Tag Archives: foodways

Art reveals historic cultural exchange

Greco-Roman Egyptian mummy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Throughout history we are aware of cultural exchange via descriptions of foreign culture and through the arts.  This is a particularly easy concept to convey, today, with the extensive globalization that has occurred through trade and technology.  Many folks, for example, are already familiar with the relatively new music genre of reggaeton, a blend of Caribbean (especially Jamaican) dance hall music, Latin American salsa, and Latin hip hop that grew out of American rap traditions.

The past offers many examples of architectural and artistic transmission from one culture to the next, sometimes revealing relations that were otherwise unknown to scholars.  This is, therefore, not a strictly historical area of research, as most examples are of architecture or artifacts–and these examples date back well before the historical record was established, providing revelations into the development of the earliest human cultures before permanent settlements were established.

Another area with copious evidence is in culinary culture.  We also see it in food, today, just as the Italians witnessed it with the introduction of Chinese and other Far Eastern noodles, creating pasta.  (The spice trade has been  longtime indicator of cultural exchange, and the Silk Road has revealed many secrets of cultural development and transmission.  It was along the route that some of the best evidence of the secret cult of the Manicheans was finally revealed, as opposed to the meager evidence within the realm of the Roman Empire where it was founded!)  So, foodways are another legitimate way to pursue this same idea.  (See Colonial Foodways, A delicious learning experience, for example.)

This idea was recently reinforced when I came across a fascinating YouTube video produced by the Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts via Twitter.  In it the museum explains with digital animation how a Russian icon is made.  What really makes this interesting is the knowledge that both Russian Orthodoxy and its icons come from Byzantine (or Greek) Orthodoxy.  For that matter, Cyrillic, the written language of Russia and parts of eastern Europe is the likely heir of a written language invented by Byzantine scholars Cyril and Methodious and derived from Greek in the mid-9th century (precise origins of Cyrillic and its inventor/s is under some dispute by scholars, today).

These sorts of cultural exchanges are richly represented in history through artifacts and historical commentary.  It is an inviting and exciting way to study history, especially when one recognizes one culture while studying another.

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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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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Food, Historian's Journal, Reviews