H.D. Miller and the Pleasures of Consumption
In the summer of 1997, in a scenario familiar to most graduate students, I decided that I would start a small, self-published magazine devoted to travel rather than work on my dissertation. And from that moment of dereliction and work avoidance was born Travelling Shoes: An Eccentric Journal of Travel and Entertainment, a publication I put together on a primitive Apple Macintosh, printed out, photocopied, stapled, and then sent around to independent bookstores and zine review zines. The reviews were good, and soon I was getting letters in my post office box from people around the country, and occasionally abroad, sending me three, one-dollar bills and a request for a copy.
Over the next two years, I produced three issues of Travelling Shoes, each one focusing on a particular destination: Issue #1, “Las Vegas: Carnival of Fools”; Issue #2, “Authentic Seville”; and Issue #3 “Trouble in Tangier”. After that, I got back to work on my dissertation and the building of a shambolic academic career filled with fits and starts and unexpected detours. In April of 2002, I launched a political rant blog under the title “Travelling Shoes”, a blog that lasted three years, was widely read, and has since thankfully disappeared from the internet, taking with it opinions about politics that I would like to forget I ever held. After that, my history as a writer took a surreal turn, and in October of 2004 I became one of the first fashion bloggers, a pseudonymous figure cited in the press as both one the funniest things on the internet, and a model of how fashion blogging was changing commerce. I did very well from that venture, well enough to quit being an academic and move to Argentina for a year. Unfortunately, that year was 2008, the year of the economic crash. By early 2009 advertising had dried up and my business was in trouble, and so I moved back to the States and went back to work in the real world, back to the academy.
Today, I’m a professor of history, and chair of the Department of History, Politics and Philosophy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Most of the classes I teach are in Islamic and pre-modern European history. It’s odd that I ended up a historian. Not only was my undergraduate degree in English, but I’ve only ever taken four actual history courses, two as an undergrad, and two as a grad student at Yale. My doctorate is in Medieval Studies with an emphasis on Islamic Spain, so most of my course work was done in Near Eastern Languages and Culture, and my dissertation was written about the Mozarabs, the Arabized Christians of Medieval Spain, under the direction of the late Maria Rosa Menocal. Ultimately, however, I had to work somewhere, and a history department seemed like the best fit for what I do, and so I became a historian.
As for my writing, over the past few years I’ve started a book about the history of romantic love, which will sooner or later be published, proposed a work with the provocative title Why Tom Cruise is Short, of which two sickly chapters have been written, and completed a comic trunk novel about an East German professor of semiotics who enters a televised dance contest, a work which may be too obtuse for even the most obtuse and self-destructive of publishing houses.
You’ll notice that through all of this history of me, I’ve avoided repeating the early, very modest, success of Travelling Shoes. I’ve avoided writing about the topics I’m best qualified to write about: food, history and travel. And although I did publish one piece of scholarship on culinary history (“The Pleasures of Consumption: The Birth of Medieval Islamic Cuisine” in Food. The History of Taste, from the University of California Press, a book nominated for a 2008 James Beard Award), I have never again produced a work of what might be called “personality-driven culinary history”.
You’ll notice that phrase, “personality-driven culinary history”. It’s what I imagined when I started this newsletter, a way for me to share with you my obsessions, ideas and observations about food and history in my own peculiar way. I’ve called it An Eccentric Culinary History because I didn’t want it to be straight culinary history, nor straight travel, nor straight anything. What I wanted was something different, food, history and travel with an strong personal voice, mine: odd, cranky, knowledgeable, occasionally bombastic, and often funny. I want you to like what I like and dislike what I despise, and laugh at the things I think are risible, including sometimes me. This isn’t academic history, with footnotes and a dreary tone of measured knowingness. It’s loosey and goosey and anything-goesy. It is meant to be enjoyed, so enjoy it.