Monday, July 12, 2021

7 Ways for Using Historical Cookbooks to Teach Social Studies

Like many other people, I found myself spending more time in the kitchen during the past 18 months, and have the extra pounds to prove it.  But although I was never interested in learning how to cook when I was a child, ever since I bought 2 historical cookbooks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art many decades ago, I have been interested in the cuisines of other cultures and time periods.

Over the years, I’ve become more and more interested in food history, to the extent that I wrote a master’s thesis on how to use food to teach students about African and Asian cultures.  Whenever I have the opportunity, I buy cookbooks showcasing food from other time periods and cultures.  I also subscribe to some blogs that write about food in particular historical periods.

Why Use Historical Cookbooks
I think food is a great way to get students interested in history!  I cooked food in my middle school ESL Social Studies classes when teaching my students about China (see my recipe for glutinous rice balls for Chinese New Year.  When teaching about the indigenous cultures of the Americas before Columbus and when teaching about the 13 Colonies, I shared 2 cookbooks with my students that had recipes from those times.

Students often have a hard time understanding the purpose of learning what happened centuries and millennia ago – at least, my students did.  But incorporating food into my lessons made history more accessible, because what middle school kid doesn’t like to eat?

A display of the 18 historical cookbooks in the collection of The ESL Nexus
Historical Cookbooks in the collection of The ESL Nexus
I’m going to share my historical cookbooks and add the time periods they refer to, since it’s not always obvious from the title.  Many but not all of them have adapted the recipes for the modern-day kitchen so it's easy to make them.  But first, I’m going to offer some suggestions on how you can use historical cookbooks when teaching Social Studies.

7 Ways to Use Historical Cookbooks in Your Teaching
* Cook a dish from the cookbook.  This is the easiest and most obvious way to use a cookbook.  Just make sure that you are allowed to share food with your students and always, always check that students aren’t allergic to any of the ingredients.  After tasting it, have students write a paragraph describing their reaction: What did they eat (introduce the topic)?  What was in it (the ingredients)?  What did it taste like (use sensory details)?  Did they like it (offer an opinion)?  Would they eat it again (write a conclusion)?  Students can share their reactions with their classmates if you wish.
* When teaching about a particular time period, create a display of books related to that topic and include cookbooks.  This is what I did when teaching early U.S. history.
* Photocopy a recipe for a main dish, or take a photo of it and share it digitally, with your students.  Discuss the ingredients used in it and how they differ from a similar dish the students are familiar with.  For example, share a recipe for a pie from a cookbook and compare and contrast that recipe with one you use yourself (if you bake pies).  As a follow up, you can have your students summarize the similarities and differences in a piece of writing.
* Photocopy a recipe for a main dish, or take a photo of it and share it digitally, with your students.  Have your students research the ingredients: Where they are grown (are they native to the country/culture using them or were they brought there as a result of trade), how much the ingredients cost to purchase, whether the ingredients were available to all social classes or eaten primarily by rich or poor people, if people still eat those ingredients today or if they are no longer popular.
* Divide your class into small groups.  Give each group a different recipe.  Have the students find the scientific names of ingredients that are plants – vegetables, fruits, spices – and draw pictures of them.  Students can also sort all the ingredients of the recipe into categories: animal, vegetable, fruit, spices, other.
* Display a recipe to the whole class.  Break down how the recipe is written: Does it have a separate section for the ingredients?  Does it indicate exactly how much of an ingredient to use (ie, does it say ¼ tsp or just add some salt)?  Is it written step-by-step or as on long paragraph?  After discussing how the historical recipe was written, compare and contrast that with a modern recipe.  You can have a class discussion first and then ask students to write something, to give them some writing practice.
* Display a few recipes from a cookbook from the time period you’re teaching about.  Discuss the format of the recipes with your class.  Then put students in small groups and have them name their favorite dish/food.  (Put students of mixed language proficiency levels in each group.)  Tell them to choose 1 of the dishes/foods.  Then tell students to write a recipe for it as if they were writing during the historical time period they are learning about.  English Language Learners who are not as proficient as other students can illustrate the recipe.  When the recipes have been written and illustrated, each group can share their recipe with the class.

18 Historical Cookbooks and the Time Periods They Address
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* The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia – Mesopotamia  (It’s a scholarly book rather than a cookbook but it is THE authoritative resource on food in Ancient Mesopotamia and a few recipes are included.)
* Tasting the Past: Recipes from the Stone Age to the Present – recipes from the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Middle Ages, Elizabethans, Civil War, Georgians, Victorians, World War II, the post-war years in Great Britain
* To The King’s Taste: Richard II’s Book of Feasts – late 14th century England; the Peasant’s Revolt  (This is one of the books that got me interested in food history.)
* To the Queen’s Taste: Elizabethan Feasts & Recipes – Elizabethan Age in England; the Renaissance  (This is the other book that got me interested in food history.)
* American Indian Cooking before 1500 – recipes from Indigenous cultures of the United States  (This cookbook is aimed at children, not adults.)
* Mrs. Cromwell’s Cookbook – Oliver Cromwell; English Civil War (Available from a museum in England.)
* Recipes from a 17th Century Kitchen – England and the American Colonies (This is a 41-page booklet -- on Amazon, there is no cover image or any comments; I bought my copy at Plimoth Plantation but it’s no longer available in their online shop.)
* Colonial Cooking – the 13 Colonies in America  (It’s aimed at children, not adults, and has a different cover from my copy.)
* Plimoth Plantation: 1627 Autumn Recipes – Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts  (Available in the online shop of the Plimoth Plantation website.)
* Dinner with Tom Jones: Eighteenth-Century Cookery – early 18th century England, the Georgian Age
* Outlander Kitchen 1: The Official Outlander Companion Cookbook – mostly recipes from Scotland, France, and North Carolina in the late 18th century; Jacobite history
* Outlander Kitchen 2: To the New World and Back Again – The Road to Revolution; Scottish history in America; a few recipes connect to Jamaica
* Revolutionary Recipes – the Revolutionary War in America
* The Unofficial Poldark Cookbook: 85 Recipes from Eighteenth Century Cornwall – England after the American Revolution; the Georgian Age; recipes differentiated by social class
* Cowboy Cookin’: Authentic Recipes from the Campfire – Old West in the U.S.; cattle drives in the West
* Sowbelly and Sourdough: Original Recipes from the Trail Drives and Cow Camps of the 1800s -- Old West in the U.S.; 19th century U.S.
* Arizona Territory Cookbook – Southwest U.S. in the late 19th century; Arizona history
* The Appledore Cookbook – late 19th century U.S.; 19th century New England history  (I have no idea why someone gave this a 1-star rating on Amazon but I have made a few things from this cookbook and I like it a lot.)

You can probably find a cookbook for any historical period you are teaching about; these are just the cookbooks that I’ve acquired over the years.  There are also lots of online blogs and websites about cooking in various time periods and many include recipes adapted for the modern kitchen.

If you’ve never used food to get your students interested in learning history, I highly encourage you to do so.  Bon appétit!