Consuming the Past: Victoria Flexner and Edible History

Founded a century ago, The New School for Social Research sought to have leading scholars teach night courses to working professionals, fostering a community both cutting-edge and non-traditional with respect to student age and academic background, as well as to the kind of learning taking place inside its fledgling walls.

While the university has transformed since then, this vision still holds true today — at least for Victoria Flexner, a 2019 MA graduate of the Historical Studies program. Flexner’s work is unorthodox in more than one sense; a part-time student and full-time business owner, Flexner’s academic focus is on food history, an emerging field she explores with a thesis that incorporates the latest scholarship as well as historical fiction.

A native New Yorker with a French father and chef uncle, Flexner grew up in a family with a strong passion for good eating. As a teenager, she worked in food service. But she didn’t think of herself as a lover of things gastronomic until she left the city to complete her undergraduate degree in Scotland. “The food was terrible!” she remembers. She realized that if she wanted to eat well while away from home, she was going to finally have to learn how to cook.

Having learned how to fare for herself in a foreign land, Flexner graduated and returned to New York. Drawing on her passion for food and her knowledge of the city’s restaurant industry, she was able to secure a job as a publicist for celebrity chefs and restaurants. “While I was working in food PR,” she says, “I was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to take my love of history and my practical skill set of having worked in the food business and blend the two together.’”

The result was Edible History, a company that hosts themed dinners based on historical recipes. Flexner introduces each course with a short history lesson, while her team brings out authentic recreations of meals from across the centuries: three types of ceviche from pre-Columbia, colonial, and modern Peru; dinner as it would have taken place in 10th-century Baghdad; a bit of medieval Mongolian cuisine. In 2018, she hosted a feminist-focus dinner party inspired by Judy Chicago’s famous art installation “The Dinner Party”; major outlets from the New Yorker to Vogue covered it.

From Flexner’s “Feminist Food, Feminist Art” dinner

As her business expanded, Flexner was decided to pursue additional education. “I realized if I wanted to be any kind of authoritative voice on history — if I wanted to stand in front of people and talk about history and not only have them care but to take me seriously — I needed to get another qualification,” she explained.

Flexner chose NSSR because it offered freedom to do explore what she wanted — a freedom she didn’t see at other New York universities. “It felt like what I was trying to do with food and history where it’s not quite the food business, not fully academic, it’s kind of existing in this weird new space,” she said. The parallels between Flexner and fellow Historical Studies alumnus Rien Fertel, who studies barbecue in the American South, are many.

NSSR doesn’t employ any food historians, but this isn’t so unusual; the academic study of food history is relatively young, and there are few specialized graduate programs in it. “The field is kind of a mix between popular history and a newer academic version which is still figuring itself out,” Flexner said. Food historians vary in the kinds of materials they study; some are more archival materials-based while other are more theoretical  The study of food is not only the history of a cuisine — its ingredients, its influences — but also about the institutions and cultures that it’s connected to. Some food historians argue, for instance, that the desire for luxury food products such as pepper and spices paved the way for European expansionsim and imperialism. “The entire world from different spheres was drawn together because of a search for a luxury food product. That’s pretty mind blowing,” Flexner explains.

Flexner’s time at NSSR allowed her to explore food history through a variety of different periodical and regional lenses. Her work culminated in Spring 2019 with a thesis on the history of the restaurant in New York.

From Flexner’s “Evolution of the New York City Restaurant” dinner

As a social practice, the restaurant first emerged in 1760s France and gradually made its way to the United States. Flexner argues that the restaurant truly came into its own due to a number of overlapping factors, but cited one of them as the emergence of the 19th Century boarding house. During a period in which most New Yorkers lived in boarding houses,  where meals were served in a common area and at set times. “The food was notoriously disgusting at all boarding houses across the spectrum,” Flexner says. A combination of a desire for good food and lack of access to private kitchens created a market for third spaces in which people could pay to eat. “By 1855, there would have been eateries that had the components of what we now recognize as the restaurant,” Flexner adds, alluding to a public-facing private food service venue offering a menu of options and working within certain operating hours.

The overlap between her business and her studies has been fundamental to her success in juggling her studies and a full-time job. “Research that I’ve done at school has benefited Edible History, of course, and I’ve brought my experiences from the business into school if I could. It all feels interrelated and I’m here because I want to become a better historian. It’s beyond useful,” Flexner reflects.

That interrelation inspired Flexner to propose an unorthodox approach to her thesis: As she would an Edible History dinner, she carefully blended traditional historiographical narrative with a bit of historical fiction to narrate the story of the restaurant’s development through the experiences of fictional characters like Lorenzo, an early restaurant pioneer. By adopting this approach, and with the support of her mentors Associate Professor of History Oz Frankel and Professor of History and Department Chair Jeremy Varon, Flexner hopes to heighten her ability to do what impassions her.

“I’ve had one woman tell me that recently, ‘You know, I always hated history, and then my husband started making me come to these dinners. Now I buy history books and read them for fun!”‘ Flexner remembers. “That’s the dream!”

NSSR Faculty Win Major 2019-2020 Research Grants

From the many celebrations and reflections that accompany the centennial of The New School throughout 2019, on thing has become abundantly clear: Many of the issues early New School scholars sought to address continue to be central to our thinking today. From the effects of borders and migration on refugees to rising fascism and anti-democratic politics, concerns about capitalism to growing inequality, today’s New School for Social Research faculty members are launching bold new investigations into these pressing questions, and several have won major grants to carry out this important work for the coming academic year.

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics, has been named a 2019-2020 Fellow-in-Residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She focuses her attention on the ways that public meanings define the problems that the polity understands itself to share, as well as the range of choices that citizens perceive to be before them. Drawing primarily from newspapers and social media, she examines public discourse and its central practical importance to democratic politics.

While at the Safra Center, Woodly will be working on two book projects: #BlackLivesMatter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, which explores the ways that social movements re-politicize public life in times of political despair, and What We Talk About When We Talk About the Economy, which examines public discourse and opinion concerning what “the economy” means to different stakeholders in American politics. While there, she will also participate in the Safra Center’s Working Group on Political Economy and Justice.


Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology, has been named a 2019-2020 Russell Sage Visiting Fellow. Ticktin is currently at work on two related book projects: a short book on innocence as a political concept, and how it produces an unending search for purity; and a book on the way border wall technologies travel, both transnationally and cross-species, with the goal of engaging with speculative practices, and reimagining the idea of bordering. Over the past year, Ticktin has been co-director (co-PI) of the Mellon Foundation-funded Sawyer Seminar series on Imaginative Mobilities, in which an interdisciplinary group of faculty members and graduate students from the fields of design and social sciences reframed debate on the nature, purpose, and futures of borders.

As a Russell Sage Visiting Fellow, Ticktin will continue work on her second book project. She will investigate the resurgence of border walls as an anti-immigrant tool in the context of rising right-wing and nationalist populisms, concentrating on the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Drawing from legal, historical, and ethnographic research, she aims to demonstrate how border walls paradoxically rely on transnational and cross-species technologies, ideas, and economies. She will analyze how the materials and technologies involved in the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall offer insight into the politics of borders and how rethinking border design has implications for immigration policies.

Both Virag Molnar, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History, have been named 2019-2020 members of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Molnar’s research explores the intersections of culture, politics, social change and knowledge production with special focus on urban culture and transformations of the built environment. She has written about the relationship between architecture and state formation in socialist and postsocialist Eastern Europe, the post-1989 reconstruction of Berlin, and the new housing landscape of postsocialist cities. Her latest book, Building the State: Architecture, Politics and State Formation in Postwar Central Europe (Routledge) received the Mary Douglas Prize for the Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the American Sociological Association in 2014.

At the IAS, Molnar will continue researching and writing her new book, tentatively titled Marketing Radical Nationalism in Contemporary Hungary, which she began while receiving a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. The book explores how markets can serve as crucial vehicles for promoting new interpretations of national identity and circulating nationalist symbols, thereby fostering popular support for nationalist radicalization.

Ott specializes in economic history and political history. Aiming to advance critical histories of capitalism, she investigates how financial institutions, practices, and theories influence American political culture and how, in turn, policies and political beliefs shape economic behavior and outcomes. She was the 2016-2018 co-director of the Robert H. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and is the author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (2011).

At the IAS, Ott will work on her latest book project. Wealth Over Work: The Origins of Venture Capital, The Return of Inequality, and the Decline of Innovation examines the history of venture capital as an idea, as a form of investment, and as a politically-mobilized industry. In the half-century after start of the Great Depression, beliefs about the centrality of venture capital for innovation, jobs, and growth shaped economic policy and corporate behavior while gradually transforming U.S. financial system. Concerns about venture capital – voiced from all across the political spectrum – slowly steered American political culture in a neoliberal direction, in favor of investors and the wealthy.  The result was the less innovative and far more unequal economy that we live with today.

Occupying the Interstitial: Multidisciplinary Scholar Shannon Mattern Joins NSSR

What do the Helsinki Central Library, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and an Urban Studies conference in Toronto have in common? In just one month, Shannon Mattern has appeared at each of them as, alternately, an exhibition curator, a research workshop participant, and a panelist — all before starting in her new role as Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

A veteran New School faculty member, Mattern taught for 14 years in the Media Studies Department at the Schools for Public Engagement, where she developed her research interests in archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Visually oriented, she found that collaborating with creative practitioner colleagues helped her explore sound and other multisensorial modex of experience and ways of knowing. “I’m interested in how epistemology is materialized and how information is made manifest in the built world” in a variety of ways, Mattern says.

That interest in information and organization began at a young age in an unlikely setting: her father’s hardware store in Pennsylvania. “In such neighborhood institutions we find a vernacular classification system that also manifests embodied and community knowledge,” Mattern explains.

Perusing Mattern’s website, one quickly realizes that she’s interested in this same idea across all magnitudes of scale – hardware stores, library systems, entire cities – each of which has implicit or explicit systems of classification that help organize our lives, often invisibly, and bear witness to the ways we organize the world for our own use. In analyzing them, she extracts layers of encoded political, philosophical, and artistic significance to examine “how the design of the interface and the attachment of metadata shape the way we search for information, or how the design of a desk  or a shelf shapes our interaction with knowledge objects, or how architectures have been constructed to store and organize our media objects and to embody particular classification systems.”

A scene from The Library’s Other Intelligences, an art project curated by Mattern and Jussi Parikka, and organized by the MOBIUS Fellowship Program of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in collaboration with the Helsinki Public Library. Photo credit: Juuso Noronkoski

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattern is on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves hundreds of archives and libraries throughout New York City, from the Museum of Modern Art Library to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We just worked with the city’s three public library systems on a distributed exhibition that explores how patrons, particularly the people who are not well served by other cultural institutions, can assert their right to digital privacy, both in the library and in their everyday lives,” Mattern says.

This sort of engagement speaks to Mattern’s role as a gap-bridging intellectual. At The New School she bridges NSSR and Media Studies, and also helps bring academic discussions to a variety of public audiences. She believes the type of work she does lends itself more readily to reaching a variety of people. “I’ve found that having a material thing – an object, a site — to unify and ground a discussion can really help in translating ideas to people who aren’t speaking the same language,” Mattern explains.

In this 2018 talk, Mattern surveys a variety of sites where the ethereal and datalogical become material — and where built and natural environments become informational. She considers those dimensions of thought and experience that resist containment, as well as the politics of imposing order.

Mattern’s preferred style of publication reflects this desire to reach out to a broader public, and to include art and media that are essential to understanding her work. These days, you’re more likely to find her work in venues for public scholarship like Places Journal, magazines like The Atlantic or industry publications like The Architectural Review than in academic journals. “When you write about fast-paced contemporary phenomena like digital urbanism, traditional peer-reviewed publications are often too slow,” she says. “Writing online, you can share richly illustrated and still rigorously edited projects that reach an international public immediately. That’s something that you can’t always do when you are writing for a specialized audience in publications hidden behind a paywall.”

Mattern’s more academic publications are also quite successful; her most recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, won the 2019 Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the book, Mattern engages with “media archeology,” which builds upon Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas about genealogy and archeology to study media history – particularly the technologies that get left behind. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt includes discussions of “smart” cities laced with fiber optics and studded with digital sensors, as well as much older (and, in some cases, defunct) technologies like clay writing tablets and mud-brick structures, which she argues are more than merely things from the past. She aims to question the novelty of digital urbanism and “smart” technologies by demonstrating that cities have always been “smart” – and that “new” media aren’t all that “new.” “Perhaps we don’t use the telegraph much anymore but, even in this digital age, inscription and printing and radio communication are still vital to urban communication. As is the voice, one of the oldest media,” Mattern says.

Mattern also brings her pairing of assiduous scholarship and public engagement to her NSSR classrooms. “I tend to do hybrid classes that have some component of making and engaging with material environments or talking to professionals who are practicing the concepts we’re reading about,” she states. While students in her Data, Archives, Infrastructure class, for instance, read typical fare such as Foucault and Derrida, they also dive into the bowels of a municipal archive, a conservation lab, or a digitalization lab to engage with the physical texts upon which scholars rely, and to meet with the staff responsible for making these texts widely accessible via electronic repositories and climate-controlled archives. In  Thinking Through Interfaces, which she teaches together with Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, they explore not only interfaces themselves, from smartphones to Chinese typewriters, but also the pressing social and political issues around them.

Along with her new appointment, Professor Mattern will work to develop interdisciplinary ties between Parsons School of Design and NSSR, as she explains, “to imagine how considerations of the designed world and design methods can enhance social scientific and humanistic research, and, at the same time, how social scientific and humanistic approaches can serve designers” Her fall graduate Anthropology seminar, “Anthropology and Design: Objects, Sites, and Systems,” will survey these points of intersection.

For Mattern, this opportunity accords the benefit of staying exactly where she wants: the in-between. “I’m hoping to bridge anthropology, the design fields represented in Parsons, and media studies. And I like being in such interstitial spaces,” she says.

Rewarding Courage in Public Scholarship

Mention Jan Gross and his 2001 book, Neighbors, and the word ‘controversy’ will soon follow.

The book, which documents the murders of nearly the entire Jewish population of the town of Jedwabne, Poland during World War II, explicitly challenges a long-accepted narrative that denies Polish complicity in the fate of Jewish Poles during the war. Since its publication, the book has provoked virulent responses from all sides: academic, political, media, popular. It has inspired renewed investigations and broad, heated conversations about the very heart of Polish identity. And it has made Gross — a former imprisoned student dissident who fled Poland in 1969 — again an unwelcome figure in his home country as he continues to publish research on anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in Poland during and after World War II.  

That commitment to disseminating knowledge in the face of dangerous opposition has earned him the 2019 Courage in Public Scholarship Award from the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at The New School for Social Research (NSSR).

At a ceremony on March 7, 2019, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies Elzbieta Matynia and former NSSR Dean Ira Katznelson will honor Gross and welcome him into a growing family of courageous award recipients.

In a Public Seminar article, Matynia recalls the genesis of the Courage in Public Scholarship Award, when a global group of alumni from TCDS’s annual summer Democracy and Diversity Institutes gathered in 2014 amid a “an ethical and intellectual crisis facing academics in Europe and beyond”:

“Drawing on the ethos of the University in Exile, and their own New School experience, and the conviction that especially in dark times universities carry a special responsibility vis-à-vis society, they considered in two intensive working sessions both the mounting problems and possible ways to address them…

“The outcome of the debate was distilled in their final statement, known as the Wroclaw Declaration, which calls into being the ‘NSSR-Europe’ initiative, an intellectually engaged microcosm of The New School for Social Research within the new post-cold-war Europe.”

In that Declaration, members determined that they would engage in “recognizing and honoring courage in public scholarship through awards and fellowships.” Acting quickly, they presented the first Courage in Public Scholarship Award on June 9, 2015 to Ann Barr Snitow, a “prominent American academic, writer, and activist committed to gender justice and equality, whose work in Central and Eastern Europe over a quarter of a century has helped to recast social discourse, reshape the culture, and empower women in this part of the world.” The ceremony was held at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, and was hosted by Minister for Equal Treatment Malgorzata Fuszara, a professor of law and sociology and friend of Matynia and of TCDS. In the years following, the Award was given to NSSR Professor Emerita and famed Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller and Professor Ewa Letowska, former Ombudsperson and judge on Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.

Courage in Public Scholarship Award recipient Agnes Heller with Democracy and Diversity Institute faculty and students in 2016

The coming 2019 ceremony marks the first time the award will be given at NSSR, and is part of The New School’s Centennial celebrations. It’s a fitting moment for the award to come to New York; though it may be just four years old, the values it represents — a drive to bring scholarship to the general public, intellectual curiosity, and a commitment to challenging the status quo despite fierce opposition — build directly on the 100-year-old history and founding values of The New School itself.

“It’s a question of academic freedom and we stood for it. That’s how we [The New School] were initially in 1919, in 1933, and then in 1989,” Matynia says, referencing the school’s founding as a progressive institution where no faculty would be bound by loyalty oaths; the University in Exile, which rescued nearly 200 scholars fleeing from Nazism and fascism between 1933 and 1945; and the collapse of communism just 30 years ago — a period that a new era of The New School as well as Matynia’s own life and academic career.

Arriving as a postdoctoral fellow at The New School in 1981, Matynia expected to return to Warsaw the following year. But when Poland declared martial law, she ended up staying in the United States, teaching at several colleges before returning to The New School in the mid-1980s. In 1990, she became the director of the East and Central Europe Program, now TCDS, to help revitalize post-Communist scholarly life and create relationships between universities in the region and NSSR.

TCDS’s D&D Institutes began in Poland in 1992 to support scholars in East and Central Europe — Gross taught courses at the first and second institutes and returned in the early 2010s as a guest lecturer — and a sister D&D Institute also met in South Africa from 1999 to 2015 as that country grappled with its own democratic future.

Fittingly, Matynia’s research in political and cultural sociology addresses democratic transformations, especially in emerging countries with a legacy of violence. She, like many, hoped that 1989 would mark a clear transition to democracy for East and Central Europe. That hasn’t been the case; today, Matynia notes, many freedoms — of gender, of movement, of speech, of public gathering — are endangered in the region as well as in the United States.

“The whole concept of freedom is something which is difficult for increasingly right-wing regimes to tolerate,” says Matynia. “At this moment, there are so many threats to knowledge in general that I think it’s even more important than ever to make everyone aware of it. The principles of the way we live, of our democratic life, of society are threatened” as institutions that examine history and society are silenced or closed. As two recent alarming examples, Matynia cites the move of Central European University from Hungary to Austria after government pressure and the forced removal of the director of the Second World War Museum  in Gdansk, Poland for challenging accepeted Polish narratives of the war — much like Jan Gross.

As these outlets for critical thought disappear, suspicion, mistrust, and conspiracies spread even more quickly, making the 2019 Courage in Public Scholarship Award that much more meaningful — and timely.


Inaugural Activist-in-Residence Shanelle Matthews Engages at The New School this Fall

Shanelle Matthews and Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly lectured in the Race in the US Course on October 2, 2017. View the video at livestream.com/thenewschool.

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Shanelle Matthews joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network in January 2016, having spent seven years in journalism and public interest communications. As the network’s Director of Communications, she crafts messages for the organization that she called, “a co-creator of the 21st-century Black Freedom Movement.”

In a recent conversation, Matthews talked about how her diverse training and experience as an organizer, researcher, journalist, and communicator for numerous political and non-profit organizations came together to equip her for the position. “I believed everything that I had done up until that point prepared me for this role,” Matthews said. “And then it became clear that no experience could really prepare you for a job like this.”

This fall, Matthews has also joined The New School as the university’s inaugural Activist-in-Residence, a pilot program jointly conceived by NSSR Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly and two members of The New School’s Board of Trustees, Fred Dust and Susan Foote. They worked to recruit Matthews to The New School.

“It feels important for me and for people who are committed to this position to close the gap between the movement and the academy,” Matthews said. She suggested that it represents an opportunity to align resources among academics and activists, build mutual trust, and facilitate innovative collaborations to produce social change.

According to Matthews, partnerships of this kind have the potential to break down barriers that can often separate scholarship from activism. “If we continue to work in siloes, it will take us much longer to make progress,” she said.

Just four weeks into her tenure as Activist-in-Residence, Matthews has big plans for her remaining time at The New School. She will deliver a lecture in the Race in the U.S. course alongside Professor Woodly. The class is a continuation of the “Post-Election America” series, and is Livestreamed on a weekly basis through The New School’s Facebook page. Matthews is contributing articles on race in America for Public Seminar and has made herself available to students across The New School for one-on-one discussions of activism and scholarship.

She will also continue to conduct research into the representation of under-represented voices in media. “I’m trying to deepen our understanding of how decision makers in media decide who to offer as experts,” she said. Matthews hypothesizes that to diversify the pool of individuals acting as experts would advance understanding. This dovetails with her work through Channel Black to provide training in improvisation, debate, and cognitive science to leaders in the movement, many of which identify as black, female, and LGBTQ. The goal is to share knowledge and communications best practices to empower a new generation of leaders to serve as experts and effective advocates in the media. “Increasing representation of black, LGBTQ, and female voices into the media will help us create more empathy and nuance, which we desperately need.” Matthews explained.

Having advocated on behalf of the black community, women, and LGBTQ individuals in several previous roles, Matthews was serving as Deputy Director of Communications at the Sierra Club—the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization—just before she joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Matthews talked candidly about her decision to join the Network staff. “I had to do a lot of personal digging to decide whether this was the right role for me, and whether I could serve the black community in the way that we needed,” she said. With nearly two years behind her, she adds, “I’ve had to learn how to be more tender and more gentle in a fast-paced environment that can feel lonely and hard to navigate.”

Matthews finds it is hard to pinpoint her most difficult month as Director of Communications for BLM, and instead pointed to the intellectual, professional, and emotional challenges of having to respond so frequently to acts of violence on behalf of a global organization that contains many perspectives. “When you become the person who’s responsible for concisely and accurately messaging for a network that shares the same name as a broad moniker, it can be unhinging,” she said. Speaking of a weeks-long stretch last year in which she was called upon to respond to events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, Matthews added, “You become, in some ways, slightly confused about what you believe versus what makes sense to message at that moment, and what’s true for most people. And you need to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

The New School strikes Matthews as an institution with a responsibility to lead conversations about how activism and scholarship can advance social justice. “It’s very exciting to be here, and I’m proud to be here,” she said. Observing some of the structural imbalances of representation in higher education, she added, “For a university to have integrity on these issues means having more people of color as decision makers—in addition to diversifying students and faculty.” Matthews expressed that she is looking forward to working with colleagues at The New School “to offer perspectives on how to double down on the institution’s commitment to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.”

“Whether we are talking about issues that impact the Black community, White community or any community, we will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices,” she added. “Through my work at The New School and beyond, I’m committed to making that a reality.”

The lecture delivered by Shanelle Matthews and Deva Woodly as part of the 2017 Race in the U.S. class, broadcast live on October 2, 2017, will be archived and available on The New School‘s Facebook page and at livestream.com/thenewschool.