Tag Archives: outreach

Stone Soup: A new project about recipes and community

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a beautiful moment in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4” in which travelers from all over the world come together—despite differences in language, experience, and culture–to commune over apple juice and cookies after helping a fellow passenger:

She had pulled a sack of homemade 


cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with

          dates and

nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the


To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like

          a  sacrament.

This poem was a central focus of a structured conversation program I attended about power and place, specifically about diversity and assimilation. Participants in the conversation wondered how they could replicate that kind of scene in their own lives and workplaces, what they could offer that would bring people together in a similar way. As shorthand for this complicated question, people asked, “What is the ‘cookie’?”–i.e., what commonality could bring people from disparate backgrounds and ideologies together in community?

And I thought to myself, “Well, a lot of times ‘the cookie’ is, you know, a cookie.”

I’m a firm believer that foodstuffs and recipes bring us together in a singular way, providing a means of exploring the stories that make us who we are while connecting us to a larger community. Recipes are freighted with meaning, bearing stories and emotions, memories and hopes, community and connection.

And that’s why when our statewide humanities program, Oregon Humanities (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities) put out a call for topics for a “Conversation Project” program, I immediately thought of recipes and their power to help us connect and commune.

The Oregon Humanities Conversation Project is somewhat unique in the United States. While many humanities councils have speakers and lectures, Oregon Humanities has invested instead in sending trained facilitators all over the state to lead conversations, to (in the words of the mission statement) “[bring] Oregonians together to talk—across differences, beliefs, and backgrounds—about important issues and ideas.”

With that goal in mind, my conversation project (“Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nourish Community”) offers this:

Sometimes the most overlooked objects can offer the most perceptive insights about ourselves and others. In this conversation, writer and independent scholar Jennifer Roberts introduces historical and current recipes and asks, How do recipes work? Why do we collect them? Who do we write them for? By sharing our own assumptions and memories, we will examine how recipes can help us connect and create communities across time, distance, and culture.

(A brief video introduction can be found here. Please ignore the still that makes me look like a braying donkey.)

For this program, I invite participants to bring treasured recipes to share with others (and I in turn share my Grandma Sherman’s recipe for toffee, which calls for, in part, “5 cents worth of Woolworth’s chocolate” and instructions that, in lieu of butter, “the hoi polloi may substitute 1/2 cup margarine”).

Grandma Marian’s toffee recipe

To date, I’ve conducted three conversation projects, all with a similar structure. We open by talking a bit about ideas people associate with recipes. Almost always words like “family,” “nourish,” and “tradition” come up. Then we talk about what makes a recipe a recipe (as opposed to, say, a grocery list or a poem) and quite often people talk about things like measurements, math, and instructions. We discuss the gap between these two ways of thinking about recipes: the evocative, emotional words used to describe recipes and the precise, scientific ways they are presented.

After a short discussion, I show the group some examples of historical medical recipes from the Wellcome’s extensive collection and we talk about how “receipts” have changed over time.  We read the story Stone Soup together and analyze its themes of community, sharing, and belonging.

After some more discussion, I show the group examples of recipe collections that have served or reflected their communities: Freda DeKnight’s A Date With A Dish; a collection of recipes from the women of the German concentration camp Terezín; and the medical recipes of Ing (Doc) Hay, who emigrated from China to John Day, Oregon in 1887 and became a popular medical practitioner for many decades (there is an excellent documentary here).

But while I enjoy sharing these examples, I am far more eager to get the participants talking to each other and sharing their own recipes and histories. In fact, I’m a bit greedy for them, as my long-term plan is to collect enough recipes and stories to offer a free, statewide recipe collection.

Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA
Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA

The editors of The Recipes Project have kindly agreed to let [editorial correction: were wildly enthusiastic to have] me share some of the insights and stories that arise from this conversation project in future posts. I look forward to reporting back on the results of this exciting project in the coming  year!

Local recipes for local people: Reading recipes in the classroom (and the pub!)

By Lucy-Anne Judd

As a PhD researcher exploring regional examples of recipe manuscripts in the local archives, I was thrilled when two opportunities to talk about my research with two very different local audiences recently arose. The first, for the wonderful Nottingham PubhD audience, and the other, in a nearby secondary school as part of an event designed to give a ‘taste’ of postgraduate study opportunities to a group of 16-18 year old, post-16 pupils.

What is PubhD?

PubhD is an innovative event that began in Nottingham in 2014 and has been steadily taking up residency in other university cities ever since. The premise is simple; on a monthly basis, PubhD invites three doctoral students from any discipline, to take on the challenge of explaining their research topic in ten minutes or less, at ‘pub level’. In return, participants get a drink or two for their efforts, a great opportunity to face challenges from the (very friendly) audience, and a chance to try out new ideas.

For me, the key to introducing recipes to this pub audience was an emphasis on some of the local Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire families that I am currently researching through their recipe collections; the Willoughby’s of Aspley, the Miller-Mundy’s of Shipley Hall, and Henrietta Cavendish-Holles-Harley of Welbeck Abbey. From here, I was able to give a brief overview of three key themes in my thesis. First, how much recipe manuscripts can tell us about what people ate and the ailments which afflicted local households in the early modern period. Second, how we can trace recipe sharing networks in the region through the many frequent attributions. And tthird, what we can learn about the role of men in early modern domestic life.

The audience response was outstanding and like other speakers on the night, I was asked an array of insightful and interesting questions which ate into far more than my allotted 20-minute Q&A time! I was particularly pleased to see notes taken by one audience member who summarised the talk in a way that gave me a chance to reflect on the current shape of the project:

PubhD Notes (All) (2)
Image credit: Alice Thickett (@artfultacticsuk)

Postgraduate Outreach Taster – ‘What is a PhD?’

University outreach is a big part of my working life and so, when given the chance to extend this to a postgraduate awareness and aspiration-raising session, I was quick to take it up.  By first asking the question ‘What is a PhD?’, the introductory part of this session aimed to address any pupil misconceptions, as well as explain the many routes and options beyond undergraduate study. I approached pupil  perceptions and concerns with post-it questions collected from the group early on in the session and answered by the end.

I opened the recipe workshop with a very brief introduction on what a receipt book is, and some of the questions I am seeking to answer as part of my research. The main body of the session then aimed to get pupils actively engaging with recipe sources by examining manuscript and printed recipe sources alongside one another.

I asked the groups two ‘starter’ questions for discussion, alongside the caveat that they should be prepared to share their views with the rest of the class:

  1. What are your first impressions of these sources?
  2. What are the similarities and differences between them?
Recipe Taster Session - Resource Sheet (Side 1) (2)
Resource sheet given to pupils for comparative activity

The most striking aspect of the group responses was their own recognition that these types of documents were quite removed from what they are used to encountering in curriculum history topics in school – and this excited them! Although they were unfamiliar with some of the key local historical families and their homes, pupils quickly appeared to be able to identify with the distinctly local aspect of the manuscript copies I gave them. The groups also highlighted their own difficulties in transcribing and understanding some of the text due to sentence structuring and unfamiliar language. They also began to show an interest in how the printed example proclaimed itself to be aimed at ‘Good-h[o]us[e]wives’.

In a time-limited session, it was a challenge for the group to get far beyond these initial responses but with more time, lots could have been done to see pupils extending their skills in reading and transcribing the sources. There are plans to develop this outreach session into an extended history ‘taster’ as part of a summer residential programme for pre-entry university students. In this session, pupils will be given a much longer opportunity to dissect and engage with recipe sources, as well as to explore key themes in greater detail.

Overall, it was amazing to witness once again the universality of interest in recipe books as those in the classroom (and the pub!) embraced the value of studying receipt book manuscripts as historical sources.