Teaching Schoolchildren with Historic Recipes

By Amanda Moniz 

Last February, I visited the Washington Middle School for Girls, a Catholic school serving girls from underprivileged backgrounds in Washington, D.C., to make cookies from the first African American cookbook, published by Malinda Russell in 1866.  In this post, I’d like to reflect on what I learned about the challenges and possibilities of teaching history in schools through hands-on cooking programs.

First a little background about Malinda Russell.  Born in Tennessee around 1820, Russell lived most or all of her life as a freewoman.  At age 19, she intended to migrate to Liberia, but her plans were stymied.  She married and had a son, worked as a washerwoman, and, in time, learned to cook.  After her husband’s death, she kept a boarding house and then opened a pastry shop.  During the Civil War, she was attacked and robbed for supporting the Union and fled to Michigan.  In 1866, she published her cookbook to raise funds to return to Tennessee, where she hoped to recover her property.

Malinda Russell cookbook photo

The Washington Middle School invited me to explore the life of this determined woman and make one of her recipes with the school’s 35 fourth and fifth graders.  I chose Russell’s recipe for jumbles – a cookie made with rosewater, mace, and caraway seeds.  The school has no kitchen, so we agreed we would prep, but not bake, the cookie dough in the lunchroom.  So that the students could try the jumbles, I would bake the cookies at home and bring them in.

So on a bitterly cold day at the end of February, I found myself nervously unloading grocery bags at the school.  I had taught children before, but never 35 of them.  I wasn’t sure if I knew how to present either the history or the baking lesson in a school setting.

After I set up, the teachers ushered the kids in.  I started by asking the girls what they knew about slavery. They were able to speak knowledgably about slaves’ experiences.  Then I asked what they knew about the lives of free African Americans in the antebellum era, and the answer was just about nothing.  I explained that Malinda Russell was a free African American who had lived when most African Americans were slaves.  I outlined her story and talked about obstacles she would have faced.

It was time to make the jumbles.  I had students read the recipe aloud and identify ingredients.  Next I assigned tasks.  Then, we got to work and this is where things went somewhat awry.  While waiting for ingredients to be passed around, the kids jostled each other and got a little noisy.  I found it challenging to maintain order with the girls.  We got four batches of the dough made, however, and the kids rolled or shaped it into balls or double rings.  Finally, we sampled the jumbles – and they were a hit.

So what did I learn?  Most important, I recognized that teaching history through recipes to elementary and middle school students (and, surely, high school students too) critically depends on K-12 educators who know how to teach schoolchildren and can anticipate their needs and interests in ways that a visitor like myself could not.  I had thought through every step of the recipe and how to make it work even though we weren’t in a kitchen, but the lack of a kitchen turned out not to be a real issue.  Instead, the fact that some ingredients had to be passed from table to table created downtime for the girls to become antsy.  I wanted the kids to measure out ingredients themselves – this is what cooking is – but I should have put, for instance, some flour into a bowl on each table and let the girls measure from it, rather than have to wait for the 5 pound bag to come to them.  An experienced K-12 teacher would not have made that and similar mistakes.

K-12 teachers are paramount in educating our children about history, but academic historians and institutions such as the American Historical Association (AHA) have key roles in broadening our children’s educational experiences too.  Russell does not find a place in elementary, middle, or high school curricula – although she can be fit into the study of the Civil War – and here is where academics can make a contribution.  Scholarly interest in food history is going gangbusters.  Historians would do well, I think, to collaborate with elementary and secondary school educators to identify usable primary sources that can be related to curricula.  The AHA’s K-12 workshop at the upcoming annual meeting in New York, in January 2015, will do just that: The workshop will explore teaching the history of World War I through food.

What worked?  The students loved the opportunity to cook at school.  They were eager to answer my questions and to read aloud from the cookbook.  But the chance to take ingredients and transform them captivated them.  And it created openings to teach history.  The girls at the Washington Middle School, and likewise, the students at the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, who I spoke with by Skype last February, wanted to know more about foods in the past.  The ingredients – something they could relate to but perhaps had not thought about as having pasts – sparked their historical curiosity and imagination.

Did I do everything right?  No.  Can we use historic recipes to teach history?  Absolutely.


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