Penn State Hazleton library exhibit features lecture on food history

HAZLETON, Pa. — “Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America," a traveling exhibition from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is on display at the Mary M. and Bertil E. Lofstrom Library at Penn State Hazleton through Dec. 2.

The exhibit looks at the Chesapeake region, where European settlers relied upon indentured servants, Native Americans and African slave labor for life-saving knowledge of farming and food acquisition and to gain economic prosperity. By examining the labor of slaves and food practices of the time, including those at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the exhibition explores how power was exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders and classes during the early colonial era.

Europeans suffered poor nutrition and widespread illness caused by a lack of medical care. Despite their perilous position, colonists used human resources, the natural environment and maritime trade to gain economic prosperity. But it is through the labor of slaves, like those at Mount Vernon, that we can learn about the ways that meals transcend taste and sustenance. 

To coincide with the exhibit, Associate Professor of History Justin Nordstrom will provide a lecture titled “We Are What We Eat: Food as a Way of Understanding History” from noon to 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 6, at the library. The lecture is also free and open to the public.

“The word ‘companion’ literally translates as ‘someone you share bread with,’ so food and companionship are intimately linked. But we also think about our national identity according to food, thus the Depression-era glass plates that were festive and bright just when the nation’s economic and social conditions were at their worst,” said Nordstrom, who will bring Depression-era glass and a Passover Seder plate to discuss how food shapes both individual and collective identities.

He also will discuss how access to food reflects power dynamics, using slavery as one example.

“Slavery allowed a previously unimaginable luxury like sugar to become a mainstay of the European diet for even the poorest workers in London factories,” Nordstrom said. “So, black slaves and British colonization allowed ‘afternoon tea’ to be seen as a distinctly British custom and enjoyed in the American colonies as well, even though Asian tea leaves and Caribbean sugar were certainly not distinctly ‘British’ or ‘American.’” 

This exhibition was produced by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health with research assistance provided by the staff at The Washington Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and was curated by Psyche Williams-Forson.

“Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America” began traveling around the United States in November 2016. The exhibit and lecture are both free and open to the public. For more information, visit