Around the Table: Events

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Last month, many Recipes Project contributors and readers participated in a virtual conference on Food and the Book: 1300-1800. This exciting event, spread out in sessions over two weeks, was co-sponsored by the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library and Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon Foundation initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I had the pleasure of co-organizing the conference along with David Goldstein and Allen Grieco. Many individuals at the Newberry Library and on the Before Farm to Table team were involved with the planning and execution of this conference, including our very own Recipes Project co-editor Amanda Herbert.

Food and the Book was planned as an interdisciplinary conference which examined the book as a primary intersection for foodways throughout the premodern world. Focused primarily on Europe, the conference examined the language and imagery of food in all kinds of books, including printed cookbooks, manuscript recipe books, literature, historical documents, religious writings, medical treatises, and engravings.

Although the conference had originally been planned as an in-person event, the arrival of COVID-19 necessitated a virtual format. And while many things could have gone awry, the conference appeared to run effortlessly thanks to a flurry of behind-the-scenes technical work by so many at the Newberry and Folger. Each session had a large and enthusiastic audience, particularly our public sessions, which were hosted as Zoom webinars and live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube. Thanks to the widespread interest, the Q&A portions of sessions were lively and full of creative and interdisciplinary inquiry and suggestion.

A screenshot of Food and the Book’s first public session, “Cooking by the Book: A Conversation with Chefs and Writers.”

Two public sessions focusing on current food issues, particularly those of minority and marginalized communities, bookended the conference. The first, a session on food writing, featured a panel of distinguished food writers, historians, and chefs: Tamar Adler, Irina Dumitrescu, Paul Fehribach, and Michael Twitty. Their conversation, linking the premodern topics to be covered over the next two weeks to modern food writing, ranged from the definition of a recipe, hunger, and the pleasure of food. In the final public session, chef Sean Sherman and scholars Elizabeth Hoover and Eli Suzukovich III celebrated Indigenous food cultures. The panelists invited the audience to expand their notions of historical records and consider food beyond colonial contexts and frameworks. They each emphasized that the range of Indigenous culinary activities like food cultivation, cooking, and medicine, actively use a historical knowledge base carefully curated and preserved over time.

The remaining sessions featured innovative programming, incorporating not only a wide range of topics and scholars, but also a variety of formats, including presentations, roundtables, and seminar discussions of pre-circulated papers. In order to build a sense of community potentially lost by hosting a conference online, Food and the Book participants frequently live tweeted, transcribed part of Folger Library recipe book at a virtual Transcribathon with Heather Wolfe, enjoyed a virtual happy hour, and got a taste of the Newberry Library’s holdings of food-related books in brief video collection presentations. So, despite the challenges of a virtual conference in terms of creating community and networking, there were opportunities for personal engagement and conviviality.

The Recipes Project community is undoubtedly familiar with many of the Food and the Book’s thirty-five presenters, as they have frequently appeared on the Recipes Project as contributors. Just to provide a few examples, Marissa Nicosia and Molly Taylor-Poleskey discussed their work in roundtables on “Cookbooks and Recipe Books” and “Documenting Food History in Archival Sources.” Sara Pennell presented recent research on kitchen waste in early modern English households in a session about “Material Kitchens and the Social Life of Early Modern Food,” while Jennifer Park simultaneously delighted and disgusted the audience with her description of eating mummies in a broader discussion with Nicholas Jones and Gitanjali Shahani about “Race and Food in the Early Modern Book.” And in a discussion of pre-circulated papers on literary ecologies, Andy Crow, Madeline Bassnett, and Kathleen Long heartily considered topics ranging from rationing words and food in poetry, weather and climate concerns, and the excesses of Henri III’s court. Larger digital projects like CoReMA, EMROC, and the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network were also represented in a panel on “Digitizing Food and the Book.”

While the overall breadth of research throughout the conference was quite energizing, perhaps one of the particularly exciting points was the number of early career researchers and graduate students. ECRs were represented in many sessions and a graduate student lightning round featured the work of seven graduate students. These students, hailing from departments of history, literature, and archeology and institutions around the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, demonstrate the long future ahead for research in food and the book.

The conference also revealed significant gaps in past and current research, and the need for inclusion of a more diverse body of scholars in this area of study. As evinced by the discussions of premodern racial and identity issues during Food and the Book, there is much more research in this area which can be done. Several sessions also highlighted gaps and drawbacks in both the accessibility of archival and special collections materials and efforts to mitigate accessibility concerns through digitization. There are many opportunities for growth and expansion of the study of food through books, and many prospects for collaboration and support of this scholarly community.

The Food and the Book conference may have concluded, but recordings of all the sessions are available on YouTube. Please watch what you can, and let’s continue the conversations started at the conference and communicate virtually (and hopefully again soon in person!) about all of the exciting research yet to be done.

Thanks to all involved in Food and the Book, including the presenters and the planning teams at the Newberry Library and Folger Institute, especially David Goldstein, Allen Grieco, Lia Markey and the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies, Kathleen Lynch and the Folger Institute, and the Before Farm to Table Team, especially Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Around the Table: Events

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Two weeks ago the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) hosted their fifth annual Transcribathon. I want to share my Transcribathon experience at the site hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago, as I learned this event can be a successful community-building exercise in addition to a valuable day for teaching and learning about early modern recipes, manuscript culture, paleography, and digital humanities.

Participants listening to a presentation. Photo by Katie Dyson.

Despite being an avid reader of the EMROC blog and regular transcriber and researcher of recipe books, I had not participated in the Transcribathon prior to this year. Something always seemed to come up on the day, and I was admittedly nervous about using the transcription platform, Dromio (which, as I soon realized, was ridiculous! Dromio is quite user-friendly and intuitive, so don’t be afraid to try it!). This year, however, I was determined to participate in some way.

I figured that tying the Transcribathon into a course was a good first step to get involved, so I incorporated it into a class I was teaching on early modern English cookbooks in the Newberry’s Seminars Program. I also approached the Newberry to propose that they host a site. The Newberry was thrilled to host the Transcribathon, and staff from several centers and departments quickly coalesced to help organize the event including Public Engagement, Digital Initiatives, and the Center for Renaissance Studies.

The Newberry was open as a transcription site for four hours. Approximately sixty participants transcribed and many more people at the library wandered in and out throughout that time. Some participants worked for only thirty minutes, many more for one to two hours, and still others transcribed for over three hours! The library hosted a few speakers: I spoke about early modern English recipe books, Megan Heffernan provided a primer on early modern English manuscript culture and paleography, Jen Wolfe (a former Library Chat guest) highlighted the Newberry’s digital humanities initiatives, and Lia Markey talked about the new Italian Paleography site, a digital project of the Center for Renaissance Studies.

Transcribing and monitoring the Twitter feeds. Photo by Katie Dyson.

I am still overwhelmed by the incredible response to the Newberry’s Transcribathon. The participants had a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Instructors brought their classes, including one from Arrupe College. Several DePaul University undergraduates were also present, per their instructor’s suggestion. Many Chicago residents simply interested in recipes decided to try their hands at transcribing. I loved answering questions from many of these individuals; they wanted to know everything about paleography, ingredients, and coding! Scholars and graduate students were also on hand; they made exciting observations in the recipes, like shifting from English to French when describing reproductive unmentionables and a panoply of odd ingredients. In many instances, participants with diverse backgrounds shared tables while working, and I couldn’t help but notice a lot of conversation about their transcription experiences.

Participants and visitors seemed particularly conversational about one aspect of the event: the refreshments table. To celebrate English culinary recipes from the period, I baked seven different cake and biscuit recipes prepared from early modern recipes.

Early modern recipes prepared by Sarah Kernan. Photo by Megan Heffernan.

Most people who sampled the food wanted to talk about it, either with me or one another. The flavors (like rosewater, orange, and caraway) seemed to make early modern England a little more interesting for the students in attendance, while other participants were far more interested in the recipe sources. Suzanne Karr Schmidt, the George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry, even made a surprising connection between the Italian Crusts and a seventeenth-century sonnet series, Enigmes Joyeuses pour les Bons Esprits. It turns out that historic foods can sustain transcribers, create conversation, and forge some curious ties.

After experiencing such a great event and intellectual exercise, I want to encourage other readers to try organizing similar Transcribathon sites at your local libraries and schools in the future. I can’t emphasize enough how exciting it was to meet others who wanted to engage with early modern recipes and begin building that community in Chicago. Additionally, the event was clearly a useful teaching tool for instructors in several disciplines. On the institutional side, I am hopeful the Transcribathon inspired some participants to get involved in other initiatives (digital and otherwise) at the Newberry; several people were eager to learn more about projects specific to the library.

So, readers, I hope to see you at next year’s Transcribathon, whether you are participating from the comfort of your own home or organizing a site for your local recipes community!

Thanks to everyone at the Newberry Library who was a part of the Transcribathon planning, especially Katie Dyson, Lia Markey, Karen Christianson, Alex Teller, Jen Wolfe, Rebecca Fall, Christopher Fletcher, and Elisa Jones! You can follow the Newberry on Twitter @NewberryLibrary and Facebook @NewberryLibrary. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.