the University of Maryland University College. Most recently, she designed and taught “Introduction to Food Studies” and “Local Food History” for the innovative master’s degree program in Food Studies at the University of the Pacific’s San Francisco campus.

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How did you get where you are today in the food business?

When I went to graduate school in history (at the University of Chicago) my favorite professor got me hooked on the history of daily life. I was also interested in French colonial history and wrote my dissertation on daily life in Vietnam, during the period when it was part of French Indochina.

My first book, Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century, was a reworking of my dissertation. I argued that people of all backgrounds cared about the food they ate and about what that food said about them. They understood food’s powerful symbolism and they used food to indicate or improve their social position, within the constraints of their household budgets.

While I was working on that book, I was home with two young children, and I looked for a writing support group for food historians. I discovered there were organizations for culinary historians in most major cities: in New York, Chicago, DC, Boston, Austin, and Los Angeles. The L.A. group called itself the Culinary Historians of Southern California, and when I called to ask for help in finding a similar group in the Bay Area, they suggested I start one.

Sally Scully, who was then professor of history at SF State, joined the effort and in 2004 we held the first meeting of the Culinary Historians of Northern California (CHoNC). The group still meets monthly, usually at Omnivore Books in Noe Valley, where our meetings are free and open to the public. As director of CHoNC, I also had the opportunity to write an overview of the Bay Area’s food history, entitled San Francisco: A Food Biography (2013), for Rowman & Littlefield’s series “Big City Food Biographies.”

Since 2016 I have been teaching for the University of the Pacific’s master’s program in Food Studies. I developed a seminar on “Local Food History” and recently taught the program’s introductory course, where I stretched myself beyond just history and probably learned as much as the students did.

What is your favorite food experience?

At the night market in Ho Chi Minh City, introducing my children to bánh xèo crêpes and showing them how to scoop up each bite in a lettuce leaf, with or without fresh herbs, with or without the dipping sauce, just the way they wanted it.

What is the most exciting thing going on in food right now, in your opinion?

For me, it’s the growing sensitivity to questions of ethnicity, gender and labor in getting food from the field to the fork. I like to encourage everyone to enjoy eating while keeping in mind the many people whose labor led up to one’s tasty meal.

What advice do you have for young people who want a career in food history?

I tell people to figure out whether they feel more called to teach or to write. A Ph.D. is a good step for someone who wants to teach, but it can suffocate your voice as a writer. Graduate school teaches a clunky writing style which can make it harder to engage with a popular audience.

What is your go-to recipe for entertaining?

Cherry clafoutis

What project are you working on now?

Looking ahead to the centenary of Prohibition, I’m researching a book exploring how American restaurants changed when people stopped associating eating out with drinking alcohol.

What have you gained from being a member of the SFPFS?

When my book San Francisco: A Food Biography came out in 2013, Kara Nielsen invited me to come talk about it at the Book SIG. That’s when I discovered that SFPFS is such a smart & friendly group. I have enjoyed being a member for the last five years – my main activity is still attending the Book SIG where I feel very much at home.