Faculty Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Alice Weinreb
Alice Weinreb is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches courses in twentieth-century Europe, the history and politics of food in Europe, the Holocaust, and European environmental history. Dr. Weinreb’s much anticipated book, Modern Hungers: Food and Power in Twentieth Century Germany, was published by Oxford University Press this year. Public Media Assistant Meagan McChesney asked her a few questions about the recent release of her book and the courses she is teaching at Loyola this year. Congratulations, Dr. Weinreb!
Q: Congratulations on the publication of your book! In the book, you examine the ways in which Germany’s experiences in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were shaped by the modern food system. How did your interest in food as an historical subject come about?
A: Before becoming a German historian, I was trained in Anthropology and Gender Studies, two disciplines that, in different ways, are very interested in food both as a material and theoretical object of study. Anthropologists have long realized that ways of producing and consuming food are universally central components of human society. Everybody everywhere cares about what they eat and how they eat it! And scholars of gender are sensitive to the ways in which food practices are central to expressions of power. Coming from this background, the fact that historians have been relatively uninterested in food shocked me. Within the field of history, food has often been considered trivial, either conceptualized as a straight-forward aspect of people’s everyday lives, or dismissed as “popular” or women’s history, rather than seen as a central component of the “big” issues of serious history. Thus, one of the things that inspired me to unpack the relationship between our food system and global military conflicts (the World Wars and the Cold War) was my desire to show that these “big” questions are, in fact, not understandable without addressing food supply.
Q: This spring, you are teaching a course on Food, Hunger, & Power in the Modern World. What do you hope your students will take away from this course?
A: This is one of my favorite classes, and I am constantly tweaking it to make it speak both to student interests and to current events. For example, as the United States’ food system has been grown increasingly unstable and as welfare programs are coming under attack, I have focused much more of our course on US food policy. Very few people, and especially very few politicians, know the history of farm subsidies or of food stamps. Yet without knowing this history, attempts to improve our current food catastrophes are pretty much doomed to failure. More generally, the main take-away of this course is to think more holistically about the food system. We all tend to separate “food” concerns from “hunger” concerns. Thus, we post photos on Instagram of a delicious meal, buy a new brand of fair-trade chocolate, or celebrate the opening of a new Starbucks in our neighborhood – and then, in a totally different register, feel pity for famine-stricken families in parts of Africa, or bemoan the fact that one out of three children in Chicago is food-insecure. My course encourages students to think about the ways in which the modern food system is profoundly transnational; this means that food abundance and food lack, both locally and across the globe, are not opposites but intertwined, even mutually constitutive.
Q: Throughout the book, you reinforce the fact that during these wars and particularly for the German people, food and identity were (and are) inextricably tied. How is this discussed in the book and how will questions of identity tie into the course you are teaching this spring?
A: Food is a fascinating way of thinking about identity – after all, as the cliché reminds us, we are what we eat. My book traces the complicated and constantly changing ways in which food shaped German identity. For example, I look at the ways in which food was central to the Nazi construction of the Aryan racial identity (expressed in the slogan “blood and soil”.) But I also look at the ways in which, for example, German communists attempted to revolutionize gender roles by developing a new, scientific, food system. In essence, I show that food is never just a thing; it is always a component of individual and collective identity. This comes through in my course as well; what people eat matters not only because of food’s cost or caloric or vitamin content, but because a person’s diet impacts his or her sense of self. This can be wonderful and empowering, or humiliating and destructive.
Q: Both writing and teaching about war, hunger, and power come with particular sets of challenges. What are some of those challenges and how have you addressed them in your book and throughout your teaching career?
A: This is a huge question. Probably one of the things that I struggle with in my research as well as in the classroom is negotiating empathy. On the one hand, one of my personal goals as a teacher and a historian is to encourage a sense of empathy; in our current political and economic climate, we are discouraged from experiencing or expressing empathy. It is difficult and disturbing to really think about what it might be like to be hungry, or to consider the pressures of not knowing how one will feed one’s child. However, at the same time, empathy can be a knee-jerk and fairly superficial reaction to another’s suffering: that person’s situation is absolutely horrible, but all I can do is hope for the best, or donate a few dollars . . . As a historian, I hope that learning about the past encourages us to see empathy as empowering – in other words, that feeling empathy for others includes recognizing our own responsibility and our own power to enact change.