Around the Table: Events

This month on Around the Table, we will learn about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime. Since renovations recently began at the Folger, the Library’s afternoon tea has also undergone some changes in order to keep the Folger community together. I had the opportunity to speak to Leah Thomas and Haylie Swenson about the teatime tradition. Leah and Haylie both recently joined the Folger Institute staff and thoroughly enjoy afternoon tea breaks!

Leah completed an MA in Art History at UNC Chapel Hill. She worked for the Smithsonian as an Education Specialist before joining the Folger Institute as a Program Assistant in early 2019. Leah enjoys the constant stream of Ceylon Tea brought by her partner’s family from Sri Lanka; her favorite cookies are ones containing chocolate. Haylie joined the Folger Institute as the Program Assistant for Scholarly Programs in September. She holds a PhD in English from George Washington University and is the author of Wild Things, a series about animals in early modern life and culture for Shakespeare & Beyond. Haylie’s favorite tea is English Breakfast in her Dolly Parton-inspired “Ambition” mug, and her favorite cookies are gingersnaps.  

Could you tell Recipes Project readers about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime?

Afternoon tea is one of the Folger’s most cherished traditions. The practice of serving tea at the Folger began in 1936, according to the annual report for that year. Director Joseph Quincy Adams’ description of tea at the time is, well, interesting: 

No use has ever been made of the Founders’ Room with its charming atmosphere of Elizabethan times. But this year we started the custom of serving tea there each afternoon (at 3:30 o’clock) in the English manner, with the young ladies of our staff acting in turn as hostess.

Speaking as two of the current “young ladies of our staff,” we are very glad that some things have changed. The main purpose, of tea, however, remains the same: 

To bring together the scholars who come to us from various places, in order that they might meet one another socially and also come personally to know the members of staff. The experiment has proved to be of the greatest value, not only in building up a spirit of friendliness that permeates the entire Library, but also in promoting a free discussion of the research problems under investigation. Those discussions are always stimulating, and often lead to suggestions that are highly profitable.  

Although we’re no longer in the Founders’ Room, tea is at 3:00 (not 3:30), and nearly 100 years have passed, researchers and staff still consider afternoon tea an essential foundation of the Folger scholarly community.

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.
Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Why is this kind of community-building so important at the Folger? Do scholars and staff find it useful and meaningful?

Folger tea serves two essential purposes. First, it allows researchers to learn from and be inspired by each other’s work. One of our past Folger Fellows, Peter Sherlock, describes how “the simple medium of a table, a hot drink and a biscuit engendered lively discussion … What are you working on? How are you doing your project? Have you thought of this? Do you know that? It was at tea that friendships and research partnerships were forged through that most basic human activity, conversation.”

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Second, by providing a space for readers to talk to each other, Folger Tea helps to ease the sense of isolation that can come along with long-form research. Anyone who has ever engaged in scholarship knows that it can be a lonely business. Researchers spend long hours grappling with difficult questions and trying to make complicated arguments clear, and that’s tough to do if your only company consists of voices from the past. It’s nice, towards the end of a day studying, for example, 16th century recipe books, to spend some time having tea and cookies with living humans. 

Because the Folger tea room is now closed, due to renovations, the Folger is hosting a virtual tea. Tell us about it! Who can drop in? (and could you include a little bit of general information here about the renovation, as well?)

We are so excited to introduce a new tradition of #FolgerTea for the Twitter community during our renovation. The Folger’s renovation project, which began in early 2020, will expand public spaces, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all who come to the Folger. The researcher experience, in particular, will benefit from new ergonomic furniture, better lighting and internet connectivity, and access to collaborative, multi-purpose study rooms. Not to mention, a communal space for enjoying wine and coffee in the Great Hall!

Photo by Elman Studio/Folger Shakespeare Library.

Until we can gather for that drink and chat in the Great Hall, we invite the scholarly community to gather virtually for #FolgerTea. Every Thursday at 3:00pm EST, @FolgerResearch opens tea with a live thread. Participants reply to the thread using the hashtag, along with a picture of what they’re drinking and an update on what they’re reading, writing, or plotting for their current research project. This is a space for people to make new connections, check in with friends, offer advice, give reference suggestions, and post silly GIFS. At exactly 3:30pm EST, the iconic tea bell rings to signal the close of #FolgerTea. As in life, we encourage everyone to ignore the bell. 

The virtual #FolgerTea is open to anyone who wants to drop in for a bit of scholarly discussion. We would love to hear from scholars, researchers, grad students, artists, theatre professionals, educators, Folger staff, museum workers, librarians, etc. The interdisciplinary nature of Folger Tea is a huge part of what makes it so special! We’re also delighted when we hear from “official” Twitter handles such as other institutions and university departments, or from groups of people who are gathering for things like transcribathons, conferences, or scholarly programs. For people in other time zones who want to participate–feel free to chime in later! 

What kinds of interesting things have been Tweeted so far?

So far, we’ve learned that the James Joyce community has a fussy citation style, the Smithsonian has a useful collections resource called “Learning Lab,” and a researcher wrote a poem about Folger Tea in 1945. We have heard from scholars who are writing conference papers, dissertation chapters, novels, fellowship applications, course syllabi, and essays. It is especially exciting to see photos of the rare materials scholars are working on elsewhere (minus the tea, of course!). #FolgerTea is also a great place to hear news and updates about #FolgerOnTheRoad offsite programs, dispatches from #FolgerFellows, and opportunities for scholars to gather.

Is there anything else we should know about #FolgerTea?

We routinely award #FolgerTeaBonusPoints for photos that include cute animals alongside your beverage of choice. Fun mugs also receive honorable mentions. In fact, Haylie tracked down and bought her current mug after someone tweeted a photo of it during #FolgerTea!

“Staff Tea at the Folger Library,” a poem by Friend of the Folger, Jessica Kerr, published in 1945.

Thanks, Leah and Haylie, for chatting with me about #FolgerTea! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

A Recipe’s Place is in the Classroom

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  Here, series editor Amanda Herbert discusses the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Test-Kitchen.”  This piece was cross-posted on the Folger’s blog, The Collation, which seeks to present bite-sized pieces of useful information and observations from staff and researchers of the Folger Shakespeare Library.]

Cookery and Medicinal Recipes (c. 1675-c.1750) V.a.429, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library's LUNA: Digital Image Collection.
Cookery and Medicinal Recipes (c. 1675-c.1750) V.a.429, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s LUNA: Digital Image Collection.

Amanda E. Herbert

The Folger Shakespeare Library is many things: an internationally-renowned research library, a museum, a performance space, a center for innovative digital initiatives.  But it’s also a classroom, or even many different kinds of classrooms: education is central to the Folger mission, and every year the Folger offers hundreds of programs designed for all kinds of classrooms, from bright, lively elementary-school homerooms to spare, echoing college lecture halls, and from traditional school-houses filled with desks and chalkboards, to pioneering online learning communities populated by students from around the world.

This past summer, the Folger created a special kind of classroom: a test-kitchen.  The Folger’s test-kitchen was used during a week-long skills course in paleography (the study of handwriting) for scholars who study the early modern period (c. 1450-1750).  Under the direction of Folger Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe, the students in this workshop learned how to read and transcribe early modern handwritten documents.  They did this through their own “hands-on” work: scrutinizing letters, notebooks, and diaries written by women and men hundreds of years ago, experimenting with historical writing materials (bird-feather quills, iron gall ink, and rag paper), and – best of all, from my perspective – bringing an old recipe to life.  Our paleography students used a recipe taken from an early modern book (Folger V.a.429) to make an early modern dish: Almond Jumballs, a sweet, cookie-like confection that was a popular treat in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Ingredients for our modern Jumballs. Image courtesy of the author.
Ingredients for our modern Jumballs. Image courtesy of the author.

Kitchens are my favorite kinds of classrooms, and recipes are my favorite teaching tools.  I’ve written about using recipes in my own higher-education classrooms.  Friends and colleagues have also used them to great effect in elementary/primary schools, high schools, and in museum and library programming intended for members of the general public.  Recipes seem simple, and they seem approachable and even familiar, and for this reason they draw in people of all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and kinds.  But once you start to examine a recipe more closely, it reveals incredibly rich, complex details about the moment and place in which it was written: recipes tell us about socioeconomics, migration and immigration patterns, and religious prohibitions and practices.  They teach us about environmental policies, agriculture and sustainability, foodways, and cultivation practices.  They offer evidence of mercantilism and trade, of culture and aesthetics and taste.  They tell stories of war, dearth, and conflict as well as those of peace and plenty.

Toasting almond flour in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.
Toasting almond flour in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.

Under the guidance of Marissa Nicosia (Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature at Penn State Abingdon, a Folger fellowship recipient, and the co-creator of Cooking the Archive, a blog devoted to re-creating historical foods) our paleography students read, studied, and transcribed the Almond Jumball (pronounced like “jumble” with a hard J) recipe.  There’s an excellent post on Cooking the Archive which provides a step-by-step description of the experiment, and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in re-creating the recipe yourself.  I’d also recommend two Folger food resources: a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast featuring Wendy Wall, where she talks about her new book, Recipes for Thought, and our Shakespeare & Beyond blog post on early modern food culture and food in Shakespeare’s plays.

But there were also some larger scholarly lessons that we took away from our afternoon in the Folger test-kitchen.  The ingredients in the Jumball recipe included almonds, orange-flower water, and about a pound of sugar, and it called for the use of a kitchen “syringe,” a specialized instrument used by chefs for piping and shaping foods; all of these things were high-end, valuable commodities in the early modern period, and suggest that the Jumballs would have been commissioned and consumed by higher-status people, even if the labor involved in making them might have fallen to lower-status ones.  The recipe’s instructions called for the combination of “shelf-stable” ingredients in stages, which would have kept the food from spoiling and allowed the maker to start and stop cooking at intervals, a gendered, pre-industrial labor pattern common to early modern households.  And the recipe, like the book in which it was contained, was possibly collaborative, as the collection was compiled by several women from the same family: Rose Kendall, Ann Kendall Carter, Elizabeth Clarke, and Anna Maria Wentworth.  Despite their familial ties, the authors did not, however share chronological or geographic ones: the book was compiled gradually, over the course of about forty years (c. 1682-1726), and members of the family lived in locations across England, including Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bedfordshire, and London.

Heating sugar syrup in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.
Heating sugar syrup in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.

The time that it took to make the Jumballs in the Folger test-kitchen was brief, lasting only a few hours, but the exercise has continued to make me think.  The Almond Jumball recipe seems to offer just the smallest scrap of evidence about the early modern world.  But through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.  Although the charm and ostensible simplicity of historical recipes draw many people in to study the past, it’s the big-picture ideas engendered in their study which help to demonstrate the value and impact of our scholarly work.  This is the kind of payoff that we can expect from recipes, and it’s why they’re wonderful pedagogical tools, suited to all types of classrooms.