Rachel Kirby

Rachel Kirby (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in the American & New England Studies Program at Boston University, where she will soon defend her dissertation, Consuming the South: Representations of Taste, Place, and Agriculture in Four Southern States. Rachel holds an MA in folklore from the University of North Carolina and was a 2020 recipient of a P.E.O. Scholar Award. She studies the visual and material culture of the American South, with particular attention to how objects are utilized to construct and remember ideas of history, identity, and region. Her interdisciplinary pursuits have spanned topics from antebellum architecture to contemporary art and have taken her to Walt Disney World and the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park. To learn more about her research, teaching, and public humanities work, visit www.rachelckirby.com or follow her on Twitter @kirbyrachel.  

Multisensory Material Culture: Tasting Place in Objects and Images

Form and function. Shape and symbolism. Visual and material. What does an object look like, how was it made, and what does it do? These questions occupy the time and attention of much material culture scholarship. Stalwarts of American material culture scholarship like Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman advocate for a study of not only what objects mean but also how they mean, suggesting that describing “all of [an object’s] aspects—material, spatial, and temporal” is crucial for successful object study.[1] While Haltman and Prown make mention of “the senses,” they, like so many who study visual and material culture, sideline smell, taste, and sound while prioritizing sight and touch.[2] Heeding the call of scholars before me, the following methodological exploration proposes an expansion of the concept of “terroir” as a means to, as Louis P. Nelson writes, “unseat the tendency to favor sight to the detriment of the other senses.”[3] Terroir (a French term often translated, even if incompletely, as “taste of place”) offers a framework for understanding modes of value, history, and fantasy attached to place and transferred through edible commodities. In this exploration of methodology, I expand the application of the concept, using terroir as a means of analyzing the multisensory elements of taste and place that are produced, circulated, and consumed through visual and material culture. In addition to asking what things look and feel like, then, we must ask what they sound like, taste like, and smell like, as these sensations, too, contribute to how we experience objects and the world around them.

Terroir suggests that specific properties of a place – the soil composition where wine grapes are grown, or the salinity of the sea from which oysters are harvested, for example – are ingested alongside the nutrients and physical elements of foods and beverages. Through the mediating food, an eater embodies place. Yet tasting place is not limited to the ingestion of a food that has been shaped by the geological, climatic, or geographic elements that impacted its growth and cultivation; it also applies to the absorption through food of the cultural associations and local identity of the coordinating place. Recent scholarship has utilized the idea of terroir to study the place-based importance of food as it pertains to localized identity. In her book, The Taste of Place, Amy B. Trubek traces discourses of terroir in France in the twentieth century, outlining how the term has been employed to regulate ideas of authenticity, rurality, and quality within French cuisine. She then goes on to discuss engagement with terroir within American food culture.[4] She writes of branding taste of place as both real and fantastical, cautioning against nostalgic branding which, she claims, risks undermining the quality she identifies as a fundamental marker of terroir. Terroir has to matter to the taster, a reality marketers, farmers, and agricultural promoters capitalize upon when branding their products.[5]

Terroir is not only a means for physically embodying traces of place through tasted food. It is the process of absorbing place through abstracted modes of consumption that are nonetheless intertwined with history, narrative, identity, and region. Representations of agricultural products, then, can be utilized to promote the tastes of a place and the cultural consumption of ideas of place, be they imagined, experienced, or commodified. I heed Trubek and Bernard L. Herman’s caution that “place” is an oversimplification of what is fully evoked within terroir.[6] Yet “place” serves as the foundation upon which people attach ideas of identity, belonging, and history; “place” becomes as a stand in for fantasies, romanticizations, memories, aspirations, imaginings, perceptions, and identities as they have been constructed in relation to a region, or locale. Using “cultural consumption” as a means for “tasting,” then, allows me to see terroir at work within objects that cannot be physically tasted, eaten, or ingested; nonetheless, through non-edible representations, place can still be tasted.

Tastes are considered meaningful when linked to identity, memory, history, and nostalgia. Since the experience of tasting is individual and subjective, the cultural meanings embedded within “tastes” must be communicated in ways alternative to sensory taste. Trubek is one of many writers to emphasize the role of language and narrative as a mode of exchanging the significance of terroir.[7] In the essay “Drum Head Stew: The Power and Poetry of Terroir,” Bernard Herman similarly writes on the communicative properties of terroir, stating “Terroir defines the particular attributes of place embodied in cuisine and narrated through words, actions, and objects.”[8] While his essay attends more to words and actions than objects, I have chosen to focus specifically on objects and on an additional category of narration: visual/material representations.[9] This notion of terroir is not only a feature of foodways but is also embodied and experienced through representations of agriculture.

People communicate through words and stories, speeches and dialogue. But they also communicate through images and objects. Sending a postcard is a form of communication. Yes, the message written on the back is lexical, but the front regularly features an image. Be it a photograph or print, at least half of the postcard is usually “visual.” The medium of communication speaks to the nature of the communication, often suggesting distance between the writer and recipient (the “front” of postcards often designed to emphasize the place of purchase) and reflecting an intentionality (though a lack of urgency) around what is being communicated. People and groups also communicate through buildings, using architectural trends that reflect their political, financial, and geographic position, or at least how they want that position to be perceived by those who see or visit the structure in question. Built elements of the landscape can be understood spatially, and physically experiencing a building or area can communicate a particular person or group of people’s values, social position, or desires. A tobacco basket that has been incorporated into a person’s living room décor communicates different messages than one piled high with tobacco leaves and sitting at a market. All this is to say, objects and images are important means of communication.

Consequently, I want to use terroir to advocate for an approach to the study of food and culture that can account for the ways that souvenirs, advertisements, landscapes, and other visual and material forms contribute to identity formation and place-based imaginings, with particular attention to the South, a region often conceptualized through relationships to agriculture. An orange-shaped souvenir bell from Florida, for example, does not smell, feel, or taste like an orange freshly picked from a grove (Figure 1). The surface of the bell is dimpled, mimicking the texture of an orange. Yet, being ceramic, the bell lacks the malleable give of an orange peel; while I could break the bell, I cannot puncture the exterior and peel it away to expose a scented pulpy interior. When holding the bell and examining the hollow inside, my fingers do not become sticky with juices or chalky from the residue of the thick protective layer. The bell does not smell of sweet and tart citrus. It lacks any discernible smell, fruity or otherwise (at least, it does for me). Importantly, it does not taste like an orange. The quintessential sensory experience of eating an orange is fundamentally absent when holding this represented fruit. The bell even contributes a non-citrus sensation of its own, as the ceramic clapper hits into the side of the bell and creates a dull, flat, rattling sound.

Figure 1: Ceramic bell, photograph taken by author. Author’s personal collection.


And yet, despite cutesy anthropomorphized features that visually differentiate the object from the fruit it imitates, the bell reminds me of oranges. Not only because it looks like an orange, but because it calls to mind (and to body) the sensations of eating an orange. Holding it, I think about peeling an orange and I almost want to wash my hands. Looking at it, I am reminded of warm summer days spent in Florida, excitedly stopping for a glass of fresh orange juice from a roadside stand. This bell may not allow me to eat an orange, but it does prompt me to imagine the consumption of citrus as linked to Florida, the place not where the bell was made (it certainly wasn’t “grown”), but the place where it was sold, and which is emblazoned upon its surface. Even if not cultivated in place, the bell promotes a consumption associated with a place, both experienced and imagined.

I have intentionally stated that it reminds me and prompts me of various citrus and Floridian sensations. This particular bell may not remind or prompt anyone else to imagine the same things (in fact, I would venture to guess that no two people’s memories and imaginings are identical). The individuality of experience makes studying sensations challenging, but not impossible. The work necessitates supposition and imagination. Throughout my research, I have looked for and contemplated the senses as they are referenced, suggested, and claimed both explicitly and implicitly. I have looked for smells, sounds, and sensations as mentioned in the notes on the backs of postcards or as boasted in the copy text of advertisements. I have considered why, for example, tobacco advertisements use words like “mild” and “bright” to describe the taste of their leaves when “mild” and “bright” are not flavors. I have wondered how many towns in Florida actually smelled like oranges, and how many advertisers and postcard-writers were embellishing their accounts of the state for impact. Beyond the objects, records, and archives, a multisensory method also requires us to tap into our own senses as they are engaged or evoked within our research. What do I smell, taste, hear, see, or feel when encountering these objects? Beyond that, what sensory experiences do these objects call to mind, and why?

These imaginative aspects of studying the senses are undeniably subjective but important. Asking these questions forces recognition of the dynamism of the objects in question and their multisensory potential to function as proxies for the objects and places they represent. Objects are links to the past, but they are not time machines.[10] Our role as researchers is one of careful curiosity and investigated speculation. In describing the objects at hand, we must describe the senses and, from that description, wonder in what ways our sensory experience may offer insight into previous sensory experiences, however fleeting or lasting, noticed or unnoticed they may have been. What does an orange shaped bell do? It tastes like Florida.



[1] Kenneth Haltman, “Introduction,” American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, edited by Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 2-3.

[2] Haltman, “Introduction,” 5-6.; Jules David Prown, “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?,” American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, edited by Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 26.

[3] Louis P. Nelson, “Sensing the Sacred: Anglican Material Religion in Early South Carolina,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter 2007), 226.; Nelson is not the only person to note the lacking attention to the senses within material culture studies, particularly in studies that aren’t about food. For example, Victor Buchli briefly noted the reduction of experienced “homes” to visual spaces in his essay “Households and ‘Home Cultures,’” in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, edited by Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 513-513. For approaches to studying the senses, see: David Howes, ed. Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (Oxford, Berg, 2005).; Caroyln Korsmeyer, ed., The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink (Oxford: Berg, 2005).; Mark M. Smith, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[4] Amy B. Trubek, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008), maple syrup: 215-222, in France: 18-53.; Amy B. Trubek, “Place Matters,” in The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 260-271. Amy Trubek’s discussion of maple syrup and generic ideas of “Vermontness,” for example, offers significant parallels to the efforts used to determine what qualifies as Florida orange juice, a topic I mention in my forthcoming dissertation on representations of agriculture as proxies for ideas of the South as a region. For more on terroir in the American South, see: Bernard L. Herman A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.; Bernard L. Herman, “Drum Head Stew: The Power and Poetry of Terroir,” Southern Cultures, vol. 15, no. 4 (Winter 2009) 36-49.; David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2, 16, 24, 353n5.

[5] Trubek, The Taste of Place, 245.

[6] Amy B. Trubek, “Place Matters,” Taste Culture Reader, 260.; Bernard L. Herman, “Drum Head Stew,” 37.

[7] Trubek, The Taste of Place, 7-8, 51-53.; Sara Camp Arnold, “What is a Story Worth?: The Value of Narrative at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market,” Master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2012, UMI 1530246.

[8] Bernard L. Herman, “Drum Head Stew,” 37.

[9] Though absent in “Drum Head Stew,” Herman has explored the concept of terroir as related to visual art in “Thornton Dial, Thoughts on Paper,” in Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, edited by Bernard L. Herman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 23-27.

[10] This assertion somewhat contradicts Prown’s brief mention of the senses. He writes “By undertaking cultural interpretation through artifacts, we engage the other culture in the first instance not with our minds, the seat of our cultural biases, but with our senses.” To start, I believe our senses to be culturally biased. The prominence and uses of sugar between national, historical, geographic, and socioeconomic groups, for example, illustrates how culturally informed a sense (the taste of sugar) may be. I do, however, agree that the senses are inseparable from the work of artifact interpretation, whether or not we recognize their presence. Prown continues, stating “Figuratively speaking, we put ourselves inside the bodies of the individuals who made or used these objects; we see with their eyes and touch with their hands. To identify with people from the past or from other places empathetically through the senses is clearly a different way of engaging them than abstractly through the reading of written words. Instead of our minds making intellectual contact with their minds, our senses make affective contact with their sensory experience.” I am drawn towards the idea of what Prown writes. I find it romantic to think that I could, even figuratively, share a sensory experience with someone from the past. Yet I can only imagine seeing with their eyes and engaging their sensory world. This imaginative work is fundamentally different than the experience of reading written records, but I find it far more speculative and hypothetical than Prown suggests. Prown, “The Truth of Material Culture,” 26.; On sugar, see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).