Teaching Recipes in the Wangensteen Library

By Emily Beck

Over the course of my graduate career at the University of Minnesota, I’ve become interested in the ways that libraries function as spaces for both academic and public teaching. I began using recipe books with undergraduate classes in the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine simply because I find them interesting. It has become evident, however, that they are powerful teaching tools for both students and the public: recipe books resonate with viewers because they are personal and relatable.

Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637
Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637

I have used the Wangensteen’s recipe book collection for teaching undergraduate History of Medicine courses. The students in these classes are typically pre-health sciences majors and are implicitly interested in healthcare, but have not often considered the history of their chosen careers. Viewing a medical recipe book gives them opportunities to get closer to historical specifics, considering individuals rather than professions. For example, using an English manuscript from 1637 that is easy to read and quite large, I encourage students to reflect on the variety of illnesses and methods of treatment in the volume. By thinking about individual medical practice and health experience, students are able to more clearly grasp how humoral theory was applied on a day-to-day basis.

The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of MInnesota
The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Image courtesy of Bonnie Gidzak

In addition to academic teaching and research, the Wangensteen creates exhibits with collection materials to teach the public about various aspects of the history of medicine. As I began developing the Wangensteen’s next exhibit, Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation (September 2015-May 2016), it was clear that recipe books were an obvious choice for the display cases. They show how historical individuals frequently made fermented and distilled products, like beer and wine, and used them as medicines. In April 2015, we were invited to participate in an event on fermentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota to give a preview of the exhibit. We were the only historically focused exhibitor at this event with several thousand attendees, so standing out was imperative. We brought facsimile copies of several recipe books as well as postcards with a historical brewing recipe. The recipes captivated the attendees because they could compare them to their own home-brewing and fermenting experiences. Using recipes with this audience was an easy way to initiate discussion about the complex origins of some of the fermented products that they enjoy at home.

When the exhibit opens in September, we will use manuscript recipe books to teach our audience how closely aligned health and alcohol were in earlier time periods. These will also demonstrate how individuals were expected to undertake their production at home. We are in conversation with a local restaurant about making some of the fermented vegetables and drinks out of these manuscripts. I hope to have a tasting event where we can invite the public and the university community to try these foods while thinking about the historical rationale for making fermented products. We’re looking forward to a year of public programming around recipes as well as continuing to teach courses using recipe books.


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