Foodways of Early Modern Empire

Final Projects

Project Themes

This project strives to visually communicate the concrete relationship between food and empire that crucially fueled European globalization of trade, exploration, and extraction in the early modern era. It does so by locating the provenance of the ingredients listed in surviving English cookery manuscripts from this time period and placing it in the visual context of the empires actively controlling access to early modern foodways.

Image from a textbook showing the continents of North and South America in green with purple arrows running to and from the continents of Europe and Africa, also in green. The arrows are labeled with the foodstuffs, livestock, and diseases transmitted along both routes.
The inaccurate “exchange model” map used in many United States history textbooks (Source: Anita Ravi, “The Columbian Exchange,” Khan Academy)

I specifically designed this visualization to reject and replace the two-way-arrow static map model of the “Columbian Exchange” that, for many students in the United States, is our first engagement in school with the history of globalization in the early modern era. The “exchange model” serves its users a cheerfully Eurocentric imperialist narrative of this time period, ignoring the robust and often jaw-droppingly vast networks of commerce that spanned continents and oceans for millennia before Europeans established trade networks on the same routes. At the same time, the exchange model’s use of the politely commercial term “exchange” covers up the centuries-long European implementation of Indigenous extinction, land occupations, and resource extraction. The model’s contextless portrayal of foodstuffs as equal in commercial value to animals and technology further erases the significance of foodways as motivations, scaffolds, and sites of controversy of expanding empire.

Why cookbooks?

I’ve been using visualization technology to tell the story of early modern trade, exploration, and extraction through the lens of cookery manuscripts for half a year now. I fell in love with the New York Public Library’s Whitney cookery collection during a project in which I was looking to write on the materiality of early modern cookery manuscripts rather than produce any sort of visualization. However, I rapidly recognized that the contents of the Whitney collection offer a unique lens through which any interested person can critically study the rapid expansion of foodways on a global scale as a result of expanding empire in the early modern period, as well as the changing politics of domestic labor and the development of the cookery manuscript object as an instrument of class hierarchy. The compilation of cooking and medicinal recipes, as well as mixtures for cleaning solutions, dyes, and other household items, materializes the very real relationship between food and empire that crucially fueled English colonization efforts in the early modern period.1

Design Decisions

I chose to visualize the Whitney cookery collection as a map because I felt it was essential to recognize how cookery shaped early modern conceptions of space and place. The cookery manuscripts are intensely physical objects: their pages crinkle under the fingers, stick together in chunks, and must be flipped with care so that they don’t rip. Simultaneously, the manuscripts represent a more global materiality: their written contents, bibliographical history, and physical and social uses display their makers’ participation in the globalization of trade, exploration, and extraction that characterizes the early modern period. As such, I decided to conceptualize collection materials as multiple parts of a whole rather than as wholly individual items.

The Map Problem

The most frustrating problem I encountered beginning this project was also the most straightforward: cartographic map-making was designed as a political technology by Europeans to legitimize empire-building, especially via settler colonialism and dispossession of Indigenous lands. Both early modern and contemporary maps delineate colonial holdings, propagandize imperialist concepts of possession and space-filling, and reinforce control over land, people, and resources. Because this critique overlaps so heavily with this project’s themes, I found myself struggling with how to make my map different— better— than other maps about early modern trade, occupation, and extraction. It turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.

“The maps don’t get up and attack someone. But there are a number of symbolic violences in the idea of needing to map something. It’s the idea that, ‘This is our territory, we’re going to use it; once we map it, we know how we can remove and extract the territory from the folks who are there claiming it.’”2

Dr. Natchee Blu Barnd, qtd. in Indigenous cartographers work to decolonize mapping of traditional lands, 2019

Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely difficult to find accurate shapefiles of territorial boundaries in 1707 and even more difficult to find shapefiles of territorial boundaries in 1707 that also respect Indigenous geographic imaginations. Without back-end coding skills or the ability to create custom shapefiles, I planned to address this difficulty in my project documentation and moved forward with a pre-designed global map partitioned along modern-day political boundaries, which problematized both the temporal and territorial accuracy of this visualization. I tried to smooth over this inaccuracy by labeling territories with the names of dominant economic powers in 1707, including empires in limited contact with European markets as well as those that directly controlled specific ingredient extraction and exportation to Europe. I also strove to make it clear using label text and color that Indigenous people lived on and cultivated land and navigated advanced international commercial networks as individuals, communities, and empires for millennia before European contact. I remain displeased with these “patches.”

I briefly looked at Google Earth, Mapbox, and Omeka SI plug-in Neatline, but ultimately chose to go with Mapplic because of its neat consolidation of map and textual annotation, plus an ability for visualization design decisions made by the project creator. Other platforms like CONTENTdm and GitHub’s CollectionBuilder skin that could have been better suited to realizing my project theme were more focused on accurately managing image networks and item metadata than designing a visualization, which was the major goal of this coursework. Mapplic’s capability for visualization design is also why I chose it over the Digital Mappa workspace, which would provide a perfectly interesting interactive experience but has limited customization options. Mapplic is also compatible with WordPress, which streamlined the relationship between larger project text and the embedded visualization.

I believe that with a different mapping platform, custom shapefiles, a more advanced metadata architecture, and an extended amount of time to research, user test, and refine this project, I will be able to curate a more accurate visualization. Many of the digital mapping tools produced by Indigenous geographers already offer incredible flexibility when visualizing networks, movement, and narrative objects; with that said, using an Indigenous-made mapping platform like Mapeo to host a project created by a white grad student in the global North, studying the historical imposition, occupation, and extraction of life, labor, and resources from Indigenous communities by Europeans, feels… not right.

“Decolonial mapping requires a recentering of Indigenous geographical knowledge, respect for Indigenous protocols, and the active participation of Indigenous peoples in the mapping process itself if the project of decolonizing the map is to truly move beyond the colonial cartographic frame.”3

Drs. Reuben Rose-Redwood, Natchee Blu Barnd, Annita Hetoevėhotohke’e Lucchesi, Sharon Dias, Wil Patrick, qtd. in Decolonizing the Map: Recentering Indigenous Mappings, 2020

User Testing

Preliminary site information architecture, in progress

I first incorporated user research in the early stages of the project with a mid-structured interview with an AP History teacher from Madison, WI to evaluate in what ways this tool could be used to teach beginning researchers, something I’d set as a goal for the project. We discussed the major takeaways we wanted learners to have (understanding how globalized trade, exploration, and extraction impacted people’s diets; conversely, understanding how people’s diets impacted globalized trade, exploration, and extraction). Together, we sketched out a preliminary information architecture and map user flow that prioritized usability for both beginning and experienced researchers.

To evaluate the usability of the map concept, I developed several prompts that asked my user testers—a high school AP European History student studying the early modern era, a history graduate student working with map technology, and a high school history teacher interested in replacing the “exchange model” in her curriculum— to complete a series of simple tasks in the map interface. The prompts did not instruct the users on how to complete the task; I wanted to study how users intuitively flowed through the interface.

User interviews followed the same general method: I prompted users from the script, asked them to speak their way through their flow until they felt they’d arrived at the task, then asked them to reflect on what they found easiest, hardest, and would change. I asked the same in all user tests:

Task 1: You are a history student taking a class on early modern history. You have an essay due comparing the balance of power between European empires in 1707. You are looking to find specific examples to back up your claim that England and the Dutch Republic are the dominant trade powers in Europe. You search for the areas of the map controlled by England and the Dutch Republic.
Task goal: To see how users went about searching the map by empire.
Finding: Users noticed colors first and and looked for a key. Once they identified the relevant search terms on the key, they then immediately located the correct territories on the map

Task 2, following up on Task 1: Do you feel like the argument you are making in this essay is correct, based on the map?
Goal: To check if the map could change a pre-existing incorrect idea about power balances in the early modern era.
Finding: Users noticed that the map was dominated much more by Spain than by England and corrected their incorrect assumption.

Task 3: You’re interested in what are the major trade items sourced from New Spain. You look to find what trade items are from the region. You want to find at least three by name to cite in a school project.
Goal: To follow how users went about searching the map by foodstuff.
Finding: Having already figured out in Task 1 how to use the key to search by empire, users checked the key for the color of New Spain before navigating to the correct territories and selecting three ingredients from those options.

Task 4: You get curious about the items on the map. You choose one to look at more in depth. You want to find how it was used before it was extracted for exportation to Europe.
Goal: To test if users choose to and understand how to open and skim information panels.
Finding: Users easily navigated this prompt by mousing over an icon and letting the information panel automatically open, then scrolling.

Task 5: You learn that this map actually shows the exact ingredients used in early modern recipes. Your favorite food is gingerbread. You decide to look for where they got the ginger from.
Goal: To see how users search the map by ingredient.
Finding: Users first scrolled down in the key and found the “How to make York gingerbread” recipe. Users selected ginger in the recipe ingredients drop-down, and identified easily where the ginger was from upon automatic zoom.

Explore the Map

The visualization offers learners several methods to explore the globalization of early modern foodways. The map displays the ingredients from eight early modern recipes (represented on the map as red-outlined circular icons) located over the territories from which they would have been imported at the time. Users can group ingredients by recipe to see which foodways would have needed to be accessed and which economically dominant powers would have been involved.

Recipes in the search function and their icons

Users can also highlight territories by empire for a zoomed-out look at how regional food economies shaped the international balance of power, or mouse over territories and ingredient icons to expand information panels, see related links, and navigate to primary sources.

In the map’s current form, only territories occupied in 1707 by an external imperial power extracting natural resources for export to Europe are color-coded as part of the imperial power. As mentioned above, contemporary Indigenous empires around the world managed expansive intercontinental commercial networks. However, neither the Mapplic tool nor my schedule as a full-time grad student were suited to the amount of historical research, coding expertise, and descriptive bibliography work required to accurately and ethically display this level of complex economic geography. As such, I pared the labeled empires on the map down to those actively controlling the supply of ingredients used in English cookery manuscripts. Considering the same limitations, this map currently also only represents the ingredients that would have been imported for use; cooking staples that would have been produced locally like flour, butter, eggs, and produce are not included in this visualization.

Parts of the full project website are currently unfinished and will be completed in the upcoming weeks, including a repository of image metadata and a formal works cited page. However, learners are welcome to browse existing content and explore the full map visualization in its current iteration. For more on using specific features of the map (including icons and color-coding, clickables and mouseovers, search function, information panels, and links and images), see How to Use.

Future Features

Though I remain frustrated with this current project’s failure to meet my design standards as covered above, I’m definitely excited to return to researching better platforms and tools for the next iteration of this project. I’m particularly interested in using Neatline, a plug-in hosted by Omeka SI designed to create interactive editions of visual materials, for its potential as an innovative visualization software already supported by Omeka’s excellent metadata architecture. Above, I elaborated on my dissatisfaction with the boundaries provided by Mapplic; I plan to learn the skills to create custom shapefiles in a course on GIS I am taking at Pratt Institute in spring 2022. A significant chunk of my frustration with this vis was that the boundaries on the map were just truly inaccurate for the time period and locations. Hopping in on this using my own skills as a historian, researcher, and tentative geographer may be my best bet at obtaining shapefiles of territorial boundaries in 1707 that allow me flexibility as a creator to adapt the vis to different models of worldmapping.

I’m particularly interested in Neatline because I really like Omeka’s metadata storage capacities. (In contrast, WordPress doesn’t allow storing of images in containers and categories— they float around in posts and pages and have to be manually collected and categorized). I didn’t use Neatline for this project because I was (correctly) worried I wouldn’t have time to gain fluency with the amount of coding needed to customize the program. However, now that the time limit has lifted, I can administer the amount of time and effort I need to test something new.

Ideally, I’d also like to a) add more recipes to the map, b) write an information panel for each ingredient that links to related pages, posts, and images on the site, and c) add a static key to the WordPress map (the one automatically generated by Mapplic is unwieldy). Once the site architecture is in a more complete form, I’ll get started on these three tasks.

This is all to repair the more technical side of this work. I’m also ready to dive deep into research into mapping models that decenter and/or problematize European cartography. There are many existing teams already laying the groundwork for digital storytelling practices that specifically center Indigenous futurity, interconnect communities around the world, share ancestral knowledge, and critically reevaluate the values and practices that underpin and influence the ways we visualize space and place.2 Earth defender communities and their allies around the world have published mapping tools such as Mapeo, Native Land Digital, and Inawe Mazina’igan Map Project that apply storytelling and Indigenous knowledge systems to geographical imaginations today. Programs and partnerships like Indigenous Mapping CollectiveFirelight GroupIndigenous Mapping Network, and Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Indigenous Alliance are also leaders in this push.


Benitez, A. 2018. Trails of Cultures: Trade Routes Connected Ancient Central America. National Museum of the American Indian Magazine.
Belshaw, J., Chelsea Horton, Sarah Nickel. 2016. Contact and the Columbian Exchange in Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada.
Blu Barnd, N., Molly Rosbach. October 2020. Indigenous cartographers work to decolonize mapping of traditional lands. Oregon State University Newsroom.
Blu Barnd, N., Sharon Dias, Annita Hetoevėhotohke’e Lucchesi, Wil Patrick, Reuben Rose-Redwood. 2020. Decolonizing the Map: Recentering Indigenous Mappings. Cartographica vol. 55, no. 3.
Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire. Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.
Hunt, D. Every Bus Stop a Tomb: Decolonial Cartographic Readings against Literary, Visual, and Virtual Colonial Claims to Space. Cartographica vol. 55, no. 3.
Indigenous Mapping Workshop. Firelight Group.
Meier, A. November 2013. How Cartography Helped Make Colonial Empires. HyperAllergic.
Nock, R. October 2017. Maps in Colonialism. Global and Postcolonial Studies.
Lucchesi, A. H. 2020. Spatial Data and (De)colonization: Incorporating Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles into Cartographic Research. Cartographica vol. 55, no. 3.
Pre-Columbian Trade and Contact. /AskHistorians. Reddit.
Ravi, A. in Eman M. Elshaikh. The Columbian Exchange. Khan Academy.
Wills, M. October 2019. The Columbian Exchange Should Be Called The Columbian Extraction. JSTOR Daily.
Whitney cookery collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

1 The Whitney cookery collection consists of seventeen English and American manuscripts, dating from the early 15th to late 19th centuries. The Whitney collection is in the public domain and is currently located in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library. 
2 Natchee Blu Barnd in Rosboch, M. October 2020. Indigenous cartographers work to decolonize mapping of traditional lands. Oregon State University Newsroom.
3 Natchee Blu Barnd, Sharon Dias, Annita Hetoevėhotohke’e Lucchesi, Wil Patrick, Reuben Rose-Redwood. 2020. Decolonizing the Map: Recentering Indigenous Mappings. Cartographica vol. 55, no. 3.