Historic Recipes as Sources: A Special Series

By Amanda Moniz

Historians are currently engaged in a project of learning to use food as a source and as a medium for the study of history.  Long an aspect of historic sites’ programs, the history of food and eating is increasingly attracting the interest of historians working in a broad range of institutions.  Museums, such as the National Museum of American History, now feature exhibits and events about food history.  More and more scholars are studying the production, consumption, and meaning of food in various times and places.  Blog, journals and listservs are examining the topic.  Elementary, secondary, and college educators are integrating the history of food into their curricula.  Meanwhile, with interest in the history of sensory experiences burgeoning more generally, scholars are experimenting with making and eating recipes as part of the study of the history of food.  This special series examines some of the issues this endeavor raises.

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Food is appealing and accessible as a means for studying the past.  As the posts in this series explore, that accessibility encourages scholars to address familiar questions about interrogating sources in distinct ways.  Alma Igra, recipient of a “History in Action” grant from the American Historical Association-Mellon Career Diversity Pilot Program for the Leftovers project, reflects on the tension between necessarily bringing her experience as a cook to historic recipes and faithfully recovering those recipes.  Comparing two early-modern rice pudding recipes, along with the larger history of global trade and labor they reveal, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia of Cooking in the Archives consider how historic recipes allow us to approach, though never fully reach, an appreciation of palates in the past.  David S. Shields, a leader in both the field of American food history and the repatriation of historic American foods, examines the unusual nature of American bitters, probing recipes for their insights into cultural preoccupations.

As these authors so insightfully discuss, making and eating historic foods raises questions experientially about cookbooks, recipes, and ingredients as sources.  The nature of cooking and eating, along with practical considerations, also fosters more collaboration among scholars and in historic foodways projects than in historians’ typical work, as the various endeavors of the scholars in this series show.  Much as the musical Hamilton innovatively explains historians’ reliance on an incomplete record to craft historical narratives, historic cookery similarly offers scholars’ opportunities to work with one another and with students and broader publics to grapple with the making of history.  We invite you to join our exploration of food as source and medium for studying the past and welcome your thoughts.

Amanda Moniz is assistant director of the National History Center and Program Coordinator at the American Historical Association.  A former pastry chef, she pursues public history projects about food.


2 thoughts on “Historic Recipes as Sources: A Special Series”

  1. Interesting article. My, initially frivolous, website about carrots has lead me on a historical research journey, involving every age of use of the carrot, from ancient Greece to World War Two and the re-birth of carrot use as a viable alternative food during the period of severe rationing.

    Also the history of carrot cake and carrot puddings.

  2. John a short story for your collection. My late father was an RAAF doctor in WWII. He used to amuse us with a story about carrots and how the Allies put out the well known property of carrots for helping with night vision as a way to keep radar secret from the Enemy for as long as possible. An airman’s wife took it so much to heart that she consumed huge quantities and turned bright orange.
    Donald

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