To make something edible is arguably the anticipated end-expectation of the design and use of any food recipe. Making is entwined with cookery, from the writing of its instruction, guided by the experimentation involved in developing a recipe, through the tactile creation process of the consumable result.
As scholars, we can approach the study of recipes from different perspectives. My educational background is in technical communication, but my doctoral work has been done through the University of Central Florida’s innovative digital humanities program, Texts and Technology.
Within this program I typically focus on historical domestic technical communication, the old receipts that instructed Americans for centuries on how to run households. But rather than solely approaching my research from methods historians or technical communicators might default to, I approach my work like a digital humanist, and have found critical making to be useful in exploring my studies.
In this article I aim to introduce the critical making research method to recipes research by showcasing a digital exercise I have completed using it. Through this, I hope to encourage other recipe scholars to experiment with this method.
In Ratto’s 2011 publication of Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, the author writes about critical making merging concepts of critical thinking and pragmatic physical making together to create a process-focused way of deriving knowledge.
Ratto explains the method includes three stages: a literature review, prototyping, and reconfiguration, discussion, and reflection. The method is performed to bridge gaps between technology and society.
The critical making process can be interactive or collaborative and various digital tools can be used to perform it. In this exercise I used Twine, an open-source hypertext platform that allows for the formation of scholarship through online interactive non-linear narratives. I would describe it as a tool to create a digital choose-your-own-adventure.
I worked with Twine to explore a historical cookbook that interested me because of its creative use of poetry to instruct meal preparation. The book is Maria J. Moss’ A Poetical Cook-Book, a community cookbook originally published in 1864 during the American Civil War. An aim of the project was to generate public and scholarly interest in historical recipes through gamification. I thought that perhaps a younger, technologically savvy audience might have their interest in American culinary history piqued through a digitally interactive experience. I used the critical making research process to create a hypertext narrative game based on the cookbook.
The following is an abbreviated example of the show-your-work type of documentation done during the prototyping stage of critical making.
To begin, I consulted Twine’s discussion boards and searched for tutorial videos on using the platform. I wanted to create all the passages and arrange them in the way I felt would make sense to a user. While it was easy to select and place each recipe, it was harder to figure out how to lead up to them, transition between them, and end the journey.
In the next passages, I offered information about the project, and I allowed the recipes to be accessed in the order of what people typically consume during mealtimes, and additionally in any other way they want to access them (i.e., dessert for dinner). After I added all the recipes, I played with how they could link together. It was then that I realized the way to click through them could be a conversation between the user or attendee and the host.
I eventually ordered the passages and links together as pictured above. I then started to fiddle with color. I used a tutorial to guide me through the tips on how to change the font within the stylesheet. While I was initially successful in finding fonts and colors for the game, I ran into some issues.
I tried to figure out why my colors displayed incorrectly. I had copied and pasted code from a forum discussion response that claimed to be a coding answer. Revisiting it, I realized there was code missing. Once I added it, the issue was solved. This type of refashioning constituted a reconfiguration portion of the project.
I felt the exercise in gamifying a historical cookbook was successful and well received. Through the process of critical making, I found that it has provided a path to be more creative as a scholar by exemplifying the traditional ways of generating knowledge are not the only ways. Research can be designed in ways that allow for it to be presented in ways that may speak to more people, expanding its reach and impact. Turning historical rhyming recipes into a digital narrative game is just one way to garner more interest from scholars and the public in recipes, history, and literature.
Special thanks to Dr. Anastasia Salter for all the knowledge imparted within their course on Critical Making for Humanist Scholarship.
The published version of the game can be played at https://madeofallwork.itch.io/.