A Roti by Any Other Name Would Taste Like Home: Food Culture in the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of the Early 20th Century United States

By Haritha Govind

The South Asian diaspora has made its way throughout many parts of the world –bringing along cuisines, opening restaurants, and familiarizing the world with dishes like naan and lassi. These are immigrant stories that have a strong continuity even today. But what about Indian immigrant stories that were a snapshot in time, creating a unique culinary culture in a community that, unfortunately, did not sustain the same continuity? This post introduces the fleeting Punjabi-Mexican community of the early 20th century in California. It explores how a unique set of socio-political circumstances created an environment for two cultures that unknowingly shared similar food to forge a distinct culinary history.

How did these two communities meet in California? In the mid-19th century, farming families in the Punjab region of India started sending their sons abroad, including to the United States, to help supplement their family incomes. These men were accustomed to physical labor, and many found themselves being hired at mines and farms throughout California and other southwestern states. Meanwhile, many Mexican women from migrant laborer families found themselves working on Californian farms after being displaced by the Mexican Revolution. With the Immigration Act of 1917, Indians and other Asians were restricted from entering the United States, and those who were already in the country could not leave easily. This created a unique situation where Punjabi men found it comforting and legally advantageous to build family units by marrying Mexican women. Interracial marriages were illegal in California at the time, but both communities could circumvent this issue by identifying as “Brown.”

A Punjabi-Mexican American couple, Valentina Alarez and Rullia Singh, posing for their wedding photo in 1917.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
http://www.sikhnet.com/news/punjabi-sikh-mexican-american-community-fading-history

One might assume that, in these Punjabi-Mexican households, the dinner table was awash in fusion food. Afterall, there are many similarities between Punjabi and Mexican cuisine: the use of spices such as cumin and red chili, the practice of eating flatbread or rice with a broiled stew or curry, and the importance of flavor boosters like onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro. Punjabi men found the corn tortilla to be unfamiliar to their palate, but its resemblance to the roti, an Indian whole-wheat flatbread, was not lost on them. Although children in these families had a mixed cultural identity, and their names, such as Kishen Singh, often reflected their unique cultural disposition, food in the home did not see the same hybrid transformation. Mexican wives learned to expertly prepare Punjabi dishes and would feature them at the dinner table, but Mexican foods were never Indianized, or vice versa. The two culinary traditions remained separate and intact in their serving bowls: a dish of butter chicken could sit next to a plate of tamales at the dinner table, for example, but one would be hard-pressed to find a butter chicken tamale.

Cumin seeds
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cumin_Seeds.jpg

In this sense, the Punjabi-Mexican community disrupts the conventional expectation that diasporas naturally create hybridized or creolized cuisine in the home. Why might this be? Within these multiethnic families, the language spoken at home was usually a mix of Spanish and English, as the mothers would teach their children their native language. Punjabi fathers, by contrast, shared their culture, history, and religion but were more intent on their children easily integrating into Californian society, thus sparing them from the racial and cultural discrimination that came with being mixed race. It is in this childrearing phenomenon that the lack of culinary fusion begins to make socio-cultural sense: the mother’s influence on food and culture was dominant in the family. This line of argument is intertwined not only with the role of women in the early 20th century but also with the role of women of color: would creolization have occurred if both men and women immigrated from Punjab to California, or would this hybridized community never have emerged?

Hypothetical questions aside, there was one setting outside the home where fusion cuisine was indeed featured for a short period of time: Punjabi-Mexican-owned restaurants. The Rasul family’s restaurant “El Ranchero” opened in 1954 in Yuba City, frequently advertised in the Appeal Democrat newspaper for its roti quesadilla. This was the main fusion dish on the menu: it had melted cheese, onions, and shredded beef inside a paratha (whole wheat flatbread), and it came served with a chicken curry dipping sauce, as well as salad or rice and beans. The restaurant successfully served the Punjabi-Mexican community for four decades, providing a place where Punjabi men and their families could share a taste of home with each other. This suggests that fusion was more prominent as a business venture than as an element of everyday lifestyle.

More recently, Punjabi-Mexican fusion cuisine has become a popular phenomenon in modern food truck culture and among food content creators. Its impetus, however, does not come directly from the Punjabi-Mexican community that existed in the early 20th century but rather from increasing connectivity through travel and social media. The roti taco or quesadilla, which some Indian children are familiar with eating, is one such example of a culinary coincidence across time rather than a direct nod to the Rasul Family and their restaurant menu at El Ranchero. Despite this historical tension between hybridization and preservation, modern culinary fusion has fostered a new interest in exploring multiethnic cuisines of the past to investigate how food and community interacted.

Around the Table Podcast: Odeuropa with William Tullett

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Listen here, or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts!

In this episode, Sarah Kernan talks to William Tullett, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York and a Lead in the Horizon 2020 funded project Odeuropa. This European research project was designed to show that the sense of smell and scent, or olfactory, heritage is an important way to connect, promote, and protect Europe’s cultural heritage. This episode was recorded just before the project’s funding period concluded at the end of 2023. Follow William Tullett and Odeuropa on X (formerly Twitter) for updates.

Music

Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Odeuropa

Odeuropa Website

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage

Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit

Heritage Smell Library

Historical Scent Collection

Mentioned in the Show

Uncommon Senses Conference, Centre for Sensory Studies

American Historical Review, “Knowing by Sensing: How to Teach the History of Smell”

Osmothèque

Museum Ulm

Transcript

Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Dr. William Tullett, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York and a Lead in the Horizon 2020 funded project Odeuropa. This European research project was designed to show that the sense of smell and scent, or olfactory, heritage is an important way to connect, promote, and protect Europe’s cultural heritage.

Will, thank you so much for joining me today!

William Tullett 00:53

Thanks for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sarah Kernan 00:55

Could you tell us a bit about Odeuropa? What’s the purpose of this project? Who is participating? Just some general information about it.

William Tullett 01:05

Yeah, so it’s a project that, well it’s still running, although it started in 2021 in the midst of Covid and will finish at the end of this year. Because of that it feels like it’s been running for a much longer time than it has, I think. But the main idea of the project is to use a kind of multidisciplinary mix of methods that includes not just history and art history and literary studies, but also computer science, so natural language processing and computer vision to work with both digitized text and images from the past, um, and also heritage science. So, kind of working with museums, um, and what we would call GLAMs, so galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, but also with chemistry, analytical chemistry, that allows us to examine the smells that objects from the past exude, um, and to try and preserve them for the future.

William Tullett 02:04

So it’s, ah it’s, an interdisciplinary project. It involves people across 6 countries, 7 different languages, multiple different universities, so it’s been quite a feat of organization. Um, and I’m luckily not the chief PI. So the PI is Inger Leemans in Amsterdam, who with her other Amsterdam colleagues including Marieke van Erp, have been the ones kind of really organizing and making sure that we all do what we’re told. So it’s been quite a big project and an exciting project to be part of and we’re now getting to the stage where we’re finally releasing a lot of the kind of results and final outputs of the project for people to kind of look at and play with. So there are tools. There are books. There are various websites and bits of digitized data for people to look at. So we’re now at the point we’re encouraging people to engage with all of that really.

Sarah Kernan 02:59

But before we get into all of those products that are coming out of Odeuropa, um, could you speak a little bit about how the project was initially developed and how the team came together. Because this, as you mentioned, it is a very large project. It’s a very impressive group of researchers who have come together.

William Tullett 03:16

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, so the project came together really, um, from the Amsterdam side, from Inger Leemans and Marieke van Erp and Arno Bosse, who are in the Dutch side of the project. And I think one of the things that they did that was really good was, and that you don’t see all the time now we’ve got Zoom for everything, is that they invited all of the people that they wanted to be involved in the project to Amsterdam, right. So we had multiple workshops together where we kind of talked about the kind of things that we’d like to do, the kind of outputs that we wanted to see from the project. And I think one of the big challenges with these big interdisciplinary projects of the sort that European Horizon 2020 funds, is that you want projects that give outputs that are state-of-the-art, not just for the historians on the project, but also for the people who are doing compute the computer science side of it, The heritage science side of it. So trying to make sure that all of the people involved are doing work that they find kind of useful and cutting edge and is going to advance knowledge in their own disciplines. And I think smell has, you know, was a useful thing to focus those various disciplines around, partly because it’s a sense and a stimuli that really presents a whole series of problems.

William Tullett 04:36

So, like linguistically smell is a problem, right? It’s difficult to describe smells. How do we find them? How do we categorize them? What does it mean to visualize smell in an image and how do we identify them in images? Can we archive smells? How do we archive and preserve them? So kind of all of these questions that I think resonated with all the different disciplines that were involved in the project made smell a kind of, to use the slang of grants people, a kind of wicked problem for us to kind of have work with and um, really the project, the call that we applied for, because obviously you know you can’t just come up with good ideas, there has to be a call out there that fits it, and the call that we aimed at was one that was about reconnecting digital resources with museums. And so essentially what we’re trying to do is use smell as a way to connect all of these digitized texts, databases, and image databases, and archival catalogs, and so on, with the kind of experience of heritage in heritage sites and museums and spaces by bringing smells back into those spaces, And so that’s really what the kind of project has been all about and sort of geared towards.

Sarah Kernan 05:51

As you alluded to, smell is a difficult topic to work with in many ways and it’s quite ephemeral and in so many ways and contexts, it’s different to so many people. Why should we be interested in studying and preserving and contextualizing smells and olfactory heritage and experiences, especially ones in the past? Why does that matter and how does Odeuropa fit into that?

William Tullett 06:22

So I think the reason that historicizing smell, preserving smell, contextualizing smells both in the past and present matters is because smell is a kind of fundamental part of our everyday experience. It’s a fundamental part of how not just humans engage with the world but also other animals more than human animals, as well. And if one of the goals of academic research in general is to understand the ways that we and other creatures experience the world then smell should therefore kind of be a fundamental part of that. But I think also there’s been a tendency ever since really the nineteenth century in museums, and it’s a tendency that luckily is now slowly being undone, to make museums and the experience of heritage all about the visual or at least the audio visual. And so if smell is really central and fundamental to our everyday experience and indeed was central and fundamental to people’s everyday experience in the past, then you know it makes sense to try and reintegrate that into museum spaces particularly actually in cases where you know the artifacts themselves or the paintings or other objects in museums and heritage sites have had particularly important olfactory or smell-related connections. It’s the classic case of, well we can have an incense burner in a glass case, but you know the whole point was that this thing was supposed to be used to burn incense and that had a smell and indeed had other kind of visual, tactile qualities to it.

William Tullett 07:56

So, I think it’s necessary for us to kind of recontextualize all of the things in museums that we have, but I think there’s kind of a much bigger broader reason why engaging with smell is really important. And that’s that many people today are often alienated from their sense of smell. And yet if we are to respond to the massive challenges that face the globe in the you know in the next five, ten years, we need to engage more with our environment and understand our environment better. And one way to do that is through smell. So by engaging people’s noses, by engaging not just academics and students with smell, but museums and libraries and the people that work in them and the audiences that use them, by engaging those constituencies with their nose, what we’re trying to do is also create a sense of olfactory awareness and encourage people to attend to the evidence of their noses more.

William Tullett 09:04

And a simple example of why that’s important is we’re all familiar with the idea of sell by dates and use by dates on packaging for food. Now if you’re in the seventeenth century and you went to buy food, you would go to a market and you would pick stuff up and feel it and touch it and you know put your knife into butter and take out the center of it so you could smell it. You know, all of this kind of very multisensory interaction. And now in the twentieth and twenty-first century, smell in supermarkets and other spaces that sell food, you know smells are still important but they’re fundamentally about trying to get people to spend their money. They’re about creating a desire for products rather than allowing people to assay quality of products. And so when there’s now been a move to try and get people away from using sell by dates and use by dates and instead just to kind of trust their own senses in order to be more sustainable by using food if it’s still fresh. Actually it’s been really interesting to see that many people are not able necessarily to smell out whether milk is fresh or not right, or whether it’s gone off or not because they’re just not used to using their noses. So that’s a kind of simple example I think of why encouraging people to be attentive to the evidence of their nose and getting people to engage with their nose is quite important from the point of view of sustainability and environmental awareness and you know, engaging our students, engaging museums and their audiences with smell is one way to create that more sustained olfactory awareness among people. So there’s a kind of wider social role I think that smell can play and history is one way to get that to people.

Sarah Kernan 10:48

That’s a really wonderful connection from the historical to how we can use that today in present day contexts. How does Odeuropa actually collect information, research that information about smells? What is the process of what Odeuropa is doing?

William Tullett 11:07

So, one of the things that Odeuropa is trying to do is to get smell out of lots and lots and lots of digitized archives. So, for anybody who’s listening to this podcast who is a historian, you know, or has worked with historical texts online, you’ll be aware that there are a load and those of great databases now full of historical source material. For example, Early English Books Online, or particularly relevant for this podcast, the Wellcome Library’s amazing collection of digitized recipe books. But we wanted to be able to do is kind of cut down the kind of needle in the haystack work of finding smell in those documents and to extract as many examples of smell occurring in digitized texts, historical texts, as possible. And so, we composed a massive dataset of historical text that includes text in English, German, Italian, Dutch, French, Slovenian, and some Latin. And then we trained models to be able to detect references to smell in those texts. And so we have kind of seed words like smell, or stink, or you know, kind of key olfactory terms. But then we also are looking for the different, what the natural language processing people would call frame elements. So, who’s doing the smelling, where is the smelling occurring, how are they describing what they’re smelling, all of that kind of data as well. What are the emotions that are connected to the example. And so, we trained, we trained models by annotating texts ourselves and then using those to train to train the models and let them loose on this historical text data, and then it’s gathered loads and loads and loads of references to smell.

William Tullett 12:57

I mean, you know, I think we’re now at the stage in the Smell Explorer, which is our kind of online database which anybody can go and look at, of smell excerpts, I think we’re now at the stage where there’s millions of references to smells from text data in there, including text from Gallica, the big online French digitized collections, the Deutsche Historic Archive, like loads of different text. So that’s the text part, then there’s the images part which is much more difficult because how do you decide what’s smelly in an image?

Sarah Kernan 13:29

Right? Exactly.

William Tullett 13:31

Yeah, that’s a problem, right? Like and it’s a problem that kind of, I think you could easily annoy a lot of art historians by answering badly, and so one of the things that we did early on in the project was to think about, well, what are the types of objects, or animals, or gestures, or spaces, which in different periods from the 1600s to the 1920s were thought to evoke smell? So there are really obvious things like gestures around, like holding the nose, or taking snuff, or smoking tobacco, for example, or throwing up, which is something that occurs in lots of allegories of smell, particularly Dutch ones, in the seventeenth century. And, but also we’re looking at animals, so like dogs, civet cats, you know, that were particularly associated with smell, and then also flowers as well. So, we did a whole kind of side project where we were training models to look and identify different flowers in still lives.

William Tullett 14:33

That’s been an interesting and tricky part of the project, but essentially it involves drawing boxes around objects and then training computers to then find more of those objects. That’s the very short form explanation. So, for example, we trained it to find gloves because early modern gloves were almost always perfumed. So, if we can find lots and lots of examples of gloves we can, kind of, that’s one olfactory object that we can find. Or we looked at chimneys and then we looked at chimneys with smoke and without smoke to think about the representation of smell and pollution, or different smoke coming from different objects. So if it’s coming from a chimney, it’s smoke, if it’s kind of a cloud of smoke that we’ve identified that’s coming from a teapot then it’s more of a kind of steam, right? So, thinking about different forms of vapor and how you identify them in images. So that’s the text and image stuff and then the other part of it, I guess, is the heritage side of it, which has involved some quite different methods.

William Tullett 15:30

And for the heritage science side of it, we’ve kind of had a mix of social science methods. So, for example, one of our case studies was the smell of heritage vehicles, particularly cars, and we ended up interviewing lots of car enthusiasts about like kind of do they value the smells of their cars and how would they describe them? We also, but then, we also used scientific methods. So, we used various forms of pump and other that that would basically pump air over a fiber and the fiber would extract the volatile organic compounds. So then once you’ve captured the volatile organic compounds, you take them to a lab, you put them in a gas chromatography mass spectrometry machine, which then allows you to essentially see which smells are, you know, which compounds are making up the smell of that particular car, right. So, it was a mix of kind of social science stuff and more kind of what people wrongly or rightly might call hard sciences like chemistry. So, it’s a truly interdisciplinary project and it’s partly thinking about, I think, the way in which smells and the impressions that they leave are not just textual but also actually materially about us today, which I think the kind of car example really nicely gives you a sense of.

Sarah Kernan 16:56

Absolutely.

William Tullett 16:57

So yeah, whole different mix of methods to extract smells. And hopefully we’ll keep to use, keep using that multidisciplinary mix into the future, because I think that’s kind of the future of smell studies and sensory studies.

Sarah Kernan 17:09

That’s really fascinating how many, how many different sides there are to this project and how many different disciplines are converging in one place. Um.

William Tullett 17:19

Yeah. I mean I think that’s always been a strength of sensory studies right? So, like, sensory studies you know is a field that really comes from anthropology and geography, but now has this kind of rich interdisciplinary mix of methods. And if you go to the Uncommon Senses conference which is the big kind of interdisciplinary sensory studies conference in Concordia in Montreal every two years, you’ll kind of see a whole rich array of people doing a whole different series of methodologies, from kind of more common historical literary, art historical types of thing, to people who are doing like research on senses and spider sex. And you know we had a whole panel where it was people getting to play with different types of tactile technologies like rumble chairs and tools for training dentists that involved scraping off virtual plaque and all this kind of stuff. So, I think there’s kind of a sense in which we are just drawing on a tradition within sensory studies that is very multidisciplinary in really interesting ways.

Sarah Kernan 18:21

Now that Odeuropa is coming to a close, could you talk a bit about some of its outputs, the products that have come of Odeuropa, and whether or not those have achieved Odeuropa’s main goals.

William Tullett 18:37

Well, of course we’ve achieved all of our main goals on Odeuropa, and I’m not going to suggest otherwise. I mean, I think, I think in some ways that we’ve achieved and um, exceeded in many respects what we set out to do and that’s partly because as soon as we started to talk about smell and the past when we announced the project in late November 2020, the amount of interest we got was absolutely incredible. And that’s led to lots of opportunities like the American Historical Review where we’ve done a series of articles with them that’s included the first ever published smell in a historical journal with its own DOI, right? So, you know we’ve been able to do this extra stuff that we never planned in the first place but has, I think, pushed the field forward in really interesting ways. But the main outputs that we kind of planned to do, which we’ve also managed to do in the time that we’ve had, um the Smell Explorer, which is as I’ve said before the kind of big data set online where people can browse all of the text data that we’ve gathered and image data that we’ve gathered. So that has millions of references on it and people can freely use that online and there’ll be a link in the show notes for people to look at that. We are hoping in the future we’ll be able to add more data to that. The problem is, of course, with anything like this is it costs time and money to process data to put more in, but there’s already another project going on called POEM in the Netherlands which is all about early modern English literature and poetry and smell, and we’re hoping to integrate more data from that project into the Explorer.

William Tullett 20:14

And then the other things we’ve done. We’ve got the Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage which I’ve kind of been the editor-in-chief of, which is an ever-expanding resource and we very much plan to keep adding entries to that. So if you want to write about a smell or a particular nose and way of smelling in the past or a particular kind of place or smellscape, then please do get in touch with me. Very happy to welcome more entries to that. But the encyclopedia also has alongside the entries what we call storylines, which are a way of representing smell not just in the form of a kind of linear text as you would get in a kind of article or a book, but in the form of kind of interactive hypertext stories. So we use the open source tool Twine, which some listeners may be familiar with, that basically allows you to create digital choose-your-own-adventure type stories as a way to create stories that kind of, you could use smell to leap between different places and times in the past, right. And kind of making real use of smell’s full potential there to crisscross across times and places. So there are lots of storylines for people to explore in the Encyclopedia as well. And then there’s the Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit which is kind of really an attempt to give people the resources, particularly in museums and heritage sites, to integrate more smell into their practice. And so that contains lots of advice on kind of how to find stories that you can tell about or with smell in your collections, about how to kind of work to create smells and then diffuse them in a space, different diffusion methods that people might want to use for example, and also has information on kind of the risks to be aware of, right, because lots of conservators and other people are quite nervous about using smells in museum spaces. So that’s like a 200 and something page PDF that you can download online. But there’s also a series of resources connected to that that people can use, for example, to create smell walks around their own museums and heritage sites, or cards that they can use to kind of do storyboarding to think about smell in their collections and how they can tell stories with smell.

William Tullett 22:31

And then the final thing, I guess, that the final big kind of public-facing thing that we’ve produced which is at the moment accessible to fewer people because it’s not online. And one of the beauties of smell is that it frequently resists digitization in an ever more online and virtual world. And, but, the final example is something that I can show on camera but you won’t be able to see because you’re listening to this. But what I’ve produced is this magical box and it contains twelve different scents that we’ve worked on with perfumers during the project. Re-creations of different historical smellscapes or smells, some of which were kind of, very much imaginary, sort of, creative interpretations. So we’ve got the smell of hell in there which is based on looking at the way the smell of hell is described in seventeenth century sermons, and then working with a perfumer to interpret them. Some of them are kind of more based on looking at recipes. So, we’ve got pomander and perfumed gloves in there. Both kind of based around an interpretation of early modern recipes. So it’s a real range of different scents and the aim is to give those kits to museums and then to work with them on integrating them into some of their curating and education practices in attempt to get smell into more, into more people’s lives right? We kind of, and all of this, the Toolkit the Smell Kit, they’re all based on things that we did during the project as well. So we had a kind of smell tools that we arranged with smells at ah Ulm Museum in Germany, we did a whole workshop on malodors and kind of how to use, which was partly about you know how do we use bad smells in a heritage context. And of course we started during the pandemic so we kind of had to innovate and use some different methods to get smells to people and so some of that material has ended up in the Toolkit, as well. Different ways to distribute scents to people for events. So it’s all based on those three years of experience and research. So yeah, there’ll be links in there. There’ll be links in the show notes. Please do look at the Encyclopedia and the Smell Explorer and download the Toolkit. And if you do do look at them or use them then get in touch with us and let us know what you do with them.

Sarah Kernan 25:00

That’s fantastic! That, that box is very impressive. It really is a little magical box of smells that you were showing. Will that be available for anyone to try to get a hold of, or is that exclusively for museums?

William Tullett 25:15

So at the moment it’s exclusively for partners that we’re working with and the people who attended our kind of big end event which was in Amsterdam last week. But we’re also doing something else with the box and the smells, in that they’re going to be preserved in the Osmothèque. So for those who don’t know what the Osmothèque is, it’s essentially the world’s largest archive of perfumes. And they, Odeuropa and the Osmothèque have collaborated so that the Osmothèque can begin to host a heritage smell collection there, which would include our smells and hopefully in the future more smells with the scents themselves and the documentation that we’ve produced with them. The hope is that more places like the Osmothèque will begin to kind of preserve smells as well and that in the end we’ll encourage a culture where archived smells are publicly accessible to people on a wider basis in the way that say video or text or audio are. I think we’ve got a long way until we can we can get to that position. But that’s kind of like a much longer term goal for us.

Sarah Kernan 26:25

Great. Has anything surprised you or the team as you have been working on Odeuropa? Have you have you come across anything whether it’s a smell or a story or a description or any new conclusions that have just really knocked everyone’s socks off?

William Tullett 26:44

It’s always very difficult to answer, isn’t it, when you’re somebody who’s kind of like, knee deep in a subject area. Stuff that you will find fascinating and that knocks your socks off will probably be quite boring to lots of other people and seem like a kind of minor discovery. But, I think that the thing for me that has been really interesting and surprising. So, the first thing has been the public reaction to it which has been really welcoming and really engaged and really fascinated with what we’re doing in a way that I’m not sure I expected. And I think hopefully that will open up opportunities for more people to do this kind of work because it will encourage more researchers to go into the field. In terms of the actual research though, I think that one of the things that, I wouldn’t say it was surprising to me but which I think the project has really allowed us to do, is to tell a richer variety of stories about smell and its histories than were otherwise kind of there in the historiography before. So, you know, a lot of the work pre-Odeuropa had kind of focused on one of two things: perfume and its histories or sanitation and public health. And so it was either the fecal or the fragrant and that was kind of your choice.

William Tullett 28:15

And I think one of the things that has been really nice about Odeuropa is it’s given us the opportunity and the resources to explore a series of other stories, and for me that work has involved kind of opening up new questions about the history of animals and smell that I hadn’t really thought about before. You know, one of the things I found really interesting on going through our material was just the sheer amount of stuff about the care of animals and being sensitive to animal sensitivities around smell in not just in kind of sixteenth, seventeenth century sources but all the way through into the late nineteenth century. And I think there’s so much work to be done to be done there and that’s something I’m going to be working on in my next project. But also stories about war and conflicts, that was another kind of area that I thought was, came out a lot in the source material that we’d collected and the relationship between war and smell over time. But I think there’s a final thing that did surprise me is that the project has completely changed my attitude to my methodology.

Sarah Kernan 29:20

Really? How so?

29:22

So, basically when I started the project, I was very much of the mindset of a lot of other sensory historians like Mark Smith, which is that but we can never really reconstruct what it was like in the past and there’s no real point in using our noses. You know, it’s all about text. It’s all about language. There’s no point in actually engaging our own senses. And indeed, that’s kind of what I say in the introduction to my first book. And now thanks to this project and thanks to working with not just the computer scientists and the heritage chemists and scientists, but also working a lot more with creative practitioners and artists with perfumers and flavor and fragrance specialists, it’s kind of completely upturned that viewpoint and now I’ve ended up publishing a whole book that basically argues we should use our noses. You know, and that there’s a lot to be gained by smelling stuff and that maybe we should publish smells instead of publishing books. Maybe that would be a more exciting and interesting way to engage people with the past that’s still based in scholarly research. So I think actually the big surprise for me has been that working with all of these wonderful people and collaborating across disciplines and outside of academia, has completely changed how I see my field and how I see research. And I think there is something to be said for that more widely for historians, actually. A lot of academics and historians are some of the worst examples of this tend to assume that their understanding of the modern world is kind of just like how the modern world is, and so then they compare say, the early modern world, with that, right, and that’s kind of led into all kinds of weird assumptions about smell, including the idea that we live in a less smelly and more deodorized world today than we did in the past. Now you can say that if you’re an academic in an air-conditioned office that’s regularly cleaned by underpaid cleaners. It’s rather more difficult to say that we live in a deodorized world if you live next to one of the massive waste dumps that we have here in the UK, or if you live in the South of the United States next to a paper pulping plant, right. So, I think yeah, that’s the thing that’s really come out of the project for me is just working with a much more diverse range of people. You have a much more diverse range of sensory experiences and that has made me kind of question how I do my work and how I should do it in the future. It’s a very long answer, but I think, you know, it actually that was the thing that surprised me the most.

Sarah Kernan 32:02

Well, I think this is a perfect tie-in to a final question. Um, so say someone who’s listening to this podcast episode is thinking learning about historical smells sounds absolutely amazing. How do I do that? What do I do next? What do you recommend?

William Tullett 32:23

Yeah, I mean the first thing I’d say if you’re thinking about learning more about the history of smell and about historical smells and how to engage with the past through smell, congratulations. You’ve made the right decision, and you’ve listened to this podcast correctly. So well done. I think that the first thing I would say is to just pay attention to the smells around you, actually. So, one of the things that I try to do in the new book is I have olfactory figures which are just moments in the book when I say go and smell this thing that might be in your cupboard, right. Because lots of the smells that are around us every day have a much, much deeper history than perhaps we appreciate. And, I mean, one example of that and the kind of specificity of those histories is wintergreen. So, wintergreen is a kind of smell and flavor that is in lots of different products. In the 1960s and 70s they found out that people in the UK hated the smell of wintergreen. It was their one of their least favorite smells. In the US it was one of the most liked smells, most preferred smells. And the reason for that was because wintergreen was in loads of medical stuff in the UK, and in the US it was in root beer and candy, right. So, what I’m saying is if you kind of start at the tip of your nose and think about, well, why do I like this this particular smell right? Why is this smell important to me, you know, and use that as a kind of road into thinking about your relationship to the past through smell I think is the first thing I would suggest.

William Tullett 33:54

But then there’s so much great material that’s been published in the field and there are various ways that you can kind of get an introduction to it. We published a conversation piece in the American Historical Review which is free to access. And that was, that’s a really nice introduction to the field. But also, there’s a whole online bibliography that I’ve curated of over seven hundred entries, so if you want a kind of giant reading list to start and to pick out something that might interest you, look out for the Past Scent Bibliography which you can find on the Odeuropa website for information on how to do, to look at that. But finally, I mean one other thing you can do is do what lots of people I suspect on this podcast do, which is do things like recreate recipes right? I mean before we came on air, I was suggesting that, you know, one of the nice things about doing this with the Recipes Project is that I think lots of people who are interested in historical recipes are much more minded to be welcoming to ideas about reconstruction. And yeah, just find a historical recipe and try and remake it and think about, you know, what do the different materials that are going into that recipe smell like individually, what does the process smell like, what does the end result smell like, just doing some basic material engagement with actual stuff, I think is really important. Because I could sit here and recommend you loads of stuff to go and read, but I think it’s actually more important you engage your nose than engage your eyes as a kind of route into this.

Sarah Kernan 35:33

Everyone heard it here first, just go out and smell things. That’s all you need to do to get started.

William Tullett 35:39

Absolutely!

Sarah Kernan 35:40

Well, thank you so much! This is a great conversation. Thank you for joining me today to talk about Odeuropa.

William Tullett 35:48

No problem at all. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Kernan 35:50

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.

Olfactory Notes: Integrating Embodied Research in Art History

By Madison Clyburn

In early modern Italy, perfumes were powerful substances whose therapeutic properties could generate pleasure and preserve or remedy one’s health if worn on or consumed by the body. In this post, I feature a typical Italian perfume recipe, “To make perfume for clothes,” from the Italian engraver and author Eustachio Celebrino’s (c. 1490-after 1535) printed vernacular pamphlet, Opera nova piacevole laqvale insegna di far varie compositioni odorifere per far bella ciaschuna donna…intitulata Venusta (Venice, 1550) intended for female consumers. Celebrino’s formulaic recipe books, typical of the genre, are printed records of socially important topics, like women’s health and adornment.

I made this recipe in Dr. Chriscinda Henry’s graduate seminar, Materiality and the Senses in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Art, at McGill University in the Winter of 2023. Celebrino’s recipe allowed us to work through experimental research methodologies in our final week dedicated to Embodied Knowing and Experimental Methods, which I co-led with fellow seminar member Mahdis Mohajeri. Making this perfume recipe raised questions about what it means for art historians living in one sensorium and studying others, like early modern Italy, where smelling amber rosary beads during prayer might bring one closer to God, chewing myrrh pastilles could prevent plague or wearing musk might help conceive a healthy child.

“To Make Perfume for Clothes”

The first step toward integrating embodied research in our art history seminar was to choose a recipe with accessible ingredients that was relatively quick to make. Celebrino’s perfumed sachet was just right since it simply asks one to take “fresh rose leaves & dry them in the shade & then take two carats [or vials] of musk, and make it into a powder, & two coins of fine cloves, and mix together, & then put it [all] in one or two little bags in the clothes.” 

Graduate student, Em Grisdale’s sachet keeps sweaters moth-free and smelling fresh one year later!

Before our seminar, I assembled a recipe kit with instructions and ingredients for each participant. I found cloves and dried roses from a local herbalist shop, while I substituted musk root for musk, whose extraction from the musk deer’s preputial gland is primarily illegal today. 

Next, I transcribed and translated the recipe, placing that information in a PowerPoint. This left more time in class to examine primary texts like Pliny’s The Natural History and Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentaries (1565) to understand the varied classical and early modern uses of musk, roses, and cloves. At the same time, selections from Sven Dupré et al. Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment (2020) and Pamela Smith’s From Lived Experience to the Written Word (2022) grounded our entrance into an aromatic art history, offering insight into how hands-on historical recipe experiments can help make students more resourceful researchers and inform early modern health, hygiene, and beauty practices.

The final step consisted of interpreting the recipe through practice. Students opened their kits and began to crush, mix, and add the ingredients to a draw-string bag.

Some participants followed the recipe, and others adapted it; some used their hands, while others used a hammer or mortar and pestle to crush the musk root.

The recipe’s flexible ending tells one to put the sachet “in the clothes,” possibly in a chest, carried in a pocket, worn under a skirt or attached to a belt. Making the recipe together allowed us to pose questions, such as what types and materials of bags might be preferred, how much musk equals a carat or vial, and share reactions like musk stinks! 

Em Grisdale shows us how to wear Celebrino’s recipe on a belt loop.

Implications for Sensory Research in Art History

Embodied research welcomes questions about the sensuous relationships between the ephemeral body and its material culture. Things like perfumed sachets for clothes hinted at but not seen in visual media reveal how olfactory experiences in the early modern period are everywhere and nowhere. For example, middle- and upper-class women often had the luxury of owning multiple sets of clothes. When not worn, women stored their clothes in chests with sachets made from pure ingredients like musk or, for aspiring citizens, a counterfeit version made of spices and toasted breadcrumbs to preserve the fabrics’ quality and cleanliness. One can imagine only the finest ingredients perfuming Lambert Sustris’ Reclining Venus (c. 1548) in this wholesome atmosphere comprised of a downy mattress sprinkled with fragrant pink and white roses, sumptuous fabrics, and a woman playing a folding harpsichord, whose charming sounds vibrate through the clean air wafting through an open colonnade window.

Attributed to Lambert Sustris (c. 1515-20 -1584), Reclining Venusc. 1548, oil on canvas, 116 x 186 cm, Venice or Padua, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-3479. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

But of course, we cannot see the physical sachet made from Celebrino’s recipe that may lie nestled inside the elegant cassone (chest) in the background of Sustris’ painting. We cannot sniff notes of rose, musk, and clove possibly escaping the fibres of the pastel pink dress that a woman holds above the chest. Only by reconstructing these sachets can we begin to sense smell’s critical role in preserving hygienic bodies and homes as well as in observing or challenging socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in early modern Italy.

Detail of Sustris’ Reclining Venus showing a young woman leaning over an open-lidded cassone. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Embracing what we cannot see or smell through embodied research allows us to imagine how Celebrino’s recipe and Sustris’ painting document once fragrant interiors. An art historical approach to making recipes aims to recenter early modern sensuous practices and experiences in artworks so that teaching and academic scholarship can help us bridge two sensoria—that of our current moment and overlooked pasts.


Madison Clyburn is an Art History PhD candidate at McGill University. Her thesis focuses on the material culture of women’s wellness in late medieval and early modern Italy. Her research combines art and gender history, the history of medicine, material culture, and sensory studies to determine how perfumes were used to observe, challenge, and invert socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in the early modern period.

Early Modern Research with Britain’s Favourite Organic Producer

By Grace Palmer

In the spring of 2023, I undertook a deep dive into early modern British (and some European) recipes for a project with Hexhamshire Organics, an organic farm near Newcastle in the North East of England, focused on creating short sentences on the historic uses of herbs, fruit and vegetables, designed to pique their customers’ interests by examining how their favourite produce was consumed in the past. Within this project, I focused on using domestically-produced receipt books – which were often collaborative family books carefully curated by multiple generations to create unique recipe collections – and horticultural texts, produced as instruction manuals for gardeners, providing information on the multitude of plants that were cultivated by early modern Britons. Admittedly these sources were produced by and for the upper- and middle-classes, however they are a fascinating route to understanding how food was enjoyed in the past, and do provide some insights into the culinary habits of ordinary Britons.

Pages exploring ‘mountayne Radish’ and ‘Carrottes’ in Rembert Dodoens (trans. Henry Lyte Esquyer), A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, (published in England- 1578), pp 600-601


Perhaps especially because our audience for this project was consumers interested in organic, locally-sourced produce, I was struck by the similarities some recipes held to many present-day dishes loved by modern Britons. For example, many recipes including carrots described the vegetable being enjoyed grated and baked with a variety of spices, reminiscent of a modern carrot cake. Similarly, by the 18th century, recipes instructing how tomatoes (a ‘New World’ discovery for many early modern Europeans) could be made into ketchup were more commonplace. It was fascinating to see how some of my favourite and regularly consumed dishes had such long-reaching origins. While early modern recipe books often contained the spectacular, documenting exceptional meals that were not eaten on an everyday basis, I was struck by the variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that were clearly dietary staples. Explorations into the New World expanded the origins of commonly eaten produce: potatoes, the Jerusalem artichoke (named the “potato of Canada”), and peppers (initially viewed with some suspicion, but were quickly cultivated by poor farmers as a cheap alternative of expensive, imported black pepper) were often included in recipe collections, alongside spices from across South and Eastern Asia. Contemporary cooks displayed a clear interest in the presentation and taste of their dishes. A variety of herbs and spices were used – including dill, savory, chillies and sorrel – to add depth of flavour. Recipes describe the various innovative ways produce was used as a garnish, instructing the reader to pickle red cabbage to enhance its purple-red hue, or to finely chop brussels sprouts, to make dishes more visually appealing. I found that my research challenged pre-existing conceptions I myself had about potentially “backwards” culinary habits from the early modern era as the recipes instead showcased the diverse and rich culinary traditions from the period.

Early modern people assigned a fascinating array of medical uses to almost all plants. While some seem to make logical sense to the modern reader, many seem incredulous. (Giant) mustard leaves were often placed like a plaster on a patient’s head to help prevent vertigo. Spring onions were made into an ointment to cure dandruff, and lettuce was eaten after supper to prevent drunkenness, imagined to stop alcohol vapours (widely believed to cause drunkenness) reaching the brain. One early modern writer even used globe artichokes as a deodorant, believing the vegetable helped reduce the smell of his armpits. The huge variety of medical uses assigned to various herbs, fruits and vegetables is a testament to the ingenuous inventions of contemporaries, showcasing how they innovatively used all aspects of different produce to understand the world around them. Many medicinal recipes for common ailments and diseases were passed between generations, adapted and improved through experimentation over time. Much of the way early modern people understood their diet was influenced by humoral theory, often dictating the imagined medicinal cures behind plants and even the combination of ingredients set out in recipes. For example, sorrel was often paired with meats or eggs for its perceived cooling properties, imagined to aid digestion. Similarly, “hot and dry” horseradish was commonly eaten with fish, believed to counteract the negative associations of the “cold and wet” nature of fish. The humoral properties of produce meant some recipes came with warnings for future readers: cooks were advised against serving raw onions, imagined to induce headaches and dull the senses, and readers were warned about the overconsumption of spinach, believed to cause nausea. While sometimes comedic to the modern reader, early modern cooks used commonly consumed produce in innovative ways to understand the world around them, a testament to their ingenuity and invention.

Overall, this was a fascinating project, which taught me a huge amount about early modern recipes, diets, and consumption habits more broadly. While this project focused on highlighting the spectacular and sometimes comedic aspects of early modern food habits, I was struck by the many similarities to modern recipes and gained a deeper understanding of the rich history behind British cuisine. I hope this project will help inform Hexhamshire Organics’ customers on the fascinating interplay between early modern and present-day uses of their favourite produce, and perhaps even provide historic inspiration for unconventional and thrifty ways to make the most of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Grace Palmer is currently studying for her MA in history at Durham University, having recently completed her undergraduate studies there. She is writing her dissertation on poisoning as a method for resistance by enslaved men and women and white fear of poisoning conspiracies in plantation era America. Outside of academia, Grace is a keen foodie and enjoys experimenting with new vegetarian recipes. She is also an avid sports fan and shares a season ticket to her local football club with her brother. 

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine

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