Category Archives: Food

A festive lesson plan (via Mental Floss)

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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World – Mental Floss is a quick review of the various other Christmas characters in the western world.  I teach Western Civilization and am well aware of the connectedness of European and American culture.  Given that fact, the variety of the theme is remarkable.

Sadly, Mental Floss is not in the habit of citing their sources on these lists.  Still, universities in this country teach about these cultures in their foreign language departments and may well provide some additional information.  I think it is worth it–this is a nifty cultural lesson.  It relates back to an old theme shared by Sam Weinburg and this blog, among many others, about the challenges of grappling with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Below, I describe a lesson plan emphasizing these things.  It is written for a classroom, but easily adapted into a homeschooling lesson plan.

Suggested lesson plan (outline):

Introduction:  Have each student describe their family’s Christmas traditions (note, these do not need to be religious traditions, obviously, if you feel more comfortable you can phrase it based on what students’ families do on their winter breaks)–do this by having each free write for five minutes or break the class into small groups and have each share with his or her group, then have someone from each group describe someone else’s family tradition. (It is worth keeping in mind that a student may not have a family tradition for the Christmas holidays because of religion, personal tragedy, or different cultural background.  This does not mean you shouldn’t do the exercise!  This is as important and valuable a learning experience as the others!!!  The greater diversity in your classroom the greater the opportunity students will have to learn from each other!  Also, remember that Santa Claus is almost entirely secular in the U.S.)

Activity 1:  Assign the reading from Mental Floss, provided in the link above.  Ask students to each read the whole article, or break it down so that each student reads one of the descriptions, or make small groups in which they each group reads three of the character descriptions.

Activity 2:  If you haven’t already, break the students into small groups.  These can be the same as the previous activity or entirely new groups.  Unless they all read the same thing, have each student describe what they read.  Then have each group answer these questions (adjust as needed for age or experience):

  1. Which continents do these traditions come from?
  2. What religions celebrate Christmas?
  3. Is there a connection between the answer of question 1 and the answer of question 2?
  4. What do these characters have in common (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?
  5. How are these characters different  (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?

Reflection:  For either a brief reflective essay or a brief reflective discussion ask students to answer the following: Why do you think we have so many different traditions for the same holiday?

Santa on the sleigh

From here a homework assignment could be made for further research into the different cultures and the character featured–and other cultural Christmas characters could be added, perhaps even as the result of the student discussion of Christmas (or winter break) traditions.  Ideally, this results in a feast with information about the cultures represented and their winter holiday traditions, such as games, music and songs, etc.  One might also just as easily make the next assignment about the class’s research of itself by having each student share more about their own family traditions and history.

American culture came out of European culture and for all of their similarities this reading helps illustrate the limits of the cultural similitude while nonetheless emphasizing the cohesion in comparison with the rest of the world.  This is an important point to learn from the exercise though it will probably resonate more with older students who have had more history exposure or to a particularly diverse class that is roundly international.  The follow-up exercise options described immediately above will be more appropriate depending on the class age and level of exposure, so adjust accordingly.

This lesson plan is designed to work on the following skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • oral and aural communication: speaking and listening
  • historical thinking: making connections based on history knowledge
  • cognitive thinking: drawing conclusions based on provided information, cause and effect

If you try this or variant of it, or if you have your own already existent lesson plan, please, share your experiences, below.

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Wearing Lipstick to War or why it’s National Doughnut Day

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Today is National Doughnut Day.  For those who fret over obesity in America this may seem distasteful.  I can sympathize–our family recently adopted a rule that junk food is ok if you make it from scratch at home, but we’re increasingly moving away from highly-processed tasty things to real-food really tasty things.  That’s just how we roll the doughnut hole.

(In case you are interested, here’s Alton Brown’s doughnut recipe from his 2004 episode of Good Eats, “Circle of Life”:

But, National Doughnut Day is not really about eating fatty, doughy, calorie-laden tastiness.  Did you know that?  It is actually a bizarre addition to our Memorial Day celebrations.  I’m not kidding.  It is a creation of the Salvation Army in recognition of the front-line coffee and doughnut services provided by some Red Cross women during World War I and again in World War II.  It began in 1938.  No, seriously.

It’s about the history, not the calories!

Doughnut and coffee duty was an important morale duty for certain Red Cross women stationed amongst the homesick American troops in England during World War II.  They were carefully selected for the duty based on the right look, slang, and and doughnut conversation (you know, baseball, apple pie, Bob Hope, swing music, and so forth).  They were assigned in trios to the Clubmobile that visited the troops.  Clubmobilers were proud of their duty and the GIs lapped them up with coffee and doughnuts, obviously.

Get the full story about these select women from the National Archives-published magazine, The Prologue, here: Wearing Lipstick to War.  It’s fascinating stuff (good old fashioned American stereotypes and sexism, etc.)!  Actually, it is pretty interesting that it follows on the heals of Memorial Day, no?

In the meantime, have a wonderful Homer Simps–d’oh!–I mean a wonderful National Doughnut Day!  And, remember it’s about the history, not the calories!

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Colonial Foodways, A delicious learning experience

The Lord Mayor’s Tenement–our schoolhouse for the hearth cooking class.

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.

Our classroom for the program.

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.

Class supplies!

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.

More class supplies!

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.

Harvesting beets from the garden.

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.

Chopping wood for the fire colonial style.

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.

The posts for the reconstructed building are built into the original post-holes thanks to archaeological work at the site.

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.

A brief recreational interlude: the colonial game of quoits (think horseshoes).

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.

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How to Raise a Marylander — a REQUEST for written guides to your state, city or region!

How to Raise a Marylander.

This article (linked above) was posted online at the Chesapeake Family Magazine’s website.  It covers the cultural “musts” for the children raised in the region.  This includes recreation, history, cuisine, and more.  We should all make such a list–maybe even more detailed–about our regions and states!  It’s a great help for transplants like my family, and also a point of pride for locals (although, I stray at the bottom when they start talking about sports teams, somethings are irreplaceable).

I would love to see your guides to raising residents of your state, city or region!  E-mail me ( 100-250 word guide about the food, places, history and experiences that are must for the place you know and love best!  Bloggers, home-schoolers and student submissions welcome!!  I will post them on the blog.  See the directions below:

  1. Put “How to Raise a ___” (using your state, region or city in the blank) into the subject heading.
  2. Type or copy and paste your submission into the e-mail body with any pictures.  DO NOT ATTACH ANYTHING TO THE E-MAIL.
  3. Include a brief bio about yourself, max. 50 words.
  4. Look for a reply from in your inbox to confirm receipt and to let you know if I will be posting it on the blog.  If I do post your submission on the blog, I will categorize it under “Guest posts” with your bio and give you credit.
  5. Have fun!


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My National Geographic Magazine project

In this post, I am sharing my National Geographic assignment.  This is especially useful in generating multi-disciplined assignments and projects.  I use it for home school, but it could easily be adapted to history, anthropology, English, social studies, language arts, or related subjects–the reading level is higher, obviously, so if you are doing it with younger kids, enlist the help of parents or reading coaches.  It also makes a pretty good extra credit assignment, if you do that.

The purpose is to get the student to read one of the articles and then engage in the content at a higher level.  Whether the student reads further, creates fiction based on the article, or is artistically inspired, he or she is reworking the content of the article into his or her own project.

This is a great way to expose students to science, history, sociology, travel, and culture beyond their classrooms!  Once they’ve tapped into the pictures and maps, the story becomes hard to resist.  Each article is a kind of field trip (almost) and it should capture students’ imaginations and fuel their curiosity–for life.

(Additional tip for history use:  Assign older Nat. Geo. magazines from a period you are studying–the old Life magazines work well, too–so, students could, for example, read about the Space Race as it was unfolding.  Now, you’ve advanced it to a primary source project!)

National Geographic Assignment

Directions:  Read the current issue of National Geographic Magazine and do one of the following activities using an article of your choice from that issue:

  • Write a short story
  • Make a board game
  • Write a play
  • Do a related experiment
  • Further reading
  • Write a short report
  • Make a travel brochure
  • Do an art project
  • Invent a product or service
  • Write a blog post
  • Write a letter to the author or someone in the article
  • Make an informative map or chart explaining an aspect of the article
  • Create a storyboard for a short movie or documentary inspired by the article
  • Draw one of the photographs from the article
  • Write a speech
  • Make a cartoon strip
  • Write a song or poem
  • Make a PowerPoint explaining the article or an aspect of the article
  • Create a glossary or encyclopedia entries for the article
  • Design a craft project inspired by the article
  • Create a non-profit/fundraising service idea to address an issue raised in the article
  • Prepare a meal inspired by the article

These projects also make good “show” projects when highlighting the class’s  work or an individual student’s accomplishments.  Stories, artwork, and other projects may be used for contests or projects beyond the school or home school.

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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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