Recipes are powerful tools to teach about the past and the present. I like to experiment with assignments that mix a dash of fun with a quantity of learning in my courses on early modern British and European history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. These courses are upper-level surveys that do not require extensive background and content knowledge. Because not all students are history majors, I incorporate both multi-modal content and applied or experiential learning assignments. Students engage with historical sources and materials in different modalities; they will read scholarly articles along with a website, a blogpost, or a podcast on the same subject. And instead of assigning a paper, I structure assignments that require students to read, analyze, synthesize, and write, but the final product might be in a less textual format. Students respond well to this kind of hands-on and experiential teaching of history and the most successful examples have involved the history of food.
Utilizing some of the exceptional resources assembled by scholars and libraries, I have honed an assignment with the following constituent parts: 1) research and choose a historical recipe, 2) recreate the recipe, 3) present your results in class, and 4) write up a reflection on the experience and what food can teach us about history. Students consider various issues familiar to food historians, including the origins of foodstuffs and ingredients; histories of food production, labor, and gender; social status and class’s connection to foodstuffs; and food’s relationship to social settings, holidays, and religious events.
I ran this assignment for the third time in Spring 2022 in a course on Pre-Modern European Women’s History. I thought I had it down, but my 30 students staged a rebellion. Their act of charivari made a good assignment even better. Because I am a historian of Britain, I often do not assume my undergraduates can read non-English languages. In this course, I curated a set of digitally available recipes from early modern England. After perusing these recipes, however, my students balked. They did not feel attached to these recipes. They were distant and foreign. Diversity is a hallmark of my institution, and over a third of my students were Muslim with families from the Middle East and North Africa. A smaller percentage were Hispanic or from the Caribbean, many were African American, and several were Jewish. Given the breadth of backgrounds, I allowed these students to find a recipe that reflected their own past, with the caveat that it still had to be a documented early modern recipe.
The mandate for my students was to connect the past and the present through food. Their background became the foundation for engaged historical learning. Thanks to this change on the last day of class we feasted on Sephardic Jewish recipes from late medieval Spain, agua fresca, and rosewater cakes. One student who is from the Philippines, chose to make adobo and taught about European colonialism in a new way by presenting native vs. Spanish adobe recipes. The main differences were the type of meat used–native Filipinos used goat, but Spanish Conquistadores introduced cattle–and the amount of vinegar to taste as Spanish tastebuds preferred a less tangy sauce (Figure 1).
The part of the assignment that elicits the most discussion and concern is the recreation of the recipe and it often ends up being the most educational moment. I try to assuage their worry by reminding students that the ‘result’ does not have to be pretty or appetizing, it is the process I want them to think about. I must admit in the age of cooking shows, this is a hard habit for the students to break, but I repeatedly announce that results are not graded on taste or appearance. When students are in the act of recreation, they discover different perspectives and different questions to ask. How do I know what measurements to use? How can a modern stove top recreate a pot over a fire? What would pre-modern cooks have used as substitutions? And how long is it until something is ‘done’?
In my women’s history course, students recreated and presented food in ways I did not expect. One student chose to recreate a family pizzelle recipe (figure 2). She brought in heirloom pizzelle irons for her presentation and ran a taste test competition between northern European (made with butter) vs. southern European (made with olive oil) recipes. Spoiler alert: butter won. A few students chose to recreate medicinal rather than culinary recipes. A student compounded a salve used to treat Henry VIII’s leg sores. A key ingredient in the original recipe was turpentine. I had forbidden the use of toxic substances, which led to her regaling us with a comedy of errors tale of substitutions. The recipes that didn’t work out were some of the most fun. A student who produced a very dry and unappetizing seed cake was a good sport and allowed the class to laugh with and not at her. Her misfire introduced a lively discussion about the difficulties of recreating recipes without standard measures and suggested baking temperatures.
Between the research, recreation, presentation, and write up, I think this recipe assignment is more involved and productive than a standard paper. And yet, the successful work is ‘hidden’ in several ways. One, the multiple steps automatically break down the assignment into chunks. Two, because there are several elements of choice in the assignment students do not mind spending time on it. Three, because there are elements of play involved it doesn’t seem like ‘work’ or ‘study’ to them. I will admit, not every single student enjoys a recipe recreation assignment. A handful of shy students, or those who think cooking and food are insignificant to historical inquiry, are not won over. One option is to allow students to choose between this assignment and a traditional research paper. Overall, I have found that most students devote more time and thought to an experiential learning experience and enjoy the process much more. Having fun while learning, mixing work and play, is a recipe for student engagement.
If you are interested in creating your own recipe recreation project, there is a bit of upfront work to creating the assignment. I suggest doing this part during a summer or winter break. If you trial the assignment, you might find you lose total control (like I did) or that you did not envision everything ahead of time, so you must be willing to do some improvisation. Making student reflection part of the assignment will help you figure out what worked and what did not. By your second or third iteration, your assignment will be much refined–much like any recipe!