Vast and Bewildering: Early America at The Recipes Project

By Carla Cevasco

From the outside, the field of early American studies still looks an awful lot like the Founding Fathers. (Even if they have a catchy soundtrack.) But this white, wealthy, male stereotype is no small source of frustration to those of us who study the global connections and collisions that make up #vastearlyAmerica.

As I completed my Ph.D. in May, I’ve been reflecting on graduate (or, for those on the other side of the pond, postgraduate) education. For many people it is an exercise in specialization, a process of narrowing one’s field of expertise. By contrast, I found myself drawn to interdisciplinary research in American Studies precisely because I have too many interests to confine myself to one discipline.

So it was with delight that I discovered The Recipes Project, when my colleague Theresa McCulla wrote about a panel we presented at the American Historical Association annual meeting in 2015. An in-person connection led me to this online community. On this site I’ve found a place to share many odds and ends of my research, blogging about blood pudding, baby food, fermentation, teaching teenagers, and gluttony. My work here has also inspired me to write for other public scholarship outlets, such as Nursing Clio and Common-Place.

But as varied as my own interests are,  I’m forever amazed at The Recipe Project’s reach. Vast early America is here, in enslaved people’s medical knowledge and Algonquian cooking and the foods of the Columbian Exchange. (And yes, the Founding Fathers are here too, but in some surprising ways.)

Corneille Wytfliet, Vtrivsqve hemispherii delineatio, 1597. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Image Credit: New York Public Library.

The variety does not end there. Where else would I find a post on human taxidermy cheek-by-jowl with an analysis of arranging recipes? The chats with libraries and archives, the teaching series, and the updates on digital humanities projects? The many, many posts on booze around the world?

An academic community like The Recipes Project provides a place for the vastness of my own field to meet the vastness of everyone else’s. While blogging about breastfeeding in early America, I discovered other scholars working on breastmilk as medicine in imperial China, and remedies for nursing problems in early modern England and the ancient world.

The online community here has in turn facilitated powerful in-person connections. The first time that someone came up to me at a big conference and told me they’d heard about my work before, it was because of a post on this site. That moment of having my work recognized as a junior scholar, that moment of knowing that someone else had found my research compelling, kept me going through the long solitary months of dissertation-writing. And I will strive not to forget that feeling as I become faculty myself.

One of the speakers at my commencement ceremony described graduate education as a process of “becoming bewildered,” of learning the limits of what you know. I’ve emerged from an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the field of vast early America, utterly bewildered. But thanks to The Recipes Project, I know where to start looking as I continue seeking answers.


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