Leftovers: Cooking, Blogging, and Studying History from Old Recipes

By Alma Igra

I started the “Leftovers” project because I wanted to bring together two of my greatest loves: history and food. I began my BA in History in 2007 and my work as a food writer and recipe developer in 2008, but I never actually got to combine the two. I approached this project in 2014 as a PhD student at Columbia (and as part of the “History in Action” program in my department, part of the American Historical Association-Mellon Career Diversity Pilot Program that year) thinking that I understand what it would mean to write about food history: historians are storytellers, and food would be a nice, attractive anecdote for this storytelling.

beef broth pic
Ancient Mesopotamian beet broth. Photo by Avner Barak

Well, I got it all wrong. Cookbooks are not plots or colorful anecdotes for history: they are history. Just like primary sources in the archive, we have to interpret them, read them in context, and read between the lines to look for motivations and interests. Cookbooks can be ideological, they can make medical arguments, and they can serve as charity projects. Like every piece of history, it’s not only about writing or telling a story, but about developing as a reader, and constantly challenging your sources and your own presumptions.

Shortly after I won the History in Action grant, the Leftovers blog became a team project. My husband, Avner Barak, is a food photographer, and worked on the photos of the different dishes that we tried. Jordan Katz, my colleague from the History Department. joined me for the process of researching and writing the posts. Jordan studies Early Modern history of medicine, and brought a lot of her own work on food and the world of medicine, alchemy, and artisanship to this project. Our blog became an experiment not only in writing short, snappy texts on complicated historical topics, but also in writing something together. Very refreshing thing to do while working on the seven-year process of writing a dissertation on your own…

spinach
Spinach with yogurt from a 15th-century Ottoman Cookbook. Photo by Avner Bara

As a student of Professor Pamela Smith, Jordan also came with the ideology of recipe reconstruction as part of collaborative knowledge recovery. Recipes are historical documents that rely on specific contextual knowledge. Many instructions require you to cook “until right” or add “enough” water. Every culture had a particular culinary common sense that we had to try to recover. As an experienced cook, I usually read the recipes and tried to prepare them based on what I know from today’s cooking methods. Jordan’s framework was different: every recipe preserves some kind of old knowledge that someone found important, and she felt that we had to work as close to the original recipe as possible. Even if we didn’t like the taste of what we cooked, there was a lesson to pick up from the different norms of what was considered tasty at different times.

In trying to stick to “old” methods, I had to abandon my wonderful blender and electric mixer and go back to tools such as mortar and pestle. It took us more time to prepare the food, but we also learned to appreciate the different kinds of knowledge that one could recover from old cookbooks: knowledge of the muscles, knowledge of the palate, knowledge of the senses.

Another type of knowledge we had to analyze was the quantitative practices of cooking. Most of the recipes that we tried did not have any clear quantities, and were based on the assumption that the cook had experience and familiarity with the dish. When we did see quantitative instructions, they were often prescribed as percentages, requiring 40% milk and 20% butter, for example. In this manner, recipes gave us insight into different quantitative perceptions throughout history.

From the very beginning, we made the decision to make our collection of recipes as diverse as possible. I created a map and timeline, and promised myself that we would try to have recipes from as many places and historical eras as possible. This wasn’t an easy goal, but it helped us identify “big” arguments and conclusions that can emerge from culinary history. Some of these themes – class, gender, trade, knowledge, and community life – reappear in sources that, despite their geographical and chronological disparity, embody shared human concerns.

 

Alma Igra is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, department of history, working on 20th century British Empire. Her other fields of interest include food history, environmental history and history of development in the Middle East. Alma holds a BA in history from Tel Aviv University and a MA from the Central European University. She write a very popular vegetarian food blog in Hebrew since 2008, and her recipes have appeared in different publications in Israel.


2 thoughts on “Leftovers: Cooking, Blogging, and Studying History from Old Recipes”

  1. I’m excited to see this series and the proliferation of academic blogs and projects that rely on cookbooks and recipes as primary sources for studying history. Of course, this is entirely selfish as that is precisely what brought me to graduate school. I’m a History PhD student at New York University, so not far from you. I look forward to seeing this series develops.

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