Foodways: Where Food, History & Culture Meet


Nightingale Brown House, 357 Benefit Street, Providence RI

It’s said we are what we eat, but folklorists believe that what we eat symbolizes who we are. Food is central to our identities, and its customs, beliefs, production, preparation techniques and materials, display objects, rituals, and traditions are cultural artifacts called foodways. Foodways can teach larger lessons about culture--geography, history, herbal lore and folk medicine, natural resources, the built environment, economics, tourism, climatology, religion, adapting and adopting in a multicultural society, environmental sustainability, etc.--and about tradition and change. Together, these topics can demonstrate how the family story, the community history, and the significant events of humanity are regularly expressed through food, discovering the world through our daily bread, tortillas, pitas, naan, pain, brot, ployes, bagels, and noodles. This workshop looks specifically at how foodways have helped to shape New England’s regional identity and sense of place over time, and will offer programming ideas for all ages for community cultural organizations, museums, and historical societies, and for further research.


About the facilitator: Millie Rahn is a folklorist and ethnographer with more than two decades’ experience using the ethnographic model of participation/observation and interviewing to elicit cultural knowledge. Frequently her work creates the first systematic studies of previously un- or under-documented populations, occupations, and/or families and communities. Her research can and has been used to develop public programs, place-based education, and school curricula.

Clients have included governmental arts and economic development agencies, nonprofit cultural and educational organizations, and the heritage and tourism industries throughout the Northeast, the Midwest, and Atlantic Canada. Her strengths are field-based research and documentation; designing and implementing fundable public programs; and producing large public events such as cultural festivals, as well as broadcast-quality ethnographies in various media.

In the last decade Millie has focused on the foodways of New England and their place in communities and in the local physical and cultural landscape, as well as ethnic and immigrant communities and traditions. She has presented numerous programs at regional folklife festivals and conducted workshops for teacher-training institutes, historical societies, and heritage-based businesses. She also serves as adjunct faculty at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where she teaches courses in ethnography and local/regional foodways in the School of Graduate Studies’ Heritage Studies Program; and at Simmons College in Boston, where she teaches oral history with an emphasis on cultural heritage.

Millie holds a B.A. degree in American Studies from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and an M.A. degree in Folklore from The Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. She was part of a small group of folklorists awarded National Endowment for the Arts fellowships to study issues related to sustainable traditional arts programming throughout the United States. She also sits on federal, state, and regional arts and cultural agencies’ panels that fund projects involving culture and community.