Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

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AHA, Retrospectively

This last Sunday I got back from my first trip ever to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. This year it was in Chicago, and mostly I was going to get a sense of how crazed I would feel next year when I’m on the market. More on that in a moment.

I was sort of under the impression that at the AHA, no one went to the panels, and most people just sat in the lobby networking and watching crazed graduate students mill around in suits. Clearly, this was not the case, and I was pleased to see good amounts of people at the handful of panels I went to (my post-Australia flight fatigue was sometimes tough to wrangle into submission).

The panel that stuck out for me was “Presenting Historical Research Using Digital Media,” with Lemont Dobson, Philip Ethington, Katrina Gulliver, and Jennifer Serventi. I missed Dobson’s presentation because one half of my split personality was on Sydney time and couldn’t get it together by 9 a.m. exactly, but here are some broad thoughts about the panel more generally.

All the presenters that I saw spoke off-the-cuff, a practice I’m admiring more and more as a conference-goer. I have two conferences coming up, and think I’m going to try not to read my paper at one of them because it just seems way more engaging. I can’t decide whether it’s easier to tweet about people who are reading papers or speaking informally. On the one hand, paper-readers have (hopefully) created topic sentences that give live-tweeters soundbites that they can replicate for the backchannel. On the other hand, informal speakers are easier to follow because they’re better at changing the tones of their voices and making eye contact. Not sure I come down one way or the other, here, but I will continue to think about the audience members on twitter when I prepare my own conference presentations.

I’m not going to summarize the speakers’ main points here, but I do want to write a bit about some of the things they made me think about. Katrina made the point that when digital humanists mention certain codes or programs, it can turn people off, and I agreed. I’m not particularly program-savvy, and I tend to skip over posts or tweets promoting specific programs, whereas I am much more likely to read things on the digital humanities more broadly.

Jennifer Serventi’s talk on digital humanities projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities was really helpful, although I’m a sucker for anything related to grant-writing. My current project is not particularly DH-influenced, but her presentation was still engaging for anyone who has to apply for fellowships from the NEH. I haven’t spent much time playing around on the NEH website because I’m not quite ready to apply to those grants, but it was great to know that they’ve got an online database of recently-funded projects (including the crowd-sourced NYPL menus projects). She also gave thoughtful advice for grant-writers thinking about funding: they want you to talk in your proposals about how your project is going to reach the public, and what your long-term goals are. She also mentioned that if you have a non-DH project and aren’t sure where to send it, you can still email her and ask her which department of the NEH might be a good fit for you. It was nice to have a friendly face to put to the name of a large grant-giving institution.

The rest of the conference was good. Most of my friends who had interviews seemed fairly collected, which made me feel better about next year. It seems like interviewers really do ask the questions that advice-writers say they ask (what books would you teach? What is your second project), although I knew fewer people who got the standard “tell us about your dissertation” softball. The twitterstorians meet-up that @Conservadora organized was fun—it was great to meet people I’ve been talking to for over a year, and the drinks at the Drawing Room were really delightful. I love going to bars, telling the servers what I like to drink, and getting a cocktail suggestion that A) I haven’t heard of and B) that I want to keep drinking. It also felt really good to randomly run into a gaggle of McNeil (and Library Co.) fellows in the lobby one day over the weekend, and to think, “Oh yeah. Here are all of these people I enjoy talking to, and who I’m going to be around this spring—I do have a pretty sweet job over there in Philly.”

This wouldn’t really be a Rachel Herrmann posting without my cooing over the food in Chicago—or some of it, at least. AHA was in a tricky location, food-wise. We were all downtown, so most places were pretty pricey, and there was always a gaggle of historians queuing for a table. It should be no surprise, then, that once we found a convenient place to eat, we returned to it again and again (and again, possibly), within the course of five days. That place was the Purple Pig, on Michigan and Illinois.

Oh my goodness, Purple Pig. First of all, they don’t take reservations, which was actually convenient for disorganized historians trying to go places in groups of 2 or 3 or 4. When there were just two of us, we’d get seated almost immediately; when there were more of us, we could go put our names down and then find a nearby bar and have a glass of wine while we waited. Second of all: the food. It is a place of small plates, none of which are bad, many of which are delicious, some of which we ordered on multiple visits. The restaurant is mostly family-style seating, a factor that gave it another point in this sort of situation because we could all see what our neighbors were eating, and inquire when something looked good. The wait staff were really knowledgeable, and confident about what they liked—they never steered us in the wrong direction.

Things I loved: the pig plate (good for a larger group, as it’s a sampling of their charcuterie); the prosciutto balls (fried prosciutto and escarole in a flavorful tomato sauce); their Brussels sprouts salad; their chicken kabobs with tzatziki (the addition of pomegranate seeds made the sauce extra delicious); the pork neck bone gravy (the fact that they bring as much bread as you want was +1,000,000 points for this carbohydrate-loving terrible Jew); and the Sicilian Iris (ricotta and chocolate brioche, fried [oh. my. god]). Things that were really good: the kale salad; the fried pig’s ear (I was glad I got a chance to try this); the fried sardines on salad (the sardines were very tasty, but I currently owe my allegiance to anchovies); the salami panini with olive tapenade (very good, but nothing mind-blowing); the JLT (a decadent sandwich); and the quail (which was fairly conventional, but well-cooked). Clearly, we ate here a lot.

The other place that stands out was Gino’s East, where Marc, Chris, and I went for Chicago deep-dish pizza. I have to say that I am a New York City girl at heart, and I owe my loyalty to thin crust pizza generally, and to my corner pizza store specifically. But Gino’s pizza was very flavorful, the crust as deep and as tasty as promised, and the ambiance of the historic restaurant enjoyable. I loved all the writing on the walls.

Obviously, I managed to get away from the conference a bit to sample Chicago’s fare. I can only hope that next year in New Orleans, I will be calm enough to do the same. I hear rumor that there’s some good food in the Big Easy. 


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