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!”