"Very well,” Mrs. Jenkins said, fetching a small hardbound book from a cupboard.
She began flipping through the pages. “Just remind me that we must stir
the soup that’s on the fire so it does not burn, and meanwhile we will make a
cake. Hmm. . .Let’s see. . .I rather fancy this one.” She pointed to a recipe, and
held open the book on the table, so they could both read it together:
To make a fine feed or faffron-cake.
You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter,
three ounces of carraway seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves
and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of
sugar, a pennyworth of rose-water, a pennyworth of saffron, a pint and a half of
yeast, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: first
boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour,
and a little of the milk and stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with
the flour, put in your feed and spice, rose-water, tincture of saffron, sugar, and
eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan,
but be sure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick
oven. You may leave out the seed if you chuse it, and I think it rather better
without it, but that you may do as you like.
“What’s a feed or faffron-cake?” Hannah asked, pointing to the words with a
Mrs. Jenkins turned to her and tutted. “Silly girl! That’s seed
or saffron cake. I thought you said you could read?”
--Look Ahead, Look Back (The Snipesville Chronicles, Book 3)
Readers of The Snipesville Chronicles know that I love to write about food and food preparation in the past. Whether it’s Hannah making a seed cake with Mrs. Jenkins in 1752, or Mrs. Devenish converting unappetizing British World War II picnic fare into a tasty snack, or horrified time-traveler Hannah stumbling into the slaughter of her favorite pig in 1752, I sneak in lots of food for thought about, well, food.
Food is a subject that appeals to most of us, and so it’s a good subject through which to teach history. But how does it teach historical thinking?
Simply preparing a food from the past brings home the concept of change over time, through changing tastes and practices in food production and preparation. Kids with whom I once made 1950s Jello salad featuring ham and pineapple were suitably grossed. When I prepared mock cream, to a British wartime recipe, they thoroughly enjoyed it (impressive, considering that it was mostly a blend of margarine and powdered milk). Both foods made quite an impression.
But we can also dig deeper. Why did people eat a particular food at a particular time and in a particular place? A simple staple dish might suggest very limited options for food at a particular time of year, or limited opportunities for trade. Did this mean people were suffering? As more and more people added previous luxuries like sugar and spice to their diets, where did those ingredients come from, and why were they more affordable than in the past? How did electricity change cooking? When we examine historical cookbooks, we should ask who was actually using such cookbooks in previous centuries. Was it the wealthy or, more accurately, their cooks? How do we know? If a cheap price and ads inside suggest a wider audience, consider the growing availability of cheap printing as well as cheap ingredients, and how cooking was affected. Why were they cheaper? To what extent was even a popular recipe aspirational, something people would like to make, rather than something they did make? After all, many people buy celebrity chef cookbooks today as reading matter, not guidebooks.
You don’t even have to make a food with kids to have the desired effect: In my schools presentations, I often like to ask kids to raise their hands if they would like to tell me their favorite food, and after hearing three or four of them describe their favorites (pizza, steak, and chicken wings are most typical), I tell them why they wouldn’t likely get the foods of their choice in the time and place we’re discussing. If I know when that particular food reached the region in which they live, I tell them. This is a great way to reinforce the differences between then and now.
The questions we can ask are limitless, but how do we tie them to curriculum? Think of spending 10-40 minutes on food as an introduction to a topic like World War II (think rationing) or colonial America (think of the very different foodways of various groups, and discuss how they show how differently people lived) Practically any time and place can be introduced through its food. How hands on with actual food do you want to get? That’s up to you. Either way, leading kids to focus on how they eat today, and why, and how it differs from fifty or a hundred or three hundred years ago is a great way to lead them to thinking historically, and to begin to visualize different periods and places.