Food and Material Culture in the Classroom

Today, we’ll explore an easy way of incorporating food and material culture in the classroom. I’ll be using a specific case study from my recent What the Founders Read course. Blending food and material culture together provides students a way of considering the global economy during the eighteenth century. Thinking about food and material culture together provides a way of demonstrating how slavery touched many of life’s aspects. This approach is especially useful when the pieces we read don’t specifically mention slavery.

The inspiration for this post comes from a chocolate-drinking Snake.

Sheridan
Portrait of Sheridan at The Frick Pittsburgh

When first entering the world of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, readers meet Lady Sneerwell and Snake. Snake is a dubious character that supplies periodicals with scandalous rumor-mongering “paragraphs.” At the start of the play, Sheridan provides a rather curious stage direction: Lady Sneerwell at the dressing-table, Snake drinking chocolate. It is an oddly specific detail in a play that includes few details about its staging. When I reread the line describing Snake as drinking chocolate, I recognized a moment in the text where students could think beyond what is happening on stage. They could use this space in the text to engage with the economy of the Atlantic World and slavery. Additionally, considering this brief line would invite students to think about how plays might be staged. What sorts of decisions might a director make in order to capture the world of the play?

In a previous post I wrote about the problems of my What the Founders Read course. In my original post I detailed how I made choices driven by ensuring that the class would make and that the class would receive approval as a cross-listed course. Over the long-term, I wanted to introduce students to complex issues regarding Founders Chic, marginalized voices in the history of the United States, and the topic of slavery. I could not jump into all these topics right away because I needed to build an incremental narrative. However, surveying students early in the semester revealed that there was dissatisfaction with how the course was progressing and telling some of these narratives. As the creator of the class I had the benefit of knowing what I was thinking and I could see the long game I was planning. Still, I needed ways to foreground aspects of the class that touched on slavery. The opening anecdote of Snake drinking chocolate provided a way of thinking about the ramifications of a global economy and slavery.

book cover.jpg

I wanted to use the opening of The School for Scandal to invite students to consider drinking chocolate and the accoutrements one would need in a play— or in real life— to enjoy their chocolate. I asked students to think about drinking chocolate and its ingredients. I explained what this particular chocolate drink was like, and then I asked them to think about the possible ingredients. Once they came up with ideas I shared with them the drinking chocolate recipe from Walter Staib’s A Sweet Taste of History. I shared with students the ingredients from Staib’s modernized version of eighteenth-century drinking chocolate. I drew their attention to chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Next, I asked students to take some class time to research each of those ingredients and identify where they were sourced, specifically especially in the 18th century.

ingreds

Next, I drew a (very bad) map on the board. I marked ingredient sources on the map as students revealed them. The map provided a way for students to see the economy of the eighteenth century. As the map began to fill up, I identified how these ingredients were obtained, produced, sourced, and sold within this economy. It provided a way to draw attention to the fact that many of these ingredients were not possible without the systems of slavery.

table
Tea Table, The Met

Once we had a sense of what actually went into the recipe for drinking chocolate, I invited students to consider all of the objects that one would need in order to drink chocolate. We would need a cup one student said. Another added a pitcher. It was harder to tease out a table and chairs, but we did. By considering the objects needed to enjoy drinking chocolate students had a way to consider the role of material culture in the period we were studying and the play itself. I’d already defined material culture in a previous class as part of a quick introduction to book history. I spent some time explaining the role of mahogany in the production of furniture, along with its connections to slavery. To further illustrate these objects I shared with students images of silverware and furniture from the digital collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

my cookies

This unit sounds like I did a lot of leading. There was some leading with what I did. However, I did interject an element of excitement into the classroom because I served chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. In a perfect world, we’d have made drinking chocolate. Instead, we settled for cookies. The cookies allowed me to highlight similar ingredients found in drinking chocolate such as chocolate, sugar, and vanilla. I’m including the recipe I used here.

This is a very low stakes way of approaching the use of food and material culture in the classroom. I have not done a lot with food and recipes in my own classroom. In part, my approach was one of these responses of: what am I going to do in tomorrow’s class? And it was surprisingly easy for me to implement. The important thing is that our day with chocolate bore fruit for many students. It opened up new avenues of discussion. It provided students a way of thinking about the texts we read differently.

I’m not an expert on using food in the classroom. As I wrote and revised this post I decided to go with the language of teaching with food instead of recipes. The students in my class thought about ingredients, not necessarily the recipe itself. In closing, I’d like to direct your attention to resources on teaching with recipes in the classroom. On these sites you’ll find a lot of background, history, delicious recipes, and excellent resources for incorporating recipes and food in the classroom.

The Recipes Project

Cooking in the Archives

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