From time to time, I have an argument with my father-in-law. “This is really historic,” he’ll say, referring to a notable election or the development of a new technology. “I’ve never been involved in something historic before,” he’ll add. “You’re involved in something historic every day,” I’ll reply. “History isn’t just about great events or made by great people,” I’ll continue, marshalling the most relevant examples and citing the best authorities to prove my point.
I never get anywhere.
Perhaps the desserts shared by historians at a recent networking lunch can help me make my case. A few days ago, I attended a get-together, held at the National Museum of American History, of women historians in the DC area. There were a number of people from academe plus historians from the American History museum, the Library of Congress, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the National Park Service, the White House Historical Association, the National Mall and Monuments, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. (To all of you unemployed historians whose hearts are suddenly beating a little faster: Before heady visions of a job with the federal government befog your thinking, may I remind you of sequester and the shutdown?)
The get-together was terrific. We talked about what we are working on and what we could use help with. We heard from the curators of FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000 about their work on this fascinating exhibit. We chit-chatted. And we ate dessert.
We had each been invited to bring a historic dessert to the lunch and a number of people (hello, my friends) did.
So what desserts did my esteemed colleagues bring? What desserts do historians think are historic?
I took jumbles. Someone brought apple pie (inspired, and delicious) and someone else contributed zucchini bread (a classic, and also very tasty). Another offering was (some very good) rugelach – an Eastern European Jewish pastry filled with nuts, dried fruit, or other goodies – that presumably arrived in the United States with the great wave of Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Virginia Funny Cake – a cake baked in a pie shell – was a treat new to most of us that came from the 1958 National Council of Negro Women Historical Cookbook of the American Negro. And then there were Rice Krispies Treats. Not one, but two historians brought them.
Rice Krispies Treats?
Yes, you read right. My accomplished colleagues, serious and dedicated in their study of the past, deem Rice Krispies Treats to be historic.
So what, dear father-in-law, does that mean?
The Kellogg’s company – maker of the breakfast that goes Snap, Crackle, Pop – owes its cereal business to a nineteenth-century health reform movement, one of the many and varied reform movements of the day. Healthy-living advocate John Harvey Kellogg developed breakfast cereals for patients at his Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium, and his brother Will Keith Kellogg developed a business to market them more widely.
But, as historically notable as the founding of the Kellogg’s company is, I don’t think that’s why my colleagues chose to bring Rice Krispies Treats.
They are historic not because (or not only because) of a connection to an influential person, but because they have a particular place in a particular culture at a particular moment in time.
Millions of Americans have shaped history, not in a big way, but in a meaningful way, by embracing Rice Krispies Treats. Their decisions to make them or not affects the profits of cereal and marshmallow companies and influences the companies’ product development: Ordinary people’s everyday decisions shape American business history. They reflect and shape cultural history too. It’s hard to imagine a school bake sale without Rice Krispies Treats on offer. I bet that’s why my fellow historians brought them to our lunch. Sweet, gooey, and crunchy, these tasty goodies have a persistent place in our community lives. We make them to eat at home, of course, but we also have made them a staple of communal gatherings – potlucks, bake sales, and, yup, networking lunches.