University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Zooming in on seventeenth-century elite food culture

Third-year student Ashleigh Hufton writes about the experience of presenting her undergraduate research at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research.  Because of the pandemic, Ashleigh had to get to grips with presenting on Zoom a process she found nerve-racking but a very worthwhile learning experience.  Ashleigh’s dissertation research, ‘Social Differentiation and the Polite Society: Food and Dining in Seventeenth-Century England’ looked at how food culture became symbolic of identity, social status, and power during the seventeenth-century. The type of food consumed, how it was consumed, and what it was consumed with, strictly defined which part of the social scale individuals fell in to.  Taking the lead from French food culture, the elites and middling sorts manipulated the use of richer foods and politer dining methods to differentiate themselves from those below them on the social scale. 

Silver-gilt Spoon, Victoria and Albert Museum, M.325-1962, 1670

Silver-gilt Spoon, Victoria and Albert Museum, M.325-1962, 1670

After seeing Mike Esbester’s email about the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, I initially did not think that I had the confidence to present my research to a broader audience. Yet, after having a conversation with my dissertation supervisor Katy Gibbons I decided to apply (and I’m glad I did!). The application process began with writing a 250 word abstract outlining what my research was, and why I wished to present it at the conference. Still at this point, I was very apprehensive and nervous. 

After my abstract was accepted, the next step was to create presentation slides and prepare to present my research at the conference. At this point, Julian was very responsive to emails. He helped with creating and preparing the presentation slides, and was a first port of call for any questions or queries. This helped ease the nerves and made me feel more relaxed towards the process! 

Prior to presenting on the day, we had a run through on Zoom to help us get a taste for what the day itself would be like. We were also provided with a schedule of the presentations on the day. I felt very prepared and ready before I presented – which was very different to how I felt when I first applied! The University’s lecturers were incredibly supportive and clearly wanted to see you succeed. This made the application process, and presenting on the day, much less scary and nerve-wracking! 

Although we presented and prepared for the conference through Zoom, and not in person, the experience was still just as rewarding and valuable. From participating in the conference, I have gained a lot of confidence in my own research and presentation skills. This applies to both historical research and presenting to broader academic fields. Having the opportunity to present my research at the BCUR has also prepared me for further historical study, such as the MA course I start in September 2021. The experience has allowed me to understand how historical research can apply to society, outside of University. Not only this, but having to condense my 10,000 word research project into a ten minute presentation helped me define and clarify the overall argument of my undergraduate dissertation. Both writing my dissertation and presenting at the BCUR have been beneficial for my undergraduate research and my confidence in my historical skills. 

My advice for future students, looking into applying for the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, is to go for it! The amount of support and valuable skills that I have gained from the experience alone is worth it. It is not only a great thing to put on your CV, but it has helped me demonstrate my enthusiasm for historical study and research within my Masters application. It is a beneficial experience to reference in life after university and will make you stand out in future postgraduate or job applications! All in all, I would say the experience was valuable, exciting and rewarding.

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