Researching Food History in the Middle School Classroom

A school librarian and Smithsonian food historian guide students in their explorations of food heritage and provide research tips.

When I was in third grade at P.S. 41 in New York’s Greenwich Village, my class held a potluck dinner. My mother, who grew up outside Chicago, brought a hot dish of spaghetti Bolognese. As we entered the cafeteria, the steam of the food thick in the air, her eyes filled with tears: “This is why I moved us to New York City, right here. Look at all these different foods!”

As a librarian at St. Thomas School in Medina, WA, I make food heritage part of my curriculum. In fifth grade, my students participate in a two-trimester-long, cross-disciplinary unit, “Walking in My Shoes,” developed by art faculty leader Hannah Salia. As they explore their family history and identity in music, technology, language studies, and the humanities, our goal is to have them develop a deeper sense of their own socio-cultural context and perspective.

During library class, students focus on heritage artifacts: family food experiences (cooking and eating) and family recipes. My pedagogical intention is for students to be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, evaluate and synthesize print and digital resources, and learn to enjoy the research process.

This fall, I decided to immerse students into the world of food history scholarship, allowing them to develop personalized lines of inquiry after hearing from experts. The aim was to underscore the excitement and passion that food historians bring to their work and have this intellectual energy become the foundation from which each student could approach their own research.

One person we spoke to via Skype was Ashley Rose Young, a food historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Food and history are intricately woven into her life story. Her mother was a food entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, operating gourmet grocery food stores, and made a concerted effort to educate the family about diverse food cultures. Her father, a retired historian, was particularly interested in ancient and modern cultures and often took them to museums.

Young was eager to work with me and my students on their multi-disciplinary food unit. She shared her professional journey with them and spoke about archival resources and research methods.

The historian impressed upon students that a cookbook or a recipe reflects the person who created it and that some of the richest food histories reveal the social and cultural dimensions of a person’s lived experience. As students collected research materials related to food, Young encouraged them to continue talking to family members about their food memories and the role food played in their lives.

She also shared and discussed a historic cookbook that she had found particularly interesting and provided examples of research questions students could ask as they looked at the materials they collected. Young encouraged students to read the introductions to published cookbooks and then ask themselves: Why did the author write this cookbook? What story is the author trying to tell through this collection of recipes? What is the broader historical context at the time this book was published? What larger events might the author have been influenced by or was responding to?

Young also suggested that in addition to looking at the recipes, students explore the other information in the cookbook: references to cooking technologies, sample menus for special dinners or parties, and chapters dedicated to helpful hints and housekeeping tips. She followed up by asking students, “What does this cookbook tell us about the lives of people working in homes at the time it was published? What concerns was the author trying to address? Do similar concerns exist today?”

 

Academic and social media research

In her work, Young relies upon several digital repositories to share historic cookbooks, recipes, and menus with students. The Hathi Trust, for example, has compiled an expansive collection of 19th-century cookbooks, which are digitized and text searchable. Michigan State University has digitized and made available more than 75 influential American cookbooks dating from the late 18th to the early 20th century. Its website, Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project, includes digitized pages and searchable full-text transcriptions. Through a partnership between Indiana University and the Indianapolis Public Library, the Service Through Sponge Cake project contains a collection of digitized and text-searchable community cookbooks (largely from the state of Indiana). Additionally, the New York Public Library has digitized almost 20,000 restaurant menus dating from the 1850s through the 2000s. Among numerous food history topics, the What’s on the Menu? Project lends itself to the study of the evolution of taste in America.

In addition to online digital archives available through academic institutions and public libraries, students can access information via social media. The hashtag searches #bitesofhistory, #culinaryhistory, #foodculture, #foodhistory, #foodscholarship, #foodstudies, #gastronomy, #histfood, #histnutrition, #twitterstorians, and #gastronomy have been especially helpful in instances where the documentation of food histories has been sparse or nonexistent.

For example, one of my students, Kennedy (pictured), is currently exploring the history of “soup joumou,” an important part of her family’s annual new year’s celebration. Despite careful searching of print and digital texts, she found little historical information beyond a sampling of recipes. However, on Twitter, we located a Haitian-American food historian and chef, Marie Elsie Dinvil, whose book, Cooking With my Mother, includes a history of the soup and its meaning Haitian-American culture. Kennedy put together a list of questions, including, “What do these different versions mean to our community?” to further develop her understanding of her culinary heritage and family food traditions.

 

Next steps

In the future, Young and I plan to develop the library class curriculum to provide students with copies of historic recipes or cookbook materials that they can study together during Skype sessions, giving them an opportunity to exercise active-learning skills in a flipped classroom setting.

We will encourage students to think about the historical trends that interested them in the source material. In addition, we hope to develop a student food history podcast series in which young people can tell their food histories born of memories, lived experience, and careful research.

We’re also in the process of creating a living LibGuide for students to explore and deepen their experience of their food heritage. Access to historical expertise via food blogs, podcasts, and social media provides an interwoven fabric of food stories and their cultural origins. It is thrilling to help young people contribute their own heritage artifacts and scholarship.

 

Resources

Podcasts

A Taste of the Past is hosted by Linda Pelaccio, a culinary historian, and features conversations with food writers and scholars about culinary history from ancient civilizations to the present day.

The Splendid Table is hosted by food writer Francis Lam and explores the role of food in the lives of diverse people. Interview subjects include chefs, cookbook authors, scholars, and activists.

Gastropod, cohosted by Cynthia Garber and Nicola Twilley, explores food through science and history.

Gravy is a collection of stories that highlight the food landscape of the American South. The podcast is a Southern Foodways Alliance production.

Ox Tales is a series of interviews with food scholars who have presented their research at the annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

Blogs & websites

Feeding America is an archive of digital cookbooks housed at Michigan State University.

Food Timeline is a carefully curated collection of informational resources.

FOOD: Transforming the American Table is the companion website to the exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History traces the technological and cultural changes of food in the United States since 1950.

Southern Foodways Alliance is a collection of oral histories and films documenting food cultures in the American South.

Nitty Grits is an international culinary dictionary maintained by the National Food and Beverage Foundation. It contains over 75,000 food-related words in 380 languages.



Alpha DeLap (l.) is a middle school librarian at a non-sectarian independent school in Medina, Washington. She is a member of the 2020 Newbery committee and a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. She blogs for the Association of Independent School Librarians and reviews for SLJ. Ashley Rose Young (r.) is the Historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She is a co-curator of the Smithsonian exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table and is the host and historian of  Cooking Up History, the museum’s monthly cooking demonstration series.

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