In our area, we are fortunate to have Historic London Town and Garden in Edgewater, MD. This site is a county-run facility built on top of colonial Londontown, a city built to be the tobacco weigh-station for the colony of Maryland. Its existence was of short duration as the weigh-station would be moved to Annapolis, MD. Thanks to the construction of a single brick edifice in a town built of wood, the site became an orphanage until the 1960s preserving it for archaeologists from the Lost Towns division of the county’s preservation board.
The educational arm at London Town has worked with historians who have compiled a strong package of historical sources that have been used to teach homeschoolers and school groups on field trips. These programs introduce students to colonial living, practices, clothing and architecture, plus allowing them to literally get their hands dirty in the actual archaeology dig of the town’s tavern. Pretty cool stuff, really.
One of the programs offered is called “Colonial Pathways.” While they have a streamlined version of this for schools on field trips and for families in the summer, we attended the homeschooling program. The program is designed to complement the curriculum in the Early Maryland Program and it also supports Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum for grades 4, 5, 8, and 10. The program teaches students about colonially life and trade through food. The longer homeschooling program begins in the morning and extends well into the afternoon, culminating with a feast of the prepared foods.
There is also an accompanying packet that challenges students to think about food in their own families and culture to make connections with the past. This is includes a section about why we should study foodways. It defines “foodways” (quoting folklorist Jay Anderson) as “the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, and consumption share by all members of a particular group.” The packet continues, saying:
Food is used to reinforce ties to ancestral homelands, ancestors and places of comfort ad stability. Moreover, foodways can communicate many things–belonging to a group (expressing cultural and regional identity), self-identity, emotions, behaviors, and memories. In addition, food preparation was often a communal affair, and cooking frequently involved many members of a family and community, because of the labor-intensive nature of technologies available to them. Thus, a study of the attitudes, practices, and rituals surrounding food can provide windows into an early society’s most basic beliefs about its members and the world as a whole.
~ “Colonial Foodways Teaching Packet,” Historic London Town and Gardens
Colonial staples included pork, beef, lamb, fish, shellfish, chichen, corn, beans and other vegetables, fruits, and numerous baked goods. Added to these foods were African crops that came over on slave ships, including black-eyed peas, peanuts, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, kidney and lima beans, watermelon (thank you!), rice, okra, sorghum, millet, pineapples, chile peppers, and sesame seeds. These eventually became part of larger culinary experiences in the North America.
The packet includes information on food preparation, food preservation (drying, salting, smoking, pickling, and jellying), and colonial receipts. In the activities section, it challenged students to categorize foods with the social classes that would have eaten them and then comparing them with 21st century foods. It also tasked them with identifying family and community interviews for a sampling of food preferences. Next, it challenged them to consider food taboos and, finally, it asked about the holiday meals and the “grammar” of ingredients and sequences to “deciphering a meal” (borrowing form anthropologist Mary Douglas). In the back of the packet are footnotes and a bibliography.
Using the Lord Mayor’s Tenement, a reconstructed building constructed in its original post holes, as our classroom, the students set to work making a feast:
Chicken on a string (seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and cooked hung over the hearth–by a string
Kickshaw (a quiche or frittata) — students made two, one with asparagus and one with kale, cooked in a ceramic pie dish, rubbed with lard or butter, placed inside a dutch oven over the coals (the lid was built like a dish so that coals could be placed on top)
Roasted beets — harvested by the students from the colonial garden
Ginger rice (a Ghanan dish) — Ghanans and Senagalese were brought into Maryland because of their experience in tobacco or related agriculture — rice boiled with oil, salt, pepper and ginger
Apple fritters — fried on a cast iron pan
It was quite a lot of food and all of it was devoured by the students and parents present. The students were actively involved in the preparation though, for safety reasons, they were not allowed to work directly with the fire. Throughout the process the educators from London Town continually referenced sources from the colony, hopefully giving the students a direct insight into how this recreation was designed–using historical processes.
Food is one of those things we share with humans of the past, so employing it in history lessons makes a lot of sense. Plus, students get to eat their studies! Hard to turn that down, really. This is a great afterschool program, too, for schools in disadvantaged areas through collaborations with charitable organizations and historic organizations–learning and eating, how do you beat that? Food is a really good teacher about historical communities tying into social classes and trade connections.
The London Town experience is a good one, both for learning history through food and for learning about culture in general. It is not flawless, however. Their homeschooling programs are marketed for students ages 8 and up, but they have not done a fabulous job about enforcing those ages. We made a point of inviting another family to join us to guarantee some student participation in my daughter’s age range. One other family showed up with a boy who was a very young 8 and his little sister–the parents would not clear out of the students’ space directly impeding the participation of other students, and none of the staff asked them to step back or move away from the table. That’s very frustrating when you pay for your children and an adult to take a course that places requirements on attending. Aside from this issue, the concept and program are well-designed for learning history.