Teaching High School American History With Cookbooks

By Carla Cevasco 

“Ew! Peanut butter in tamales?” a student exclaims. This unappetizing take on Mexican food, from the 1922 cookbook Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health, provides a perfect jumping-off point for me and a classroom of high school juniors to discuss American immigration policy in the early twentieth century. Bertha Wood’s ‘Americanized’ recipe for tamales hints that many Americans felt anxious about immigrants and the food cultures they brought with them.

Tamales. Image Credit: Phil Gregory. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Tamales. Image Credit: Phil Gregory. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Although I normally teach undergraduates, for the past two years, I’ve participated in a one-day food and farming teach-in at a college preparatory school in rural Massachusetts. The teach-in draws farmers, food scientists, and other community members to campus, including this food historian. It’s an exciting opportunity to get into the classroom with curious, enthusiastic high school students.

I’ve used historic cookbooks to teach American food history to students in classes as diverse as American history, multivariable calculus (the only calc class I’ve ever attended!), and American literature. For many students, this is their first experience with food history, and we usually only have at most an hour and a half in the classroom together. The cookbooks allow us to explore how many themes in American history–labor, gender, race, immigration, and ethnicity, to name just a few–intersect with the history of food. The lesson also trains students to look closely at primary sources, to draw comparisons between them, and to consider the connections between cookbooks and their historical contexts.

To start off the class, we review what a modern recipe looks like, just in case students haven’t really looked at a cookbook before. Next, I break students into groups of 3 or 4 and hand out packets of selections from historical cookbooks (typically the title page, part of the introduction or preface, and a few recipes), arranged in chronological order. Each group looks closely at two or three cookbooks. The students read their assigned selections aloud to each other, and take notes both on factual information (the book’s title, author, date of publication, names of recipes, etc.) and more interpretive questions (stated or implied audience, how this cookbook compares to the others, words/concepts they found interesting or confusing, etc.). The groups transfer these notes to a grid on the chalkboard and then present to the entire class on what they’ve discovered.

In our discussion, I encourage students to place their observations about the cookbooks in broader historical contexts: Why might the formerly-enslaved Abby Fisher have included a recipe for “Plantation Corn Bread” in her cookbook? Why did Peg Bracken’s hilariously sarcastic I Hate to Cook Book become a bestseller in the early 1960s?

For the books themselves, I selected books that held historical significance, or highlighted particular places, times, or themes. (Full-text or images at the links.)

Image Credit: Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (1798). The first ‘American’ cookbook published in America, the book makes use of English methods and some distinctively American ingredients (such as corn).

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1824). This cookbook features Southern regional cooking, including African influences.

Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881). This is the second cookbook published in the United States by an African American writer.

Bertha Wood, Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health (1922).The book shows ambivalence about immigrants bringing new food traditions to the United States.

Peg Bracken, The I Hate to Cook Book (1960). This book is a good jumping-off point to discuss post-WWII prosperity, convenience foods, and gender roles.


7 thoughts on “Teaching High School American History With Cookbooks”

  1. What a wonderful story! I’ve spent some time looking at German-American cookbooks and it’s wonderful to see how the German language adapted to their new American setting. I think using cookbooks as a point of reference is a wonderful way to learn about changes in society!

  2. I’m a math professor, and I’m curious about what you did with the multivariable calculus class. It sounds like a neat idea, and I’d love to have more details about it. Thanks!

  3. Evelyn – great question. For the math students, I used the same lesson plan, but focused more on the history of measuring in cooking. The standardized “cup” measurement we use in US cooking didn’t become common until the late 19th century. 18th and 19th-century recipes sometimes relied on proportions, sometimes on nonstandardized units (fingers, teacups, wine glasses). I’m sure that a teacher more at ease in a math classroom would be able to do much more with this topic.

  4. “Ew! Peanut butter in tamales?”

    Maybe not “Ew!” at all to someone familiar with more than just the red pork tamales standard in the US. Peanut butter instead of lard or shortening in the masa might add a lot to a sweet tamal with a coconut or pumpkin filling. Thanks for the idea!

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