Editing the Recipes Project — 5 Years On: Teaching with Recipes

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

By Lisa Smith

Classroom kitchen in Norway, undated. Source: National Library of Norway.

A momentous day: on this day, five years ago exactly, we published our first blog post. Feel free to reminisce here with that post by Elaine Leong.

Other blog posts in our Five Year Reflection series have emphasised the role of The Recipes Project in our own research–from the importance of intellectual networks to inspiration. But teaching has been part of this blog’s core identity from the outset. As of writing, there are seventy-eight blog posts labelled ‘teaching’, three teaching series, and multiple presentations during our recent Virtual Conversation.  Recipes are clearly a wonderful pedagogical tool.

In this post, I want to consider the trends in teaching (as revealed on the blog) and reflect briefly on why recipes are so useful in teaching, even for non-recipe specialists. Recipes offer students new ways of  experiencing the past, as well as providing methodological challenges in the classroom.

One of the main themes in recipe pedagogy is sensory engagement. This is well known to those working in the heritage industry, as discussed by Deborah Lawton in her Virtual Conversation contribution on ‘A Recipe is a Tasty History Lesson‘. Tasting food invites reflection on historical issues such as ‘what is a comfort food’ or methods of food preparation.

Academics may not be able to prepare recipes in their classes (alas, few of us have access to the wonderful lab settings enjoyed by the Making and Knowing Project), but there are other ways of experimenting in the classroom. Claiming that ‘history has a distinct taste’ as his starting point, Ian Mosby considers the importance of teaching how similar-tasting recipes take on different meanings depending on their historical context. The products of recipes can always be brought to the students, or prepared by the students outside of class.

Food is not the only recipe, however; other senses can be involved. Jen Munroe has her students take a close look at recipes and consider the practice and experience of reading, while Amanda Herbert has her students write out an early modern ink recipe using the tools and alphabet of the time. What students quickly learn is the gendered experience of engaging with the tools and recipe meaning.  As Tovah Bender explains, ‘sensory expeirence helps students bridge this divide with the past and see history through the eyes of their subjects’.

The digital world also offers exciting new ways of engaging with the past. In my own teaching, for example, I found that doing the online transcription of recipes (and translating between early modern English, extensible mark-up language, and modern English) trained students in close-reading. Frank Klaassen’s fascinating post here on testing out a Holy Almandal suggests the potential of 3D printing for reconstructing sensory experience.  Digital tools, whether transcription or 3D printing, can encourage deeper reflection.

The digital world can also provide a sense of community. Rebecca Laroche, for example, discussed the ways in which online transcription as part of a larger group has reshaped her pedagogy of online teaching. Building links among classrooms and between learners and texts has directly emerged from her digital work on recipes. Some of our Virtual Conversation participants demonstrated their students’ online projects, such as Emily Contois’ class on food and gender and Rachel Snell’s class on food, femininity and feminism. Sharing research online is a form of public engagement (and an employable skill) for our students. Certainly any history class could be doing digital projects, but recipes have a particularly wide appeal beyond the academy! Recipes are, in many ways, naturally suited to a virtual classroom; the long-distance sharing and sense of community mirror the pre-modern transmission of recipe knowledge over long distances and far-flung networks.

The usefulness of recipes for pedagogy, then, is their evocativeness, their familiarity and unfamiliarity for students. They offer opportunities for hands-on learning and public engagement. In short, they are quite wonderful.

But…

Inside Mount Morgan Technical College’s Cooking Class Room, Mt. Morgan, 1909. Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Recipes are so much fun–and do provide that sense of community and sensory experience–that it sometimes easy to overlook the methodological problems of using them in the classroom.

In one class, I encountered a series of technological fails that resulted in a constantly shifting learning environment for the students. While I can put a positive gloss on it–that this was showing student-collaborators the real, sometimes dark, underside of research–it also meant that students faced unexpected barriers and uncertainties in their learning. It is also worth noting (as I didn’t at the time) that not all of my students had ready access to technology, either, unless they came to campus.

Valerie Korinek discussed how the failure of an assignment one year (after previous success) highlighted a basic ethical issue. Teaching recipes in the classroom, particularly as part of family history, can be destabilizing and distressing for students. Food is not fun for everyone, and recipes are not always familiar or comfortable.

Even if recipes aren’t distressing, there is also the danger of slipping into nostalgia, or assuming that reconstruction of a recipe gives a real connection to the past. Nostalgia and family history came up repeatedly in the Virtual Conversation, as did the problems of reconstruction.

The illusion of direct engagement with the past, as well as unequal access to digital learning tools or recipes in the present, are issues we need to keep at the forefront of our teaching. However, awareness of methodological issues as we plan our syllabi or assignments, or discuss them in the classroom, can only improve our teaching…and challenge our students.

And, of course, it will make recipes even more compelling as a teaching tool: they are not for the faint-of-hearted or those interested in the cozy past.


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