Category Archives: Education

A Recipe for Recipe Research: The Making and Knowing Project

By Pamela Smith

The Aim

BnF MS Fr 640, f. 3r: coral contrefaict (imitation coral). Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
BnF MS Fr 640, f. 3r: coral contrefaict (imitation coral). Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The Making and Knowing Project is a five-year initiative to create an open-access critical digital edition and English translation of an intriguing late sixteenth-century French manuscript, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Fr. 640. This anonymous manuscript is the written result of recipe collecting and workshop practice in the sixteenth century, and it gives unique insight into craft and artistic techniques, daily life in the sixteenth century, and material and intellectual understandings of the natural world. This compilation of artisanal techniques, recipes, and experimental notes produced by an experienced practitioner stands at a pivotal moment in the growth of a new mode of gaining knowledge which we now call “science.” It grants an invaluable view into the continuous, methodical experimentation through which art objects were created by skilled labor, and how the process of artistic creation yielded insights into the behavior of natural materials.

The fact that an artisan recorded these technical procedures at all is part of a seminal development in early modern European history. Around 1400, craftspeople increasingly began to write down their embodied knowledge. Their “how-to books” were imitated and disseminated by entrepreneurial printers to a diverse audience, helping to foster a culture that valued practical knowledge. Ms. Fr. 640 shares in the practical format and aims of these how-to books, but it differs significantly from any other known how-to text in its lack of formulaic recipes, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its extensive observation of animal behavior, and its illustrations.

The critical edition will add a rare and important text to a limited corpus of technical treatises and will make the manuscript accessible to diverse audiences. It will contribute to the careful deciphering of materials and techniques done by museum curators and conservators; it provides rich evidence for new scholarship in the histories of art and of science; and its extensive interpretative apparatus of textual, historical, and technical annotations will open fertile avenues of research on technical “recipe books” to literary scholars and historians, among others.

The Process

The Making and Knowing Project is creating the critical edition and English translation of this manuscript by a series of “expert crowd sourcing” workshops and courses that involve students, practitioners (such as sculptors, conservators, technical art historians), scholars of the humanities and social sciences (history, art history, anthropology, and museum scholars), natural scientists (chemists, conservation scientists, and engineers), and practitioner-scholars from the emerging field of the digital humanities.

The first stage of transcription and translation of the manuscript is carried out in a series of three-week summer paleography workshops that bring together graduate students (of, for example, French literature, history, and art history) to gain skills in middle French script by transcribing and translating the manuscript in the collaborative workspace of a Google Drive folder. The first paleography workshop was held in June 2014, during which 15 students from European and North American universities transcribed and translated about a third of the manuscript (concentrating on metalworking “recipes”). The following summer (focusing on colormaking recipes), the students were able to complete a draft of the entire transcription and translation. The next paleography workshop (which will also include data visualization work) is scheduled for June 2016.

Laboratory seminars. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Laboratory seminars. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The second stage of the project, the Laboratory Seminar, began September 2014. In the Laboratory Seminar (History G8906: Craft and Science), students conduct historical and laboratory research on the recipes transcribed and translated by the paleography workshop. Laboratory research focuses on attempting to understand materials and processes appearing in the manuscript by means of a variety of techniques, including experimental reconstructions of the processes described in the manuscript. The students take field and laboratory notes, stored on a Wiki and photos stored in Flickr, in which they record their reconstruction experiments as well as their experience as history students doing hands-on work in the lab, for the entire project is also meant to be a reflection on methodology and the use of reconstruction as a historical source. The student research (text-based, object-based, and hands-on) is brought together in multi-media essays that form the historical and material commentary for the critical edition of the manuscript. This course is being offered every semester for at least three years (2014-17).

The third phase of the project began May 2015, when a Working Group Meeting brought together scholars, practitioners, and the students from the 2014-15 Craft and Science classes to discuss and critique the “moldmaking and metalworking” annotations written by the students. This phase provides expert oversight on the critical edition. Working Group Meetings will be held each May at Columbia University; the next is slated from May 25-28, 2016.

The fourth phase of the project (begun 2015) includes design and development of the final digital environment for the completed critical edition and translation. This stage includes digital encoding workshops to collectively complete the markup of the manuscript, and a Digital Humanities Laboratory Seminar in which humanities and computer science students help develop the final digital edition.


The Project has taught all its many participants much about both collaborative work in the humanities (primarily its remarkable efficacy!), and how much information the reconstruction of technical recipes can yield. One of the most important results of reconstruction has been the new level of interpreting the recipes that it necessitates and fosters. By the constant moving between the manuscript and recipe texts and the hands-on experimentation, we have gained an understanding of the manuscript that would not have been possible by attempting to read through it in a linear way (which, because of the manuscript’s nature as a compiled text would have been difficult at best).

Pattern and concave side of medal following Ms. Fr. 640, f. 92r. Michaela Groeneveld and Marianne Nuij (M.A. Conservation, University of Amsterdam), building on research by Columbia students Rozemarijn Landsman and Jonah Rowen, Making and Knowing Project collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Pattern and concave side of medal
following Ms. Fr. 640, f. 92r. Michaela Groeneveld and Marianne Nuij (M.A. Conservation, University of Amsterdam), building on research by Columbia students Rozemarijn Landsman and Jonah Rowen, Making and Knowing Project collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The combination of text-based, object-based, and reconstruction research has allowed us to decipher obscure materials and techniques, such as the method for “incuse reverse casting,” or, as Ms. Fr. 640 has it, “Molding a hollow on one side and a relief on the other”). We also learned more about workshop practice, and, interestingly, have found ourselves able to follow the learning process of the author-practitioner himself in the course of his trying the recipes. He appears to have learned and recorded his experiences in some of the processes, while other recipes he seems not to have tried. In all, we have come to appreciate the constant experimentation of the workshop, and we have come to see that failure, repetition, and “extension” are important components of experiential learning in the workshop.

Lifecast rose. Giulia Chiostrini and Jeffrey Palframan, The Making and Knowing Laboratory. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Lifecast rose. Giulia Chiostrini and Jeffrey Palframan, The Making and Knowing Laboratory. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

We have also come to understand better the author-practitioner’s bodily intimacy with some materials used, and how this understanding may have shaped his classification of materials into taxonomies. We have been able to map out some parts of his taxonomy of materials—his material imaginary—to see the ways in which he reasoned and experimented across types of materials in order to hypothesize about useful materials and probable results of his trials. We have gained insight into his primary areas of interest, which include transforming the state or properties of one material to resemble another material, such as casting an ephemeral rose in metal, or attempting to transform a brittle material into a malleable one. Such manipulation of materials to bring about transformation of properties and states, as well as his “material mimesis” is typical of technical recipes more generally, indeed of craft making in early modern Europe in general.

Teaching High School American History With Cookbooks

By Carla Cevasco 

“Ew! Peanut butter in tamales?” a student exclaims. This unappetizing take on Mexican food, from the 1922 cookbook Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health, provides a perfect jumping-off point for me and a classroom of high school juniors to discuss American immigration policy in the early twentieth century. Bertha Wood’s ‘Americanized’ recipe for tamales hints that many Americans felt anxious about immigrants and the food cultures they brought with them.

Tamales. Image Credit: Phil Gregory. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Tamales. Image Credit: Phil Gregory. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Although I normally teach undergraduates, for the past two years, I’ve participated in a one-day food and farming teach-in at a college preparatory school in rural Massachusetts. The teach-in draws farmers, food scientists, and other community members to campus, including this food historian. It’s an exciting opportunity to get into the classroom with curious, enthusiastic high school students.

I’ve used historic cookbooks to teach American food history to students in classes as diverse as American history, multivariable calculus (the only calc class I’ve ever attended!), and American literature. For many students, this is their first experience with food history, and we usually only have at most an hour and a half in the classroom together. The cookbooks allow us to explore how many themes in American history–labor, gender, race, immigration, and ethnicity, to name just a few–intersect with the history of food. The lesson also trains students to look closely at primary sources, to draw comparisons between them, and to consider the connections between cookbooks and their historical contexts.

To start off the class, we review what a modern recipe looks like, just in case students haven’t really looked at a cookbook before. Next, I break students into groups of 3 or 4 and hand out packets of selections from historical cookbooks (typically the title page, part of the introduction or preface, and a few recipes), arranged in chronological order. Each group looks closely at two or three cookbooks. The students read their assigned selections aloud to each other, and take notes both on factual information (the book’s title, author, date of publication, names of recipes, etc.) and more interpretive questions (stated or implied audience, how this cookbook compares to the others, words/concepts they found interesting or confusing, etc.). The groups transfer these notes to a grid on the chalkboard and then present to the entire class on what they’ve discovered.

In our discussion, I encourage students to place their observations about the cookbooks in broader historical contexts: Why might the formerly-enslaved Abby Fisher have included a recipe for “Plantation Corn Bread” in her cookbook? Why did Peg Bracken’s hilariously sarcastic I Hate to Cook Book become a bestseller in the early 1960s?

For the books themselves, I selected books that held historical significance, or highlighted particular places, times, or themes. (Full-text or images at the links.)

Image Credit: Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (1798). The first ‘American’ cookbook published in America, the book makes use of English methods and some distinctively American ingredients (such as corn).

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1824). This cookbook features Southern regional cooking, including African influences.

Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881). This is the second cookbook published in the United States by an African American writer.

Bertha Wood, Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health (1922).The book shows ambivalence about immigrants bringing new food traditions to the United States.

Peg Bracken, The I Hate to Cook Book (1960). This book is a good jumping-off point to discuss post-WWII prosperity, convenience foods, and gender roles.

The wrong trousers? Common folk in striped clothes as readers of early modern recipes.

By Tillmann Taape

 When trying to make historical sense of printed medical recipe collections, one tricky but important question always recurs: who did the author and/or publisher think would be likely to read and benefit from their books? In my own research, which focuses on the works of the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here), this question is particularly intriguing because these books were among the first medical books to be printed in German.

Of course, like many authors of the time, Brunschwig gives us some clues in the text of his works. He often addresses his instructions, especially medical recipes, to the ‘common man’ or the ‘layman’ who might not be able to afford certain remedies, or who might simply live too far away from the next larger town with a pharmacy shop. In addition to these textual hints, I want to take a different approach to the question of readers by making use of the numerous woodcuts illustrating Brunschwig’s works. Commissioned from an unknown artist by Brunschwig’s publisher, Johann Grüninger, these images are a striking element of the books.

Title illustration from Brusnchwig's  Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images
Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation (1500). © Wellcome Images

One thing which immediately strikes the eye when looking at these images is the prevalence of people dressed in striped clothes. Take, for example, the title page of Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation, published in 1500. We see a group of people busily harvesting herbs and stoking furnaces to distill medicinal waters, and both of the men are dressed in conspicuously striped doublets and trousers. In fact, throughout Brunschwig’s works most of the people doing any kind of manual work are shown wearing stripes, for example the person pounding ingredients in an apothecary’s mortar shown below. Surely, I thought, it must be significant that the majority of medicine-makers – Brunschwig’s ‘common men’ – are depicted in this manner.

An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

As it turns out, striped clothing had fairly wide-ranging connotations in the early-modern German lands. The fashion of tight-fitting, striped trousers had been brought to Germany from the Northern Italian courts by the new imperial infantry, the so-called lansquenets, towards the end of the fifteenth century. The striped fashion was particularly popular among the middling sort: citizens of free imperial towns, artisans, and even wealthy farmers and landowners. They constituted a growing and increasingly self-aware middle layer of society, sandwiched between poorer day-labourers who did not own any property, and the wealthy urban patriciate or landed gentry.

In the literature of the time, notably social satire in the tradition of Sebastian Brant’s famous Ship of Fools (1497), this newly significant social group came to be represented by the figure of the ‘striped layman.’ His striped clothing marked him out as being ‘half and half’ or in-between – in terms of wealth, social status, and most importantly, education. Literate in the vernacular but not in Latin, the half-educated ‘striped layman’ was to become a central figure in the visual rhetoric of Protestant pamphlets during the Reformation. Martin Luther wrote for an audience of precisely this kind of person: although not a Latinate scholar of theology, the striped layman sought salvation in his own reading of Scripture in the vernacular, without learned clergy as an intermediate. [1]

A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Brunschwig’s works depict a similarly confident self-educated striped layman in the context of medicine. This is nicely summed up in the large woodcut above, which appears in all of Brunschwig’s works. The teacher, identified by his fur-lined scholar’s robe and seated at a lectern, is lecturing from a large book. It is angled towards him, so that only he can see its contents, demonstrating the scholar’s authority over text-based learned medicine. Among his students, we see a young man dressed in stripes, and while his peers listen demurely with hat in hand, this striped chap is confidently gesticulating as if arguing a point of his own. What is more, he is holding a rolled-up piece of paper in one hand, perhaps a sheet of notes or even a medical recipe. While this striped layman does not command large tomes of medical learning, the picture suggests that he is literate and familiar with some of medicine’s written forms. He even appears capable of holding his own in a discussion with a scholar.

The figure of the striped layman, with its connotations of middling status and education, is thus a very plausible visual cognate to Brunschwig’s readership of middling ‘common men.’ As if to vindicate this choice of intended audience and its visual representation, the physician Lorenz Fries, from the neighbouring town of Colmar, addressed his Mirror of Medicine (1518) specifically to ‘striped laypeople’ who want to learn about medicine – and published it with Grüninger in Strasbourg.

[1] On the visual metaphor of the striped, see Schmid Blumer, Verena. Ikonographie und Sprachbild: Zur reformatorischen Flugschrift “Der gestryfft Schwitzer Baur”. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004.

“Cooking Without Looking”: Visual-Impairment, Domesticity, and the Post-World War II United States

By Laura Micheletti Puaca

The post-World War II United States is popularly remembered as the heyday of domesticity, especially for white, middle-class Americans. Particularly pervasive is the image of the happy homemaker cheerfully tending to her new stove and cooking dinner for her family. During the mid-twentieth century, depictions such as this one abounded in the mass media and were routinely found in advertisements, popular publications, and situation comedies, to name just a few examples.  In addition to their widespread circulation, these representations were also bolstered and seemingly legitimized by a number of postwar developments, such as the return of male veterans, the resulting marriage and baby booms, and the expansion of consumer culture. The emerging Cold War, moreover, often times hinged on the articulation and elevation of these dominant domestic ideals as a means to differentiate the United States from the Soviet Union, where full-time homemaking was held in little regard.  Although we know that these images failed to capture the complexity of women’s lives and obscured undercurrents of dissent, they nevertheless exerted a strong cultural influence in shaping gender roles, societal expectations, social status, and even one’s sense of self-worth.

The degree to which American women could meet, or aspired to meet, these expectations, was influenced not only by race and class, as is commonly acknowledged, but also by ability. For women with blindness and partial visual impairment, carrying out domestic responsibilities, such as preparing meals for loved ones, presented particular challenges.  Trips to the grocery store often required a companion to assist with reading labels. Only a handful of cookbooks had Braille editions. And even some of those that did still contained stock phrases intended for the sighted cook. One Braille cookbook published in 1939, for example, included instructions to fry fish in hot lard “till golden brown” and to cook veal cutlets “until thoroughly done,” without providing timing instructions.[1]

The concerns of visually-impaired homemakers attracted increasing attention in the post-World War II period due to a confluence of factors. The expanding vocational rehabilitation system, which aimed to assist not only disabled veterans but also civilians live “normal” lives provided new sources of support for homemakers with disabilities.  The rehabilitation system both bolstered and benefited from the work of rehabilitation experts and home economists who helped to redefine the problems of disabled homemakers as an important area of academic inquiry. Although most of these specialists primarily studied women with limited mobility, a number of them focused on the blind and visually-impaired.

In the mid-1950s, for example, Esther Knudson Tipps, a Master’s degree candidate in Home Economics at the University of Texas, surveyed blind homemakers in the state in an effort to compile some tried and true tips for visually-impaired cooks. Freddie Henderson, a blind homemaker from Austin, advocated “test[ing] for brownness and good crust on casserole dishes by drawing the back of a fork across the top and listening for a slight crackling sound.”[2]  Another blind homemaker from Austin, Frankie Dearen, suggested “par[ing] potatoes under running water. The remaining skin can then be detected by the feel of the texture.”[3] Meanwhile, Birdie Sparkman, a blind homemaker from Dallas, explained, “One way to spread whipped cream evenly over a pie is to first pour the whipped cream on the center top of the pie and then cover top with Saran wrap, drawing the Saran taut and sealing it on the bottom edge of the plate. Then with the finger, the cream can be worked around under the wrap until it is perfectly smooth.” [4]

"Elaine Marken using a slate and stylus to create Braille labels for canned foods," “Courtesy of Iowa Blind History Archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.”
“Elaine Marken using a slate and stylus to create Braille labels for canned foods,” “Courtesy of Iowa Blind History Archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.”

What became Tipp’s 1956 thesis, “Cooking Without Looking—Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Blind Homemakers,” was later reproduced and printed in both large print and in Braille by the American Printing House for the Blind.[5] This study served, in part, as a much-needed corrective to earlier cookbooks that failed to consider the needs of visually-impaired homemakers. By recognizing their particular needs, it also assisted visually-impaired homemakers to meet societal expectations by carrying out their culturally prescribed roles. Although this example as well as other efforts to rehabilitate homemakers with disabilities bolstered dominant gender roles, they also helped women with disabilities to see themselves and to be seen by others as important members of their families and society.

[1] Lois Virginia Cox, One Hundred and Three Selected Recipes, mimeographed and Braille editions (Louisville, KY: The American Printing House for the Blind, 1939), quoted in Esther Knudson Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking—Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Blind Homemakers” (MS thesis, University of Texas, 1956), 4-5.

[2] Freddie Henderson quoted in Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking,” 87.

[3] Frankie Dearen quoted in Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking,” 91.

[4] Birdie Sparkman quoted in Tipps, 92-93.

[5] See, for example, Esther Knudson Tipps, Cooking Without Looking: Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Visually Handicapped Homemakers (Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind, 1959).