Recipes: Reading Between the Lines

In today’s post, Lisa Myers describes the possibilities in using recipes as a teaching tool to explore ideas about power, social relationships, and connection.

Lisa Myers

During breakfast at the gas station/restaurant in Shawanaga, the reserve where my mother was born, my family’s conversation revolved around food memories. The soup and skaan special roused a discussion of how our Granny made the best skaan (pronounced “skawn,” also known as bannock or fry bread). That skaan was so good, I almost convinced myself that I would never be able to make it that well. My sister explained that her own skaan always came out hard as a rock. Uncle Sonny piped up, “I know how to make scone,” and started listing off measurements: “three cups of flour, three heaping teaspoons of baking powder, some salt, then you add some water, and don’t mix it too much.” My sister turned to me and responded by asking me to show her how to make it because she needs to do it with someone to get the feel of it.[1] Confirming food’s capacity to connect people with places, history, and a sense of cultural identity, the common understanding of this simple food was enriching.

There is a tension in recipes that written instructions are not enough or that somehow the maker will miss something or not do something integral but omitted from the text. Seeing someone make it carries more nuance and offers reassurance. This simple recipe represents ingredients from mere rations, and the preparation of such ingredients show the resilience of Indigenous people across North America, but also as traces of colonization since there are simple breads like these across the globe.

Beyond personal likes and dislikes, food symbolizes visceral connections to the past and stands in as a cultural affirmation that people need to reclaim as their own.  Embedded in even the most simplistic recipes are the tensions between land, food, and culture. Taking a recipe and doing an analysis of one of the ingredients or the context in which it was made reveals so much about power relations and social conditions. This is the assignment I give to a graduate class I teach called Food, Land and Culture in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. As a writing response to the weekly readings I ask students to use the convention of a written recipe as a literary device to respond to the week’s readings. The following are two examples of these brief recipe/responses:

Tzazna Miranda Leal, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

"Pipian Recipe." Courtesy of the author.
“Pipian Recipe.” Courtesy of the author.

Rabia Ahmed, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

(PDF version here).

"Recipe for Resistance." Courtesy of the author.
“Recipe for Resistance.” Courtesy of the author.

[1] A section of this text is from: Lisa Myers, “Serving it Up,” The Senses and Society 7:2 (2012): 173-195.

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!