A Recipe’s Place is in the Classroom

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  Here, series editor Amanda Herbert discusses the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Test-Kitchen.”  This piece was cross-posted on the Folger’s blog, The Collation, which seeks to present bite-sized pieces of useful information and observations from staff and researchers of the Folger Shakespeare Library.]

Cookery and Medicinal Recipes (c. 1675-c.1750) V.a.429, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library's LUNA: Digital Image Collection.
Cookery and Medicinal Recipes (c. 1675-c.1750) V.a.429, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s LUNA: Digital Image Collection.

Amanda E. Herbert

The Folger Shakespeare Library is many things: an internationally-renowned research library, a museum, a performance space, a center for innovative digital initiatives.  But it’s also a classroom, or even many different kinds of classrooms: education is central to the Folger mission, and every year the Folger offers hundreds of programs designed for all kinds of classrooms, from bright, lively elementary-school homerooms to spare, echoing college lecture halls, and from traditional school-houses filled with desks and chalkboards, to pioneering online learning communities populated by students from around the world.

This past summer, the Folger created a special kind of classroom: a test-kitchen.  The Folger’s test-kitchen was used during a week-long skills course in paleography (the study of handwriting) for scholars who study the early modern period (c. 1450-1750).  Under the direction of Folger Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe, the students in this workshop learned how to read and transcribe early modern handwritten documents.  They did this through their own “hands-on” work: scrutinizing letters, notebooks, and diaries written by women and men hundreds of years ago, experimenting with historical writing materials (bird-feather quills, iron gall ink, and rag paper), and – best of all, from my perspective – bringing an old recipe to life.  Our paleography students used a recipe taken from an early modern book (Folger V.a.429) to make an early modern dish: Almond Jumballs, a sweet, cookie-like confection that was a popular treat in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Ingredients for our modern Jumballs. Image courtesy of the author.
Ingredients for our modern Jumballs. Image courtesy of the author.

Kitchens are my favorite kinds of classrooms, and recipes are my favorite teaching tools.  I’ve written about using recipes in my own higher-education classrooms.  Friends and colleagues have also used them to great effect in elementary/primary schools, high schools, and in museum and library programming intended for members of the general public.  Recipes seem simple, and they seem approachable and even familiar, and for this reason they draw in people of all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and kinds.  But once you start to examine a recipe more closely, it reveals incredibly rich, complex details about the moment and place in which it was written: recipes tell us about socioeconomics, migration and immigration patterns, and religious prohibitions and practices.  They teach us about environmental policies, agriculture and sustainability, foodways, and cultivation practices.  They offer evidence of mercantilism and trade, of culture and aesthetics and taste.  They tell stories of war, dearth, and conflict as well as those of peace and plenty.

Toasting almond flour in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.
Toasting almond flour in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.

Under the guidance of Marissa Nicosia (Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature at Penn State Abingdon, a Folger fellowship recipient, and the co-creator of Cooking the Archive, a blog devoted to re-creating historical foods) our paleography students read, studied, and transcribed the Almond Jumball (pronounced like “jumble” with a hard J) recipe.  There’s an excellent post on Cooking the Archive which provides a step-by-step description of the experiment, and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in re-creating the recipe yourself.  I’d also recommend two Folger food resources: a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast featuring Wendy Wall, where she talks about her new book, Recipes for Thought, and our Shakespeare & Beyond blog post on early modern food culture and food in Shakespeare’s plays.

But there were also some larger scholarly lessons that we took away from our afternoon in the Folger test-kitchen.  The ingredients in the Jumball recipe included almonds, orange-flower water, and about a pound of sugar, and it called for the use of a kitchen “syringe,” a specialized instrument used by chefs for piping and shaping foods; all of these things were high-end, valuable commodities in the early modern period, and suggest that the Jumballs would have been commissioned and consumed by higher-status people, even if the labor involved in making them might have fallen to lower-status ones.  The recipe’s instructions called for the combination of “shelf-stable” ingredients in stages, which would have kept the food from spoiling and allowed the maker to start and stop cooking at intervals, a gendered, pre-industrial labor pattern common to early modern households.  And the recipe, like the book in which it was contained, was possibly collaborative, as the collection was compiled by several women from the same family: Rose Kendall, Ann Kendall Carter, Elizabeth Clarke, and Anna Maria Wentworth.  Despite their familial ties, the authors did not, however share chronological or geographic ones: the book was compiled gradually, over the course of about forty years (c. 1682-1726), and members of the family lived in locations across England, including Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bedfordshire, and London.

Heating sugar syrup in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.
Heating sugar syrup in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.

The time that it took to make the Jumballs in the Folger test-kitchen was brief, lasting only a few hours, but the exercise has continued to make me think.  The Almond Jumball recipe seems to offer just the smallest scrap of evidence about the early modern world.  But through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.  Although the charm and ostensible simplicity of historical recipes draw many people in to study the past, it’s the big-picture ideas engendered in their study which help to demonstrate the value and impact of our scholarly work.  This is the kind of payoff that we can expect from recipes, and it’s why they’re wonderful pedagogical tools, suited to all types of classrooms.

The Literary Cookbook

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, Carrie Helms Tippen offers her thoughts on teaching food-writing and food-reading, and on the future of the culinary literary imagination.]

Photo of the author. Credit to Whitney Sawyer Photography.
Photo of the author. Credit to Whitney Sawyer Photography.

By Carrie Helms Tippen

I often come across people who tell me that they collect cookbooks, and I always ask them: “Which ones do you use? And which ones do you read?

The thing I love most about studying cookbooks as a career is that I can talk about my research with almost anyone. The conversations are always rich, whether I’m talking to the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office, the woman who cuts my hair, or my university’s president.

Last month, on a layover between flights, I was talking cookbooks with the woman next to me at the gate. She always kept one or two new cookbooks on her nightstand and read them at night when she couldn’t sleep. “Only you would get this,” she said to me and patted my knee like an old friend.

Of course, I’m not the only one who gets this. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues in “Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performance Medium” that experienced cookbook readers approach cookbooks as imaginative texts to be read, and perhaps never used: “Cookbooks, now more than ever, are a way of eating by reading recipes and looking at photographs. Those books may never see the kitchen. Indeed, experienced readers can sight-read a recipe the way a musician sight-reads a score. They can ‘play’ the recipe in their mind’s eye.”

Just as an experienced reader of fantasy novels can conjure an entire world by reading words on a page, a cookbook reader imagines a recipe like a narrative in which the reader is the protagonist, chopping, sauteeing, seeing, smelling, and tasting.

Moreover, today’s cookbooks come packed with stories in long narrative prefaces, chapter introductions, and recipe headnotes. The reader may be the protagonist of the recipe, but the cookbook author provides pages and pages of autobiographical narrative and anecdote.

Take, for example, Ruth Reichl’s 2015 cookbook, My Kitchen Year. Reichl documents the “136 Recipes that Saved My Life” in the year after Gourmet magazine closed and her job as editor in chief disappeared. The recipes are arranged as they appear in the story of that year: the Shirred Eggs with Potato Puree that Reichl made for breakfast on the day the closing was announced, the Thai-American Noodles she made for lunch while thinking, “I’d spent too many years trading time for money. Was I better off now?” The chapters are divided by season, and each chapter is arranged chronologically, organized around Reichl’s tweets from that season. It is clear that the book is intended to be read, in order, from front to back, like a memoir.

In her blurb on the back cover, famed chef Alice Waters highlights the narrative quality of Reichl’s book: “Ruth is one of our greatest storytellers,” Waters writes. “This book is a lyrical and deeply intimate journey told through recipes, as only Ruth can do.” The product being sold is a story, and Reichl is the protagonist.

While there is an alphabetical recipe index at the back, the book does not lend itself to recipe browsing by course or ingredient. Of course, the cookbook can be used. Reichl encourages readers in “A Note on the Recipes” to innovate with the recipes in this book: “What I really want is for my recipes to become your own.”

However, even the cooking is meant to be an imaginative practice involving Reichl’s persona as character. Reichl describes recipes as “conversations” between herself and the reader, and she encourages readers to imagine “we were standing in the kitchen, cooking together.” Reichl asks to be included as a character in the kitchen performance. The intimacy established between author and reader in reading is continued even when imagination turns to creative action in the kitchen.

Bedside Reading: An incomplete collection of 21st century Literary Cookbooks. Credit to Carrie Helms Tippen.
Bedside Reading: An incomplete collection of 21st century Literary Cookbooks. Credit to Carrie Helms Tippen.

I call this type of cookbook made for reading a “literary cookbook.” The focus is on an encounter with the authorial persona, and often, the writers of these cookbooks are well-known as “authors” in their own rights. In each, the organization, tone, language, narrative, and marketing of the book all guide the beholder into the role of imaginative reader first and user second, if at all.

This spring, I will teach a course called “The Literary Cookbook” for graduate and undergraduate students in Creative Writing, and Reichl is up first on the syllabus. The course will focus on the cookbook as a literary genre with its own set of conventions. We’ll talk first about how to read a literary cookbook, and then we’ll think about how to go about writing one.

“Recipe writing is a direct reflection of culture,” Reichl writes in the Prologue to My Kitchen Year, “which means that it changes along with the times.” For now, the times seem to be pointing to a cookbook reading experience that merges literary imagination with creative kitchen action.

*****

Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carrie studies literary food writing and food in literature. She teaches courses in American Literature and Creative Writing. Her work has been published in Food and Foodways, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society. Her ongoing book project, titled Stories of Southern Cooking: Defining Authentic New Southern Identity in Recipe Origin Narratives, examines the rhetorical value of proving authenticity in contemporary cookbooks.

Coming Soon… History Carnival 159!

Two boys tease a carnival reveller wearing a grotesque mask, while a third boy blows a horn. Colour lithograph after L. Boilly, 1824. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Taunts by creepy kids not included in our carnival! Two boys tease a carnival reveller wearing a grotesque mask, while a third boy blows a horn. Colour lithograph after L. Boilly, 1824. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On October 1, I’ll be pleased to host History Carnival 159 at The Recipes Project. A History Carnival is a round-up of the best of the history blogging in the last month. History here is widely defined to include academic or popular history and could include discussions of teaching, research, sources, debates… Really, anything but fiction!

If you’ve never seen a Carnival before (or just missed the most recent one), you can check out the September Carnival, which was hosted by Ana Stevenson.

So, have you read any great history blogging this month… or want to share your own posts? Please send in your nominations here before September 30.

Teaching Intoxication

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this post, Dr. Gabe Klehr asks us to think carefully about the ways that we talk and teach about the historical experience of “drunkenness.”]

By Gabe Klehr

An early example of temperance propaganda, depicting the many excuses Colonial Americans found for drinking binges. "Apologies for Tippling," Woodward, G.M, 1798, Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
An early example of temperance propaganda, depicting the many excuses Colonial Americans found for drinking binges. “Apologies for Tippling,” Woodward, G.M, 1798, Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Last spring, I taught a new class on the role of alcohol in American history. I usually find that I can spend a lot of time setting up a class, but it takes actually teaching it to really figure out what the themes of the class are going to be. Obviously, any history class involves questions of historical identification and difference, but talking about historical use of alcohol brought these questions to the fore in interesting and surprising ways.

I was in the middle of a lecture about American drinking habits in the eighteenth century when the issues of understanding the effects of alcohol in the past became particularly clear. I had started the lecture with a discussion of the drinking habits American colonists had brought with them from early modern Britain. This was a world in which a British physician wrote “Water is not wholesome solely by itself for an Englishman.”[1] Given the levels of pollution in most water sources in early America, this might have been sound advice.  Jamestown, for example, had brackish, possibly poisonous water, and colonists stopped drinking it almost as soon as they were able to produce enough alcohol.

I laid out this background and then discussed what this meant. Eighteenth century residents of British North America drank alcohol at all meals from morning to night. On top of this regular daily drinking there were frequent communal binges on holidays and other public gatherings. As I was describing all of this, a student asked “so, basically early Americans were drunk all the time?” It wasn’t a bad question, but as I tried to answer it, it occurred to me how many other questions it raised about our relationship with people from the past.  Not all early Americans had access to alcohol.  And early modern beer and wine and spirits might not have had as much alcohol as we might assume: in their post earlier this week, “Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?” Angela McShane and James Brown of the Intoxicants Project talked about their research into early modern ABV numbers.

It was easy enough to get students to understand the biological perspective, but I wanted them to see it as only part of the puzzle. Alcohol tolerance can be a biological metaphor for trying to understand the subjectivity of historical actors.  Colonial Americans didn’t feel the effects of alcohol the way most of us do.   It isn’t just that people processed alcohol differently, but also that they understood it differently, and this understanding changed the effect of alcohol. In the metaphor, this could almost be considered a form of cultural tolerance. For historians, of course, this is a familiar perspective, but as many of us know from experience, getting undergraduates to think of the past as a different country with different standards and values can be quite difficult.

The suggestion in this 19th century cartoon that moderate drinking put men on the road to ruin would have been novel to Americans in the 18th century. Alcohol was almost universally viewed as a positive good. "The Drunkard's Progress, or the Direct Road to Poverty Wretchedness and Ruin," Barber, John Warner, 1826. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
The suggestion in this 19th century cartoon that moderate drinking put men on the road to ruin would have been novel to Americans in the 18th century. Alcohol was almost universally viewed as a positive good. “The Drunkard’s Progress, or the Direct Road to Poverty Wretchedness and Ruin,” Barber, John Warner, 1826. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

As the class progressed, these problems continued. On one hand, much of the energy and interest of the class came because students could personally relate to the class material about alcohol and attitudes about it. I want students to feel invested in the course material, but it was very difficult to get many of them to consider what it meant that people in the past thought about alcohol very differently than contemporary Americans do. It was also often difficult to get them to consider what all this meant about our contemporary medicalized and therapeutic understandings of alcohol, or even to consider those approaches to be historically contingent rather than simply the “correct” approaches that historical actors were unaware of.

To come back to the question the student asked, I’m not sure it is possible to know if colonial Americans were drunk most of the time. I tend to think that such a vast gulf separates us from them that it is very hard to know how they felt. Some things in the past might be lost forever and perhaps nothing is more fleeting and subjective than a physical state caused by an intoxicating substance. However, how I would answer the question isn’t really the point. What I wanted was to get students to pose the question and to try to use sources and their historical imagination to think about it.

I’ll be teaching the course again next spring and have been considering how I can encourage students to consider these questions. I’m planning to spend the first week of class examining how historians approach the history of food, drink and alcohol. I’m hoping that an approach that brings questions of methodology and theory to the fore will set the tone for the rest of the class. I’d appreciate any suggestions on readings.  I don’t want to be prescriptive in telling students how they should think about the relationship between past and present understandings. I do, however, want to give them some frameworks for understanding the questions. I think tackling questions about historical imagination head on will help to make it a theme rather than a stumbling block in the class. Talking about something that students have a visceral and personal understanding of (in this case, alcohol) can often be an excellent way to address historical imagination, and I’m hopeful that the students and I can do that together.

[1] Quoted in John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, A Social History of Drink in Modern Britain, p. 9. Routledge, 2012.

*****

Gabe Klehr is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University.  He is currently working on a book examining black Baptists in biracial churches in Virginia from 1780-1865.

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