Reading over the posts and conversations on Day Nine of our digital conference “What is a Recipe?” I was struck by the many ways that our participants engaged with one another. When we started this project, we wanted to make sure that we were speaking with, and to, all of our constituents. The Recipes Project is a blog invented and managed by academics, but our readers and contributors come from a wide range of backgrounds: professional chefs, activists, scientists, medical doctors, linguists, folklorists, and food enthusiasts. We wanted to talk with, and to, all of the parts of our community.
It should come as no surprise that academics love to talk about their discoveries and ideas. When academics talk to each other, they use formal, traditional venues and formats (professional conferences/20-minute read-aloud papers) as well as more free-form, new ones (of all the forms of social media, academics seem particularly taken with Facebook & Twitter). Both offer advantages as well as drawbacks. But in order to reach new audiences, sometimes you have to move the conversation into different formats and genres.
That’s why we were determined to embrace a wide range of social media outlets and online platforms for the #recipesconf (or, as it’s officially called, our Digital Conversation). Over the course of this project, we have all “talked” with one another on Instagram and YouTube; on our blog and on guest blogs; in podcasts and in person; via Google Chat, Skype, and Join.me; on Facebook and especially on Twitter. Each platform had its strengths and weaknesses, and each also engendered different styles and sorts of conversations.
I was struck by the ways that each platform offered its own unique sort of conversation. Real-time, instant engagement came most readily on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook; in these formats, participants seemed more willing to make comments and ask questions. Twitter was particularly lively, and it felt like the conference “lived” there, with quick response exchanges and lots of helpful reminders about the content that was being hosted elsewhere. On the blogs and on YouTube, participants shifted into a more scripted, prepared mode — carefully plotting out their presentations ahead of time, delivering them, and then giving us time to process and think through on our own. Over the course of the month-and-a-half that we’ve run this virtual conversation, I’ve enjoyed thinking and learning and conversing in all of these different modes, and I hope that you have, too.
My first post for the Recipes Project, “Early Modern Comfort Foods,” appeared in March 2013. At the time, the blog was not quite a year old, but had already been getting some excellent attention. Friends who knew that I worked on recipes kept sending me links to it, asking if I’d seen it and what I thought about the work that was being done. But I was already hooked: from its very earliest posts, the RP offered a unique platform, a place for anyone who studied recipes – and especially early-career scholars – to share their newest research and to receive supported, structured feedback on their ideas. I’m proud that we’ve continued this mission through to today.
There is a huge value in the openness and inclusivity of the RP. Authors can, and do, create posts which follow a variety of forms and formats. I’ve taken advantage of this myself, as both a contributor and an editor. I’ve written posts constructed on a microhistorical level, out of snippets pulled straight out of the archive; that first “Comfort Foods” post was written from inside of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester MA, where I’d gone to do dissertation research on colonial British American recipes and commonplace books. When that dissertation became a book, I wrote a couple of posts about the project as a whole, taking a macroscopic view of the roles played by recipes in early modern social networks. When I got my first job, I brought the RP along with me into my classrooms and advising meetings. I wrote about the ways that I taught with recipes for chocolate and for ink, and in partnership with talented undergraduates, I helped them to write about their own recipes research. When I started the search for my next research project, I turned straight to the RP, exploring recipes holdings in libraries and archives around the world. When I joined Lisa and Elaine as an RP editor in June 2014, it opened even more opportunities: organizing a themed series, writing round-ups, and participating in reflection posts like this one. Along the way, my RP colleagues and friends have been exceptionally generous in writing posts to help recognize, publicize, and bring attention to my work. And I’m beyond pleased that the RP has followed me to the Folger, where in the coming years we’ll continue to explore the library’s many amazing recipes sources.
Early-career scholars juggle a lot of different roles. The RP, with its flexible format and warm, thoughtful community of scholars, offers those who study recipes the chance to share their work, in whatever form it’s taking. As my own example – and those of many others – can prove, the RP can grow with you. Supporting and promoting people who are just embarking on their careers is one of the most important things that the RP does, and it’s what I value most as a member of this group.
Potatoes are an iconic food in the United States They’re a staple of most American diets, and at holiday meals they often appear twice – white potatoes mashed with butter, and sweet potatoes layered into casseroles with gooey marshmallows melted on top (a dish invented by the Cracker Jack Company in 1917) – on tables around the country. But potatoes have a complex and sometimes troubled American history, one that started outside of today’s United States.
Culinary historians and archaeobotanists now think that potatoes originated in Peru, and they were eaten by women and men living in South and Central America long before western Europeans arrived in these areas in the fifteenth century. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are frequently conflated or confused with yams (genus Dioscorea), and this slippage began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Sweet potatoes are of American origin, but their first major migration was westward, across the Pacific: in the 13th c. CE, they were taken to Easter Island and Hawaii, and later to New Zealand. At the end of the fifteenth century, they traveled eastward across the Atlantic, when they were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus around 1493. Yams, another edible root crop, are native to many different places around the world: Africa (Dioscorea cayenensis), Southeast Asia (Dioscorea alata, batatus, bulbifera, esculenta, japonica, and opposita) and even South America (Dioscorea trifida). Potatoes and yams have a high yield, thrive in any kind of soil, are drought-resistant, and grow in many different climatic zones. Their taste is not dissimilar and neither is their method of cultivation (although yams extend much deeper underground and it takes more work to dig them up). And in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people of African, American, Asian, and European origin were all growing, selling, and eating these plants, and they didn’t always do a good job of distinguishing between them.
By 1500, the sweet potato (and/or yams) had become an established crop in western Europe. They were a staple of European sailors’ diets. And they were fed – often with great violence, and by force – to enslaved women and men, on the African continent, during the middle passage, and after arrival in the Caribbean and the Americas. “Common,” or white potatoes, took a bit longer to catch on; they arrived in Europe as a cultivable vegetable between 1550-1570. Metropolitan Britain was one of the last European countries to take to the potato; the first mention of potatoes (sweet, “common,” or otherwise) in a printed British book was in 1596, when famed herbalist and botanist John Gerard included it in his Catalogue. This was apparently so well-received that a year later, Gerard devoted an entire chapter of his famous 1597 Herbal to this new and unfamiliar plant.
Over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more British subjects – enslaved and free, and on both sides of the Atlantic – began to grow, harvest, cook, and eat potatoes (as well as, and alongside, yams). In the early modern period, news of the potato spread through contact with print as well as people. Women and men learned about potatoes through experimentation, books, and word-of-mouth. They exchanged potato recipes with friends. They shared potato cuttings with their neighbors. They read about potatoes and tried their hands at preparing them. And some were forced to learn about and eat potatoes out of necessity, because they had – or were given – nothing else.
A team of Folger researchers recently uncovered a very early European potato recipe in our archives. The Folger Library in Washington, DC is proud home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States. And in one of these recipe books, a manuscript collection kept by the Grenville family from c. 1640-1750, is a recipe entitled “to make a potato puding.” The recipe called for some ingredients that would have been familiar to any early modern British person, like butter and eggs. But it also included ingredients that might have seemed luxurious and even exotic: sweet wine imported from Spain, cinnamon (which was sourced from India and Sri Lanka in the early modern period), and three pounds of potatoes. This recipe reveals one family’s attempt to bring a new and unfamiliar food to their table, but it also teaches us about wealth and social status in seventeenth-century Britain. The Grenville’s potato pudding was a fancy dish, saved for special occasions, and something that most early modern families would not have been able to afford.
We learned a lot about early modern markets, economies, foodways, and methods of cultivation as we studied the Grenville recipe for potato pudding, but we also wanted to try it for ourselves. So we invited Dr. Amanda Moniz, a former professional chef, veteran Recipes Project contributor, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy, to visit the Folger in order to help us re-create the Grenville’s potato pudding in our test-kitchen.
We faced three major challenges in making this dish in a form that early modern people would have recognized. First, the recipe calls for sack, a type of sweet fortified wine originally produced in Spain and the Canary Islands. Sack fell out of use in the nineteenth century, and isn’t available in most American markets. The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern sherry, and especially a dark sherry like Oloroso, which is what we used in our adaptation. The second challenge is that the pudding calls for a lot of eggs: eight of them, both whites and yolks. Early modern eggs were smaller, less uniform, and had different moisture levels than our modern American ones. In order to reach the right consistency, we cut the number of eggs in our potato pudding down to five, and we adjusted our cooking time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes so that the pudding would set properly. And last, the recipe doesn’t specify what types of potatoes the Grenvilles used in their pudding. But since sweet potatoes were the first kind of potato to be widely adopted in early modern Europe – and since we thought that those flavors would be more familiar to most modern Americans today – that’s what we chose.
When it was finished, the potato pudding was delicious, earning high marks from all of the members of our Folger tasting team. Creamy and rich, delicately scented with sweet wine and cinnamon, this early modern sweet potato pudding was both unusual and familiar, imparting a sense of the past without compromising the sensibilities of a present-day palate. We don’t know how often the Grenvilles made this potato pudding, but I’m going to be making it again very soon.
The Grenville Family’s Sweet Potato Pudding (adaptation)
3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
¾ lb. butter, softened
½ c. sherry (we recommend a dark sherry like Oloroso)
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
5 whole eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat your oven to 350F. Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil. Add potato pieces and cook until tender. Drain. In a large bowl, mash the potatoes with the butter until uniform and combined. Fold in the sherry, cinnamon, and eggs. Bake in a buttered casserole dish for 45 minutes, or until the pudding has pulled away from the sides of the dish and the middle jiggles slightly when shaken gently. The pudding will continue to set as it cools.
Sources & References:
Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006); Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd., 1993); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972); Redcliffe N. Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949).
Welcome to History Carnival 159! We’re delighted here at The Recipes Project to be hosting the September edition. It’s been a great month for history blogging and I was spoiled for choice. Some months, themes just seem to suggest themselves. What jumped out at me was ‘big’: discoveries, personalities, thinking and questions…
First up, September 2016 was notable for an exciting discovery in Canada’s north: the HMS Terror. The HMS Terror was one of the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, which had set out in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage. Out of the ones written this month, my two favourites were by Tina Adcock and Shane McCorristine. The first I like as much for its presentation (a Twitter essay) as for its powerful story in which Adcock looks at the forgetting of indigenous knowledge and the legacies of colonialism. The second is an article by Shane McCorristine rather than a blog post, but I’ve included it for its supernatural twist to the history of the expedition. (And we are heading into the spooky month of October, after all.)
There were also a lot of big personalities who arrived in my submission pile. Yvonne Seale provides a beginner’s reading list for medieval nuns, which includes some fantastic biographies of interesting women and will appeal to academics and non-academics alike. James Keating introduces us to the iconic Australian feminist, Vida Goldstein, and her contributions to the international suffrage movement. He considers why Australian women like Goldstein remained marginal figures in the transnational campaign, despite their early success back home. (Answer: local context is everything.)
The one woman I really wanted to meet, though, was Mary Scales*, an Australian psychic and ancestor of Samadhi Driscoll. In Driscoll’s words:
A famous clairvoyant, Mary would fall into dramatic psychic trances in which she would foretell the future. She apparently foretold everything from the Boer war to the winners of the Melbourne Cup. Then there were her highly-publicised and victorious court appearances in both criminal and civil trials – one of them at the High Court of England, where Mary’s eccentric antics captured the imaginations of the media worldwide.
Need I say more?
In September, thoughts of historians lightly turn to thoughts of… methodology. There was a lot of big thinking going on this month. As part of a roundtable on LaShawn Harris’ book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, Brian Purnell reflects on ‘The Difficulty of Uncovering Obscure Lives and Hidden Histories’. He wonders: ‘How can a researcher and writer find information and recreate a story about people and practices that, by their very nature, did not want to be found or known?’ The result, he notes, is a complicated methodology and messy categories. Categories were also Brodie Waddell’s inspiration for thinking about early modern society, more specifically terms used to describe people’s social status. As Waddell puts it, “if we hope to understand past societies, we need to know much more about how people labelled themselves and their neighbours, and how these labels related to the concrete realities of daily life.”
For Nadine Weidman and Will Pooley, historical imagination and narrative were at the heart of their musings. Weidman revisits Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale to think about how ‘Ulrich faces, as all historians must, the fundamental unknowability of the past’—in her case through imagination, close-reading and contextualisation. Pooley wonders how we can find causes for behaviour in the past and the importance of big (issues) and small (individual behaviour) scale in the narratives we find. I also include his post for its reference to cheese and magic and one of the post’s comments, which is a cracking example of cheese-related history.
Historians were also asking some big questions. Some questions were with the intent to explain. Andrea Eidinger attempted to answer her students’ question: how can they identify peer-reviewed articles? Her focus is on Canadian History journals, but she gives useful advice for students more generally! If you’ve ever wondered how Spanish got its ‘n’ with a tilde, there’s a helpful v-log for you. Other questions were broader. David Brydan looks at Franco’s Spain to identify how the Francoists found their way around a tricky situation: “how to talk about international cooperation without adopting the language of liberal or socialist internationalism, particularly without recourse to the familiar internationalist language of peace, freedom, tolerance and equality?” For Migraine Awareness Month, Katherine Foxhall has a thought-provoking post entitled ‘’Migraines were taken more seriously in the past – where did we go wrong?’
But historical recipes, in particular, highlighted the way in which fragments of information can be used to answer big questions. RP editor, Amanda Herbert, has the chance to use a test kitchen to try out old recipes. She concludes that ‘through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.’
With all of the ‘big’ themes going on this month, it is important not to forget the opposite—those small stories, those fragments. September certainly offered up some tasty crumbs of history. Hels offered a few thoughts on Shakespeare’s schooling. Rebecca Johnston looked at one fascinating letter, which was written to the Cheka in 1921 to request the release of an art historian and critic, Nikolai Punin. And last, but certainly not least, Sharon Howard offers a tale of a strange horse-related accident in eighteenth-century Denbigh.
Take care and travel safe, everyone. See you at History Carnival 160, which will be hosted by Frog in a Well on 1 November!
*Could Mary Scales’ name be any more appropriate for this month?