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Eating up the past! Teaching history with food

Food is the most underrated means for teaching history.  Cooking is one of those life skills we all need and one of those survival skills employed by every generation of human beings, extending way back into our prehistory—in fact, food is one of the few means by which we come to know our ancient ancestors.  Evidence of historical subsistence, meals and feasts comes down to us by a variety of means.  The two most obvious sources are archaeological finds of food storage and “cook books”.  (Nowhere does Epicurus aid the human cause more, than when he writes about food in classical Greece!)

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Food is one of those important cultural markers—we recognize this, today, when we travel.  Who goes to Spain and does not eat paella and tapas?  Or, Germany and not eat wurst and schnitzel (other than vegetarians and vegans, of course)?  Or, Louisiana and not eat jambalaya or gumbo?  Or, Japan and not eat sushi or noodles?  And, so on and so on.  It is why on short trips we avoid McDonald’s, but on long trips we might order a Big Mac to stave off homesickness or culture shock.  The study of past is essentially traveling.  The mental skills you develop researching history are often interchangeable with those of traveling.  Many people think history is pretty dry in comparison with globetrotting, but I think they go hand in hand.  Preferably accompanied by a fork and knife or chop sticks!

Just as regions and cultures have created their food culture from the grains, spices, plants and animals that are indigenous to their area or trade lines, today, so too did our counterparts in past years.  In fact, through the study of food one can see just how remarkably cultures were changed when, for example, the Old World met the New World—can you even conceive of German or Irish food without potatoes?  Further, the presence of spices that are not indigenous suggest trade routes.  In many of the biographies of holy peoples in Europe and further abroad, one finds evidence for food as a means of social status, so by extension was something avoided and minimized as an excessive luxury by some holy figures and redistributed to the poor (noteworthy exceptions to this include St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther).

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Almost as interesting as the recipes of past times are observing how those recipes changed over time with different influences.  This is easily observed in the U.S. with the immigration and the different waves of innovation in food processes, followed by recent movements along the lines of health or local farming.  In this case, many of these transitions may be observable within one’s own family heritage.  For example, I recently came into a small inheritance of family books care of my grandmother who downsized her living situation earlier this summer.  I now have a handful of cookbooks that were passed along, in addition, of course, to our own family recipes.

So, how do we incorporate food into history education?  There are actually a plethora of ways!  All of these should come back to the concept of feasting!  This is something that is somewhat lost on modern western culture, but was previously a huge part of our heritage.  This is not just the idea of eating a big meal with extended family, it is eating a big meal with multiple extended families from the community!

Feasting as part of the lesson

Each culture has its own feast days or signature dishes.  Incorporate these into the lessonplan.  There are some great resources, including websites, in the foodie world.  For example, Francine Segan has a couple of cookbooks devoted to 1) Ancient Greece and Rome, The Philosopher’s Kitchen, and 2) to Late Medieval/Early Modern England and Europe, Shakespeare’s Kitchen.  In these instances, she has looked back at some of the relevant texts and extrapolated recipes for modern kitchens.

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There are also collections of primary sources that include descriptions of meals that are available.  A couple of American examples include, American Cookery: Or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, by Amelia Simmons, originally printed in 1796; and, The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph which was first published in Washington DC in 1824.  These are really proto-cookbooks, before the age of recipes as we understand them and cookbooks with ample instructions.  As a result, some collaborative work on interpreting such recipes is probably necessary for less imaginative, creative or experienced cooks.

Europeans throughout history celebrated certain feast days with actual feasts, these can be duplicated in the classroom.  They also had special dietary constraints for fasting.  Brian Fagan, for example, wrote Fish on Friday, Feasting, fasting and the discovery of the New World, including recipes, that lays out the cultural background fasting from meat and eating fish.  (I think there are some flaws with some of his arguments, but I find his approach to the material useful and worth considering.)  Do you have to teach about the European experience this way?  No, of course not!  But, if you are trying to get the attentions of young minds and plant seeds that will further fuel their experiences in history, getting to their brains via their stomachs is not a bad way to go about it!

Eating as a way of getting to know where we come from

This approach to incorporating food should tap into the student’s cultural heritage.  By taking advantage of family lore, cook books and recipe books this can be a great activity that brings out an interest for the past through one’s family history.  Interviewing family elders, exploring the cultural community from which they come, gathering photographs and by other means one can compile a series of cultural pieces around food, especially in this country with immigrant cultures and community histories.

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The obvious thing is to develop a book or collection of family lore, recipes and history.  This collection can be the work of an individual student or a compilation by many students.  It is a great scrapbook of ideas, food, history and stories.  Inevitably the regional color reaches through from each contributor.  As cool as the collection is, its unveiling should be accompanied by a great feast and the student should be involved in the cooking!

Experiential learning and eating

This idea is based more on a combination of food and field trips.  For example, one can go rustic-tent camping at Gettysburg, PA.  Bring a cast iron dutch oven and get a Civil War cookbook before you pack the food for the trip.  Make and pack some Civil War biscuits or jerky.  Get your fire circle and make sure you can hang or set your cast iron on the fire.  Make it an experience!  Now, having said that, I’m not suggesting one voluntarily suffer; making amendments to a recipe that needs more seasoning or some herbs is perfectly acceptable—and, one should absolutely use modern freshness standards!

Obviously this sort of experience works best in conjunction with American history, assuming you are living in America, but it is not the only possibility.  Keep an eye out for community festivals at home or nearby towns and cities that are specifically aimed at sharing the past with the present.  These can be family-friendly Oktoberfests to religious celebrations to reenactments to opening night at a theater production or museum.

The reason there is appeal with this method for sharing the past is because eating is universal, but what we eat and how we prepare our food is not.  Along the way, pass some cooking skills onto youngsters who probably won’t get the opportunity to take home economics classes, even if they wanted to, unless taught at home.  This is great way to get students involved!  Literally tasting the past!

Note!  Especially if you are focusing on your local community, take advantage of local libraries and historical societies!  More good food sources are the National Agricultural Library and the National Archives.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Food