Constructing authentic student textual authority: Teach a text you don’t know

By Christina Riehman-Murphy, Marissa Nicosia, and Heather Froehlich

Could a small recipe transcription project make space for student contributions to broader public knowledge? How could we facilitate our students situating themselves as part of a community of local undergraduate scholars and the larger international EMROC community?  Would they even see themselves as scholars?

These are the pedagogical questions that Marissa Nicosia, Heather Froehlich, and I pondered while collaborating on the second iteration of a three semester undergraduate research project on early modern recipes at a small local-serving public land-grant campus where students tend to have significant financial need and more than a third are first generation. With a 3:5 faculty student ratio, these questions felt particularly important. In a typical undergraduate English classroom, the faculty is an expert on the course’s primary texts as well as the wide context of scholarly conversations around those texts. It is unusual for undergraduate English courses (even advanced courses) offered at American universities to focus on unpublished material held in archives, museums, and libraries due in part to the liberal arts structure of college degrees.

Our text… It was typical to find remedies, recipes, and pest control advice side-by-side in early modern recipe books such as our course’s primary text, V.b.380. Image Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.

In this project, faculty and students work together to investigate primary source materials. Creating authentic space for students to contribute their voices to those conversations in a meaningful way is a challenge. Funded through an undergraduate research initiative largely used by the sciences and social sciences, we had to adopt certain hands-on, practice-based laboratory experiences to students, most of whom have never interacted with rare, historical materials before – either in a physical or digital way. 

As this was not a typical classroom, we felt a bit more freedom to experiment. Experiences such as undergraduate research projects like ours, are arguably high-impact for both the faculty and students alike. For example, they create a space where faculty can explore pedagogical practices, such as student-led inquiry, renewable assignments, and open pedagogy, in order to create situated learning experiences and transformative outcomes.

We pulled back lectures so that inquiry could drive the discussions and encouraged students to share their evolving interests as they would determine subsequent semesters’ syllabi and their final research outputs. We gave each student a copy of They Say, I Say because of its emphasis on demystifying academic writing and helping students find their authentic voice. To help students begin to see themselves as scholars with accessible entry points for contributing to scholarly conversations we swapped journal articles for undergraduate-authored blog posts and taught textual analysis via Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes. We rebranded the library classroom space The LibLab to create an atmosphere of humanities experimentation.

Ultimately though, it was the choice to decentralize our authority as faculty by selecting an unfamiliar manuscript that had the greatest impact. The five students who joined the project in Spring 2019 were to transcribe V.b.380, a seventeenth-century digitized handwritten recipe manuscript from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s early modern recipe collection. Marissa had tested a recipe from the manuscript as part of her public history project, Heather has extensive experience in early modern digital humanities projects, and I teach undergraduate humanities majors how to research. But none of us had anything close to textual expertise for V.b.380.

The Penn State Abington undergraduate research students examine handwritten and printed early modern cookery and medicinal texts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Image Credit: Christina Riehman-Murphy.

In January, Marissa started the students on the project with a brief lesson on paleography and Dromio, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s transcription portal, and set them free to begin their semester long work of transcribing their assigned pages.  In the first few weeks the students’ questions about the recipes led the bi-weekly discussions and Marissa’s answers contextualized those recipes within early modern life and history. Questions like did she really catch and kill swallows (yes), did she actually test these remedies on her family (yes), and why is she using so much sugar paved the way for energetic and sometimes incredulous discussions on early modern medicine, ecofeminism, invisible labor, and the transatlantic triangle trade of enslaved labor which resulted in large quantities of unexpected ingredients in students’ recipe trancriptions.

The middle of the semester brought two new experiences. Heather introduced Voyant for linguistic analysis of their transcriptions and we visited the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. where we got to see V.b.380 on display in the First Chefs exhibit and were able to handle rare material manuscripts and meet with the exhibit curators and developers of the transcription portal. In both of those instances, the traditional authority dynamic was reversed when experts had genuine questions for the students. What verbs were most frequent in your transcriptions? What could be improved in the portal? What did you find interesting about V.b.380? What kind of notes are in the marginalia?

By joining this project they had become part of a relatively small group of undergraduate student scholars using Dromio and doing recipe transcription (e.g. see the EMROC project) and most importantly, they were developing authentic expertise on V.b.380. As Heather explicitly pointed out to them in her lesson, how often can faculty genuinely tell undergraduate students that they have unique expertise on a primary text?

V.b.380 was one of the family cookbooks on display in the First Chefs exhibit. Image Credit: Christina Riehman-Murphy.

By the end of the semester, we had learned a great deal about V.b.380 from the students and in this way the library classroom project site imitated the early modern kitchen. As historian Elaine Leong has argued, recipe books make visible the site of the early modern kitchen as a place of knowledge production. Student transcriptions of those recipe books make visible their own scholarly expertise and undergraduate research as a site of authentic knowledge production.


 

Christina Riehman-Murphy is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Penn State Abington

Marissa Nicosia is an Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature at Penn State Abington

Heather Froehlich is the Literary Informatics Librarian at Penn State University Park

British Beef, French Style: Robert May’s Braised Brisket

By Marissa Nicosia

This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. You can learn more about the series of recipes that Marissa updated on her site Cooking in the Archives and read a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog. Marissa gives special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

And if you are near D.C., you should check out the First Chefs exhibition (co-curated by RP editor, Amanda Herbert) before it closes on March 31!


Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.

The British are known for their beef. Although poultry, lamb, pork, game, fish, and shellfish abound in British cookery books from the early modern period, beef stands out. Beef is also a perennial refrain in Shakespeare’s works: The Duke of Orleans mocks King Henry’s army’s distress in the middle of Henry V by saying they are “out of beef”; Shylock ponders the difference between a pound of human flesh and that of “muttons, beefs, or goats”; Prince Hal addresses Falstaff with the moniker “sweet beef”; and in Twelfth Night louche English suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek proclaims, “I am a great eater of beef” (Henry V III.vii.155; Merchant of Venice I.iii.172; 1 Henry IV III.iii.188; Twelfth Night I.iii.82). Both as sustenance and cultural signifier, cooking and eating beef was associated with British identity in the Renaissance.


First opening of May’s book. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA.

Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook was first published in 1660 and went through multiple reprint editions in subsequent years. On the title page he promises recipes “for the Dressing of all Sorts of FLESH” and in the pages of this cookbook he certainly delivers. Under the engraved portrait of the chef, a few verses promise that May will provide “in one face / all hospitalitie” of the nation and his recipes will inspire “tables” groaning with “Natures plentie.” For British chefs this certainly meant how to prepare tempting beef dishes.

Recipe in May’s The Accomplisht Cook. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA (p. 115 and p. 116)

My brisket recipe updates May’s recipe “To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion” for use in a twenty-first-century kitchen. The following text is from the 1685 edition, but the recipe is also in the first edition from 1660 (I3v-I4r).

To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion

Take a rump of beef, boil it & scum it clean, in a stewing pan or broad mouthed pipkin, cover it close, & let it stew an hour; then put to it some whole pepper, cloves, mace, and salt, scorch the meat with your knife to let out the gravy, then put in some claret-wine, and half a dozen of slic’t onions; having boiled, an hour after put in some capers, or a handful of broom-buds, and half a dozen of cabbidge-lettice being first parboil’d in fair water, and quartered, two or three spoonfuls of wine vinegar, as much verjuyce, and let it stew till it be tender; then serve it on sippets of French bread, and dish it on those sippets; blow the fat clean off the broth, scum it, and stick it with fryed bread. (K2r-K2v)

In the French Fashion

You may be asking why I’ve turned to a recipe with the descriptor “in the French Fashion” after talking about the British and their beef. Importing wine from France was a long British tradition. May’s recipe specifically calls for “claret-wine” or French Bordeaux especially made for export to the European market. As Paul Lukacs explains in Inventing Wine, in the fourteenth century British demand for claret was so high that the British imported eighty percent of Bordeaux’s exports. Desire for French claret was “so strong that the Bordeaux wine fleet sailed twice a year—first in the fall, when the ships were filled with as much of the new harvest’s wine as they could carry, and then again in the spring when they transported what was left.” Anglo-French relations had quite a few high and low points between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century when May was writing. Nevertheless, French claret was a mainstay of British drinking and eating culture.

Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
The Cooking Team. Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved

Moreover, stewing or braising beef in wine was an effective way to transform tough cuts like “rump” or “brisket” into tender stews. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat explains the science behind these slow braises. Put simply: the acidic compounds of wine and the low-slow heat tenderize the tough muscle by breaking down its collagen proteins. The addition of acidic capers, wine vinegar, verjuice, and cabbage later in May’s recipe amplifies the potency of the cooking medium. As chef Fergus Henderson shows in his Nose to Tail Eating, it is a very British thing to make use of the whole animal and to use the most effective cooking techniques to render each cut into a delicious dish. A British “Accomplisht Cook,” like May, must make do with the ingredients and methods available to him even if they are, in many ways, French.

Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds brisket
  • 2 cups sliced yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon mace
  • 1 bottle red wine (750 ml; ideally, French claret or Bordeaux)
  • 4 cups sliced cabbage
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1⁄2 baguette or other bread

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Pat the brisket dry and then place it in a large pot fitted with a cover. Add onions, salt, black peppercorns, whole cloves, and mace. Pour in wine, cover, and place in the oven for 1 hour. After the brisket has cooked for 1 hour, carefully flip it over. After it has cooked for 1 1⁄2 hours, add cabbage, vinegar, and capers. Check it at the 2 1⁄2 hour mark. It should be tender when poked with a fork. If not, give it more time. If the cabbage is crowded, rearrange as necessary for even cooking. To serve, cut your bread into cubes and arrange them on a platter. Remove the brisket and set it on a cutting board to rest. Remove the cabbage and onions and place them on top of the bread. Reduce remaining cooking liquid for ten minutes until it thickens. Slice the brisket thinly, and place on top of the cabbage, onions, and bread. Pour the reduced sauce over the whole dish. Serve immediately.

Notes

This satisfying dish will serve four to six people. The cubes of bread that May calls “sippets” are a common ingredient in meat dishes from this period. They efficiently and deliciously soak up the rich, flavorful sauce.


Learn More

Albala, Ken. Food in Early Modern Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003, especially pages 164–184.

Appelbaum, Robert. Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture and Food among the Early Moderns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, especially pages 35-38.