Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

Just about six years ago, I accepted an offer from the University of Texas at Austin to enter their graduate program in history. Shortly before I moved west to Texas to begin a new life, my friend Lila and I took a short trip to London.

It was my first time there, and I remember loving all of it. The feeling of the world’s most amazing nap after battling an afternoon of jet lag; the way you realize that you can find your way around if you can only remember the way the Thames curves; the various markets; the Great British Beer Festival and its attendant consequences the next morning (we were 22, after all).

As I began my graduate work at UT, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to write about, but I quickly discovered just how much I liked manuscript research. As subsequent research trips took me back to London, I made an effort to chronicle them here.

This blog has remained almost entirely silent this year, for a couple of reasons. First, because I entered the home stretch of dissertation-writing (side note: it’s defended and submitted—hooray!), and couldn’t seem to muster any spare energy to write on things academic. Second, and more importantly, because I was on the job market.

When I let myself get really into it, I feel as if I could write something here every day, and I knew that I needed to resist that tendency while on the market. There are just too many things to impulsively react to: the submission of your first cover letter, the discovery of your first cover letter typo, the first wikijection, the first request for more materials, the phone/Skype interview, the AHA interview invitation, and so on. Not to mention the many, many, (many!) rejections.

I like to go back through this blog and re-read it sometimes. I didn’t really want to be able to re-live my time on the market. At least not in this venue (though I’m happy to talk about it with anyone entering the market in the fall). It’s not that it was an extended period of utter despair (though it was, for the last month or so); it’s just that at the end of it, I’d jumped through a lot of hoops that simply didn’t matter, and I didn’t see the point of recording my passage through each of them.

The main takeaway is that it’s over. In a move that feels very full-circle, I’ve accepted a job at the University of Southampton, in England, where I’ll be a lecturer—their equivalent of an assistant professor—in colonial American history. Marc has accepted a lectureship at the University of Exeter, so we will be 2.5 hours apart.

I am still stunned, overwhelmed, and relieved.

And I look forward to getting back into writing here as I embark on new adventures. 
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Running the @SHEARites Twitter Feed on the Eve of #SHEAR12

I’ve been running the Twitter feed for the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic since March, and now that the conference is about to kick off—and is including a Saturday session on SHEAR and Social Media, which I am sadly unable to attend—I thought I’d write up some brief thoughts about managing an institution’s Twitter feed.

In my mind, the point of getting SHEAR on Twitter was to establish a preliminary social media presence, and to provide a way of disseminating information about the organization, the conference, and the interests of its members as those interests related to the early American Republic.

The first thing to consider was who to follow. In the interest of reaching a wide audience, I followed many of the historians and lit scholars that I follow from my personal Twitter feed, @Raherrmann. I also followed almost everyone who started following @SHEARites, with a few notable exceptions. @SHEARites does not follow you if 1) You have a private account, and 2) Your tweets, at a glance, have nothing to do with the early American Republic. I rationalized the first omission by arguing that the point of having an account was to create an online community of scholars. Although they may not realize it, people whose feeds are private, or “locked,” have made it so that no one can retweet their tweets. As far as I was concerned, that made it impossible for @SHEARites to forward along anything interesting that they tweeted about. The second exclusion is related to the first; if you’re not tweeting about the early American Republic, you’re not producing reproducible content for SHEAR and its followers. I’m thrilled that you’re following the account, but I don’t feel obligated to follow you.

I really hope that people at the social media session come prepared to talk about ideas for expanding on the things that I’ve done with Twitter, and what Mark Cheathen (@markcheathem) has done with the SHEAR Facebook page, as well as what the working group (which also includes Caleb McDaniel [@wcaleb] and Beth Salerno) proposed to SHEAR in the fall of 2011. In brief, here’s how I think @SHEARites has been and will be useful:

1. It’s fostered a pre-conference discussion so that people are informed and excited about upcoming events. I created a conference hashtag (#SHEAR12) to announce when the conference program went live, when pre-registration was closing, and when attendee @Sarahschuetze located a good last-minute conference rate.

2. During the conference, people can follow along with what’s going on, even if they’re stuck at home—or better yet, attending another panel. You can search Twitter for the hashtag in order to see what people are saying about the conference. As of today I’ve also created an archive of conference-related tweets. Attendees will have to worry less about overlapping panels, and although some people have argued that having a conference hashtag on Twitter decreases attendance, non-attendees from last year’s SHEAR conference said they were planning on coming to the Baltimore meeting after reading the tweets.

3. Other users have used the hashtag to ask who’s going to the conference, make airport-to-hotel transportation plans, and to set up meetings. Need a cab buddy from the airport? Check Twitter to see who’s recently landed. Also: network! So far, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Pickering & Chatto have announced which editors will be available, and which books will be on sale at discounted rates. If that’s too much seriousness for you, @Mann_Horace has announced the location of the annual meeting of the SHEAR Anti-Temperance Society.

So these are just a few ruminations on how I think Twitter has been helpful—I hope others will contribute to the discussion in the comments, but especially at the special Saturday session. I’d say I’m sorry that I can’t attend, but I don’t really have to be sorry; I’m on Twitter, after all.

In Which Things Have Happened

A couple weeks ago I turned in the first full draft of my dissertation, and promptly fell off the map. I didn’t disappear the way that the Rachel Herrmann of, say, 2007 might have vanished. I was not completely sleep-deprived, crazed, or suffering from the over-consumption of 1:30 a.m. grilled cheeses eaten each night after the library closed. No, the completion of the draft was sort of anticlimactic in the sense that I knew it wasn’t as polished or cogent as I wanted it to be; that I’d pick it up again in the near future; and that I’d done a good enough job for the present. The vacation I took was one away from the physical draft, from the dissertation chapters on my computer, and from the detritus of my office and the insides of my brain.

Still, I wouldn’t be a grad student if I wasn’t finding some way to do work. I drove to DC to pick up Marc, where we spent time researching at the Library of Congress. Obviously, delicious, delicious DC food made side appearances in the form of falafel, mussels, mini-raviolis baked with cheese, Thai, and Ethiopian, along with a whole lot of rhubarb snacking cake. Next we went to Richmond, where he went to the Policy History Conference, while I pretended to go to the Policy History Conference, but actually ended up fleeing to the Virginia Historical Society seeking the solace of eighteenth-century history. I managed to make it back to a pho place I liked, and we tried some of the newer, hipper Richmond restaurants. Finally, we made it out to the beach, where I commenced panicking about the job market between rainy jogs on the sand. Cover letters were drafted. Answers to the “So What?” question were condensed into pithy paragraphs of awesomeness. Passive voice was employed to emphasize ambivalence about the coming year of chaos.

So. The coming year. I suppose that now is as good a time as any to share the fact that I will be in New Haven come September, as a Smith Richardson fellow at Yale’s International Security Studies. Apparently I have convinced those fine policy-minded folks that eighteenth-century food diplomacy has enough to say to their ideas about diplomacy. I think it will be challenging and a bit scary, and really good, in a way, to have to explain my work to people who don’t automatically assume that early American studies is important (see “Answers to the ‘So What?’ question,” above).

Between now and September I’m finishing up in Philly, going to NYC for the ASFS conference, and going to SHAFR in Hartford. And then, because I missed cross-country driving (?!), I am headed to Austin for the summer before I drive back to the East Coast for the year. As a side note, if anyone knows of any New Haven sublets, do be kind and get in touch. It’d give me one less thing to panic about. And we all know that I could handle striking a few items off of the list.

In Which I am Not a Pantser

Every time that I write a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I read the comments pretty closely. Perhaps because most of my previous columns have been on light, funny stuff, the comments have never climbed higher than the low teens, and most of them have been neutral to positive. Writing about writing, it turns out, seems to provoke a lot more people.

Now, I know that the commenters on the Chronicle site can be a cantankerous bunch, and for the most part I wasn’t bothered by the snark. What shocked me, though, was how many people thought that they knew my writing style, simply because I’d written about some of the writer’s block that comes with writing a dissertation. One comment in particular proclaimed that fiction writers “divide themselves into two camps—‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers.’ Plotters come up with the plot first, equivalent to writing from an outline; pantsers ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’” “Rachel Herrmann is obviously a ‘pantser,’” this commenter concluded (as an aside, she gets a million and a half points for spelling my name right).

Although I do sometimes feel as if I’m wandering through a dense fog while writing my chapters, I write from an outline nearly all of the time. Each chapter gets its own set of 400-500 index cards, which then get organized into a chronological, and then a chronological-thematic outline of 3-6 pages. It was interesting to see how many people weighed in on whether or not they thought I wrote from an outline, and then to read about what people do for their own work.

And that got me thinking about how historians write dissertations. We probably are divided into two camps, though I’d never call us plotters and pantsers. There are those of us who feel that they must know all of the secondary literature before they begin researching. They wade into the archives with an idea of an argument in mind, and stand ankle-deep in sources, skimming the ones they need from the top. Then, there are those of us who dive head first into the primary sources, open our arms wide, and sort through it all once we resurface. Oh dear. It seems I have inadvertently come up with a swimming metaphor. Let’s run with it for a moment.

I am a diver, and I think this has to do with the fact that I study food and the Revolution at a time when most historians are moving back toward the Seven Years’ War or ahead to the War of 1812, and most food studies people are interested in present-day issues of food security and regulation. Which is to say that there were very few books on Native American and African foodways during and after the American Revolution at the time I was reading for comps. To clarify: there were plenty of books, but food studies was at a point where many of these books were descriptive rather than argument-driven. I could have read as many monographs as I wanted on tomatoes or beans or fish or salt, and still been ill-prepared to tackle the archives with an argument in mind. I ran into the opposite problem with history books from my time period: far too many with no one book focusing on food in a way that was going to help me form an archival plan of attack.

So I dove in. And that part of the research process was indeed messy and disorganized. Maybe if I hadn’t been lucky enough to get the McNeil Center fellowship this year, I would have been more familiar with the secondary literature before I started writing. Although I will have my first full draft written by May, I’m still working out my argument for each of my chapters, and that feels worrisome. On the other hand, I think I've already shown that food is important and has been neglected. I know that in my revisions I need to pay more mind to why it's more important than X, Y, and Z, and to think about how it speaks to all the historiography I am still trying to juggle.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m looking forward to taking a breath or two in May, but am also excited about the chance to take another gulp of air, put my head down, and keep on swimming.

The Conference with the Ice Cream Sundae Bar
It’s now been two years since I was writing grant proposals for dissertation research, reading for comps, and ruminating on why I think that the study of food is a whole lot more than something fun to do. And yet somehow, this weekend was the first time I’ve made it to a conference focused solely on food. In a moment I’ll get to why it was a serious, engaging, and thought-provoking conference. But for a moment, I want you to close your eyes (read the next few lines first, obviously), and picture this:

Mid-afternoon on the final day of a two-day conference, and a speaker is in the middle of a sentence when the sound of a squeaky cart interrupts her thoughts.

“Well, it looks like the ice cream is here,” she laughs.
“ICE CREAM?” I think to myself. “Surely not. That seems...well that seems delicious, but they wouldn’t really be feeding us ice cream...would they?”

Luckily we just had the remaining Q&A to power through before attendees discovered that, true to organizer Robyn Metcalfe’s promises, there was ice cream at this conference. And not just ice cream, but a full-stop ice cream bar.

Imagine academics in sweater vests and suits, stockings and heels, gleefully pouring caramel and fudge sauce onto generous scoops of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. See the sprinkles, chopped peanuts, and crushed Oreos laid out in deep white bowls. Try to envision the man with a tie going in for two, three, four maraschino cherries, and a second dollop of whipped cream. Marvel at the line that stretches all the way around the ice cream table and out the door. It was fantastic, and I’ve concluded that all conferences stand in dire need of ice cream bars. The sugar rush during the final roundtable was incredible.

That said, Food and the City itself was wonderful. I’m used to having to spend the first forty-five seconds of every conference paper explaining why I study food and why historians should pay more attention to it. I didn’t have to do that here because the importance of food was assumed, and instead it was a time for paying close attention to how people are using different methodologies and approaches for studying their subject matter.

I took different things away from the various panels, though I’ll only go into some of them here. Ken Albala’s keynote was a good example in giving a jam-packed, scholarly, and engaging talk that covered a lot of chronological ground in talking about the push and pull between fancy and rustic cooking (Rachel Greenberger’s talk was the counterpart—a self-proclaimed “non-academic,” she managed to really convey her enthusiasm for food reform, and the urgency she feels is necessary to get people involved). I also liked that Ken’s talk didn’t need to point out that using cookbooks to describe what people ate in the past can be a dangerous historical practice; most people seem by now to know how to use cookbook sources in their analyses. For example, he talked about how he could say that he thought one seventeenth-century (?) farmer/gardener/cook definitely tried the recipes he wrote about because of the detail the author used in his descriptions. Cookbooks and how-to manuals can be great sources, but they need to be used judiciously in our scholarship.

I thought that Chrissie Reilly’s talk on the cheesesteak in Philadelphia was probably the most entertaining of the conference, and it was a good reminder that it’s important to stay engaged with the humor inherent in some of our research. At the same time, I still stand by my assertion that I don’t want to produce single-commodity studies. Maybe I’m just that much of an old-fashioned stickler of a historian who can’t find the answer to the “So What?” question when asked “Why do cheesesteaks matter?” I suppose that the answer might be “Why do we need a ‘So What?’ question to study the things that amuse us?” But for my part, I will continue to start with the questions that historians ask about the American Revolution, and try to see how food fits in. In a way I thought that Rajbir Purewal Hazelwood’s talk on food and the London Punjabi community paired really well with Reilly’s talk, because she was bemoaning how curry has become a blanket food for describing the absorption of Indian foodways in London. She suggested that Indian food in London was and continues to be very regional, and that Chicken Tikka Masala doesn’t (and shouldn’t) represent the Indian diaspora in the UK.

The conference got me thinking about the methods I use and the type of historian I am—I suppose the type of scholar I am, since this conference was comprised of more than historians. I’m a hardcore cultural historian, I think. I love a good representative quote, and I have stacks and stacks of index cards with primary sources, but I have no database. I have no charts, no graphs, no maps, no numbers. People at this conference had gone to remarkable lengths to accomplish the building of these tools, and I was duly impressed. Chin Jou’s work on post-WWII Jim Crow New York described a meticulous combing through the NAACP’s records of dining experiments and statistics. Julie Smith had clearly spent hours putting together her maps of markets. So the digital humanities were present, too, mostly in the form of people using Geo Mapping in their research to chart the growth of urban markets, and in some cases, distribution routes. I’m sure Joe Adelman will be sad to hear that none of the presenters got questions about their maps during their Q&A sessions, either. But it did make me think more about how to incorporate these devices, if not in the dissertation, at least in the second project.

And I suppose the final take-away was the modern-day connections, which I still feel woefully uninformed about. In partial remedy for this problem, I am delighted to say that I won a book in the book raffle, and will be reading Jennifer Cockrall-King’s Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution sometime in the near future. But what I didn’t know was partially filled in by the conference’s final roundtable. Brandy H.M. Brooks (@bhmbrooks) did a far better job than I did in tweeting about that roundtable, so her tweets will suffice here.

Brooks covered Sarah Phillips’s talk about Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and pointed out that “Sinclair's utopia was not back to the land, but highly mech[a]nized, large-scale farms giving unlimited food supply.” Phillips was essentially asking, “do we pursue the local, community ag vision or the human-labor-free machine farm to feed the future?” Those participants’ conclusion seemed to be that although reformers may bemoan the food industry, it’s here to stay for some time yet. Perhaps the road to reform, they argued, needn’t be paved with this people vs. machines debate. Organic isn’t always better, and industrial farms (such as those depicted in Upton Sinclair’s final, utopian vision at the end of The Jungle), aren’t always evil.

Food for thought (groan), indeed. In case you’re interested, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of the tweets from the conference using this handy template and how-to.

My Triumph over the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Chapter
Okay, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves and call this chapter a “triumph.” A triumph it is not. My success here has to do with pulling myself out of the deep dark hole of writer’s block. Back up again. Not writer’s block, but the feeling that everything I was writing was terrible. No good. Very bad, even.

The above paragraph is an example of the writing process I went through with this last chapter. I had to state what my argument wasn’t about. Then, I had to find my argument. And then, I had to revise it into something that resembled acceptable prose. At this stage the chapter is no longer a terrible, no good, very bad chapter, but it’s not a great chapter. The chapter is good enough, for now. And by “good enough” I mean that I’ve sent it off to my adviser so that she can return it to me with lots of tracked changes. Sometimes, I need to get rid of something for a while; I’m just glad that I’ve finally reached the point of being able to do so with slippery Chapter 4.

At the same time, it’s nice to discover that I do go through a writing pattern—that I have to start out writing those shitty sentences before I figure out what the hell it is I’m trying to say, and that eventually, it becomes fun again as I weed through the nonsense and pick out the sentences that do what I want them to do. This chapter was especially frustrating to write because it took me a lot longer to get to that last part (until yesterday afternoon, in fact). I’d like to have a little more time fiddling with the chapter, but I also think some distance will be good. And, you know, there are ten million other things on my to-do list. Still, it’s nice to know that the writing process still works the same way, even if that process unfolds along a different timeline depending on the chapter at hand.

So for now, I will close my eyes and metaphorically run up the steps of the Art Museum, waving my hands in celebration of my triumph over ugly paragraphs.

A sonnet for my unborn dissertation, written on the occasion of a bout with Writer’s Block
I first conceived you in a panicked night,
With papers, books, and apps strewn on my floor.
The notion of you bloomed, to my delight,
Then said I, “Self, procrastinate, no more!”
I dreamt a dream of artful, crafted prose
That grew into a stunning monograph.
Yet then I slept no more, and terror rose:
The Cord of Life now strangles, stunts your path.
Your prose is dense, the chapters long indeed,
But I must persevere, however slow.
I’ll slog through murky sources as I breed;
Today, perhaps, I’ll grow your pinky toe.
And to ensure I birth my chapters fine,
Away I’ll go, to nourish you with wine.

In Which I Rebrand Myself

After reading this GradHacker post on branding your online academic identity, I decided to finally take the leap and rename my blog. As Katrina Gulliver pointed out in her AHA presentation, it only takes a small amount of money to buy a name for yourself, and I was pleased to see that “raherrmann” was mine on LiveJournal, to the tune of $15. I suppose I could have gone with a more popular platform like Blogger, but I had a few reasons for sticking with LiveJournal.

Here’s the main one: I am a historian, and this journal is a history of my life for the last ten years. That’s right; I’ve had this LiveJournal up and running for a decade now, and I like the ability to go back and track my journey from high school swimming enthusiast to nerdy grad student foodie. Many of the earlier entries are protected, as they should be—they’re terribly written, and filled with the concerns of an overachieving emo kid trying to get into college. But I’m too attached to them to let them go dead in the Graveyard of Links Not Clicked On.

So, hi! I’m Rachel. Or Raherrmann (“Rah-Her-Mahn,” in case you’re inclined to pronounce the “Ra” like you would “Rachel,” or prone to read things the way a true German would). I write about history, and academia, and food. Welcome.

Yesterday I engaged in the particularly foreign activity of getting the snow off my car. Because apparently it snows in Philly, and also, apparently, because you don’t want to leave a lot of snow sitting on the top of your vehicle. People with experience with cars and snow tell me these things, though I only kind of believe them. I mean, as an East Coast girl I believe in snow (obviously), but as a New Yorker I sort of also have trouble remembering that I own a car and am responsible for it. As a graduate student with a hypothetical home in Texas (where I may or may not be returning [dear fellowship committees: get back to me before June, pretty please?]), I do believe in having a car that will at some point get me from Philadelphia back to Austin. Thus I spent time with my tiny car brush, getting the ice and snow off my little Toyota Corolla. And when I was done, a kindly neighbor pointed out that it would be easier, next time, to turn the defroster on while doing so. Obviously. In case you were worried, I have no intention of driving anywhere until there is no trace of snow or ice on the roads.

I’m back in Philadelphia after AHA in Chicago, a short week back at the McNeil Center, and a quick trip to London. Marc had an interview there, so I went along for moral support, and to check some things at the British Library. It was nice being there with someone instead of being alone on a research trip. Point in fact: we walked into my favorite Indian seafood restaurant, and the waiter said, “I remember you. You were here in June—but you were single!” I was not, in fact, single, but people in London like to remind you that you’re alone (possibly because you are always the girl with the Very Large Book and Similarly Notable Glass of Red Wine, but that’s another story). Anyway. We visited Rasa Samudra, Balfour’s, the Salt Yard, and Golden Dragon for dim sum (we may or may not have gone to that last spot twice in four days), as well as the Tate Modern and some of the other typical London sights. I had a winter Pimm’s, which was not nearly as delicious as a summer Pimm’s. We met Bob for dinner a few nights since he is in Kew, and went on continuous hunts for good coffee. I also double-checked the manuscript containing the source I’m using for my hypothetical book title, so I feel confident about getting that right, too (HUZZAH!).

And now, I’m settling back in for the next round of conferences, grant applications, and The Chapter That is Kicking My Ass. Usually I know where I’m going before I start writing, and I don’t with this chapter. It is a new way to write—messy, disorganized, and unstructured—and I am trying to be okay with it as I hope that it will take a more cohesive form soon. It the meantime I will keep plugging away with it, as I salve my fears with a pound and a half of cheap squid purchased at the Italian Market on 9th street. Because we all know I can't be trusted to display restraint in the presence of fresh seafood.

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. 

In Which I am Sedentary
Last year I moved approximately once a month, so I had a handy deadline for reminding myself to update my blog. In the glorious tizzy of becoming settled somewhere for a year, I seem to have neglected this journal. There are worse things, I suppose: looking back on last year’s entries for November and December, it seems I visited eight archives across three states within the space of five weeks. With days off for A) a trip to Austin B) driving everywhere, and C) driving from Charleston to New York, and back down to Savannah, for Thanksgiving; also, back to Austin from Georgia. Never again, Self.
There’s also this other teensy, tiny thing that’s been keeping this blog more quiet than it should be: the dissertation. I confess that most of my prose has been devoted to paragraphs of scholarly writing, and since I don’t really use this journal for drafting, I’ve been writing less here. I’ve also been using Twitter a lot more for daily (ok—let’s be honest—hourly) updates, so I feel the need to chronicle things less frequently here. I’ve decided that for now, these developments are okay. I’m excited that the dissertation writing is going well. Some days are harder than others, and this particular week is frustrating because I’m in-between chapters and drafting. See also: grant-writing, book-reviewing, encyclopedia entry-writing. But most of the time, it’s nice to be wrapped up in the involved, inside-my-head productivity of pushing out paragraphs and bolstering them with footnotes.
Anyway, now I am in Philadelphia, and I have my own apartment, and I’m here for the year. So far it’s been busy and fun. The environment at the McNeil Center is pretty fantastic; everyone is friendly, smart, and supportive. The fellows eat lunch together most days, and we go out for happy hours and post-seminar dinners. It’s like being in a welcoming early Americanist bubble, where talks range from the history of pants to speculations about which Philadelphia Ben Franklin reenactor probably attracts the most attention from the historical reenactor ladies. People besides me bake things, and yesterday I ate a chocolate cupcake at 10 a.m. About half the fellows are on the job market, so it’s nice to pick up tips and to see how they’re handling it. There are brown bags, and salons, and seminars to attend, interesting work to hear about, and questions to learn how to ask cogently. One of the most exciting developments was getting my very own office. It has a door! And a window! And a view of a pretty tree outside. It’s also one of the offices where it doesn’t rain inside. They told us that might happen, and I was relieved that it has not happened to me.
As with most of my moves, I’ve evaluated how settled I am by assessing the food situation in my neighborhood and Philadelphia proper. I had to figure out just how much kitchen equipment I needed to buy to make this place acceptable for my tastes. After a few mixing bowls, baking sheets, and a spice rack things are pretty good, but I make no promises not to acquire new spices and weird ingredients. Confession: though I love my food, I’ve never frequented a farmer’s market before living in West Philly. Now I go to the one at Clark Park most Saturdays, and am taking immense joy in buying the largest apples I can find. I’m liking the challenge of seeing what’s there, and then deciding what to cook. There’s been risotto with rainbow chard, corn, and caramelized onions, and I’ve decided I really like braising kale. I’ve been roasting mushrooms with garlic, parsley, capers, and lemon juice, and I might also be developing an obsession with a very tart and delicious goat’s cheese.
The thing is, one can’t make a week’s worth of meals entirely from the farmer’s market, and thus a grocery store is also necessary. I need stuff for sandwiches, and my kindergartener’s array of Goldfish and Ritz crackers. I am not the biggest fan of my grocery store because it’s far away, and because some of the produce isn’t fresh. I’m a New York City girl who’s lived in Austin for a while. This combination means that when I’m in a big northeastern city, I expect to be able to walk to the grocery store, and when I’m in a spread out southwestern city I expect to have to drive. These assumptions have not played out in Philly, and my closest grocery store is a good fifteen minute drive away. I am enjoying some parts of it; I loved when the guy working the produce section said he’d order me some okra after I asked if they had any, and I’m looking forward to mustering up the bravery to experiment with pigs’ feet.
I’m also supplementing with food from other places. My neighborhood corner store is not, I recently realized, good for things like cheese. But they have fresh garlic and herbs, and lots of Asian sauces and other canned goods. Anchovies are the most recent addition to my list of favorites, and I’ve been using them smashed with garlic and pesto to sauté with spaghetti squash. Other Italian-inspired cravings have been more than slaked by the Italian Market downtown, where Jess (one of the postdocs  here) introduced me to delicious olives, prosciutto, and a reasonably-priced bag of truffle salt that made my whole kitchen reek (in a good way) of truffles when I opened it to transplant it to a container I can keep in my drawer. I’ve also found an Indian spice market up on Walnut Street, where I can indulge the urge to try new spices and recipes.
The most hilarious aspect of my food situation, for anyone who knows me, is that this year I have only a mini-fridge in which to store my groceries. Most of the time it works out okay, but sometimes, the egg carton gets wet because I packed the fridge to capacity and the top of the freezer defrosted (again). Or there simply isn’t enough room in the fridge for my leftovers, so I have to freeze things I usually wouldn’t. The other thing going on is that my smoke detector is very sensitive—as in, it goes off when I put a pot of water on to boil. So now I just run the kitchen fan every time I cook, which helps, and when I have to bake something (guaranteed to set the alarm off no matter how many fans I have going), I hope that my landlord will forgive me when I bring cookies into the Center. Mostly, the food situation is just going to require some adjustment. I need to figure out what I can and can’t buy from places, and I need to be a bit more flexible about my shopping schedule so that I’m not trying to drive to the store Sunday afternoon when everyone else is also attempting to go to the grocery store.
Other things have been happening too, as they tend to when one hasn’t actually written about one’s life for a good three months (oops). I drove from Austin to Baton Rouge to New York City to Philadelphia at the beginning of September. I helped to run a conference. I live-tweeted it, and then learned how to capture tweets in a Google Docs Excel spreadsheet. I went back to Austin to see Marc defend his dissertation, and said hello to Maru, Julio’s, and Vespaio. I went up to Vassar for the first annual alumnae swim meet, and Liz and I had a scary drive back through the early October snowstorm. For anyone who is curious, I still have the steam to go 28:5 in the 50 free, and then have no energy left to do anything else of note in the water except push a greased pumpkin down the pool faster than the swimmer in the lane next to me. I’ll tell you, it’s a good thing I’ve decided to stick with history instead of pursuing my childhood dreams of becoming an Olympian. The only event I could medal in these days is Meals that Take Over Three Hours to Complete. 


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