Weather and Food History: Story Ideas and Research Sources
Are you a stickler for research, wanting to get even the weather correct for the time period in your novel? There are quite a few weather history books (and some websites) available, some of which span many centuries. Browsing through them might spark story ideas as well. Your local library should be able to get them for you via interlibrary loan, if they are no longer in print.
Following the weather listings is a section on food history books, published by Rowman & Littlefield.
THE LONG SUMMER: HOW CLIMATE CHANGED CIVILIZATION (Brian Fagan. Basic Books, 2004)
Fagan, an anthropologist, writes about the effect of climate on civilization, from the Ice Age through 1200, with an epilogue on modern times. If you need to know what the climate was like in ancient and early medieval times and how it would affect your characters, this would be a good place to start. Fagan says, “I argue that human relationships to the natural environment and short-term climatic change have always been in flux. To ignore climate is to neglect one of the dynamic backdrops of the human experience.” Learn how volcanoes erupting in Iceland affected the whole of Europe in ancient times. Read the chapter on the Sahara to find out how desert cattle were raised during a period of greater rainfall. Chapter 7 discusses how the droughts in Sumeria contributed to the growth of cities.
THE LITTLE ICE AGE: HOW CLIMATE MADE HISTORY 1300-1850 (Brian Fagan. Basic Books, 2000)
Fagan discusses climate and civilization in northern Europe in more modern centuries in this volume. It is “a narrative history of climatic shifts during the past ten centuries and some of the ways in which people in Europe adapted to them.” If the period you write about is the Viking era, Fagan discusses climate’s effect on Viking explorations. Are your novels set in the Middle Ages? Fagan writes in chapter two about the famines of the 1300s. Late Medieval fishermen learn to cope with increased ocean storms. In the 1690s, the landowner of Culbin in Scotland became a pauper overnight when a storm blew 30 meters of sand to cover his farmland. If your book is set in Europe between 1300-1850, good story ideas are to be found here.
SNOW IN AMERICA (Bernard Mergen. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997)
Mergen examines snow in America through “ecology, history, literature, and art.” The chapter on recreation in the snow could give you story ideas, such as the rules for a snowball fight in 1880, the origins of winter carnivals, and the start of early ski resorts. Chapter 2 explores the effect of snow on new technology of railroads, and includes an anecdote about how people on a train stalled by snow for three days in the 1890s survived.
CLIMATOLOGICAL HISTORY OF OHIO (William H. Alexander. Ohio State University, 1923)
If you want a really micro level of correctness for your weather in a particular month and location, books like this one could help. For example, it contains a section on the county I live in, listing monthly average temperatures, rainfall and snowfall between 1893 and 1912. Counties which were settled earlier have records that extend back farther. Maps and charts list dates for the last killing frost in a particular location within Ohio, and locations where rain fell in excess of four inches in 24 hours. You can find books like this for other U.S. states or countries by using an online library catalog and doing a subject search on “[name of state/country] climate.” Examples I found doing this: The Story of the British and their Weather by Patrick Nobbs, and The Pennsylvania Weather Book by Ben Gelber.
THE DIVINE WIND: THE HISTORY AND SCIENCE OF HURRICANES (Kerry Emanuel. Oxford University Press, 2005)
Emanuel “portray[s] the hurricane as it is seen from the perspectives of history, art and science.” Chapters alternate between the science of hurricanes and profiles of major storms, such as the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the storm that hit Pakistan in 1970, and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The chapter on Galveston’s storm discusses the U.S. Weather Bureau’s reluctance to believe Cuban forecasters and subsequent forecasting blunders. Another chapter discusses the results of two Pacific typhoons in 1944 and 1945 that killed nearly 800 men in the U.S. naval fleet.
This website from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers historical weather information for the United States from 1871 to the present. So if you want to be sure you got the weather right for a particular day/week in a particular location in your novel, you can call up a map of the U.S. showing weather data for that period. One drawback to using this site is that it offers djvu files, which requires a (free) download of a plugin to be able to view them. If you are setting a novel in Kansas on December 7, 1941, you can use this site to look up the weather in Kansas and the rest of the country on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked as it affects your characters. One map I found fascinating was from January 1978 when the worst blizzard in 100 years hit the Ohio Valley. Someone wrote in colored pencil on the top of the map, “The Great Ohio Valley Blizzard of 1978, lowest pressure in 100+ yr…,” and “Freak tornado at Quantico, Va. 5 hr. before this map.”
This site is offered by the UK Met Office, and lets you choose a particular weather station from a map of the UK, click on it, and then click on “view historic station data”. Then you can view columns of figures of maximum and minimum temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine duration in a particular month and year. Some of the stations recorded data back into the 1800s, but others were not established until mid-20th century.
There’s no “about us” section of this part of Weather Underground’s website, so it’s hard to figure out the exact scope of WU’s historical coverage. Some spot checking revealed that coverage for U.S. cities is fairly detailed. A search for a particular date’s weather in Idaho Falls, Idaho in 1980, for example, gets you min and max temperatures, humidity and precipitation figures, wind speed, and a chart showing conditions hour by hour, including general conditions such as “partly cloudy” or “overcast.” Idaho Falls goes back to 1948; other cities go back further: Denver to 1944, and others, less far back: Cleveland, only to 1973. World cities I spot-checked are also covered, but less extensively: Edinburgh’s and Paris’s data only go back to 1996, and temperatures are in Fahrenheit only. This site would be worth a try if your novel is set in the mid-20th century or later.
The publisher Rowman & Littlefield currently offers a series of interesting books on food history. I examined some of them and think they would be useful to a historical novelist. The ISBN numbers are included because they are currently in print and can be ordered. [I have no personal connection with the publisher.]
FOOD AT SEA: SHIPBOARD CUISINE FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN TIMES (Simon Spalding, 2015. ISBN: 9781442227361)
Spalding is a maritime historian who has written a book on how people cooked and ate while on shipboard from ancient times to the present. Are characters in your novel being forced to emigrate during the Highland Clearances? Spalding describes the conditions emigrants faced on board the Batchelor in 1773. Photos show what a galley on a 19th century merchant ship looked like. He includes descriptions of dishes popular during the age of sail, such as lobscouse, burgoo, sea pie, and duff. Chapter 7 describes the differences between first, second, and third class fare during the Titanic oceanliner era. The last chapter contains recipes, and there is an extensive bibliography.
FOOD IN THE GILDED AGE: WHAT ORDINARY AMERICANS ATE (Robert Dirks, 2016. ISBN: 9781442245136)
Anthropologist Dirks was influenced by early nutrition scientist W.O. Atwater’s dietary studies to produce this book on Americans’ food in the latter decades of the 19th century. Chapters cover Mexican American, Appalachian, and African American eating habits, as well as class differences, and the influence of immigrants’ food habits. The last chapter looks at university dining hall habits, as well as the food that heavy laborers such as lumberjacks ate. Charts such as “Typical winter diet, poor African Americans, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., 1892-1906” would allow you as an author to check whether the food scene in your novel is accurate. Recipes for roasted possum or New Mexican chile salad could inspire a kitchen scene in your plot. The extensive footnotes and bibliography can lead you to more information that may be specific to your novel.
FOOD IN THE AIR AND SPACE: THE SURPRISING HISTORY OF FOOD AND DRINK IN THE SKIES (Richard Foss, 2015. ISBN: 9781442227286)
Food writer Foss covers the history of food in flight from the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in 1783 to the present. Early airline passengers were expected to deplane at refueling stops to eat. He includes a chapter on how high altitudes alter one’s sense of taste, and sections such as an extensive description of an Alitalia in-flight meal in the 1960s, another on how the airlines coped with catering in developing countries with lower hygiene standards, and special problems like providing meals to passengers with religious restrictions. Closing chapters cover food in outer space. Footnotes and a bibliography will provide authors a path to further research.
Rowman & Littlefield’s other food-history offerings include the following titles that I have not seen but which sound intriguing:
Lunch: a History
Food on Foot: a History of Eating on Trails and in the Wild
As Long as We Both Shall Eat: a History of Wedding Food and Feasts
K’Oben: 3,000 years of the Maya hearth
Colonial Kitchen: Australia, 1788-1901
Breakfast: a History
Plus, books on very local food history, such as Sydney, New York and San Francisco.
View descriptions at the publisher’s website.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.