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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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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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Music, Sports, Games, Food — The things people like . . .

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There are several popular things that I really enjoy: music, food, sports, games.

These also happen to be things that most students really enjoy.  And, they are things that are often particularly unique to the cultures that create or adopt them.  Looking at any one of these features opens a window into another culture and, thus, into what makes it strange or familiar.  Later this winter I would like to run I a week devoted to each of these fine and wonderful contributions to society.  For now, however, I would like to make a case for making greater use of these cultural institutions in teaching.

Feasting!

Arguably something we don’t do enough these days, feasting has had an important function in pretty much every culture.  It is also something that can be duplicated with a certain amount of ease.  A feast is a fantastic way to bring together students, families and the greater school community at large.  What’s more, it is also applicable for virtually any unit in your social studies and history classes.

It doesn’t have to be an exhibition on the glamor of exotic or foreign culinary delights, though.  Sometimes what is most powerful is the sense of deprivation.  Thanksgiving on the western frontier is a very different experience from Thanksgiving in Boston.  The food culture of a region depends on resources, climate, environment and access.  Within that culture there are often variations that exist based on wealth.  All of these are teaching points and all of these are often accessible in primary sources.  Food traditions also often represent points of fusion and connection with other cultures and regions, making a certain emphasis on food a great way to experience cultural change through contact.

Sporting!

Spectator and participatory sporting activities have a long history in our human story.  On the one hand, this is something that is easily recognizable and offers a familiar face to a foreign culture.  On the other hand, the purpose these served for ancient cultures is often rather alien.  Most students would be able to grasp the technical similarities that exist between the ball game of Central America with soccer, but most students will not immediately take hold of the idea that losers will be sacrificed on an altar and have their hearts removed.  By starting with the ball game, you lead to other avenues, such as religion, ritual and beliefs.

Even with more recent sports, social issues, such as eminent domain and segregation, are put into a particularly accessible format for students.  Certain international realities are also made plain when looking at international competitions such as World Cup and the Olympics.  ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series is based to an extant on this notion.

Gaming!

There are a combination of factors that contribute to the relevance of games.  Chess, backgammon, cards, dice . . these are games with a lot of history and there is the opportunity to put a student in the same shoes as a child, soldier, king from centuries beforehand and tell him this is the same way they past their time.

Some games are ones of strategy and others are of chance.  Strategy itself has a history as chess enthusiasts will tell you.  But, apart from that, there is also the appearance of games that are adapted to new cultures, such as with chess and its introduction of feudal symbols into the game.  This can quite frankly be brought into the present when you consider modern video games and their increasing ability to create online communities around the games.

Singing!

Music is often difficult to reproduce the further back you go and yet musical historians have made hypothetical reproductions of ancient music and instruments.  The study of particular pieces and styles of music is extremely telling about a culture.  Monks chanting the daily antiphon to each other morning, day and night speaks of the round the clock prayer that accompanied monastic life.  Listening to the Blues speaks of the economic hardship in Jim Crow America.  The triumphant tonal qualities of western national anthems speaks to the nationalistic fervor of the 19th century.  The melding and blending of musical qualities in today’s modern music speaks to increasing contact and interaction through the internet, travel and trade.

Music is also something that can be [re-]produced by students who may be more in their element with singing and their instruments than with history–a point that is valid for all of the above categories as well, though maybe music and sports most.

Below is Stile Antico performing a 16th century piece.  The piece is in Latin, religious and written to be sung by many voices.

Below is Benny More; largely considered to be one of the greatest Cuban singers, he fronted Cuba’s leading big band and was known to be gifted at both the fast rhythms and the slower ones.

Finally, Dylan.  Well, ok, not Dylan–it’s a Dylan cover, because that’s what people do with Dylan songs.  This is gratuitous, perhaps, but as such I need provide little introduction.  In this case, I will only say that the cover is by Ani DiFranco, who is someone akin to Dylan in a post-sixties way.

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