Category Archives: Education

Recipes: Reading Between the Lines

In today’s post, Lisa Myers describes the possibilities in using recipes as a teaching tool to explore ideas about power, social relationships, and connection.

Lisa Myers

During breakfast at the gas station/restaurant in Shawanaga, the reserve where my mother was born, my family’s conversation revolved around food memories. The soup and skaan special roused a discussion of how our Granny made the best skaan (pronounced “skawn,” also known as bannock or fry bread). That skaan was so good, I almost convinced myself that I would never be able to make it that well. My sister explained that her own skaan always came out hard as a rock. Uncle Sonny piped up, “I know how to make scone,” and started listing off measurements: “three cups of flour, three heaping teaspoons of baking powder, some salt, then you add some water, and don’t mix it too much.” My sister turned to me and responded by asking me to show her how to make it because she needs to do it with someone to get the feel of it.[1] Confirming food’s capacity to connect people with places, history, and a sense of cultural identity, the common understanding of this simple food was enriching.

There is a tension in recipes that written instructions are not enough or that somehow the maker will miss something or not do something integral but omitted from the text. Seeing someone make it carries more nuance and offers reassurance. This simple recipe represents ingredients from mere rations, and the preparation of such ingredients show the resilience of Indigenous people across North America, but also as traces of colonization since there are simple breads like these across the globe.

Beyond personal likes and dislikes, food symbolizes visceral connections to the past and stands in as a cultural affirmation that people need to reclaim as their own.  Embedded in even the most simplistic recipes are the tensions between land, food, and culture. Taking a recipe and doing an analysis of one of the ingredients or the context in which it was made reveals so much about power relations and social conditions. This is the assignment I give to a graduate class I teach called Food, Land and Culture in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. As a writing response to the weekly readings I ask students to use the convention of a written recipe as a literary device to respond to the week’s readings. The following are two examples of these brief recipe/responses:

Tzazna Miranda Leal, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

"Pipian Recipe." Courtesy of the author.
“Pipian Recipe.” Courtesy of the author.

Rabia Ahmed, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

(PDF version here).

"Recipe for Resistance." Courtesy of the author.
“Recipe for Resistance.” Courtesy of the author.

[1] A section of this text is from: Lisa Myers, “Serving it Up,” The Senses and Society 7:2 (2012): 173-195.

Mixed Message: A Student Perspective

In today’s post, graduate student Samantha Eadie discusses her experiences developing the recent University of Toronto exhibit Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada, which we featured here on the Recipes Project in May 2018.

Samantha Eadie

At the conclusion of my first year of graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, I was invited to be a student contributor for the exhibition Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. Having previously served as a Research Assistant for the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Irina Mihalache, I knew this would be a wonderful opportunity to expand my understanding of interpretation and exhibition development. I did not realize at the outset of this project that my participation would teach me about so much more than museological work; most notably about the value of recipes within cultural and historical analysis and their power as interpretive objects.

Figure 2 Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

As one of the graduate research assistants, I undertook a variety of activities in the development of the exhibition, from contributing object interpretation, to designing display case layouts, to managing the projects of the undergraduate research assistants. When working with the undergraduate research assistants, I helped to organize and conduct several interviews (known as oral histories within the heritage field) focused on the history of two well-known Canadian cookbooks. Although the interviews were intended to focus on the cookbooks and the related historic experiences of the authors and their audiences, the personal stories of the narrators came to the fore. Though the cookbooks were discussed in measure, the stories I found most interesting focused on their own diverse culinary experiences, such as the continuation of family food traditions, the thrill of trying new ingredients and recipes, and the simple enjoyment of eating a favorite food. Hearing the words of the narrators left me with a feeling of connectedness, as, regardless of the generational gap that existed between us, I have shared their experiences as food holds deep meaning within my personal memories. Since food and cookbooks are part of our everyday experiences and social interactions, hearing these stories can ignite meaning and memory-making in a wide audience.

Establishing connections and developing meaning are important features of many contemporary museum exhibitions. This is achieved through the interpretation of museum objects (in this instance, cookbooks and ephemera) and archival records (including photographs and written documents), which intentionally draw on past experiences to create these memorable moments for audience members within the exhibition space. The inclusion of the aforementioned culinary stories in Mixed Messages, which were presented as both textual and oral content, served as one element of meaningful engagement. By focusing on the shared experiences of the narrators and utilizing the well-recognized medium of the cookbook, the curators were able to discuss the challenging topic of women’s agency in historic Canada, thus, critically reframing those memories and our engagement with the culinary content.

Having participated in this exhibition project has changed my understanding of Canadian cuisine. It has encouraged me to reflect upon my own use of cookbooks, recipes and ingredients, as well as the role family traditions serve within my own culinary experience. Moving forward in my career I will incorporate learned museological techniques into my practice, while the culinary and historical knowledge will continue to influence my personal life.

Mixed Message: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canadawas on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto from May 22nd, – August 17th, 2018. You can learn more about the exhibition by reading curator Liz Ridolfo’s blog post.

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.

Tales from the Archives: Pen, Ink, and Pedagogy

This month, This Recipes Project is six years old. This September also marks our fourth Teaching Series, first launched by co-editor Amanda Herbert in 2014. This post comes from that first series, as Amanda provides some fantastic advice for bringing recipes–and more specifically ink–into the classroom.


By Amanda E. Herbert

Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University. Photo by the author.
Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University. Photo by the author.

I teach an undergraduate seminar on gender in early modern Britain, and throughout the semester, students learn about the ways that people in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries worked to differentiate women from men.  We talk about early modern ideas on the human body: Galen’s four humors, the two-seed versus the one-seed model of conception, and “reversible” reproductive systems.  We also talk about the ways that early modern people mapped gender onto the workings of the human brain, ascribing mental acuity to men, and emotional intensity to women.  All of these lessons help to show students that gender is a social construct, and that it is historically variable.  But the exercise that truly brings these concepts home is one on education.  After providing an overview of the topics that were taught to early modern children, I divide the classroom:  half learn to write like girls, and half learn to write like boys.

I tell the students that they are going to learn about early modern education and material culture by writing with quill and ink.  The students think that they are being given identical materials for this “hands-on” exercise.  I distribute goose quills and powdered ink packets (both of which are available for sale via the Colonial Williamsburg website), and I pass out model alphabets from the seventeenth century, so that the students can form their letters in the style used by early modern people.  But what they don’t realize is that they have received separate models: one alphabet comes from a guidebook for young boys, and another alphabet comes from a guidebook for young girls.

With their alphabets in hand, the students are then set a task: they are asked to copy a recipe for early modern ink.  This receipt, which I transcribed from a commonplace book held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is entitled “To make Inke Verie Good.”  It was created by Anne (Granville) Dewes in the seventeenth century:

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beere vinegre, a pound of galls bruised halfe a pound of coperis [protosulphates of copper, iron, and zinc], and 4 ounces of gum bruised; first mix your water and vinegre together, and putt itt into an earthen Jug, (then put in the galls) stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme as you use it straine itt. &c.

As the students mix their ink, shape their quills, and start copying their recipes in “early modern style” handwriting, we talk about the ingredients contained in the recipe, as well as their cost and accessibility to people of both high and low status.  We talk about the time and labor that must have been involved in the production of ink.  We discuss the ways that ink was used in the home, and the gallons of ink that must have been consumed by early modern print shops.  We consider who made ink (both women and men) and who used ink (both women and men).  Ink was a ubiquitous part of life for early modern Britons, as essential to communication as are our own smartphones and tablets today.

About fifteen minutes before class ends, I ask the students to compare their transcriptions, and they are always surprised at the differences: half the class has written in one style, and half in another.  That’s because in early modern Britain, girls were encouraged to learn “Italic hand,” a style of writing with clearly defined, beautifully sculpted, decorative letters.  But boys were taught “Secretary hand,” a flowing, connected style intended for those who, it was implied, wrote with urgency, volume, and haste.  Realizing the ramifications of this – that although women and men used the same tools and the same recipes to communicate, early modern men’s words were seen as authoritative, while early modern women’s were viewed as window-dressing – brings our lesson on gender and education to a powerful close.

*****
Interested in early modern ink, or early modern education and handwriting?  The Folger Shakespeare Library has some excellent resources:

[1] Anne (Granville) Dewes, Cookery and Medicinal Recipes, ca. 1640-1750, V.a.430 f. 42, Folger Shakespeare Library.  You can access Dewes’ ink recipe via the Folger’s Digital Image Collection: http://luna.folger.edu

[2] Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts for the Folger, has written a great piece on education and early modern handwriting for the Folger’s Collation blog: http://collation.folger.edu/2013/05/learning-to-write-the-alphabet