Consuming History—Or Are We?

By Marie Pellissier 

I’ve always been fascinated by the appeal of food in living history museums—the sound and aromas of someone cooking over an iron stove or open hearth never fails to draw visitors’ attention. Since I moved to Williamsburg, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how Colonial Williamsburg uses food to help people connect with the past—and, as part of my dissertation, I plan to explore how this interpretive strategy has changed over time. 

Food has been a critical part of interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg since the museum was established in 1926. Visitors in the early years of the museum expected to encounter “authentic” Southern food in the museum’s restaurants, and to find African-American women cooking in the historic area’s restored kitchens. To understand what sorts of dishes they ought to be cooking, Colonial Williamsburg historian Helen Duprey Bullock turned her attention to eighteenth-century foodways. The souvenir cookbook The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, published in 1938, was the culmination of years of Bullock’s efforts researching and collecting “traditional Virginian” recipes, and provides an interesting study in contrasts. Bullock’s book is designed to be as authentic an object as possible, and yet, the actual recipes were often far from anything that an eighteenth-century Virginian would recognize. 

Helen Bullock, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, 1938. Image credit: author’s own photograph.

Bullock modeled her project after the first cookbook printed in British North America, E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, printed in an abridged edition by Williamsburg printer William Parks in 1742. In a note to the reader at the end of the book, Bullock describes the volume as “a typographical Adaptation [sic]” of Parks’ Compleat Housewife, set in old-style Caslon, “the closest available Approach to the [type] used by Parks.” The paper was specially made, and the binding “is believed,” Bullock wrote, “to be a successful Reconstruction of the Binding” of Parks’ Compleat Housewife. Bullock wanted the museum visitors who saw her book in the gift shop to believe that they were buying an authentic object, as close to owning a piece of history as possible. 

Title page for Eliza Smith’s 1730 book, The Compleat Housewife. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The contents of the book, however, are far from original to the eighteenth century. The recipes Bullock has collected are from a hodgepodge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources, and some have been modified for the twentieth-century cook. Some recipes are deliberately constructed to make readers feel a connection to the founders—like “Mount Vernon Pound Cake” and “Martha Washington’s Potato Light Rolls.” Bullock doesn’t demonstrate any concrete links between these recipes and the Washington family, but the recipes do serve to help the reader link themselves to the founding fathers (or, rather, the founding mothers!). These connections reinforced the museum’s emphasis on patriotism and nostalgia for the nation’s earliest days. 

Painting of Martha Washington. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

 

But the cookbook also taps into a deeply embedded nostalgia for the days of the antebellum South. It includes a recipe for “Robert E. Lee Cake,” which is a light, fatless cake with citrus and coconut filling (much like an angel food cake). The version Bullock offers is attributed to the Lane family of Williamsburg, and dated circa 1870 (though Robert E. Lee Cake did not appear in print until 1879). A punch recipe attributed to Confederate office Colonel Walter Herron Taylor contributes to the conflation of colonial America and the antebellum South. In the section “Of Christmas in Virginia” (which has no parallel in E. Smith’s Compleat Housewife), Bullock describes the “generous Hospitality” to be found on the plantations at Christmastime, when “the Negroes…appeared at the great House to wish each Person ‘Joyful Christmas’.” Recipes linked to Confederate officers and descriptions of enslaved people as grateful and joyful reinforced narratives of the Lost Cause, offering visitors a comfortable image of the past as a simpler time, when racial distinctions and hierarchies were clear and unchallenged. 

Despite Bullock’s efforts to ensure that The Williamsburg Art of Cookery was as physically accurate as possible, the contents of the book were distinctly shaped by the prevailing winds of public memory. Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s expected to see a paternalistic past, shaped by racial hierarchies and stability—but they also expected to see authentic objects, to conjure a feeling of being physically connected to the past. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery fulfilled all of those expectations.  


About

Marie Pellissier is a PhD candidate at William & Mary. She is beginning work on her dissertation, which will focus on the intersection of food, memory, and identity in and of early America. She is the creator of More than a Kitchen-Aid: The Elizabeth Capell Cookbook and co-creator of Explore Common Sense.

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.

Teaching Recipes: A September Series (Vol.IV)

An apothecary making up a prescription using scales, his wife holds a recipe for him and two assistants are working with the bellows and pestle and mortar. Line engraving by F. Baretta after P. Mainoto. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
An apothecary making up a prescription using scales, his wife holds a recipe for him and two assistants are working with the bellows and pestle and mortar. Line engraving by F. Baretta after P. Mainoto. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

Jessica P. Clark

While many of us are sad to see the Summer go, there’s always something exciting about the promise of September. Many of us are reenergized and seeking out new ways to engage students and the public in a range of educational settings. This can include the use of recipes, and since 2014 the Recipes Project has highlighted a number of dynamic ways that our contributors mobilize these sources in their teaching.

In this fourth iteration of Teaching Recipes: A September Series, we offer more tips and tools for working with recipes in a variety of settings: high schools, universities and colleges, museums and public outreach programs. This month’s contributors come from a range of backgrounds, and all have had productive educational experiences with recipes as teachers, students, and members of the public. They offer inspiring new ways to incorporate recipes into our work, just in time for Fall.

Opening the series, Liza Blake offers step-by-step instructions for hosting a Transcribathon in our classes, including lots of helpful handouts (who doesn’t love handouts?). She provides detailed instructions just in time to participate in Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC)’s annual Transcribathon, happening this September 18th. Carla Cevasco then asks how teaching food history with material objects can challenge students to think about sources in new ways. As we know, recipes aren’t just about texts, and Carla encourages us to think about the material elements underpinning these histories. Later in the month, Lisa Myers talks about the significance of recipes in her graduate course, “Food, Land and Culture,” describing her mobilization of recipes as stories and Indigenous art.

We also hear about the usefulness of recipes from a student perspective. Undergraduate and graduate students Jessica Hutchinson and Samantha Eadie reflect on their experiences developing a major public exhibition on the history of recipes and cookbooks in Canada, Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. Their posts speak to important intersections between graduate training, public history, and outreach. Tiffany Fisk later considers the role of recipes in her training in a five-level apprenticeship in Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg. What these posts make clear are the multiple forms and sites in which recipes transform and enrich educational experiences.

Finally, we’ll consider the ways that recipes can play a big role in large-scale institutional developments. Later in September, Jeffrey Pilcher describes the development of University of Toronto Scarborough’s Culinaria Research Centre, showing how, over time, faculty members established a wide-ranging set of programming in food studies, all while retaining a close focus on historical and contemporary recipes. Beth Forrest then considers current discussions in the roles of recipes in education, before offering possibilities for future developments.

Whether it’s one-on-one in the classroom or among large groups in an outreach setting, recipes provide educators with means to interrogate the past all while connecting with a range of audiences. These are just some of the reasons why we’re so excited to bring you these posts. We hope you enjoy them, as you bring new ideas to audiences this September. And, as always, we look forward to hearing from you about how you mobilize recipes in your teaching!