Theresa McCulla’s first book, Insatiable City: Eating Food and Consuming People in New Orleans (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press 2024), explores the manifold power of food and drink in relation to race, from the era of chattel slavery to that of civil rights activism and tourism.

Throughout this scope, many locals and visitors enjoyed New Orleans’s singular cuisine as a realm of leisure and gratification, seemingly incapable of harmful effects. This study reveals a different history. It argues that the sensory pleasures of food and drink in New Orleans were rooted in–and reveled in–social, cultural, economic, and political systems of great violence. Furthermore, the easy charms of these experiences worked to soften and obscure that violence, empowering its persistence.

To tell this story, the book draws on 150 years of municipal, federal, notarial, judicial, and census records; autobiographies and interviews of formerly enslaved people; newspapers, city directories, and travel guides; cookbooks, menus, postcards, stereographs, maps, architectural plans, and editorial cartoons. These sources reveal a rich, often ugly history. They also yield lives of great creativity, skill, and bravery. Enslaved and free people of color in New Orleans used food and drink to carve paths of mobility, stability, autonomy, freedom, profit, and joy. This is a history of pleasure and pain and leisure and labor, via food.

The dissertation on which this project is based was a semifinalist for the 2017 Krooss Prize for the best dissertation in business history, awarded by the Business History Conference. It received honorable mention for the 2016 Michael Katz Award for the best dissertation in urban history, awarded by the Urban History Association. It was a finalist for the 2016 Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize for the best dissertation in American Studies, awarded by the American Studies Association.

McCulla’s additional scholarship elaborates on the connections among identity, consumption, and material culture in realms of food and drink. An essay published by Good Beer Hunting (September 2021) used two “runaway ads” to explore the world of Patsy Young, an early American brewer and a fugitive from slavery in early-1800s North Carolina. This article won a 2022 James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award and First Place for Best Historical Writing in the 2022 Awards in Beer Journalism from the North American Guild of Beer Writers. An article published in Gastronomica (Winter 2019) used artifacts and oral histories collected for the Smithsonian to argue for an unexpected link between the strategies and culture of mass manufacturing and the birth of microbrewing at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company in the 1960s. It received Third Place for Best Historical Writing in the 2020 Awards in Beer Journalism from the North American Guild of Beer Writers. An article published in Quaderni Storici (April 2016) investigated the spatial effects of the white ethnic revival on African Americans, Italian Americans, and Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans.

McCulla is developing additional articles on alcohol consumption and slavery; souvenir dolls of New Orleans food vendors; and the male-gendered worlds of American homebrewing and computing clubs in the 1970s.

Image: William A. Walker, The Levee-New Orleans, Currier & Ives, 1884, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress