Around the Table: Museum Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table! Today we have a chat about the recipes-related collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., especially the National Museum of American History (NMAH)! I am delighted to speak with Ashley Rose Young, Historian in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry, and Paula Johnson, Curator in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry.

The Smithsonian has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Within the collections at all three museums are impressive holdings of items related to recipes research. Could you provide a brief overview of the Smithsonian’s collections related to recipes?

Paula Johnson: Researching recipes at the Smithsonian Institution is a complex endeavor, but one that has the potential for great rewards. With nineteen museums and research bureaus, plus pan-institutional libraries and archives, a veritable trove of material covering an astonishing array of culinary-related subjects awaits the intrepid researcher. While each museum has its own physical branch library, the consolidated digital catalog contains records for all Smithsonian holdings. A useful overview of the institution’s libraries and archives can be found here

My long experience with Smithsonian collections is based almost entirely on the holdings of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which houses significant collections of artifacts, documents, books, ephemera, and digital material reflecting many broad areas of culinary history. Among the diverse food-related collections are many that contain recipes, although that may not be apparent at a glance. Due to different cataloging protocols for objects, archives, and libraries over the institution’s 175-year-history, researchers need to think broadly about search terms and pack some patience when accessing the collections. While catalogs and finding aids are key to a researcher’s success, there’s always the possibility of serendipity, as in this item we located in the Smithsonian Archives, a “Receipt Book” for medicinal and dietary uses, kept by James Smithson, the British scientist whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. The handwritten receipts are mostly for simple candies and spirits, including “Pate de Jujubes,” “Usquebaugh,” and various cordials. 

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7000, James Smithson Collection. Research photo*

In the NMAH collections, recipes can be found in historic cookbooks that are held by the main research library as well as the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. A significant number of books and pamphlets was donated to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) by the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC, and that collection continues to grow, courtesy of CHOW. The library also holds a large collection of trade literature and product cookbooks that contain recipes and can be accessed here.

The NMAH Archives Center houses many food history-related collections, including some that contain recipes. Although the word “recipe” may not appear in the record title or even the description, it is possible to access recipes (and marvelous related material) via creative searching. Some highlights include the Pillsbury Bake-off Collection and the Nordic Ware Papers, which include recipe pamphlets from the “Maid of Scandinavia” line of cookware, the forerunner to the Nordic Ware brand, most famous for its Bundt cake pans.

As a curator, I collect objects and archival documents for the museum, and over the years I have brought several collections into the museum that include recipes. A recent example is the Mollie Katzen collecting documenting the development of her Moosewood Cookbook. In addition to the original artwork and early, spiral-bound edition of the book (1974), the collection includes Katzen’s detailed estimates of the cost of each ingredient in each recipe and other papers containing recipe notes. My favorite part of the collection are the letters written to Katzen by fans, some of whom were enthusiastic converts to vegetarian cooking. These documents provide both context and texture to the recipes.

The Archives Center also houses documents collected from the recipients of the Julia Child Award, presented annually since 2015 by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. Among them is a journal of field notes kept by Chef Rick Bayless, as he and his wife Deann traveled through Mexico in the early 1980s to research regional ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques.  These field notes became the foundation for Bayless’ first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico (1987).

Rick Bayless field notes, early 1980s. Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Another wonderful and perhaps unexpected document is contained in the Paul Ma Papers, collected from Paul and Linda Ma, a Chinese American couple who operated successful restaurants in the West Chester area of New York, beginning in the 1980s. A well-used, handwritten booklet features recipes for the basic dishes and sauces the Mas remembered from home after migrating to the United States around 1964.  With recipes and notes written in both Chinese and English, and with sauce stains identifying the most favored recipes, the booklet also provides insight into the context of Ma’s restaurant menu and cooking.

Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Paul Ma Paper. Research photo.

Occasionally there are recipes filed as “reference material” associated with accessioned objects and these can sometimes be difficult to find without curatorial staff assistance. An example are the thirty-three recipe cards donated by La Deva Davis, an African American teacher whose 1976 television show, “What’s Cooking?” aired on PBS through station WHYY in Wilmington, DE. Donated along with three aprons La Deva Davis wore on the show, the cards provide a record of the dishes she demonstrated (“low cost, high nutrition cooking”), including “Oriental Beef Stew,” “Liptauer Cheese,” and “Think Thin Salad.”

Finally, a note about beer. Our colleague Theresa McCulla, curator of the museum’s American Brewing History Initiative, has collected beer recipes from the individuals who shaped the modern home brewing and craft beer industries.  A couple of examples are included in the museum’s exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table Theresa’s work has also inspired a great deal of interest in some of the older brewing history collections at the museum and for one beer historian, the Archives Center yielded recipe gold. As he was researching the Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, the researcher found a 1930 recipe for Bock beer that called for corn, rice, and sugar scribbled on a piece of paper. In 2019, brewers at Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, created an American bock from the recipe found in the NMAH Archives Center.   

You have been creating a lot of programming around food culture in recent years at the Smithsonian-could you talk about that and how you have adapted during the COVID-19 closures this year?

Ashley Rose Young: The American Food History Project at NMAH hosts a variety of public programs including Cooking Up History, Deep-Dish Dialogues, Roundtables, Conversation Circles, Brewing History After Hours, Ask a Farmer, and more. Additionally, during our annual Food History Weekend, we invite community leaders, food practitioners, activists, academics, policy makers, and the public to come together to discuss a central theme in American history and in our current moment.

Recently, while planning for the all-virtual 2020 Food History Weekend, “Food Futures: Striving for Justice,” we took inspiration from what we saw in our research and collecting around COVID-19: that people are looking ahead with energy and hope for creating better systems and more innovative and humane solutions that will address long-term needs when we emerge from these unprecedented conditions. That weekend, our Cooking Up History programs featured chefs who each shared and prepared a recipe and spoke about its traditional and contemporary significance to food justice. Chef Nico Albert of the Cherokee Nation, for example, prepared Sumac-Crusted Trout with Sauteed Mushrooms and Greens, and guided audiences through foraging for sumac and greens, while also speaking about the culinary heritage of the Cherokee people. She emphasized that retaining and celebrating traditional foodways was a means of securing food sovereignty for indigenous communities across the U.S.

YouTube video of “Cooking Up History: Culinary Traditions within the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma with Chef Nico Albert”

As with Chef Nico’s demonstration, all of our Cooking Up History programs are centered around recipes, the history and traditions behind their ingredients, culinary techniques, and enjoyment. The recipes and descriptions of each event can be found on our website under “Past Demos and Recipes.”

Guest Chefs Aisha Alfadhalah and Iman Alshehab of the Mera Kitchen Collective with Ashley Rose Young during a 2019 “Cooking Up History” program. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

For 2021, we are currently developing new models to bring Cooking Up History and other food history programs to digital audiences throughout the year. Please visit our website this spring for updates.

What tips can you offer to help users find collection items? Is it possible to search all of the Smithsonian’s holdings at once, or do researchers need to look at the individual museums?

Ashley Rose Young: I had a chance to reach out to Alison Oswald, an archivist at the Archives Center at NMAH, for tips on how to navigate the vast collections of the Smithsonian, which, admittedly, can be somewhat daunting given the volume of material available. Alison noted that the data related to our collections are exported into the Collections Search Center (CSC), and the CSC is a good place for researchers to start when they want to search across the Smithsonian including all museums, archives, libraries, and research units.

Researchers can also search finding aids in Smithsonian archives by visiting the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). Some finding aids include digitized content linked at collection, series, and folder level.

Alison also provided a few tips on how to make the best of your searches on CSC and SOVA:

  • It can help to use quotes (“ ”) around the key word/search term and to make use of the facets, which allow you to limit a search. For example, “recipes” in SOVA yields 214 collection level records, but if you wanted to know what kind of recipes the National Museum of Air and Space has, you can limit it by selecting archival repository and you get 4 collections.
  • Researchers should also try a variety of terms when searching. Recipes is a pretty specific term so starting broader with cookbooks, cookery, cooking, baking, etc. can be useful. Most catalogs do something called “stemming” which is when the catalog searches for the “root” of a word and displays all words with that stem. For example, the word “searching” or “search” or “searches” all stem to “search”.

Last but not least, Alison noted that catalogs are works in progress that are constantly evolving, and that the Smithsonian welcomes feedback from researchers to make our catalogs better.

For researchers who have projects and interests spanning multiple museums within the Smithsonian, how do you recommend they go about searching for pertinent materials?

Paula Johnson: This is such an important issue and one we have explored recently through a special collaboration with colleagues in the UK and the US, with support from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. While this initiative has been the subject of previous posts, I’ll simply share that we worked with graduate student researchers from the Boston University Program in Gastronomy to test the ease and challenges of conducting food-related subject searches across the Smithsonian’s consolidated digital collections catalogs. The resulting white paper, “Looking for Food in the New Smithsonian Institution Catalog,” is under review and will help inform how we can improve cataloging to make materials more accessible across subject areas.

How much of the Smithsonian’s holdings are digitized? What other digital resources and events are available?

Ashley Rose Young: I also had the opportunity to touch base with Sherri Berger, the head of NMAH’s Digital Programs Office, about the Smithsonian’s digital offerings. Sherri noted that as of 2019, the Smithsonian holds 155.4 million museum objects and specimens, about 19 million of which have been digitized; 1.2 million library volumes, about 760,000 of which have been either fully or partially digitized; and 163,000 cubic feet of archival material, with 5.6 million digitized items. For ways to learn about and access these materials, please see our answer to question 3.

In addition to these materials, the Smithsonian hosts numerous virtual events. You can learn about NMAH’s food history offering by signing up to our newsletter and selecting “food history” as a topic of interest.

We also have recordings of past events available online. You can watch our 2020 Food History Weekend programming and other food-related events on our YouTube “food history” playlist.

Does the Smithsonian offer any fellowships or grants for researchers?

Ashley Rose Young: The Smithsonian offers research fellowships to graduate students, predoctoral students, and postdoctoral and senior investigators to conduct independent research and to utilize the resources of the Institution with members of the Smithsonian professional research staff serving as advisors and hosts. These fellowships are offered through the Smithsonian’s Office of Fellowships and Internships, and are administered under the charter of the Institution, 20 U.S. Code section 41 et seq. You can learn more about our fellowship program here.

*Several photos in this post were taken by research staff and are not official scans provided by the Smithsonian museums and archives. Because the Smithsonian research facilities have been closed due to the pandemic, we are not able to provide proper scans.

Thanks, Ashley and Paula, for chatting about recipes resources at the Smithsonian Institution! You can find Ashley on Twitter @ashleyroseyoung and Instagram @ashleyroseyoung. Theresa McCulla, brewing history coordinator, is on Twitter @theresamccu. You can also find NMAH on Twitter @amhistorymuseum, Instagram @amhistorymuseum, and Facebook @National Museum of American History. They tag their posts/tweets with #SmithsonianFood. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Around the Table: Digital Resources

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Since the COVID-19 pandemic restricted physical access to resources for teaching and research this spring, educational, research, and cultural institutions have been busy digitizing their collections and creating digital content to assist their patrons. This is a roundup of some recently digitized recipes-related materials and newly created digital content (like videos, exhibitions, and source guides), compiled with the assistance of the Recipes Project community on social media. Thank you to all who contributed! This list is incomplete, as hearty as it is. Also, some digital items have been around for several years, but have recently received an update or reorganization due to increased web traffic during the pandemic.

Crowdsourced Digital Resources

The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) is hosting its annual Transcribathon in coordination with the Wellcome Library and the Royal College of Physicians on 4 March. This is a great opportunity to delve into some digitized early modern English recipe books and transcribe the text to benefit researchers and students alike! For details and updates, visit the EMROC website.

The Sifter, an online database of culinary writing, especially cookbooks and recipes, is now publicly available after years of development. Free for all users, it is a tool in finding, identifying, and comparing historical culinary texts. It currently includes over 5,000 works in multiple languages. Registered users can also populate The Sifter with texts and information, in addition to using the database for research.

Videos

The William Andrews Clark Jr. Memorial Library launched a web series titled “Bad Taste, where we explore what it truly means to be disgusted.” Each episode documents the process of recreating and tasting a historical recipe which seems “disgusting” to modern palates. Episode 1 is about an eighteenth-century recipe for toast water.

The Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library launched a series of brief collection presentation videos in coordination with the recent conference Food and the Book: 1300 to 1800. Each of the five videos highlights a food-related early modern resource in the Newberry’s collections.

English Heritage’s History at Home presents an array of digital content, especially videos, related to English Heritage sites and programming. The site contains videos on Georgian makeup application, Victorian cooking, and grand historic feasts. The site is also family-friendly, with content like coloring pages for children, and tours of historic sites.

Refashioning the Renaissance’s website contains an engaging archive of the project’s activities and experiments involving historic textiles, dyes, fabric cleaning, and fragrances. Many of the documented experiments include brief video summaries, which can be very helpful in digital classroom settings. The project also has blog posts and a podcast to introduce new audiences to these topics.

Digital Collections and Exhibitions

Transcriptions of over eighty manuscript recipe books at the Folger Shakespeare Library are available for full text search in the Folger Manuscript Transcriptions collection. The collection is added to on a regular basis.

The Library of Congress has long hosted a collection of digitized Community Cookbooks; it has been consistently updated since its originally posting in 2009. Here you can find links to nineteenth- and twentieth-century community cookbooks from the United States. In addition to searching for specific items, you can also sort the collection by place or date.

The National Library of Medicine has gathered links to their digital projects, exhibitions, and collections onto a single page. Here you can find links to their digital collections (which include many digitized manuscript recipe books) and exhibitions ranging from the consumption of intoxicants as medical prescriptions and Food and Enslavement in Early America.

Lifting the Lid: 400 Years of Food and Drink in Scotland is an online exhibition at the National Library of Scotland in 2015. It explored 400 years of Scottish food history, telling the story of Scotland’s relationship with food and drink. Here you can find digitized recipes for turtle soup and curry powder, as well as the library’s Burnfoot family recipe books, which include the same recipes by different people over four generations.

An Image from the Newberry Library’s Digital Collection for the Classroom on Foods of the Columbian Exchange. Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). Used with permission through a Creative Commons Public Domain license.

The Newberry Library’s Digital Collections for the Classroom contains a wide range of digitized primary source collections for teaching based on collection items at the Newberry. While many collections only mention recipes-related materials in passing, some collections are more explicitly connected, like those on the Discovery of Chocolate, Foods of the Columbian Exchange, and the Medieval Spice Trade.

The New York Academy of Medicine has just posted a new digital collection, Recipes and Remedies: Manuscript Cookbooks. This digital collection boasts eleven fully digitized manuscript recipe books of the NYAM’s physical collection of approximately forty.

The Mexican Cookbook Collection at UTSA Libraries includes a breathtaking array of texts, many available online. Now the collection is even more accessible to public audiences through their recent outreach effort, Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus. Visit the link to find booklets of updated recipes, published in Spanish and English, picked from the collection’s many options.

Digitized Materials

First introduced to the Recipes Project in this 2019 blog post by Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith, the English royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801 is now digitized and available on Adam Crymble’s website.

Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has been busily digitizing since the pandemic began and have kept readers updated about their progress through blog posts. Their most recent includes mention of several items of interest to the Recipes Project community, including fragments of medical encyclopedias, alchemical texts, and instruction on the “treatment of eye sores.”

Digital Collection Guides and Compilations of Resources

McMaster University History of Medicine has compiled a list of digital exhibits based at institutions in North America and Europe. This list is organized into an array of medical history topics, ranging from Canadian cookbooks, significant works of the Renaissance, and Ancient and Classical medicine.

The British Library has just published a collection guide for Food History: Archives and Manuscripts. The guide highlights several physical and digital items at the British Library related to food history; however, the guide is limited to the library’s holdings from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries.

Several institutional libraries have created and updated online resources lists for teaching food history. Examples include lists at the Culinary Institute of American, Marshall University, and Virginia Tech.

Thank you to everyone who contributed a digital resource to include in this post! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Around the Table: Events

This month on Around the Table, we will learn about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime. Since renovations recently began at the Folger, the Library’s afternoon tea has also undergone some changes in order to keep the Folger community together. I had the opportunity to speak to Leah Thomas and Haylie Swenson about the teatime tradition. Leah and Haylie both recently joined the Folger Institute staff and thoroughly enjoy afternoon tea breaks!

Leah completed an MA in Art History at UNC Chapel Hill. She worked for the Smithsonian as an Education Specialist before joining the Folger Institute as a Program Assistant in early 2019. Leah enjoys the constant stream of Ceylon Tea brought by her partner’s family from Sri Lanka; her favorite cookies are ones containing chocolate. Haylie joined the Folger Institute as the Program Assistant for Scholarly Programs in September. She holds a PhD in English from George Washington University and is the author of Wild Things, a series about animals in early modern life and culture for Shakespeare & Beyond. Haylie’s favorite tea is English Breakfast in her Dolly Parton-inspired “Ambition” mug, and her favorite cookies are gingersnaps.  

Could you tell Recipes Project readers about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime?

Afternoon tea is one of the Folger’s most cherished traditions. The practice of serving tea at the Folger began in 1936, according to the annual report for that year. Director Joseph Quincy Adams’ description of tea at the time is, well, interesting: 

No use has ever been made of the Founders’ Room with its charming atmosphere of Elizabethan times. But this year we started the custom of serving tea there each afternoon (at 3:30 o’clock) in the English manner, with the young ladies of our staff acting in turn as hostess.

Speaking as two of the current “young ladies of our staff,” we are very glad that some things have changed. The main purpose, of tea, however, remains the same: 

To bring together the scholars who come to us from various places, in order that they might meet one another socially and also come personally to know the members of staff. The experiment has proved to be of the greatest value, not only in building up a spirit of friendliness that permeates the entire Library, but also in promoting a free discussion of the research problems under investigation. Those discussions are always stimulating, and often lead to suggestions that are highly profitable.  

Although we’re no longer in the Founders’ Room, tea is at 3:00 (not 3:30), and nearly 100 years have passed, researchers and staff still consider afternoon tea an essential foundation of the Folger scholarly community.

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.
Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Why is this kind of community-building so important at the Folger? Do scholars and staff find it useful and meaningful?

Folger tea serves two essential purposes. First, it allows researchers to learn from and be inspired by each other’s work. One of our past Folger Fellows, Peter Sherlock, describes how “the simple medium of a table, a hot drink and a biscuit engendered lively discussion … What are you working on? How are you doing your project? Have you thought of this? Do you know that? It was at tea that friendships and research partnerships were forged through that most basic human activity, conversation.”

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Second, by providing a space for readers to talk to each other, Folger Tea helps to ease the sense of isolation that can come along with long-form research. Anyone who has ever engaged in scholarship knows that it can be a lonely business. Researchers spend long hours grappling with difficult questions and trying to make complicated arguments clear, and that’s tough to do if your only company consists of voices from the past. It’s nice, towards the end of a day studying, for example, 16th century recipe books, to spend some time having tea and cookies with living humans. 

Because the Folger tea room is now closed, due to renovations, the Folger is hosting a virtual tea. Tell us about it! Who can drop in? (and could you include a little bit of general information here about the renovation, as well?)

We are so excited to introduce a new tradition of #FolgerTea for the Twitter community during our renovation. The Folger’s renovation project, which began in early 2020, will expand public spaces, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all who come to the Folger. The researcher experience, in particular, will benefit from new ergonomic furniture, better lighting and internet connectivity, and access to collaborative, multi-purpose study rooms. Not to mention, a communal space for enjoying wine and coffee in the Great Hall!

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Until we can gather for that drink and chat in the Great Hall, we invite the scholarly community to gather virtually for #FolgerTea. Every Thursday at 3:00pm EST, @FolgerResearch opens tea with a live thread. Participants reply to the thread using the hashtag, along with a picture of what they’re drinking and an update on what they’re reading, writing, or plotting for their current research project. This is a space for people to make new connections, check in with friends, offer advice, give reference suggestions, and post silly GIFS. At exactly 3:30pm EST, the iconic tea bell rings to signal the close of #FolgerTea. As in life, we encourage everyone to ignore the bell. 

The virtual #FolgerTea is open to anyone who wants to drop in for a bit of scholarly discussion. We would love to hear from scholars, researchers, grad students, artists, theatre professionals, educators, Folger staff, museum workers, librarians, etc. The interdisciplinary nature of Folger Tea is a huge part of what makes it so special! We’re also delighted when we hear from “official” Twitter handles such as other institutions and university departments, or from groups of people who are gathering for things like transcribathons, conferences, or scholarly programs. For people in other time zones who want to participate–feel free to chime in later! 

What kinds of interesting things have been Tweeted so far?

So far, we’ve learned that the James Joyce community has a fussy citation style, the Smithsonian has a useful collections resource called “Learning Lab,” and a researcher wrote a poem about Folger Tea in 1945. We have heard from scholars who are writing conference papers, dissertation chapters, novels, fellowship applications, course syllabi, and essays. It is especially exciting to see photos of the rare materials scholars are working on elsewhere (minus the tea, of course!). #FolgerTea is also a great place to hear news and updates about #FolgerOnTheRoad offsite programs, dispatches from #FolgerFellows, and opportunities for scholars to gather.

Is there anything else we should know about #FolgerTea?

We routinely award #FolgerTeaBonusPoints for photos that include cute animals alongside your beverage of choice. Fun mugs also receive honorable mentions. In fact, Haylie tracked down and bought her current mug after someone tweeted a photo of it during #FolgerTea!

“Staff Tea at the Folger Library,” a poem by Friend of the Folger, Jessica Kerr, published in 1945.

Thanks, Leah and Haylie, for chatting with me about #FolgerTea! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Tales from the Archives: Community Conversations

The theme for this month is community, inspired by the UK university strikes in February and March.  Community is at the heart of the dispute: what do we want universities to look like? The wonderful sense of community that emerges on picket lines (whether in-person or virtual) during strikes can be a positive force for changing our university culture. 

This month, we have our monthly Around the Table (with a bonus one, too!), as well as an update on a survey about food scholarship networks, some post-Brexit food reflections, and an announcement about a new food studies journal.  There is also a piece of quite wonderful  bit of news about one of our regular RP contributors, Jennifer Sherman  Roberts… She just celebrated the end of her cancer treatment last week! 

Postcard, made in Germany (1910). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

With ‘community’ in mind, I wanted to revisit one of the projects that has intrigued me since I first read about it. ‘Stone Soup’, led by Jennifer Sherman Roberts in 2016-7, aimed to foster local community through talking about recipes. 

“Stone Soup”: Reflections on Community Conversations

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Recipes form communities.

Readers of The Recipes Project know this to be true. Scholars from diverse backgrounds meet in this forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, insights, experiments, and discoveries, brought together by a shared fascination with this amorphous form of record-keeping, receipt-making, and instruction.

Contributing to The Recipes Project has provided me with a rare chance to explore connections between historical recipes, to chart and analyze—and frequently delight in—what to modern eyes might seem bizarre and outlandish (pigeon blood eye wash, anyone?).

But the examination of the recipe’s central role in our lives and histories can also be expanded and enriched beyond the academic through public history and storytelling. There’s a special magic in talking about recipes, a visceral emotional reaction and an almost immediate connection to the past, to personal heritage and individual history.

It’s that sort of alchemy that I wanted to explore further when I applied to be a conversation project facilitator with Oregon Humanities, proposing a topic called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nurture Community.” 

miltonfreewaterrecipes
Recipes gathered for the Oregon Humanities conversation project “Stone Soup” at the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon (author’s photo)

Since the fall of 2016, I have facilitated conversations all over the state, in venues ranging from quiet libraries to bustling restaurants, from coastal towns to urban centers. And while the people and the recipes and the insights are always different (intriguingly and marvelously so), there are a few consistent threads.

Heritage

Before the event, participants are invited to bring recipes from their past—from a beloved family member, friend, or neighbor—and a story to accompany them. (My favorite: the woman in Grants Pass who brought a recipe for the cake her mother had burnt to a crisp–her husband had written “I love you” in the soot left on the walls.)

Often, the recipe is on a tattered index card, spattered and stained by years of use. Sometimes it’s in a small binder or book held together with rubber bands. Always it’s presented with memories.

(There’s a look people get when they talk about these recipes and stories, a faraway gleam, a small smile.

I love those moments.)

Often these recipes will spark conversation between participants as one memory is ignited by another, one culture compared with another, one history explained by another.

“What is a recipe?”

To begin the conversation, I ask participants to spend a minute or two thinking of the words they associate with recipes. Evocative words like “memories,” “grandma,” and “holidays” often make an appearance. We consider the figurative language surrounding recipes, a genre so unique the word itself has become a central metaphor (“recipe for disaster,” for example).

I then ask the participants to partner with one or two others to discuss the genre of the recipe: how is it different from a shopping list, or a narrative, or even a poem? We talk about ingredients and measurements, instructions and oven temperatures. We think about ways a recipe is like a chemical experiment–scientific and reproducible.

I’ll often use that distinction as a springboard to talk about some historical recipes and ways the form changes or stays the same. We look at a copy of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe “Against the biting of a Mad Dogge taught by Sir Kenelm Digby.”

fanshawe
Lady Ann Fanshawe, 1625-1680, Wellcome Library, MS 7113

People often notice that recipe books from the 16th and 17th centuries are visually compact and uniform, and that the basic elements of the recipe—ingredients, instructions, measurements—are familiar. One difference we have made note of, however, is the occasional focus on seasons in the harvesting of ingredients, as can be seen in Lady Fanshawe’s direction that crabapple flowers should be picked in June or July.  For those of us used to ingredients available at all times (even if shrunk-wrapped or frozen), this can be a revelation.

This discussion also led to one of my favorite stories from these conversations, shared by a woman in Beaverton who said her grandfather always knew to plant his corn “when the leaves of the white oak tree were the size of a grey squirrel’s ears.”

Recipes and community

We then, together, read aloud a short version of the folk tale that serves as the springboard for the project, “Stone Soup,” and talk about the story itself as a kind of recipe and about the metaphorical underpinning of community. We focus on the end of the story, where in some versions the villagers not only share the soup but dance and sing together, opening their homes and offering their beds with the strangers in their midst.

At this point, I introduce the participants to three examples of people who used recipes to create community and preserve history: Freda DeKnightMina Pachter, and (closer to home for Oregonians) Ing “Doc” Hay.

This particular version of public history, these conversations that evoke memories and elicit stories, have been a wonderful way for me to explore the more human, face-to-face side of recipe exchange that can sometimes get lost in manuscripts and archives.

20171116_140530
“Stone Soup” participants at conversation project sponsored by Washington County Museum (author’s photo)