As we continue to negotiate the use of virtual, hybrid, and in-person teaching methods, I offer a reflection on my recent experiences teaching through virtual cooking demonstrations and workshops. I began leading live historical cooking workshops at the Newberry Library via Zoom in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic forced my planned in-person demonstration to a virtual one. I have regularly offered workshops and cook-a-longs since then, teaching continuing education students interested in food and history. Cooking is an outstanding way to draw people into new ideas, topics, and areas of study; this is what makes the preparation of food a useful tool to teach and to research. It is also no surprise to the Recipes Project community that this type of activity complements traditional lectures, virtual and in-person transcription activities, classroom website creation, and other in-person modules on recipes.
This year, I have been asked to speak to several academic audiences about my experiences with virtual cooking workshops, discussing the benefits and drawbacks to the exercise, as well as providing step-by-step tutorials for designing workshops. I hope that providing some of this information here will serve as a helpful starting place for anyone interested in using this model as part of their own courses, or for those interested in trying out in-person demonstrations or workshops in a virtual format.
In my demonstrations, I do not exactly replicate historical recipes. I do not have the kitchen for it and I do not always have the accurate historical ingredients. I do, however, try to make recipes accessible modern home cooks and kitchens. This method of adaptation rather than exact replication in the cooking process is also an incredibly useful way to interest my students in my own area of research: medieval and early modern cookbooks. Together we can discuss and negotiate what are appropriate changes to make to a recipe and why, and how this compares to the adaptations a medieval or early modern cook might make to a recipe.
Additionally, the more I have presented cooking demonstrations, the more I have come to view the exercise of preparing historic recipes as akin to codicology, bibliography, and other hands-on studies of material books, the other methods of research in which I received more formal training. Cooking historical recipes, however imperfect the process is in a modern kitchen, is one way, and an important way, to teach history, buttress other research methods, and unearth new topics of inquiry. For students, learning that cooking can be a research methodology is an empowering realization, as they usually have some kind of background in preparing food, however limited that might be.
Obviously, I’m not the only one interested in this way of incorporating “creation” into teaching and scholarship: several major projects, like EatMediveal and the Making & Knowing Project, have hinged upon the ways in which performative labor and the creative act is important for understanding a recipe or manuscript. By creating, the product of the recipe is no longer ephemeral. It actually exists and can be studied in a different way than just the recipe text or another historical document or object.
I enjoy incorporating cooking in my teaching because performing or cooking a recipe creates another layer of information that you would not otherwise access by reading and imagining a recipe. That is, the physicality, however temporary, of preparing the recipe, of smelling the ingredients and final dish, and of tasting it, provides a different layer of knowledge than considering it intellectually. Additionally, preparing a historic recipe reveals that there is so much more labor at every stage of the cooking process. This helps students envision how much time was spent by a housewife, cook, or entire kitchen staff preparing food. And finally, the sensory experiences, primarily the smells and tastes, not only provide a helpful historical backdrop, but also make points about the tastes and preferences of consumers.
Why does all this information that comes through a cooking demonstration matter? What can this possibly impart for students, particularly those in a general course? First, it can assist in the understanding of motivations for events, like the global medieval spice trade or the rapid establishment of the colonial sugar industry. If such a large number of recipes reflect the same spices or sugar, you can quickly identify broad historical trends. It is easy to grasp this by smelling and tasting, then move onto the critical work of considering texts and data. Second, students quickly understand the desire for technological changes in the kitchen after experiencing the physicality of cooking. My students and I have the luxury of cooking without open flames and with amenities like refrigeration and appliances. Still, it is easy to imagine in the most modern setting how destructive and dangerous an earlier kitchen might be. The fire, smoke, and embers, no matter how careful you are, can be destructive for you, buildings, parchment and paper recipes, especially if you have to stand close to turn a spit or simply stir a pot. Experiencing the cooking of this period will make you understand how much food needed to be cut, chopped, or minced. Trying to complete some of this work with a small mortar and pestle hammers home the physical toll kitchen laborers experienced.
Teaching through cooking demonstrations is a very different experience than lecturing or leading a seminar. Cooking as teaching, in both a practical and performative way, requires different preparation and instincts. In contrast to my strict outlines and detailed PowerPoints for traditional lectures, I have loose lists of things to discuss while cooking, whenever I have time during the process. I also have to think about what the students can see of me and the food, and I have to describe other sensory aspects they cannot sense through Zoom. I have to elaborate on the process itself, noting the steps students and participants must take to get their oven or stove ready, how to chop ingredients, and in many instances, the differences between what we are doing that day and what would have been done a few hundred years ago.
Virtual cooking demonstrations are not without drawbacks, however. Just as a lecture or seminar on Zoom can be difficult to facilitate, ensuring that students feel welcome and are able to easily ask questions can be challenging. While Zoom can feel like a silent, black hole at times, I have found that the demonstrations come alive in a way that I don’t normally experience in other online meeting settings. For example, when participants have questions and I can hear the clanging of their pots and pans, or they want to check their sensory cues against mine to compare our processes, or verify information about certain ingredients. Using a virtual platform means that I can get right up to the camera and show them something like grains of paradise or blade mace up close, so while they cannot smell or taste it, they are able to see it in a way that might be otherwise difficult. Other logistical hurdles can arise, like ensuring students have access to the right equipment and ingredients, that you have a high-quality audio feed, and you do not let a pot boil over on live video, but those issues can be addressed with thorough planning and practice.
That planning and practice is paramount to a successful cooking demonstration in any teaching setting, whether in-person or virtual. Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to provide a full tutorial for designing a cooking demonstration, but for anyone interested in crafting a demonstration for a preexisting class or as a standalone workshop, I have created an infographic below to help you get started. It provides an overview of the design process, logistical parameters, and the long and short term preparations.
Virtual cooking demonstrations are a useful teaching method that can stand alone as a distinct workshop, or can be integrated into virtual, hybrid, or in-person classes. The setting is an engaging and creative place to teach.