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McCulla, Theresa

National Museum of American History staff

I am a historian of the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. My scholarship investigates how Americans have used material and visual culture to understand race, ethnicity, and gender, especially in relation to food and drink.

As curator of the American Brewing History Initiative, I collect objects, documents, and oral histories from the talented women and men who make the American brewing industry the most creative in the world.


Research Areas

Geographic Focus

Background And Education

Education And Training

Professional Biography

  • Theresa McCulla is Curator of the American Brewing History Initiative, a project to document and collect the history of beer in the United States, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Previously, she worked for Harvard University Library, Harvard University Dining Services, and the Central Intelligence Agency. McCulla earned a PhD in American Studies and an MA in History from Harvard University, a Culinary Arts Diploma from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and a BA in Romance Languages from Harvard College. Her writing, which has been awarded by the James Beard Foundation and the North American Guild of Beer Writers, has been published in The Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine, Gastronomica, Quaderni Storici, Good Beer Hunting, and other venues. She is writing a book, "Insatiable City: Eating Food and Consuming People in New Orleans" (under contract with the University of Chicago Press), about the history of food, drink, and race in New Orleans.

Awards And Honors

Research And Grants

Research Overview

  • My first book, "Insatiable City: Eating Food and Consuming People in New Orleans" (under contract with the University of Chicago Press), tracks the trajectory of the New Orleans economy from nineteenth-century chattel slavery to twenty-first-century tourism via the realms of food and drink. This book explores how the sensory pleasures of dining and drinking in the Crescent City enabled many to enjoy food and drink as realms of leisure and gratification incapable of harmful effects. This study reveals a different history. Sources like official records, autobiographies and interviews of formerly enslaved people, travel guides, cookbooks, menus, postcards, and stereographs reveal a rich, often ugly history. They also yield lives of great creativity, skill, and bravery. Enslaved and free people of color in New Orleans used food and drink to carve paths of mobility, stability, autonomy, freedom, profit, and joy. The book chronicles a history of pleasure and pain and leisure and labor, via food.

    My additional scholarship elaborates on the connections among identity, consumption, and material culture in realms of food and drink. An essay published by Good Beer Hunting (September 2021) used two “runaway ads” to explore the world of Patsy Young, an early American brewer and a fugitive from slavery in early-1800s North Carolina. An article published in Gastronomica (Winter 2019) used artifacts and oral histories collected for the Smithsonian to argue for an unexpected link between the strategies and culture of mass manufacturing and the birth of microbrewing at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company in the 1960s. An article published in Quaderni Storici (April 2016) investigated the spatial effects of the white ethnic revival on African Americans, Italian Americans, and Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans.

    I am developing additional articles on alcohol consumption and slavery; souvenir dolls of New Orleans food vendors; and the male-gendered worlds of American homebrewing and computing clubs in the 1970s.


Selected Publications