Cooking Up New Ideas: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Research through Recipes

Rachel A. Snell

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative (MCSRRC) is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff who are passionate and curious about the role of food, recipes, and cooking in politics and public life; and eager to share those lessons with a broad audience from students to scholars to civic organizations. Members represent a range of disciplines: history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. The MCSRRC is housed within the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center (MCSPS) – a nonpartisan, independent research and public service unit dedicated to promoting the quality of public dialogue about state and national policy issues through applied policy research and community engagement – and the Honors College at the University of Maine

Smith’s personal recipe collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library in Skowhegan, Maine. Photography by Rachel Snell.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) stood apart as a political figure, woman, and homemaker. Distinguished as a political trailblazer, she was among the first politicians openly critical of the tactics of McCarthyism, and upon leaving office was the longest-serving female Senator in history. Margaret Chase Smith is one of the most well-recognized and well-studied female figures in Maine history, but few of us would identify her as a domestic being. Most research on Smith and recognition of her role focuses on her life in the public sphere as a Congresswoman, Senator, and public figure. She was, of course, also a wife, cook, and homemaker, and she frequently relied on these roles in her campaigns. Her recipes suggest how she combined her public and private personas and how the balance of the two contributed to her success as a political leader. She was committed to bringing people together through civil discourse and often used food as a diplomatic vehicle. Throughout her thirty-three years in office, she maintained and used a recipe collection to entertain fellow policymakers and friends in Washington and at home in Maine.

Sen. Smith hosted President Dwight Eisenhower for a traditional lobster bake on the lawn of her home in Skowhegan in 1955. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

Recipes demand an interdisciplinary approach as these sources transcend the boundaries of individual fields. This project brings together the researchers from multiple fields while recognizing recipe collections as sources for collective biography. In her memoir of her mother’s life through her recipe collection, Diane Tye argued, “one woman’s baking offers a contextually situated example of how a generation constructed and managed identity roles.”[1]This approach demands recognition of a cookbook or a collection of recipes as a narrative, in Anne Bower’s definition as, ”a verbal artifact that is organized and endowed with meaning by its readers” or as an “embedded discourse” in the analysis of Leonardi, representative of relationships between friends, neighbors, relatives, and broader communities.[2]  Leonardi persuasively argued that recipes are much more than lists of ingredients and methods for combining them into dishes. Rather, the intertextuality of recipes engages the reader or the cook in a conversation with context and relationships that should not be ignored. Therefore, the recipe “besides being a narrative itself, offers us other stories too: of family sagas and community records, of historical and cultural moments or changes, and also personal histories and narratives of self.”[3] Recipes not only reveal human relationships but, as historian Rebecca Sharpless argued, also “important evidence about people’s interactions with their environment and the society around them.”[4] Recipes provide a sense of the tools and materials available, dining customs, identity formation, expectations, food system transitions, the development of unique food cultures, and much more.

Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative members Dominique DeSpirito and Alex Bromley pour over Smith’s recipe collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. Dominque, a Political Science major with a minor in Environmental Science, is searching for connections between the recipes and Smith’s agricultural policies. Alex, a Food Science major, is curious about how recipes and ingredients change over time.
MCSRRC member Makenzie Baber, a third-year Business Management major, photographs one of the scrapbooks in the Library’s collections. Makenzie’s research explores Smith’s use of a blueberry muffin recipe as a campaign tool during the 1964 Republican Presidential Primary.

The primary objective of the MCSRRC is to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary student and faculty research through projects focused on recipes as sources for research. The work of the Collaborative includes cataloging and digitizing Senator Smith’s personal collection of recipes, currently housed at the Margaret Chase Smith Library and Museum in Skowhegan, Maine. Collaborative members test and, as needed, update the original recipes in efforts towards the creation of an edited volume, grounded in research but written for a broad public audience, focused on the role of food, recipes, and the power of cooking in politics and public life. The MCSRRC utilizes an undergraduate research model tobring creative and innovative approaches to studying the life of Senator Smith through her recipes. This source material offers a new perspective on a well-researched figure and provides ample opportunity for students to develop research projects connected to their fields of study and personal interests. The student research posts published by The Recipes Project provides a sense of the vast research possibilities of this particular recipe collection and any recipe collection.  


[1] Diane Tye, Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 42.

[2] Anne L. Bower, “Bound Together: Recipes, Lives, Stories, and Readings,” in Anne L. Bower, ed., Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories(Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 30; Susan J. Leonardi, “Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster àla Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie,” PMLA104, no. 3 (1989), 340.

[3] Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts” in Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, eds., The Recipe Reader: Narratives – Contexts – Traditions(Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 2.

[4] Rebecca Sharpless, “Cookbooks as Resources for Rural Research,” Agricultural History 90, no. 2 (Spring 2016), 195. 


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