UWindsor professor Rob Nelson has specialized in modern German history and military history, but says nothing has received the attention of his current field of study — food history.
“Everyone is interested in food,” he says. “Food history is a new area for scholarly exploration.”
His research into a dish fusing the cuisines of Lebanon and Canada — shawarma poutine — is the subject of a presentation he will make next week at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and drew the eye of reporter Joseph Brean. The resulting article opened the annual “Oh, the Humanities!” series in the National Post, which was re-published in newspapers across the country.
“I’ve been getting calls of congratulations from colleagues all over,” says Dr. Nelson, who is head of the University’s history department. “I had no idea it was going to be the lead article in the series.”
Shawarma poutine, which tops french fries with beef gravy, seasoned chicken, and a garlic-tahini yogurt sauce, provides an entry into the social history of national identity, the concept of authenticity, and the ways border regions challenge both.
“I have studied the history of national identity for my entire career,” Nelson says. “I have found that the more nationalistic people are, the more simplistic their idea of their own history tends to be.”
He notes that cultures do not develop in a vacuum: “What on earth does authenticity mean in regards to cuisine?”
And Windsor, he adds, is the perfect place to explore these questions.
“You have diaspora communities, the closeness of Windsor to Detroit with constant movement back and forth, opportunities to study how migrant food communities adjust to local conditions,” says Nelson. “In border regions, identity gets all mixed up and food identities get mixed up.”
He is currently writing a book, with the working title Global Food History in Eight Dinner Parties.
“It is work, but it’s really fun,” he says.