Scarborough Fare: Recipes at the Culinaria Research Centre

In this post, Jeffrey Pilcher explains the development of a dynamic research initiative, the University of Toronto Scarborough‘s Culinaria Research Centre, an interdisciplinary program in food studies, history, and culture.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Recipes provide an endless source of discovery. Although I began my research more than twenty-five years ago, poring over the cookbook collection at the Condumex Archive in Mexico City, I continue to be amazed by the diversity and historical change in Mexican cuisine that are documented in recipe collections. In re-reading the first Mexican cookbook signed by a woman, Vicenta Torres de Rubio, I noticed that for the nineteenth-century elite, guacamole was not a dip of mashed avocado with chile but rather a European-style salad, carefully diced and garnished with oil and vinegar. Likewise, mole poblano, which is now considered Mexico’s national dish because of its mixture of New World chiles and chocolate with Old World spices, was once a colonial concoction made primarily with European ingredients such as lamb, pork, almonds, and sesame seeds, but seldom with the Indigenous turkey, and never, in the eighteenth century at least, with chocolate. Only after the Revolution of 1910 did Mexican elites embrace the Indigenous culinary heritage and its ingredients.

University of Toronto Scarborough by Loozrboy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.
University of Toronto Scarborough by Loozrboy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

 

Students in the Food Studies program at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, actively participate in the discovery of historical food and culture. Daniel Bender began teaching a course called “Edible History” a decade ago using a portable heating unit to provide cooking demonstrations. The class came into its own with the construction of the Culinaria Kitchen Laboratory, funded through an Ontario provincial infrastructure grant, which allowed students in lab sections to prepare recipes at their own cooking stations, thereby gaining an experiential understanding of culinary labor. Homework assignments reinforce this process of discovery by asking students to independently reconstruct historical recipes and reflect on what their successes — and failures — in the kitchen reveal about foods from the past. As the highpoint of the class, students run a pop-up curry kitchen in place of a midterm exam, preparing a range of historical recipes for people across the campus, thereby exploring the genealogies of a globe-trotting dish.

Other colleagues at UTSC have used recipes and cooking for community-engaged education. Donna Gabaccia first taught a women’s studies class called “Gender in the Kitchen” while the Culinaria Kitchen Lab was still under construction. Unable to do lab exercises with the students, she sent them out to create a community cookbook called “Scarborough Fare,” named for the suburb of Toronto in which our campus is located. Many collected recipes from their mothers and grandmothers. The cookbook reflects the rich diversity of Scarborough’s immigrant communities and helps to build ties between these groups as people sample their neighbors’ dishes. The innovations that result from these exchanges are creating the future of Canada’s multicultural cuisine. Jayeeta Sharma added yet another dimension to this community engagement in a class called “Cuisine and Culture Across Global Asia” by taking students to the UTSC campus garden together with members of the Access Alliance Rooftop Garden. Students interviewed the community gardeners to learn about the global recipes they prepared from their Toronto garden plants, thereby gaining cross-cultural competencies not only by learning about the foods of other lands but also by interacting in the garden and kitchen with the bearers of these traditions.

Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via CC by 3.0
Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via CC by 3.0

The capstone of the Food Studies program is an intensive research seminar such as the “Culinary Ethnography” class that I teach. Each week, we spend the first half of the seminar discussing a reading about some aspect of food and culture, for example, Sidney Mintz’s essay “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom,” which offers a concise history of Caribbean cuisine while reflecting on the meaning of food choices for enslaved Africans. Afterwards, we prepared a dish of callaloo with plantains to experience and reflect on the tastes of early modern globalization. For their major project, students had to research and write about some element of Toronto’s food system or culinary cultures such as a dish, restaurant, or cook. One student reconstructed the origins of Lanzhou Beef Noodles, a hugely popular hand-pulled noodle dish that originated in the provincial capital of Gansu in northwestern China and has now spread across the country and throughout the Chinese diaspora. Beginning with a legendary recipe attributed to an eighteenth-century scholar, the student looked critically at how the noodles evolved over time and were spread — not by the inhabitants of Lanzhou but rather by migrant cooks from an impoverished nearby town. For the final seminar meeting, students prepared their chosen dish and shared it with the class. Thus, students in UTSC’s Food Studies program not only learn about food through reading recipes but through the embodied, experiential processes of preparing and tasting food from them.

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!