Category Archives: Teaching Resources

Olfactory Notes: Integrating Embodied Research in Art History

By Madison Clyburn

In early modern Italy, perfumes were powerful substances whose therapeutic properties could generate pleasure and preserve or remedy one’s health if worn on or consumed by the body. In this post, I feature a typical Italian perfume recipe, “To make perfume for clothes,” from the Italian engraver and author Eustachio Celebrino’s (c. 1490-after 1535) printed vernacular pamphlet, Opera nova piacevole laqvale insegna di far varie compositioni odorifere per far bella ciaschuna donna…intitulata Venusta (Venice, 1550) intended for female consumers. Celebrino’s formulaic recipe books, typical of the genre, are printed records of socially important topics, like women’s health and adornment.

I made this recipe in Dr. Chriscinda Henry’s graduate seminar, Materiality and the Senses in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Art, at McGill University in the Winter of 2023. Celebrino’s recipe allowed us to work through experimental research methodologies in our final week dedicated to Embodied Knowing and Experimental Methods, which I co-led with fellow seminar member Mahdis Mohajeri. Making this perfume recipe raised questions about what it means for art historians living in one sensorium and studying others, like early modern Italy, where smelling amber rosary beads during prayer might bring one closer to God, chewing myrrh pastilles could prevent plague or wearing musk might help conceive a healthy child.

“To Make Perfume for Clothes”

The first step toward integrating embodied research in our art history seminar was to choose a recipe with accessible ingredients that was relatively quick to make. Celebrino’s perfumed sachet was just right since it simply asks one to take “fresh rose leaves & dry them in the shade & then take two carats [or vials] of musk, and make it into a powder, & two coins of fine cloves, and mix together, & then put it [all] in one or two little bags in the clothes.” 

Graduate student, Em Grisdale’s sachet keeps sweaters moth-free and smelling fresh one year later!

Before our seminar, I assembled a recipe kit with instructions and ingredients for each participant. I found cloves and dried roses from a local herbalist shop, while I substituted musk root for musk, whose extraction from the musk deer’s preputial gland is primarily illegal today. 

Next, I transcribed and translated the recipe, placing that information in a PowerPoint. This left more time in class to examine primary texts like Pliny’s The Natural History and Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentaries (1565) to understand the varied classical and early modern uses of musk, roses, and cloves. At the same time, selections from Sven Dupré et al. Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment (2020) and Pamela Smith’s From Lived Experience to the Written Word (2022) grounded our entrance into an aromatic art history, offering insight into how hands-on historical recipe experiments can help make students more resourceful researchers and inform early modern health, hygiene, and beauty practices.

The final step consisted of interpreting the recipe through practice. Students opened their kits and began to crush, mix, and add the ingredients to a draw-string bag.

Some participants followed the recipe, and others adapted it; some used their hands, while others used a hammer or mortar and pestle to crush the musk root.

The recipe’s flexible ending tells one to put the sachet “in the clothes,” possibly in a chest, carried in a pocket, worn under a skirt or attached to a belt. Making the recipe together allowed us to pose questions, such as what types and materials of bags might be preferred, how much musk equals a carat or vial, and share reactions like musk stinks! 

Em Grisdale shows us how to wear Celebrino’s recipe on a belt loop.

Implications for Sensory Research in Art History

Embodied research welcomes questions about the sensuous relationships between the ephemeral body and its material culture. Things like perfumed sachets for clothes hinted at but not seen in visual media reveal how olfactory experiences in the early modern period are everywhere and nowhere. For example, middle- and upper-class women often had the luxury of owning multiple sets of clothes. When not worn, women stored their clothes in chests with sachets made from pure ingredients like musk or, for aspiring citizens, a counterfeit version made of spices and toasted breadcrumbs to preserve the fabrics’ quality and cleanliness. One can imagine only the finest ingredients perfuming Lambert Sustris’ Reclining Venus (c. 1548) in this wholesome atmosphere comprised of a downy mattress sprinkled with fragrant pink and white roses, sumptuous fabrics, and a woman playing a folding harpsichord, whose charming sounds vibrate through the clean air wafting through an open colonnade window.

Attributed to Lambert Sustris (c. 1515-20 -1584), Reclining Venusc. 1548, oil on canvas, 116 x 186 cm, Venice or Padua, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-3479. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

But of course, we cannot see the physical sachet made from Celebrino’s recipe that may lie nestled inside the elegant cassone (chest) in the background of Sustris’ painting. We cannot sniff notes of rose, musk, and clove possibly escaping the fibres of the pastel pink dress that a woman holds above the chest. Only by reconstructing these sachets can we begin to sense smell’s critical role in preserving hygienic bodies and homes as well as in observing or challenging socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in early modern Italy.

Detail of Sustris’ Reclining Venus showing a young woman leaning over an open-lidded cassone. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Embracing what we cannot see or smell through embodied research allows us to imagine how Celebrino’s recipe and Sustris’ painting document once fragrant interiors. An art historical approach to making recipes aims to recenter early modern sensuous practices and experiences in artworks so that teaching and academic scholarship can help us bridge two sensoria—that of our current moment and overlooked pasts.


Madison Clyburn is an Art History PhD candidate at McGill University. Her thesis focuses on the material culture of women’s wellness in late medieval and early modern Italy. Her research combines art and gender history, the history of medicine, material culture, and sensory studies to determine how perfumes were used to observe, challenge, and invert socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in the early modern period.

The Rebirth of Embodiment: Hand-Compiling an Early Modern Recipe Book

By Mackie Black

The early modern family participated in manuscript culture through the collection and trading of recipes among family, friends, and political connections. In this post, I describe how modern scholars can participate in a new manuscript culture through transcription. While digital transcriptions are valuable for accessibility, these projects hide thephysical experience that went into the creation of these texts. Though digital transcription does include physicality, with typing and coding and especially in an emotional sense with the frustration at a difficult word or phrase and the ultimate joy that comes with figuring it out, this is a different embodied experience than that of recreation through rewriting. Hand-writing recreation provides a more in-depth understanding of the messy physical processes of the past, those that leave the writer with ink-stained hands and the paper with scratched out mistakes, rather than the clean processes of the present. The cleanliness of today’s digital interaction with manuscripts removes not only the physical mess of writing with ink but also streamlines our encounters with these manuscripts to the point that their mistakes and quirks can be ignored in favor of analyzing the clean, edited text. My experience reconstructing the compilation of an early modern recipe book by hand-copying recipes using writing technology that closely approximates those of the time, became an act of recovering this messy embodiment. The physical act of transcription raises new questions that can allow us to more fully understand the processes behind the creation of these manuscripts. 

Photo of two sheets of paper with handwriting.
Attempts to copy recipes with a quill (left) and an ink-dipped pen (right).

My project adds to work by scholars including Marissa Nicosia at Cooking the Archives and Margaret Simon by stepping away from the kitchen and into the processes of recipe collection and copying. For this project, I created my own recipe book using manuscripts held by the Folger Shakespeare Library LUNA: Manuscript Transcriptions Collection and the Wellcome Collection as a final project for a graduate seminar. I skimmed through 8 manuscripts and selected 67 recipes that I could see myself making, focusing on those with vegetarian ingredients to fit my own diet, before hand-copying them in a notebook using either a quill or an ink dip pen. I also used cutting to remove unwanted ingredients and paste in recipes, mirroring this tool as it was used in recipe books, commonplace books, and in the literature of George Herbert and the Ferrar family in their Little Gidding Harmonies

Photo of open notebook with sections of handwriting and sections of cut-and-pasted excerpts from other notebooks.
Pages 88 and 89 of the completed recipe book showing two examples of cutting in order to remove non-vegetarian ingredients from recipes.

I experienced a difficult and messy process, one that left me with hand cramps and ink stains. Moving from the keyboard to the quill reconnected me to the methods of the past. While I was unable to fully leave the 21st Century behind thanks to my reliance on digitized manuscripts, I was able to experience the physical processes of writing down a recipe using an inkwell and quill. Digital transcription work is not messy, but this hand-copying was, engaging senses such as smell that get lost in the digital world. At the end of the day, there will be no ink stains left on the hands of the digital transcriber, no ink splotches to frantically clean off the manuscript or the table. It is this messy physical experience that I aimed to explore and through which new questions and avenues for further research arose.

Close-up photo of ink-stained fingers with laptop in the background.
My ink-stained hands.

Through this project, I experienced transcription in a new way that gave me an experiential understanding of the shapes of letters in various hands. As soon as I began copying and writing the letter “w”, for example, I understood it and grew better at recognizing it. It took the experience of hand-copying these recipes to understand that the unique shape of the “w” is a function of the difficulty of doing upstrokes with a quill or ink dip pen. This helped me better understand the rationale for certain writing conventions of the past as more than mere quirks but as features necessitated by technology. This process of realization, this rebirth of knowledge, occurred frequently during this project and improved my transcription abilities, as I had a better understanding of the embodied experience of writing with the technology available in the 17th Century than I had when I had been only transcribing digitally.

Photo of desktop with open recipe notebook, open laptop, ink pen and inkwell, and paper for blotting ink.
My desk as I copied out recipes. Shown are the book in progress, my laptop which I used to pull up the recipes I was copying from, my ink well, my glass dip pen, and my scratch paper used to restart the flow of ink on the pen if it dried out.

This experience also had me asking new questions. Unlike with digital transcription, when hand-writing, I was focused on the processes of copying. I asked myself, what types of editing were the authors using when they copied these recipes? Were they editing as they wrote by removing ingredients like I was? Were they adding ingredients that they thought would work better based on their own experience? Were they fixing mistakes such as removing repeated words and scratched out phrases like I was or were they at times introducing new mistakes? Does this editing count as unique knowledge creation?

A photo of a notebook with writing in black ink.
Pages 57 and 58 of the completed recipe book.

These new questions and this new experience allowed me to better understand why early modern writing looks the way it does. It opened a door for the recovery and rebirth of the physical knowledge hidden behind digital archives and digital transcription. Projects like this one that force modern scholars to rediscover this embodiment for themselves allow us to uncover this hidden knowledge, leading to a better understanding not only of the processes that resulted in the manuscripts we study but also of the people that created them. 

Playful Learning with Food: Historical Recipe Assignments in the Classroom

By Amy M. Froide


Recipes are powerful tools to teach about the past and the present. I like to experiment with assignments that mix a dash of fun with a quantity of learning in my courses on early modern British and European history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. These courses are upper-level surveys that do not require extensive background and content knowledge. Because not all students are history majors, I incorporate both multi-modal content and applied or experiential learning assignments. Students engage with historical sources and materials in different modalities; they will read scholarly articles along with a website, a blogpost, or a podcast on the same subject. And instead of assigning a paper, I structure assignments that require students to read, analyze, synthesize, and write, but the final product might be in a less textual format. Students respond well to this kind of hands-on and experiential teaching of history and the most successful examples have involved the history of food.

Utilizing some of the exceptional resources assembled by scholars and libraries, I have honed an assignment with the following constituent parts: 1) research and choose a historical recipe, 2) recreate the recipe,  3) present your results in class, and 4) write up a reflection on the experience and what food can teach us about history. Students consider various issues familiar to food historians, including the origins of foodstuffs and ingredients; histories of food production, labor, and gender; social status and class’s connection to foodstuffs; and food’s relationship to social settings, holidays, and religious events.

I ran this assignment for the third time in Spring 2022 in a course on Pre-Modern European Women’s History. I thought I had it down, but my 30 students staged a rebellion. Their act of charivari made a good assignment even better. Because I am a historian of Britain, I often do not assume my undergraduates can read non-English languages. In this course, I curated a set of digitally available recipes from early modern England. After perusing these recipes, however, my students balked. They did not feel attached to these recipes. They were distant and foreign. Diversity is a hallmark of my institution, and over a third of my students were Muslim with families from the Middle East and North Africa. A smaller percentage were Hispanic or from the Caribbean, many were African American, and several were Jewish. Given the breadth of backgrounds, I allowed these students to find a recipe that reflected their own past, with the caveat that it still had to be a documented early modern recipe.

The mandate for my students was to connect the past and the present through food.  Their background became the foundation for engaged historical learning. Thanks to this change on the last day of class we feasted on Sephardic Jewish recipes from late medieval Spain, agua fresca, and rosewater cakes. One student who is from the Philippines, chose to make adobo and taught about European colonialism in a new way by presenting native vs. Spanish adobe recipes. The main differences were the type of meat used–native Filipinos used goat, but Spanish Conquistadores introduced cattle–and the amount of vinegar to taste as Spanish tastebuds preferred a less tangy sauce (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 – “Potage de adobado de gallina” – a source typical of student online research from  Francisco Martínez Montiño, Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería, y conservería (Madrid: José Fernández de Buendía, 1662).

The part of the assignment that elicits the most discussion and concern is the recreation of the recipe and it often ends up being the most educational moment. I try to assuage their worry by reminding students that the ‘result’ does not have to be pretty or appetizing, it is the process I want them to think about. I must admit in the age of cooking shows, this is a hard habit for the students to break, but I repeatedly announce that results are not graded on taste or appearance. When students are in the act of recreation, they discover different perspectives and different questions to ask. How do I know what measurements to use? How can a modern stove top recreate a pot over a fire? What would pre-modern cooks have used as substitutions? And how long is it until something is ‘done’?

In my women’s history course, students recreated and presented food in ways I did not expect. One student chose to recreate a family pizzelle recipe (figure 2). She brought in heirloom pizzelle irons for her presentation and ran a taste test competition between northern European (made with butter) vs. southern European (made with olive oil) recipes. Spoiler alert: butter won. A few students chose to recreate medicinal rather than culinary recipes. A student compounded a salve used to treat Henry VIII’s leg sores. A key ingredient in the original recipe was turpentine. I had forbidden the use of toxic substances, which led to her regaling us with a comedy of errors tale of substitutions. The recipes that didn’t work out were some of the most fun. A student who produced a very dry and unappetizing seed cake was a good sport and allowed the class to laugh with and not at her. Her misfire introduced a lively discussion about the difficulties of recreating recipes without standard measures and suggested baking temperatures.

Fig. 2 – Student-made, historically-inspired pizzelles!

Between the research, recreation, presentation, and write up, I think this recipe assignment is more involved and productive than a standard paper. And yet, the successful work is ‘hidden’ in several ways. One, the multiple steps automatically break down the assignment into chunks. Two, because there are several elements of choice in the assignment students do not mind spending time on it. Three, because there are elements of play involved it doesn’t seem like ‘work’ or ‘study’ to them. I will admit, not every single student enjoys a recipe recreation assignment. A handful of shy students, or those who think cooking and food are insignificant to historical inquiry, are not won over. One option is to allow students to choose between this assignment and a traditional research paper. Overall, I have found that most students devote more time and thought to an experiential learning experience and enjoy the process much more.  Having fun while learning, mixing work and play, is a recipe for student engagement.

If you are interested in creating your own recipe recreation project, there is a bit of upfront work to creating the assignment. I suggest doing this part during a summer or winter break. If you trial the assignment, you might find you lose total control (like I did) or that you did not envision everything ahead of time, so you must be willing to do some improvisation. Making student reflection part of the assignment will help you figure out what worked and what did not. By your second or third iteration, your assignment will be much refined–much like any recipe!


Teaching Through Virtual Cooking Demonstrations

By Sarah Peters Kernan

As we continue to negotiate the use of virtual, hybrid, and in-person teaching methods, I offer a reflection on my recent experiences teaching through virtual cooking demonstrations and workshops. I began leading live historical cooking workshops at the Newberry Library via Zoom in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic forced my planned in-person demonstration to a virtual one. I have regularly offered workshops and cook-a-longs since then, teaching continuing education students interested in food and history. Cooking is an outstanding way to draw people into new ideas, topics, and areas of study; this is what makes the preparation of food a useful tool to teach and to research. It is also no surprise to the Recipes Project community that this type of activity complements traditional lectures, virtual and in-person transcription activities, classroom website creation, and other in-person modules on recipes.

This year, I have been asked to speak to several academic audiences about my experiences with virtual cooking workshops, discussing the benefits and drawbacks to the exercise, as well as providing step-by-step tutorials for designing workshops. I hope that providing some of this information here will serve as a helpful starting place for anyone interested in using this model as part of their own courses, or for those interested in trying out in-person demonstrations or workshops in a virtual format.

The author teaching in a virtual cooking demonstration.

In my demonstrations, I do not exactly replicate historical recipes. I do not have the kitchen for it and I do not always have the accurate historical ingredients. I do, however, try to make recipes accessible modern home cooks and kitchens. This method of adaptation rather than exact replication in the cooking process is also an incredibly useful way to interest my students in my own area of research: medieval and early modern cookbooks. Together we can discuss and negotiate what are appropriate changes to make to a recipe and why, and how this compares to the adaptations a medieval or early modern cook might make to a recipe.

Additionally, the more I have presented cooking demonstrations, the more I have come to view the exercise of preparing historic recipes as akin to codicology, bibliography, and other hands-on studies of material books, the other methods of research in which I received more formal training. Cooking historical recipes, however imperfect the process is in a modern kitchen, is one way, and an important way, to teach history, buttress other research methods, and unearth new topics of inquiry. For students, learning that cooking can be a research methodology is an empowering realization, as they usually have some kind of background in preparing food, however limited that might be.

Obviously, I’m not the only one interested in this way of incorporating “creation” into teaching and scholarship: several major projects, like EatMediveal and the Making & Knowing Project, have hinged upon the ways in which performative labor and the creative act is important for understanding a recipe or manuscript. By creating, the product of the recipe is no longer ephemeral. It actually exists and can be studied in a different way than just the recipe text or another historical document or object.

I enjoy incorporating cooking in my teaching because performing or cooking a recipe creates another layer of information that you would not otherwise access by reading and imagining a recipe. That is, the physicality, however temporary, of preparing the recipe, of smelling the ingredients and final dish, and of tasting it, provides a different layer of knowledge than considering it intellectually. Additionally, preparing a historic recipe reveals that there is so much more labor at every stage of the cooking process. This helps students envision how much time was spent by a housewife, cook, or entire kitchen staff preparing food. And finally, the sensory experiences, primarily the smells and tastes, not only provide a helpful historical backdrop, but also make points about the tastes and preferences of consumers.

Why does all this information that comes through a cooking demonstration matter? What can this possibly impart for students, particularly those in a general course? First, it can assist in the understanding of motivations for events, like the global medieval spice trade or the rapid establishment of the colonial sugar industry. If such a large number of recipes reflect the same spices or sugar, you can quickly identify broad historical trends. It is easy to grasp this by smelling and tasting, then move onto the critical work of considering texts and data. Second, students quickly understand the desire for technological changes in the kitchen after experiencing the physicality of cooking. My students and I have the luxury of cooking without open flames and with amenities like refrigeration and appliances. Still, it is easy to imagine in the most modern setting how destructive and dangerous an earlier kitchen might be. The fire, smoke, and embers, no matter how careful you are, can be destructive for you, buildings, parchment and paper recipes, especially if you have to stand close to turn a spit or simply stir a pot. Experiencing the cooking of this period will make you understand how much food needed to be cut, chopped, or minced. Trying to complete some of this work with a small mortar and pestle hammers home the physical toll kitchen laborers experienced.

The author teaching in a virtual cooking demonstration. Photo by Thomas Kernan.

Teaching through cooking demonstrations is a very different experience than lecturing or leading a seminar. Cooking as teaching, in both a practical and performative way, requires different preparation and instincts. In contrast to my strict outlines and detailed PowerPoints for traditional lectures, I have loose lists of things to discuss while cooking, whenever I have time during the process. I also have to think about what the students can see of me and the food, and I have to describe other sensory aspects they cannot sense through Zoom. I have to elaborate on the process itself, noting the steps students and participants must take to get their oven or stove ready, how to chop ingredients, and in many instances, the differences between what we are doing that day and what would have been done a few hundred years ago.

Virtual cooking demonstrations are not without drawbacks, however. Just as a lecture or seminar on Zoom can be difficult to facilitate, ensuring that students feel welcome and are able to easily ask questions can be challenging. While Zoom can feel like a silent, black hole at times, I have found that the demonstrations come alive in a way that I don’t normally experience in other online meeting settings. For example, when participants have questions and I can hear the clanging of their pots and pans, or they want to check their sensory cues against mine to compare our processes, or verify information about certain ingredients. Using a virtual platform means that I can get right up to the camera and show them something like grains of paradise or blade mace up close, so while they cannot smell or taste it, they are able to see it in a way that might be otherwise difficult. Other logistical hurdles can arise, like ensuring students have access to the right equipment and ingredients, that you have a high-quality audio feed, and you do not let a pot boil over on live video, but those issues can be addressed with thorough planning and practice.

That planning and practice is paramount to a successful cooking demonstration in any teaching setting, whether in-person or virtual. Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to provide a full tutorial for designing a cooking demonstration, but for anyone interested in crafting a demonstration for a preexisting class or as a standalone workshop, I have created an infographic below to help you get started. It provides an overview of the design process, logistical parameters, and the long and short term preparations.

Virtual cooking demonstrations are a useful teaching method that can stand alone as a distinct workshop, or can be integrated into virtual, hybrid, or in-person classes. The setting is an engaging and creative place to teach.