All posts by Amanda Herbert

Cooking (Over an Open Fire) In Class

 By Ken Albala

Hearth Cooking.  Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.
Hearth Cooking. Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.

I often use recipes in various classes as primary documents, to examine social issues and gender roles, to explore the meaning of various ingredients and techniques and their movement around the globe, and to discuss anything the text might yield as a record of the past. Cooking with these recipes is a little more complicated. Apart from the lack of kitchens, my food history class is usually about 60 students, and feeding them is just impractical. But I still really want students to get a sense of what historic food tasted like, especially when cooked on an open fire using period implements. In graduate classes I have had students cook in groups at home and we connect via video conferencing so everyone at least gets to discuss the historic recipes as they cook them. It’s much more satisfying to bring a smaller class to my home so we can not only get our hands dirty before the hearth, but get a physical sense of what cooking was like in the past, and of course taste the food to get a direct idea of people’s taste preferences.

For one gathering of history majors a few years ago I chose to cook from the 16th century Livre fort excellent de cuysine, a cookbook I had recently translated with Tim Tomasik, but neither of us had tested most of the recipes. So there was not only an element of uncertainty, but even I could only guess how the recipes would taste in the end.

I had some students chop pork by hand and stuff intestines to make cervelat sausages. Some used the wood-fired oven to bake, others cooked a rabbit with bacon at the hearth in a clay pipkin. I think the biggest hit was an opulent pie made with sole, rich with spices, dripping with butter and verjuice. There was also a “hochepot” stew made with chicken, dried fruit and a lot of sugar. A dish of frumenty, which is whole wheat berries and “crespes” (which are like funnel cakes) rounded out the menu. The only rule was to stick as closely as possible to the original early modern recipes, which thankfully didn’t include many measurements, so there was a good deal of leeway.

Clay Pipkin.  Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.
Clay Pipkin. Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.

Everything turned out to be not only good, but excellent, as I knew it would if we had stuck to the directions. More revealingly, dishes that the students fully expected to dislike were devoured. Flavors they thought would clash, like the sugar in the stew, turned out to be very appealing. The riot of spices reminded some of Indian food. Most importantly, rather than hearing a description of these flavor combinations, students got to experience them first-hand. It was much like hearing music played on period instruments or seeing a 500-year-old painting up close. History can and should be made palpable and cooking is one of the most thrilling ways it can be done, as long as you start with a lesson in fire safety!

Ken Albala teaches food history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton California and is Director of the Food Studies Masters Program in San Francisco.

Teaching Recipes: A September Series (Vol. II)

Students in a "Domestic Science" course, Wilberforce University, Wilberforce Ohio (1915).  Image courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Domestic Science class." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 12, 2015.
College students in a “Domestic Science” course, Wilberforce University, Wilberforce Ohio (1915). Image courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Domestic Science class.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 12, 2015.

A year ago this month, we ran a special series at The Recipes Project, highlighting the ways that recipes could be used to teach students of all kinds – primary, secondary, graduate, and postgraduate – about the lives and experiences of people in the past. The series proved to be so popular that we were determined to do it again, and now we’re proud to present another slate of posts about recipes in the classroom. During the entire month of September, we’ll be featuring posts about all of the innovative and engaging work that our Recipes Project educators are doing in using recipes as pedagogical tools.

This year we’re highlighting culinary history. Bringing food and drink into the classroom is almost always popular with students (no matter how old they are!) but managing the mechanics as well as the messages of these lessons can be challenging. Our authors are going to share their insights about the most effective ways to teach about historic cookbooks, ingredients, foodways, and methods of cultivation and production. We’ll start the month with a post by food historian Ken Albala, who will talk about his experiences in teaching hearth- and open-fire cooking. If you’re not quite ready to kindle flame in your own classroom, we have plenty of other posts for you to try: Erika Rappaport will discuss education, empire, and her use of “Mrs. Beeton’s Mango Chetney”; and Ben Wurgraft will share his thoughts about the ways that recipes can convey information to students.  We’ll also learn about the ways to use recipes as teaching tools in very large classes – David Fouser writes about teaching recipes in the Western Civ survey – and also in smaller, more intimate groups – such as Jennifer Munroe’s use of recipes in an Attending to Early Modern Women seminar. We’re especially pleased to feature two posts by two authors who taught recipes to primary- and secondary-school students: Evelien Bracke (who will talk about her “Technologies of Daily Life” program in Wales) and Carla Cevasco (who is writing about an American high school “Teach-In”).

As many of us are busy preparing syllabi and lesson plans for the upcoming academic year, we hope that the series will be timely. Twice each week, you’ll be able to glean information about the best ways to bring recipes to your classrooms, lecture halls, seminar tables, and conference sites. And let us know what you think! We’re very eager to learn about your own work in teaching recipes.

Summer Recipes: A Recipes Project Round-up


Belgian Summer.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Belgian Summer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Amanda E. Herbert

Here in the southeastern US, the summer weather is sweltering, and it seemed like the perfect time to dig into the Recipes Project Archives for some posts on how best to survive the hottest (northern hemisphere) months of the year.

I’ll start with Sally Osborn’s post about how to make your own ice house.  In the eighteenth century, fashionable women and men created these structures in order to provide their households with ice centerpieces and ice cream year-round.  If only I’d thought to start this project over the winter…

Many of our authors have written posts about swimming and bathing.  Colleen Kennedy explored scented baths in the Renaissance in two posts, “Dipping Your Toes,” and “A Sweet Bath.”  Katherine Allen wrote of floating in the pools at Bath in her post on eighteenth-century spas.

Gardening, another popular summer activity, has also been a central theme for many of our authors.  Daniel Trambaiolo discussed the cultivation of ginseng in his post on the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century East Asian herbal tradition.  Jane Draycott talked about Cato’s ancient-world flower gardens in her recent “Flower Power” post.  In one of the Recipe Project’s earliest posts, from 2012, Helen King discussed the ways that red plants were used to cure the green sickness.  And if you find yourself slapping at summer insects in the garden, I can recommend Stefanie Gänger’s post on Medicine and Malaria in Late-Colonial Lima, which will help to put any modern mosquito troubles in perspective.

Best wishes to all of you for cool breezes, shady green spaces, and lots of ice cream.

Swimming in Broth: Medicated Baths in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Bottle of medicinal water, France, 1928 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images.
Bottles of medicinal water, France, 1928
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Amanda E. Herbert

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, mineral waters were considered to be wonderful cure-all medicines. The waters were taken both internally and externally, with some patients drinking them and others choosing to swim in mineral pools. We’ve explored these water cures in a few different Recipes Projects posts (see here and here). Mineral or spa waters were exceptionally popular, and thousands of Europeans flocked to hot spring cities each year, seeking relief from everything from dandruff to gout.

In order to take advantage of the trend, some enterprising medical practitioners even devised recipes for “artificial” or “manufactured” waters. A pamphlet held at Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library describes one early modern doctor’s efforts to capitalize on the mineral water craze. In 1782, Dr. Rhodomonte Dominiceti wrote a pamphlet about his own experiments in replicating the effects of spa and mineral waters. His Dissertation on the Artificial medicated Water Baths (London, 1782) served as both a description of his methods and an advertisement for his business.

Apparatus for making mineral waters, 1783. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Apparatus for making mineral waters, 1783.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Dominiceti used “three different sorts of water, viz. Rain, New River, and Spring Water” as the base for his concoctions. He believed that each type of water had different properties, meaning that “the choice of which [water to use] is of the utmost importance…for the cure of many complaints.” Dominiceti then “impregnated” the rain-water, river-water, or spring-water by adding “medicinal substances (found by experience salutary)” to each. He was cagey about exactly what these medicinal substances were – undoubtedly Dominiceti didn’t want other doctors and medical practitioners stealing his secrets – describing them merely as “the Effluvia of Liquid Balsams, and Essences” in one part of the pamphlet, and “various Vegetables and Mineral Substances” in another. For those patients who wished to bathe in the artificial spa waters, Dominiceti reassured his clients that the mysterious medical baths would, at the very least, be gentle on their skin, as they might contain “sweet oil” and “mucilage,” as well as “Virgin Milk made with Balsam and Milk.” One bath was even comprised of “Veal, or other Broths.”

As unappealing and malodorous as a veal broth bath may have been, Dominiceti worked hard to convince readers of the efficacy of his methods. He boasted that a “Captain of the army in the East-Indies” who had been taken ill after “having lain in damp sheets” was cured using his methods. Another man, a “Major-General officer of his Majesty’s forces lately come from America,” who had fallen ill with “a cold he took at Mud-Island [e.g., Fort Mifflin/Fort Island Battery, in Philadelphia PA]” was cured by Dominiceti in only three weeks’ time. Women, too, received cures from Dominiceti’s artificial waters, such as “a young lady…[who] got a cold in the passage of the Opera-house waiting for her carriage” and who was, through the doctor’s help, apparently “quite recovered, and now remains in a most perfect state of health.” By claiming as his patients war veterans, travelers afflicted with “exotic” and dangerous foreign diseases, and fashionable and wealthy citizens, Dominiceti attempted to establish his credentials as both a respectable man and an effective doctor – and to make his fortune in the highly competitive mineral water medical marketplace of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.