Eating on the Road to the Archives

Brian Taylor

January 31, 2011

At this point in my graduate-school career, I have passed my comprehensive exams in history, and I am traveling around the United States doing archival research. I started out writing what I thought was a dissertation on food but has somehow turned into one on starvation and what people don't eat.

Doing research and writing make for a solitary, unstructured life, no matter how compulsively I plan my driving routes and writing schedule. Living in the archives and my new interest in starvation have also done a lot to unhinge my devotion to eating three meals a day. When you're in Georgia for a week, for example, and you need to make it to three different archives to look at 10 different collections of documents, there just isn't time for lunch.

After half a year on the road in my faithful little car, I have spent a month in a few places, a week in a state or three, and a day here and there. I get hungry constantly while doing research, and although that personal flaw was more troubling when I was writing my master's on cannibalism, it still proves problematic for a variety of reasons. But somewhere between New York and Charleston, S.C., I figured out how to master my hunger while on the archival trail.

First let me caution you: You should not eat in the archives. Librarians have thrown people out for lesser sins.

If you are like an old roommate of mine, and you get tired and weepy without carbohydrates, then you must find a way to eat lunch. Money is usually an issue for most graduate students, but you can always ask around to see whether there are any delis or restaurants nearby that provide affordable fare.

Alternately, and more cheaply, you can pack a lunch if it is allowed, since some archives have lockers where you can store food as well as personal belongings. I myself am partial to my kindergartener's repast of half a turkey sandwich, chips (preferably the cracked black pepper and salt variety), and an apple. Choose something that will keep you awake.

In other places, the librarians actually forbid you from keeping food in your locker. You do have the option of flouting library policy. In one New York library, I lied shamelessly when asked if I had food in my backpack. This technique works so long as you are spending a week or less in a given archive, and the security guards checking your bag don't notice that you retrieve it and disappear outside every day at noon. I do not suggest this approach if a particular archive's holdings are essential to your dissertation research.

Another option is to go hungry. When I haven't eaten, I get cranky, but luckily primary-source research does not require me to interact with anyone regularly. (I do still have to talk to the archivists, but it has always made sense to me to be as nice to them as possible, as they are the gatekeepers to the things I want to read.)

Know what you're like when you're food deprived. If you are simply peckish and unpleasant, as I am, then you can stay in a hotel with a free breakfast buffet, stock up on lemon-poppyseed muffins, skip lunch, and work in silence until it is time for dinner. You will get a lot done, and if you are working in one of those archives that is open only from noon until 5 p.m., because of the unfortunate budget cuts that have plagued libraries everywhere, you really aren't going without food for too long.

Being ravenous at the end of the day presents you with two choices, depending on where you are staying during your archival explorations. You can cook a meal if you have access to a kitchen, or you can buy food if you are staying at a hotel—make sure it has a fridge and a microwave.

I love to cook; it's my favorite way to de-stress at the end of the day. But I know some people who do not enjoy cooking, and who find the methodical chopping of garlic to be more aggravating than soothing. If you are one of those people, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph. For academics who do enjoy spending time in a kitchen, I offer the following advice about cooking on the road: Bring one good-size knife with you, as long as you are driving or checking baggage (so as to avoid undue attention from airline security). You have enough stress without the frustration of trying to halve an acorn squash with a tiny paring knife. In addition, figure out your staples—the groceries you must have with you at all times, so long as you have a burner on which to cook. I carry cumin and curry powder with me. My staples are Cholula hot sauce, eggs, butter, and salami or prosciutto (when I can find them), as well as coffee and a plastic one-cup coffee measure.

A word on coffee. I did not become a caffeine addict until my second year of graduate school. My roommate drank coffee religiously, and it smelled so good in the morning that I indulged, too. Fast-forward two years. During my first month of research in Williamsburg, Va., I had access to a French press. Similarly in the second month, in Bucks County, Pa., I was fortunate to be surrounded by caffeine-addicted scholars who used an electric coffee maker.

When you pack and unpack your bags at least once a month, things tend to disappear, and I managed to lose my trusted one-cup coffee measure before arriving here in Philadelphia. After going to three grocery stores, I have been unable to find a replacement, and I refuse to buy an electric coffee maker only to leave it in Philadelphia.

The historical society does not open until noon, but I find the prospect of purchasing coffee each day a bit ridiculous. I require caffeine long before that time, and I prefer not to pay the extra money it costs to sit in a coffee shop. Let me warn you that if you have a coffee addiction, and a desire to drink coffee while still in your pajamas, you might find yourself wandering the aisles of the local supermarket, piecing together a homemade one-cup coffee maker using a metal funnel from the hardware section, and coffee filters of various sizes. You have been warned of the coffee shenanigans that may ensue. Perhaps consider a tea addiction, as tea bags can be found virtually everywhere, and it is easy to prepare tea while wearing flannel.

If you do not enjoy cooking, at least allow yourself to enjoy food when you have time to eat it. Food is your break from the archives, in the middle of the day—if you're of the sleepy weeper category—or at day's end. Food is my way of marking the time when I can come "home" for the day and stop working.

Don't be afraid to eat alone; people do it all the time outside of the United States. The difference in places like Europe is that no one brings you the check there until you ask for it, but so long as you leave a nice tip, there is no need to feel rushed while stateside.

If I am going to a restaurant, I read reviews online beforehand, keeping in mind that postings from sites such as can be biased. I sometimes go to places that are reviewed most frequently, rather than those with the best ratings but only a few comments. If I am looking for a nicer-than-usual restaurant to reward myself for work well done, I use to find special deals in the city where I'm staying. I also have to remind myself to find a restaurant before I am hungry, or else this activity devolves into my looking at menu after menu while bemoaning how starving I am.

If you absolutely cannot imagine eating alone in public, get takeout, hole up in your apartment or hotel, and indulge in a massive reality-TV marathon. If you are staying at a really cheap hotel, as any self-respecting graduate student should be, take Styrofoam plates from the breakfast buffet, and save them to warm up your takeout leftovers.

Research is a solitary business, and food is one way to break up the monotony. While my interests have shifted from food to food's absence, the fact remains that eating is still deeply important to me.

Working in archives has simply changed how I dine. I eat less, but I also try to enjoy food more when I have time to find it. I exercise if I can, but having suddenly found myself displaced in an East Coast climate, and unwilling to buy cold-weather workout clothes that make me look like a sausage wrapped in its casing, I revel in the fact that I am eating less for the sake of my research, and thus do not have to go for thrice-weekly runs. I walk to the archives when I can. And I've bought a pair of "research pants." Just in case.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin.