Tag Archives: Teaching

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 Transcribathons and Experiential Learning

On September 18th, EMROC is holding its annual Transcribathon. In this post, Liza Blake offers some expert–and excellent–advice on hosting a Transcribathon event in your class or institution.

Liza Blake

As we all prepare for the next EMROC Transcribathon on September 18, I look back at the role Transcribathons might play in literature classrooms—specifically, in this case, a class on early modern women’s writing (compare techniques here and here).

Interested in bringing transcription into the classroom? It’s easier than you might think, and just as exciting for your students as you might expect! This post describes a locally hosted, teaching-oriented EMROC Transcribathon, and provides some resources for those wishing to host local Transcribathons of their own.

This winter the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) hosted Professor Rebecca Laroche to lead a local EMROC Transcribathon. The Transcribathon was made possible by funding from the UTM Graduate Expansion Fund, the UTM Department of English and Drama, and the University of Toronto Scarborough Department of English. Two University of Toronto graduate RAs put time and energy into the event: Melanie Simoes Santos (English Dept.), and Cai Henderson (Centre for Medieval Studies).

The UTM Transcribathon was hosted for the 47 UTM undergraduates in Professor Liza Blake’s 307 Women Writers syllabus W18 (abbreviated for sharing). The course was designed around experiential learning: in addition to the Transcribathon, students also received training in textual bibliography and editorial theory; critically analyzed editorial choices in two women writer anthologies; and each produced an edition of a text of their choosing for a class-wide anthology (conducting bibliographical research, undertaking textual collation, and producing textual and bibliographical introductions for their texts). Students left aware of the work that went into producing their textbooks, and empowered to not just consume but produce those texts themselves.

At the heart of the course’s emphasis on experiential learning, then, was the EMROC Transcribathon, where students gathered together to transcribe, and reflect on the place of transcription in a women’s writing course. For attending and participating in the Transcribathon for at least an hour, and submitting their reflections, students received a grade worth 5% of their final mark.

What does it take to run a local Transcribathon? Not much! The funding sources mentioned above allowed us to fly in and host an EMROC representative (Prof. Rebecca Laroche); reserve a room and provide refreshments; and hire graduate RAs to serve as (paid) organizers and facilitators. But at a minimum, one needs only a designated space and a committed group of transcribers!

Leading up to the event, we talked in class about EMROC, and why so many scholars are invested in transcribing these recipe books. I went over standard transcription conventions, describing the differences between transcribing and modernizing (with a handout), and went over how to mark up transcriptions in Dromio. I also gave them a manuscript “alphabet”—a cheat sheet showing the manuscript’s particular graphs. These handouts were prepared by Melanie Simoes Santos and myself. Jennifer Munroe has also written on helpful tips for easing students into transcription here.

On the day itself, the instructions were simple: show up for an hour and transcribe! One student wrote about the experience, “It gave me a surreal sense of intimacy with a woman who lived in a completely different time,” and another was surprised that “the personal grammatical and expressive preferences of the author became familiar to me; … I didn’t expect something like an old cookbook to possess such a distinct voice.” One student said, “It never occurred to me how much work actually goes into uncovering a work, transcribing it, and publishing it in an anthology,” and this insight prompted larger reflections for another student: “Getting the chance to transcribe something makes me think about the relationship that exists between the original work versus the modernized or edited work we see in our anthologies.” The event allowed one student “to reflect … on why certain texts are privileged and transcribed over others.” Another concluded, “I felt like I was contributing to something bigger than just our course.” There were also extremely practical outcomes: “I learned how to make orange pudding and dry figs!”

Anyone interested in hosting a local Transcribathon of their own is welcome to get in touch with me; I’m happy to share funding materials or answer questions about hosting. In the meantime, I leave you with some parting thoughts and tips.

  • Flexibility. Though many students cherished the collaboration of the group Transcribathon, some students had irreconcilable work obligations, so I allowed a few to “check in” and “check out” via email, and send copies of their transcriptions, if they couldn’t come in person.


  • Food. Funding made it possible to have ample refreshments set out for the duration of the event, and many students mentioned how much they appreciated draw of the free lunch.


  • Prizes. A trip to the Canadian store Dollarama the night before yielded us some cheap prizes: e.g., if someone found the word “spoon” in a recipe, they could win a wooden spoon to add to their own kitchen. These prizes were surprisingly effective motivators for our transcribers, and we’d recommend this practice to others!


  • Beyond? It might have been exciting to try the recipes themselves out, as other Transcribathons have done, or to link the Transcribathon more specifically with a same-day research event. Transcribathons that include linked research talks remind participants of what is at stake in their transcribing labor.


Teaching Chocolate from the Bean to Drink

By Amy L. Tigner

Making chocolate from bean to bar has become fashionable both in cottage industries, such as the delightful husband and wife shop, El Buen Cacaco, in Idyllwild, California that creates a wickedly hot Ghost Chocolate Bar made with bhut jolokia (aka ghost chili). In 2016, Carol Wiley listed 183 bean to bar chocolatiers on her website, but I would imagine there are even more artisanal chocolate businesses popping up every day.

Making chocolate in the classroom from “bean to drink” also seems to be gaining traction, as least in the early modern recipe world. Amanda Herbert posted her experiments with “teaching with chocolate tasting” which you can read here and John Kuhn and Marissa Nicosia talk about theirs here.

For my own part, I have been interested for several years in the historical aspects of chocolate as it made its way across the Atlantic, and in earlier blog posts, I have written about Hannah Woolley’s mid-seventeenth-century chocolate recipes in her printed cookbooks here and here . The most interesting recipe that I have come across is in the cookbook manuscript by Lady Ann Fanshawe (Wellcome MS 7113), who lived in Madrid in the 1660s as her husband was the English Ambassador to Spain. The recipe, dated 1665, is especially intriguing first because Fanshawe attached a drawing of a “chocelary potte” and a whisk or molinillo and secondly because it is entirely scratched out with large loops. One of my graduate students did quite a bit of transcription magic and was able to recover some of the recipe underneath and ever since that point, I had wanted to try to make the recipe.

Last fall I had the opportunity when I was teaching a senior seminar and graduate seminar on “Early Modern Women’s Writing and Literary Practice.” The class was designed to incorporate as many material practices as possible as we were transcribing women’s letters and recipes from the seventeenth century. Early in the semester we had made ink, as I describe in this blog, but I really wanted to try to make chocolate from the bean, as Fanshawe had done. But because there were still some lacunae in the Fanshawe recipe I thought I had better consult one of her contemporaries, Penelope Jepson, who also has a chocolate recipe in her manuscript cookbook (Folger V.a. 396).

To make chocolato

Take a pound of the cacao nuts finely beaten or searsed, half a pound of hard sugar finely beaten or searsed, an ounce of cynamon, half an ounce of nutmeg, half an ounce aniseede, half a dram of long pepper, as much of Jamaica pepper. Beat and searse all those spices, then put in two stickes of vanillas beaten and searsed (two drachms of Achiote beaten and searsed) with ambergrise as you like to taste. When all those are pounded and well mixt, roast them in an earthen pan till they are as hot as you can endure with finger in it. Keep it well stirred that it burn not then put it into a mortar and beat it very fast till it begin to oile, so as it will work like paste, then make into paste.

As class time was limited, I did most of the preparation beforehand and was struck by how much labor was involved, especially peeling away the outer shell of the cacao after it is roasted. About 2 months in advance, I researched fair trade beans and bought them from Santa Barbara Chocolate.  Jepson’s recipe has quite a few spices, most of which are familiar, except perhaps the achiote and the ambergris. I was able to locate the achiote in a Fiesta Supermercado, which are fairly common in Texas, but I left out the ambergris, which is incredible expensive, since it is used in perfume, and a little bit gross, as it is a secretion from the bile duct of sperm whales. I also bought a traditional Mexican molinillo and chocolate pot, which looked quite amazingly similar to Ann Fanshawe’s drawing.

To facilitate easy recipe assembly, I pre-ground all the spices and the chocolate separately (and I cheated by using a spice grinder). On the day of the class, students combined the various ingredients to make the chocolate mix, and then one student rolled the molinillo in the ceramic chocolate between their hands as another student poured in boiling water.

Though Fanshawe’s recipe specifies china cups, students brought their favorite coffee mug from which to drink their chocolate. Students were surprised by the grainy texture, the bitter taste, and its wateriness, but they tended to like the spicy flavor (perhaps because we are in Texas and Mexican spices are ubiquitous here). We discussed how industrialization and global trade has influenced and changed our taste in the last 400 years. In the words of one student, “I really enjoyed the smell of the cocoa beans and the drink itself, but it was difficult to believe that there was half a pound of sugar in it. Like we mentioned in class, people really like sugar.”

Amy L. Tigner teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Vicarious of Dishes: Teaching the Question of the Recipe

One peach.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A single peach. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Teaching food history via historical recipes initially flummoxed me. Of course I understood some of the cultural-historical lessons they can help us learn: the ways in which historical actors, at a particular point in time, communicated instructions for the preparation of dishes; the units of measurement those actors used; the degree to which a recipe’s author presumes the reader’s knowledge of basic techniques; whether a specific ingredient, such as cardamom, was judged to be readily available or rare; information about which social classes ate which foods. These are all valuable, and perhaps sufficient for teaching a certain kind of food history and for satisfying the specific kind of factual curiosity that often brings students into food history classes. I was nevertheless flummoxed because I still did not understand what a recipe is, and because I suspected that there were very basic – if theoretical – questions about food practice that historical recipes could open up if properly introduced to students. I wanted to find ways of encouraging my students to ask those questions rather than remaining satisfied with the sets of facts that recipes can divulge: moreover, I wanted my students to do more than merely move between two affective responses that I think historical recipes can produce in us: “relating” to the cooks and eaters of the past, and being “estranged” from them because of the alien-ness of their foodways. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted my students to escape the gravity-well of the concept of the “authentic” recipe.

In a recent essay, philosopher Andrea Borghini asks what recipes are, and ultimately argues that we take what he calls a “constructivist” view of the recipe, in which what counts as a recipe is not absolute – for it is very difficult to determine the original or final version of a given recipe – but, rather, performative: we agree with the chef that this should be called a dumpling, but not that, or we do not agree. In other words recipes are the products of a set of social conventions, often the result of myriad past chains of agreement or disagreement about how we do things in the kitchen. Very helpfully, Borghini points out that recipes only seem to have an independent existence, in the form of their textual transmission in cookbooks or on the Internet. In fact they do not exist independently, but are “vicarious of dishes,” where dishes are, simply put, food that has somehow been prepared in a fashion that we might consider worthy of a recipe. Borghini’s essay furthermore proposes a recursive relationship between cooking and recipes: recipes enable us to cook in many cases, but cooking is also (potentially) the process of producing recipes by means of producing dishes.

Obviously what counts as a “dish” is its own question, and one can approach it philosophically, or cultural-historically, or anthropologically, or by all three paths at once – indeed, these kinds of food history questions produce interdisciplinarity like stonefruit produces a dusty white bloom. Reading Borghini, I realized that I had thought similarly when I sat down to develop a question I now ask food history students: what makes a dish “worthy” of a recipe? What is the minimum set of operations we must perform upon a set of ingredients before we produce a dish worthy of (or, that necessitates) a recipe? This exercise was, admittedly, born out of my irritation with one item on the menu at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, namely that the restaurant sometimes offers, when it is seasonally appropriate, to serve us a peach for dessert, usually from Frog Hollow Farms, to which I responded to anyone who would put up with me, “I don’t want to pay $12 (or whatever it was) for Alice Waters’ minions to serve me a f$ck^ng peach.” My grumpiness proved productive, in that it led me to wonder about the ways in which a particular culture thinks about the complexity of dishes, and the level of complexity at which a recipe becomes welcome; in a different vein, I thought about this while perusing some of the Ottolenghi cookbooks, which are beautiful objects and now about as ubiquitous as the Silver Palette cookbooks used to be in the ‘90s. However, Ottolenghi recipes reflect a cuisine that is less technique-oriented than some; said recipes are more like instructions about which ingredients to seek out in (often) “ethnic” supermarkets and then how to assemble them together. In contrast, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking deals in an entirely different level of culinary education. I am not proposing a hierarchy of good and bad cookbooks here, in which the criterion for quality is technical difficulty (i.e., classic French sauces; mille-feuille pastry dough); I am simply pointing out that what counts as a recipe, in each case, is different. I developed my “what is a recipe” question, which I sometimes use with my students, in order to direct them to the juncture of philosophy and cultural history where – at least for me – recipes become interesting.

Andrea Borghini, “What is a Recipe?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2015.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and currently works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his graduate work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. In addition to his scholarly work, he regularly writes on contemporary food culture. His book Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt will be out from Penn in January 2016. He is @benwurgaft on Twitter.