Category Archives: American

The Art of Preserving Eighteenth-Century Cookery Through Interpretation

In this post, Tiffany Fisk explains the importance of recipes for apprentices in Historic Foodways, an immersive program offered at Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg.

Tiffany A. Fisk

Every day my colleagues and I are asked by visitors to Colonial Williamsburg the following: “You aren’t REALLY cooking, are you?” The purpose of Historic Foodways is to do the work of eighteenth-century cooks by using and understanding the techniques, equipment, and recipes from the period. We do this by completing a 5-level apprenticeship that involves building and mastering a variety of skills and techniques, understanding how to use and care for a wide-range of equipment, and how to read and comprehend eighteenth-century cookbooks. Those of us who “do” this type of history can attest to the fact that the latter is the most challenging component for many new apprentices.

Governor's Palace, Colonial Williamsburg. Image courtesy of WikiMedia and Larry Pieniazek
Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg. Image courtesy of WikiMedia and Larry Pieniazek

As readers of the Recipes Project will know, cookbooks of the eighteenth century were written differently than their modern counterparts, and, in our case, they provide context for understanding gentry households of the Colonial Era. The books were typically written by men and women who cooked for wealthy households including royalty.  Recipes or receipts were written in paragraph form, usually with very little detail, or if there are details, they don’t always make sense to the modern reader. Often steps are referred to but not explained, and sometimes, a step or ingredient is left out. Modern cookbooks, as most people know, have every ingredient listed with precise measurements, and the instructions are listed in order and are usually detailed. When a new apprentice starts out in Level 1, he or she quickly finds out that reading a recipe also means trying to get into the mind of an eighteenth-century cook. While a recipe for fried potatoes sounds easy, the cooks needs to know the size of a crown piece in order to slice the potatoes the right thickness. And what is the end result supposed to look like? Smell like? Taste like? The recipe says stir until it is enough; WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Why is utilizing the cookbooks of the period so important? As is true today, we can learn about what ingredients and flavor combinations were fashionable. For example, you can track how popular certain ingredients are over the course of the century based on how often they show up in new editions of certain books. This includes the increase in the use of sugar as the century progresses, as it becomes more affordable as a result of enslaved labor. In this way, cookbooks reveal the impact of global trade on food consumption. In wealthy households, cooks could obtain ingredients from all over the world.

In addition to revealing what foods were fashionable, certain cookbooks can also show practices around meals, such as how tables were set in the period. For example, Charles Carter’s The Complete Practical Cook (1730) has several suggestions for table settings.

Charles Carter's The Complete Practical Cook, (1730). Public Domain
Charles Carter’s The Complete Practical Cook, (1730). Public Domain

In gentry households in the last half of the eighteenth century, everyone at the table was expected to know how to serve the food. They passed their dinner plates around, rather than passing platters of food. This encouraged conversation among guests. Dishes on each course were placed symmetrically around the table. Dining in such a way was daily for this class at this time. Today, big, fancy meals are saved for holidays and special occasions, but we still set the table a certain way and implement traditions unique to our families. Despite this, it seems that most people are fairly detached from their food. Most food today is not consumed in its place of origin and has been packaged for convenience. The average American does not have to dispatch, pluck, and gut a chicken before he or she eats it. Nor do many people know how to do any of those steps.

Cookbooks from the period not only give us recipes and table settings, but they also provide instructions for purchasing good quality meat and produce, how to process live fish and fowl purchased at market, as well as instructions for preserving food and what recipes are appropriate different times of the year. For example, fresh asparagus would not be on the table in January, but asparagus you pickled in May, when it was in season, could be. At Historic Foodways, we learn seasonality by studying the cookbooks and coordinating what we are making with what is growing in our garden. We also have to be aware of the fact that we are cooking in Tidewater Virginia, and most of the cookbooks we use were published in England. What is in season when is usually a little different, as are varieties of seafood and fowl. We learn to adapt accordingly, just at early Virginians did.

The cookbooks of the eighteenth century are essential to successfully completing the work of our trade. They provide us with the context needed to understand cooking, economics, trade, and politics of the period.

Do Objects Lie? Teaching About Food, Material Culture, and Evidence

Carla Cevasco

During my most recent move, I observed (while sweating, and swearing, and trying to keep the packing tape from sticking to itself again) that kitchen items occupied more boxes than any other category of my possessions. Not even books could compete with the weight and bulk of my kitchen, from a sturdy stand mixer to far more glassware than any reasonable person should own.

It was a vivid illustration of how objects for storing, cooking, and eating food surround us. They are intimately related to our bodies, containing the food that we will incorporate into ourselves; some of them, eating utensils like forks or chopsticks, actually enter our bodies. Kitchen and dining items are powerful, and they are part of us.

In my teaching on American food history, I argue that food-related objects offer a rich site of interpretation, as part of my greater mission of teaching with things. Even if I can’t always bring physical objects into the classroom—like gingerbread made according to Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe, or a bottle of the Silicon Valley food replacement beverage Soylent—my students engage with visual or material culture in every class. Elaborate tea services illustrate tea’s value as an imperial luxury good for eighteenth century Americans—and emphasize its potency as an instrument of protest in the leadup to the American Revolution.[1] Racist images advertising baking powder and tinned meats in the late nineteenth century demonstrate both the growing business of industrial food, and the ways that stereotypes pervade everyday life, past and present.[2] Trays from mid-twentieth-century university dining halls reveal the shift to military-style dining after the second World War, and the growing concern about public health and nutrition for institutions, governments, and researchers in that period.

My students sometimes argue that material and visual culture are more inscrutable than texts, until I point out to them that they are the most visually-literate generation perhaps in all of history, spending hours navigating completely image-based social media applications. And, in fairness to my students, I didn’t encounter material culture as a field of study, or learn about the methodological rigor of art history, until I arrived to my PhD program and studied with an art historian and other scholars of material culture. But why do objects—despite the many many many examples of wonderful material culture scholarship on this site—seem so untrustworthy to students raised on Instagram and Snapchat?

So, when given an opportunity to make a pedagogical film at the Chipstone Foundation, a center dedicated to, among other fascinating things, research on early British and American ceramics, my colleague Christopher Allison and I decided to confront these questions head-on. How should we use objects as evidence? What can they tell us about the everyday lives of people, and the creation of archives? What if these objects are lying to us? (You can read more about the process of making the video here.)

The result is a Youtube video called “Do Objects Lie?” In it, Chris and I examine a variety of food-related items, from teapots shaped like fruits and vegetables, to pitchers depicting famous battles; from anthropomorphic teacups to, uh, chamber pots. These objects misrepresent the truth, or leave out important details. These omissions and elisions are, in fact, the most interesting part of the story, enabling us to ask questions about how history is made, how collections and archives are formed, and what these processes can tell us about ourselves. We have to engage mindfully with sources (textual or material), look for as many pieces of evidence as possible, and ask questions about how we know what we know. Teaching these practices to our students has taken on a fresh urgency as issues of history, media literacy, and truth itself dominate the news cycle.

I’ll be showing the video as I teach about questions of evidence and interpretation in classes on early American studies, American Studies methods, food history, and material culture. I hope it will be useful to teachers and students across disciplines, from history and art history to food studies and beyond. How might you use this video in your classroom? I look forward to hearing your ideas.

 

[1] Caroline Frank, Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), Chapter 5.

[2] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: NYU Press, 2012).

First Monday Library Chat: The David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection

Welcome to the September 2018 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month we travel to Tuscaloosa and speak with Kate Matheny, Reference Services & Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections at University of Alabama Libraries.

Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

 

The Lupton Collection is a key holding at the University of Alabama Libraries. Could you give us an overview of the collection?

The Lupton Collection documents African American foodways writing, a spectrum that ranges from professionally published cookbooks and food memoirs to recipe collections self-published by community groups or families. The earliest volume is The House Servant’s Directory, published in 1827, and the latest are from the twenty-first century. It’s a collection of over 450 books—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it very much is. Consider the factors that might prevent such books from being written, especially in the nineteenth century: low literacy rates, a historically improvisational method taught person-to-person, or the pragmatic need for someone working as a cook to safeguard his or her livelihood. That’s to say nothing of barriers to publishing cookbooks by black authors and the reality that some early works may have simply been lost over time.

Mother Africa's Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Mother Africa’s Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

The collection contains some cookbooks authored by whites, including corporate collections featuring figures like Aunt Jemima and nostalgic works by Southerners purporting to share the recipes of family servants. Including these in the collection may seem strange, but for a time these were the only works attempting to set down African American food culture, all while typifying stereotypical portrayals that black cookbook authors were working to combat. But the bulk of the collection is from the mid to late twentieth century, written by African Americans or on their behalf. It’s hard to sum up all the themes that run through the collection, but in many ways they reflect the currents of modern black history. For example, you can see the consequences of the Great Migration as well as the paradigm shift of the Black Pride movement. Two of the biggest recent trends are adjusting traditional soul food to combat health problems like heart disease and diabetes and highlighting the connection to African foodways and diaspora cuisines like Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian.

For those of us interested in the history of archives, can you tell us a bit about the Collection founder David Lupton?

Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

David Lupton was an academic librarian who became a diligent bibliographer of early African American cookbooks, even after his retirement. According to his wife, Dorothy, his interest in the subject sprang from his purchase of a black-authored cookbook at a flea market and subsequent realization that such items were rare and hard to find. He became passionate about finding a way to document—as well as collect and preserve—these artifacts of African American culture.

I think knowing the rationale behind the collection is actually important in understanding how to use it. The Lupton collection is historical and academic, which is a different thing entirely from a personal collection accumulated by a cook. For example, we recently catalogued a large donation of cookbooks belonging to Viola Pearson Ragland, an African American woman from north Alabama. Some of those items overlap with Lupton, but not as many as one might think. Since they are books she owned and used, the selection tends to be more eclectic, and it’s possible she didn’t need or perhaps want very many works on African American cooking. An academic collection will naturally be more focused, as it is curated for posterity and for study, but it is not as reflective of actual use.

Can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

These may not be the most “important,” but they are certainly favorites, and they’re pretty representative of what’s compelling about the collection.

Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

When I teach, I often bring out Cookin’ with Coolio (2009). People don’t expect a rapper to have anything to say about cooking, but that’s precisely why I like it. Coolio did collaborate with a chef, but the aim of the cookbook and the tone are all his. He talks about growing up poor in inner city Los Angeles and learning to improvise with the ingredients he could find, including things as simple as canned tuna and white bread. It leads to pragmatic recipes with funny names, like, “Your Ribs Is Too Short to Box with God” and “Really? Corn Salad?” The book looks like a joke—on the cover, he calls himself the “Ghetto Gourmet”—but it’s a real cookbook with its own unique personal and cultural perspective. As a teaching tool, it asks us to evaluate kneejerk assumptions and provides a good entry point for a discussion about food and class.

Introduction from Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Introduction from Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

I also like Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook (1978). It’s a self-published, spiral-bound volume put together on Jackson’s behalf by someone who clearly knows and loves her. Though the text is written in the third person, it asserts that “Ruth Jackson wrote this book.” After all, the recipes and all the intangible things that helped shape them — her small Georgia hometown, her church, her family — are hers. Interspersed are sketches and candid photographs, and there’s an essay in the back on the history of the local black community. Recipes are fairly simple, but it’s clear she has put her own spin on things. Two unusual recipes that stand out are “Cornmeal Gingerbread” and “Devil Chicken.”

This month, we are featuring a Teaching Series here at the Recipes Project. Can you tell us about some of the ways that you’ve used the Lupton Collection in the classroom?

Interior from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Interior image from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

What impresses me about teaching with cookbooks in general is how versatile they are. I didn’t set out to become the “cookbook person” at my archive; I just ended up with frequent instruction requests for the Lupton Collection — from half a dozen departments, including English, Anthropology, and History. There are so many things to analyze in a cookbook. The rhetoric of the text and the iconography of the visuals tell some of the story. The organization reveals a lot about the particular cuisine and the cook’s approach to it. The format and level of detail in the directions changes over time and indicates what kind of kitchen facilities the average cook had and who was doing the cooking. Even the ingredients are revealing, giving insight into the foods available at the time and the socioeconomic class of the audience.

In my experience, cookbooks also level the playing field for student discussion. Everyone eats, and most people have done some cooking at some point, so cookbooks feel very easy to approach. Deceptively so, I think. Students don’t get intimidated, so it’s easier to engage them in analysis and discussion. The instructor can tie them to complex ideas they’ve been discussing in class, and I can help them develop critical thinking and information literacy skills. To address the Lupton Collection specifically, it’s always interesting for students to see how much of traditional Southern cuisine has its roots in African American cuisine. It opens up an interesting dialogue.

Can you offer any tips to help users locate Lupton resources via your catalog, online, or finding aids?

We don’t have a formal finding aid for them as such, but this webpage has a comprehensive alphabetical list. You can also find the cookbooks in a search of our catalogue. If you’re interested Lupton’s bibliography, which also includes items that are not in the collection, it can be found in an appendix to collaborator Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (Oxford University Press, 1999). However, it is nearly 20 years old, so it doesn’t include one important early work that hadn’t yet been discovered: Malinda Russell‘s Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (Paw Paw, Mich., 1866).

Eating Crow

By Michael Walkden

In 1936, the residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma were seized with a craving for crow. Butchers sent children into the fields, offering $1.50 for every dozen crows they brought back for the chopping block. Nurses and dietitians suggested that crow-meat could become a staple food in hospitals. And Miss Maude Firth, a domestic science teacher, established a class in crow-cookery. [1]

Tulsa’s crow craze was due in no small part to the efforts of one Dr. T. W. Stallings, former county health superintendent and self-professed “crow hater.” According to Stallings, crows – with their tendency to descend in droves upon staple crops – had become a serious problem for Oklahoma farmers in recent years.

With this in mind, Stallings launched a pragmatic attempt to stimulate interest in the extermination and consumption of crow, beginning with a series of ‘crow banquets.’ Only after the guests had finished their meals – and expressed their approval – was it revealed that they had dined on crow.

It appears that Stallings’ campaign to turn crow-meat into an American table delicacy enjoyed a degree of success. In February 1936, The Atlanta Constitution reported that a group of state officials, including Oklahoma Governor E. W. Marland, were to attend a banquet at which the piece de resistance would be “50 fine, fat crows.” [2] Marland was apparently so impressed by the meal that he established a “Statehouse Crow Meat Lovers Association.” [3]

The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and its relatives have generally been shunned as foodstuffs in Western cultures due to their omnivorous diets, which often include carrion

Crow-eating was by no means limited to Oklahoma: by 1937, newspapers in Kansas, Georgia, Illinois, and Washington state were all reporting a surge of public interest in the much-maligned bird. In August 1937, it was estimated that an average of two Americans per day wrote to the Department of Agriculture asking for details on “how crows might be cooked, stewed, fried or roasted and how crow broth can be made.” [4] And in 1941, a group of sportsmen enjoyed “crow en casserole” courtesy of Fernand Pointreau, head chef at the acclaimed Hotel Sherman in Chicago. The crows were prepared as follows:

First they were skinned and dressed and put in a pan with butter to which a small amount of garlic had been added. Then the pan was drenched with one-third of a cup of white wine. Strong veal gravy [three tablespoons] and soy bean sauce were added. This sauce was poured over the crow meat and then the birds were cooked in a covered dish for about two hours. [Very young birds taken in the spring require just one hour, according to Chef Pointreau.] Mushrooms, small cubes of fried salt pork, and small glazed onions were added.

Those who sampled Pointreau’s creation were overwhelmingly positive. One diner remarked that he had been “agreeably surprised at the taste of crow,” noting that it “compares favorably with wild duck;” another described it as “A very tasty dark meat, deliciously prepared.” [5]

We should, of course, be wary of taking the ‘crow craze’ of the 1930s and 40s at face value. As we have seen, state officials had a vested interest in promoting the extermination of the birds, which were widely views as destructive pests. The 1930s also saw widespread dearth in the parts of the United States hit hardest by the ravages of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, a fact which could have rendered the crow – not traditionally considered a source of food – more appetising than it had previously appeared.

Despite this, it is also clear that many people were clearly sceptical or downright disgusted at the idea of eating crow. “Roast crow, bah,” exclaimed one Atlanta chef in 1936, “folks just don’t go in for that kind of meat. … So far as I’m concerned, eating crow will continue to be nothing but a political expression.” [6] A writer for the US Department of Agriculture in 1937 similarly declared that “I have eaten rattlesnake, but I have never eaten crow. And I don’t think I ever intend.” [7]

There is little evidence that the efforts made in the 1930s had any lasting impact on the public perception of crow-meat as a foul-tasting or even toxic substance: ‘eating crow’ in modern parlance remains a term for the unpleasant experience of being forced to retract a strongly expressed conviction.

E. W. Marland, 10th Governor of Oklahoma, was apparently so impressed by his own experience of eating crow that he set up an unofficial “Statehouse Crow Meat Lovers’ Association.”

Nonetheless, this brief chapter in the history of food is as an example of what happens when the pragmatic concerns of nutrition run up against shared convictions that certain substances are unfit for human consumption. As Paul Rozin and April Fallon have observed in a much-cited paper on the psychology of disgust:

Whereas people readily acquire disgust responses to substances, especially during the enculturation process, they rarely lose them. This presents a problem in public health, when members of a particular culture reject a nutritive, cheap, and plentiful foodstuff (e.g., fish flour, a fermented item, a particular animal species).[8]

The 1930s crow craze therefore raises several important questions about the parameters of edibility. What factors shape whether an edible substance produces a disgust response? Are these fixed or culturally variable? And how far can they be overridden or reshaped in times of famine or changing public health priorities?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it appears that Stallings greatly underestimated the resistance that his project to rehabilitate the culinary status of crow would ultimately face. “There is no reason why crow shouldn’t be good food,” he declared optimistically in 1936. “It’s just a silly idea that they aren’t good to eat. [9] And yet, almost a century on, while crows continue to darken the skies, they remain notably absent from American dinner tables.


Michael Walkden recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of York, UK. His thesis explored the relationship between emotions and digestion in early modern English medicine. He will shortly be joining the Folger Shakespeare Library as a postdoctoral research fellow on the “Before ‘Farm to Table:’ Early Modern Foodways and Cultures” research project.


[1] “Tulsa enthusiastic over crow as delicacy,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

[2] “Oklahoma’s Governor To Eat Crow Tomorrow,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 17, 1936.

[3] “Bids Legislature to Crow Meal,” New York Times, December 3, 1936.

[4] “Biologists Get 2 Queries a Day On Methods of Cooking Crows,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1937.

[5] Bob Becker, “SPORTSMEN EAT CROW MEAT AND FIND IT TASTY: Compare Flavor to That of Game Birds, Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1941.

[6] “Atlanta Gourmets Scoff at Crow As Substitute for Fried Chicken,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

[7] “Biologists Get 2 Queries a Day On Methods of Cooking Crows,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1937.

[8] Paul Rozin and April E. Fallon, “A perspective on disgust,” Psychological review 94, no. 1 (1987): 38.

[9] “Tulsa enthusiastic over crow as delicacy,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.