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
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like
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”).
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.
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!