Kansas City, food and history

May 6, 2016

English professor Andrea Broomfield writes “Kansas City: A Food Biography”

Andrea Broomfield, professor of English at Johnson County Community College, has written a tribute to her hometown. She calls it “a labor of love.”

The book “Kansas City: A Food Biography” shares hundreds of years of culinary history. It is Broomfield’s second book on food history.

“Kansas City is considered a Midwestern town – the middle of the middle of the middle,” she said. “But there’s also a tradition of hospitality that is usually associated with the South. So the southern United States had a definite influence on Kansas City culture, and that is also due to the settlement of slaves in this region.”

What shaped Kansas City

Broomfield devoted one of her nine chapters on the effect African-Americans had in Kansas City cooking. “I think that was actually my favorite chapter,” she said. “African Americans as cooks had a profound influence on Kansas City foodways, and there was so much information that no one had yet uncovered or put into a food history.”

Coming from a hot climate, Southerners salted, brined and smoked food to keep it preserved in the hot weather, she explained. “Kansas City may be farther north, but it still has these long, sultry summers. And Southerners of all races brought with them a love of smoky, salty, fried food,” she said.

As Southerners came north, immigrants from the “old country” were coming west, bringing with them their own cooking traditions. And before that, the Native Americans fed their families from what was hunted, gathered and grown in the region.

Researching and writing

When she was writing the chapter “The Old World Meets the New,” she and her family took a trip to the Southwest to study the patterns of American Indian migration. While her husband and kids went exploring, she studied pottery styles used in historic and prehistoric times.

“It’s not as if all that information went into the book,” Broomfield said. “But it did provide me the confidence to speak with some authority on the era as it relates to food and this particular region.”

Even during these “vacations” she wrote, waking early to meet her self-imposed word count. By the time classes at JCCC began, she was getting up at 4 a.m. to write before her morning office hours. After a full day of teaching, she’d go home and write from 7 p.m. to midnight.

“What other people do in their spare time, I spend writing,” she said. “It’s always like that when I am working on a book. When I’m writing it, I’m living it.”

About the book

The book is part of a series called Big City Food Biographies and includes Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon) and New Orleans.

“Kansas City: A Food Biography” also includes chapters on KC’s natural resources, its markets and its historic restaurants.

Broomfield outlined some chapters based on her College Scholar presentation at JCCC in 2013. As part of that lecture series, Broomfield led a walking tour of the 18th and Vine district to discuss culinary history there.

“Kansas City was founded because of food,” Broomfield said. “It came into existence because people would stop to refuel – take in some meals, some whisky, some entertainment – before heading west. And sometimes they didn’t have enough money for all the supplies they needed, so they’d work here in Kansas City until they did…That song ‘Goin’ to Kansas City’ reflects Kansas City’s history of dancing, drinking and eating.”