This is a list of some of my more popular lectures. If you are interested in a specific focus, please contact me to ask about other possibilities. Lectures marked with a Y are suitable for younger audiences; I denotes illustrated lectures, H for a lecture with a handout or bibliography.
Challenges in Culinary History – The food taboos, diet, and table rituals of a society tell us a huge amount about cultures. When we recreate historic recipes or examine the chain from farm or forest to table, we uncover the dynamics of that society. This can be difficult even in cultures that left a written record, as is known to anyone who has tried to follow a recipe that says to keep stirring until it “looks right,” or has measurements in handfulls and pinches. A historian who has spent time in the garden, market, and kitchen explains the challenges and rewards of examining the way our ancestors farmed, foraged, cooked, and dined. (I,Y)
The First California Cuisine – None of the cooking techniques or popular items of either the first people of California or the Mission period are common today. Why? How did the native people survive, and how did the introduction of agriculture change their lives? What delicacies did the pleasure-loving Californian Dons enjoy in their haciendas, and why did their cuisine die out so quickly after the USA annexed the territory?
The Diet of Dickens’ England – Charles Dickens work contains rhapsodic descriptions of good meals and disgusting details of bad ones. What was the diet of Victorian England like, and how was it different from the meals the English eat today? Did it change during Dickens’ lifetime? (Can be presented in full Victorian dress.) (I,Y)
Food in Space in Fiction and Reality – The first science fiction stories about space travel ignored one of the most basic needs of any human pioneer – what did they eat, and how? The science fiction authors did get around to addressing this question, their solutions were often novel but impractical. How do their fantasies match up with reality, and are authors getting it right now? A culinary historian who has written a book about food in space and is also a published science fiction author reveals all.
Food, Drink, and Manners at Shakespeare’s Table – Shakespeare and his contemporaries enjoyed a varied diet by contemporary standards, enlivened by spices from Asia, vegetables from the Middle East and New World, and by pickling and preserving techniques that made vivid flavors available all year. Everything was served according to the class of the diners – common folk ate heartily but simply, while noble banquets featured edible sculptures designed to mystify guests about what they were eating. This lecture covers food, drink, manners, and the daily life of a creative age. (Can be presented in Elizabethan dress, and on a program with an Elizabethan band.) (I, Y, H)
Food on the Westward Trail – The pioneers who journeyed from the Midwest to California had a challenge that is hard to imagine for a modern person: how to carry enough food for a journey of several months along with all their possessions in a vehicle that also had to serve as shelter. Their diet was monotonous but gave them the calories to survive, and they managed to include a few minor luxuries that could bring a hint of home to a desolate prairie camp. After you hear this presentation, you will marvel at the fortitude of the people who settled the West.
Food on Wheels in the American West – Providing food was a challenge on the trails from the East to California, and the chuckwagon was invented as a horse-drawn food truck. The next generation of mobile kitchens roamed the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, competing with a small army of vendors with pushcarts and other street foods. They filled a need and provided a living for new immigrants to popularize their cuisines , and some great fortunes were made in the process. This is a story of innovations that changed our society and continue today. (I)
Cooking and Dining in Victorian Southern California – The diet in California during the Rancho period had very little variety, but after the annexation by the United States things changed quickly. The discovery of gold brought immigrants with different tastes, and the arrival of railroads and steamships brought imported and luxury items as well as the first convenience foods. This talk covers what they ate and how they cooked it during a period of extraordinary changes.
Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Christmas in 19th Century America – The Christmas feast seems like an ancient tradition, but it isn’t – it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Puritan New England, and where it was celebrated in England and America they did things differently than we do today. In California, Spanish traditions that had elements of medieval celebrations held on long after the American conquest. Richard Foss explains Christmas feast traditions from the days of the conquistadors and the pilgrims, and how a German prince influenced the way we celebrate in California today.
Three Thousand Years of Spanish Food in One Hour – Spanish cuisine has become one of the most popular in the world, but the roots of this cuisine are little understood. This lecture explains how the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and other cultures contributed to the diversity of Spanish food.
When Luxury Floated Through The Skies: Travel and Dining Aboard Zeppelins – The earliest form of aerial transportation was arguably the most glamorous – zeppelins competed with ocean liners for comfort, and far outpaced them for speed. Passengers could travel from Germany to Brazil in a mere four days, or to America in three, all the time enjoying unparalleled views by day, gourmet meals and music from the world’s only aluminum piano by night. This talk will transport you to the brief, doomed era of the giant airships. (I)
Technology of the Aerial Meal, from the Balloon Era to the Concorde – The vessels that carry humans in the air present the most challenging cooking environment that has ever existed, but cooks and engineers rose to the challenge. Zeppelins, flying boats, and some airliners featured meats roasted inflight and sauces made from scratch. Some strange things were tried, including cooking with charcoal, alcohol stoves, and the heat of the engines. Refrigeration was another problem, and even trays with precooked meals present challenges in transport and storage. After this lecture, you’ll marvel that any meal can be created in flight, much less a good one. (I)
Great and Awful Moments in the History of Aerial Dining – For all the complaints about airline food, you can’t fault the creativity and sense of invention of the cooks and engineers who collaborated to take food where it had never gone before. This humorous talk shows some of the best and worst ideas in the history of inflight dining. (I)
From Tubes and Cubes to Space Espresso – Dining in Zero Gravity – Food in space is more than sustenance – astronauts crave the flavors and textures of the planet they left behind. The tubes of mush that were standard in both the US and Soviet space programs didn’t offer this, but as the environment of space was better understood, food that was representative of their cultures and natural in form became possible. Italian astronauts brought pasta to space, the French brought haute cuisine, and the Chinese invented a unique variation on regional dishes so taikonauts could feel at home. This lecture is about the human longing for familiar foods and how it was achieved. (I,Y)
The Strangest Cooking Methods In The World – Cooking started out straightforward: put food over a fire and turn it occasionally until it looks and smells ready. What have people done when fuel wasn’t available, and how did they improvise when a source of free heat presented itself? People have cooked using heat from volcanoes, hot springs, automobile engines, laundry appliances, weapons, and other ingenious methods. This is a light-hearted history of culinary innovation from prehistory to the present day.
Seven Gifts From Southern California Kitchens To The World – The waves of immigrants to the greater Los Angeles area each brought their own tastes in food, and recreated their traditions as best they could in their new home. Some of these are nearly forgotten, while others have entered the culinary mainstream. This talk traces those migrations and looks at seven items that have become enduringly popular. (I,Y)
The History of Tea – “What would the world do without tea? How did it exist?” asked 18th Century author Sydney Smith. That tea was so important in the British Empire is odd, given that the world’s supply was imported from China. This is the story of how tea went from a beverage of emperors to a worldwide comfort drink, subject of a ritual in Japan and symbol of a rebellion in Colonial America.
Imbibing LA: Boozing It Up in the City of Angels – From the wine-loving Spaniards who first settled Los Angeles to the cocktail quaffers of the jet age, Los Angeles tastes have shifted when it comes to enjoying alcoholic beverages. The city has been a center of winemaking and brewing, a region where cocktails were celebrated by movie stars and hunted down by prohibitionists, and a place where finely balanced drinks and abysmal concoctions were crafted by bartenders and celebrities. This talk explores that lively history from the first settlement to the end of Prohibition. (I)
American Fermented – Alcohol in Early America – Colonial Americans enjoyed a range of beverages, and brewers and distillers were among our nation’s founders. Sophisticated cocktails started early, with refreshing concoctions of fruit, vinegar, and rum called shrubs, and Martha Washington was known for her lethal rum punch. As America expanded, so did its palate, and new drinks were invented. This talk shows how American attitudes toward alcohol developed and changed from the earliest colonists to the year 1800. (I)
Drinking With Jane Austen – The world portrayed in Jane Austen’s books was one of elaborate banquets and sumptuous parties, but the author provided few details on just what was consumed at those events, and some items she mentioned are unfamiliar to modern readers. This lecture supplies some details Ms. Austen left out – what refreshments both alcoholic and non-intoxicating were enjoyed in England of 1800, and how Ms. Austen indicated the character of her characters from the things they chose to drink or serve. Can be presented in full Regency garb.
How Prohibition Changed America – Eighty years after it was repealed, there are many misunderstandings about Prohibition, starting with why and when it was enacted. The “noble experiment” had more to do with sexism and hostility to immigrants than alcohol itself. This lecture gives a sometimes humorous look at why Prohibition was enacted, what America was like before, during, and afterward, the many ways that the law was circumvented, and how that era still affects us today. Can be presented in 1920’s dress. (I)
Cocktails: The History of Choice – Mixing different types of alcohol with spices and juices dates back to the Roman Empire, and there have been innovations in different eras. Cocktails are a uniquely American invention; Europeans who visited the US in the mid-1800’s found it remarkable that Americans expected to have whatever they liked made to order rather than accepting what was offered. This talk traces the long history of beverage innovation and how new technologies created new drinks.
Raising A Glass with Charles Dickens – The works of Charles Dickens are filled with references to beverages that are obscure to modern readers, who may wonder about Scrooge’s promise to discuss Cratchit’s future over a bowl of smoking bishop. Victorian England had a sophisticated beverage culture that was very different from that of the USA, and a host could delight his guests with drinks that included ingredients sourced from Britain’s global empire. This lively talk can be presented in Victorian dress and accompanied by punch made from Dickens’ own recipe, which is available as a handout along with a bibliography. (H)
Reflections on Rum, Spirit of the Cane – What most people know about rum is wrong: it wasn’t invented where or when popular histories claim, and the most famous sea chantey about it was invented by an author who never set foot on a ship. The truth is more interesting: rum helped spark the American Revolution, was currency in Australia, entered 18th Century medical cabinets as a health tonic, and is still a sacramental offering among voodoo worshippers. Rum made sea voyages bearable in the 1850’s and tikis fashionable in the 1950’s, and it once fueled the economy of half the world. Rum evolved from a raw spirit concocted for slaves to a beverage for connoisseurs, and this lecture will explore the history of a beverage that has been reviled by temperance groups and celebrated by the rich and powerful.