Tag Archives: Community

“Stone Soup”: Reflections on Community Conversations

Editorial: This is the final of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Recipes form communities.

Readers of The Recipes Project know this to be true. Scholars from diverse backgrounds meet in this forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, insights, experiments, and discoveries, brought together by a shared fascination with this amorphous form of record-keeping, receipt-making, and instruction.

Contributing to The Recipes Project has provided me with a rare chance to explore connections between historical recipes, to chart and analyze—and frequently delight in—what to modern eyes might seem bizarre and outlandish (pigeon blood eye wash, anyone?).

But the examination of the recipe’s central role in our lives and histories can also be expanded and enriched beyond the academic through public history and storytelling. There’s a special magic in talking about recipes, a visceral emotional reaction and an almost immediate connection to the past, to personal heritage and individual history.

It’s that sort of alchemy that I wanted to explore further when I applied to be a conversation project facilitator with Oregon Humanities, proposing a topic called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nurture Community.” 

miltonfreewaterrecipes
Recipes gathered for the Oregon Humanities conversation project “Stone Soup” at the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon (author’s photo)

Since the fall of 2016, I have facilitated conversations all over the state, in venues ranging from quiet libraries to bustling restaurants, from coastal towns to urban centers. And while the people and the recipes and the insights are always different (intriguingly and marvelously so), there are a few consistent threads.

Heritage

Before the event, participants are invited to bring recipes from their past—from a beloved family member, friend, or neighbor—and a story to accompany them. (My favorite: the woman in Grants Pass who brought a recipe for the cake her mother had burnt to a crisp–her husband had written “I love you” in the soot left on the walls.)

Often, the recipe is on a tattered index card, spattered and stained by years of use. Sometimes it’s in a small binder or book held together with rubber bands. Always it’s presented with memories.

(There’s a look people get when they talk about these recipes and stories, a faraway gleam, a small smile.

I love those moments.)

Often these recipes will spark conversation between participants as one memory is ignited by another, one culture compared with another, one history explained by another.

“What is a recipe?”

To begin the conversation, I ask participants to spend a minute or two thinking of the words they associate with recipes. Evocative words like “memories,” “grandma,” and “holidays” often make an appearance. We consider the figurative language surrounding recipes, a genre so unique the word itself has become a central metaphor (“recipe for disaster,” for example).

I then ask the participants to partner with one or two others to discuss the genre of the recipe: how is it different from a shopping list, or a narrative, or even a poem? We talk about ingredients and measurements, instructions and oven temperatures. We think about ways a recipe is like a chemical experiment–scientific and reproducible.

I’ll often use that distinction as a springboard to talk about some historical recipes and ways the form changes or stays the same. We look at a copy of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe “Against the biting of a Mad Dogge taught by Sir Kenelm Digby.”

fanshawe
Lady Ann Fanshawe, 1625-1680, Wellcome Library, MS 7113

People often notice that recipe books from the 16th and 17th centuries are visually compact and uniform, and that the basic elements of the recipe—ingredients, instructions, measurements—are familiar. One difference we have made note of, however, is the occasional focus on seasons in the harvesting of ingredients, as can be seen in Lady Fanshawe’s direction that crabapple flowers should be picked in June or July.  For those of us used to ingredients available at all times (even if shrunk-wrapped or frozen), this can be a revelation.

This discussion also led to one of my favorite stories from these conversations, shared by a woman in Beaverton who said her grandfather always knew to plant his corn “when the leaves of the white oak tree were the size of a grey squirrel’s ears.”

Recipes and community

We then, together, read aloud a short version of the folk tale that serves as the springboard for the project, “Stone Soup,” and talk about the story itself as a kind of recipe and about the metaphorical underpinning of community. We focus on the end of the story, where in some versions the villagers not only share the soup but dance and sing together, opening their homes and offering their beds with the strangers in their midst.

At this point, I introduce the participants to three examples of people who used recipes to create community and preserve history: Freda DeKnight, Mina Pachter, and (closer to home for Oregonians) Ing “Doc” Hay.

This particular version of public history, these conversations that evoke memories and elicit stories, have been a wonderful way for me to explore the more human, face-to-face side of recipe exchange that can sometimes get lost in manuscripts and archives.

20171116_140530
“Stone Soup” participants at conversation project sponsored by Washington County Museum (author’s photo)

 

 

Stone Soup: A new project about recipes and community

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a beautiful moment in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4” in which travelers from all over the world come together—despite differences in language, experience, and culture–to commune over apple juice and cookies after helping a fellow passenger:

She had pulled a sack of homemade 

          mamool

cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with

          dates and

nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the

          gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like

          a  sacrament.

This poem was a central focus of a structured conversation program I attended about power and place, specifically about diversity and assimilation. Participants in the conversation wondered how they could replicate that kind of scene in their own lives and workplaces, what they could offer that would bring people together in a similar way. As shorthand for this complicated question, people asked, “What is the ‘cookie’?”–i.e., what commonality could bring people from disparate backgrounds and ideologies together in community?

And I thought to myself, “Well, a lot of times ‘the cookie’ is, you know, a cookie.”

I’m a firm believer that foodstuffs and recipes bring us together in a singular way, providing a means of exploring the stories that make us who we are while connecting us to a larger community. Recipes are freighted with meaning, bearing stories and emotions, memories and hopes, community and connection.

And that’s why when our statewide humanities program, Oregon Humanities (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities) put out a call for topics for a “Conversation Project” program, I immediately thought of recipes and their power to help us connect and commune.

The Oregon Humanities Conversation Project is somewhat unique in the United States. While many humanities councils have speakers and lectures, Oregon Humanities has invested instead in sending trained facilitators all over the state to lead conversations, to (in the words of the mission statement) “[bring] Oregonians together to talk—across differences, beliefs, and backgrounds—about important issues and ideas.”

With that goal in mind, my conversation project (“Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nourish Community”) offers this:

Sometimes the most overlooked objects can offer the most perceptive insights about ourselves and others. In this conversation, writer and independent scholar Jennifer Roberts introduces historical and current recipes and asks, How do recipes work? Why do we collect them? Who do we write them for? By sharing our own assumptions and memories, we will examine how recipes can help us connect and create communities across time, distance, and culture.

(A brief video introduction can be found here. Please ignore the still that makes me look like a braying donkey.)

For this program, I invite participants to bring treasured recipes to share with others (and I in turn share my Grandma Sherman’s recipe for toffee, which calls for, in part, “5 cents worth of Woolworth’s chocolate” and instructions that, in lieu of butter, “the hoi polloi may substitute 1/2 cup margarine”).

grandmas-toffee
Grandma Marian’s toffee recipe

To date, I’ve conducted three conversation projects, all with a similar structure. We open by talking a bit about ideas people associate with recipes. Almost always words like “family,” “nourish,” and “tradition” come up. Then we talk about what makes a recipe a recipe (as opposed to, say, a grocery list or a poem) and quite often people talk about things like measurements, math, and instructions. We discuss the gap between these two ways of thinking about recipes: the evocative, emotional words used to describe recipes and the precise, scientific ways they are presented.

After a short discussion, I show the group some examples of historical medical recipes from the Wellcome’s extensive collection and we talk about how “receipts” have changed over time.  We read the story Stone Soup together and analyze its themes of community, sharing, and belonging.

After some more discussion, I show the group examples of recipe collections that have served or reflected their communities: Freda DeKnight’s A Date With A Dish; a collection of recipes from the women of the German concentration camp Terezín; and the medical recipes of Ing (Doc) Hay, who emigrated from China to John Day, Oregon in 1887 and became a popular medical practitioner for many decades (there is an excellent documentary here).

But while I enjoy sharing these examples, I am far more eager to get the participants talking to each other and sharing their own recipes and histories. In fact, I’m a bit greedy for them, as my long-term plan is to collect enough recipes and stories to offer a free, statewide recipe collection.

Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA
Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA

The editors of The Recipes Project have kindly agreed to let [editorial correction: were wildly enthusiastic to have] me share some of the insights and stories that arise from this conversation project in future posts. I look forward to reporting back on the results of this exciting project in the coming  year!