Eat Your Primary Sources! Or, Teaching the Taste of History

By Ian Mosby

History has a distinct taste. Actually, it also has a distinct smell, feel, sound, and look to it but – as a historian of food and nutrition – I always find myself coming back to the taste of history. No, I’m not talking about the musty, acrid taste of dust and mildew as you open up a long neglected archival box or that weird metallic aftertaste you get after sitting in front of a microfilm reader for way, way too long. History can also taste like molasses, cloves, nutmeg, raisins. You know, the good stuff.

At least this is what I tried to prove to the students in History 3240: Food History at the University of Guelph this past semester. Not only did I want to teach them about the versatility of food history as an entry point into the history of science, immigration, colonialism and gender – not to mention business, environmental, or political history. But I also wanted to prove to them that, as budding food historians, they should always make sure to actually eat their primary sources.

For instance, while lecturing on the history of the Canadian home front during the Second World War ­– my own particular area of expertise – I tried to communicate some of the ways in which social class determined Canadians’ individual experiences of wartime rationing and shortages by presenting students with two cakes. In one unmarked container, students were offered Canada War Cake – one of the most popular wartime recipes for a sugar-stretching, eggless, milkless, and butterless cake – based on this March 1942 recipe from the Windsor Daily Star. In another container, I passed around a depression-era cake called Poverty Cake – also often known as Economy Cake or Depression Cake – from this March 1930 recipe featured in the Vancouver Sun.


War and Poverty cakes, side-by-side.

The point of the exercise was a rather simple one. The cakes, for all intents and purposes, taste and look almost exactly the same. When asked whether they knew which one was Poverty Cake and which one was War Cake, the class was divided because, really, there weren’t many tangible differences between the two. They were both tasty – if not a bit chewy – yet neither was particularly sweet or decadent. Instead, each tasted like a spiced, dense raisin bread. And both of them, I argued, told us something about the taste of war on the Canadian home front.

For those who had suffered from long-term unemployment and underemployment during the 1930s, for instance, War Cake likely had a decidedly familiar taste. In fact, my own research has shown that many of the so-called “War” recipes printed during WWII were – like War Cake – often indistinguishable from the Economy, Economical, Poverty, and Low-Cost recipes that filled Depression-era cookbooks and newspapers.  Such recipes therefore highlight the ways in which working-class and lower-income families didn’t experience wartime rationing or shortages as a particularly significant shift in their daily eating habits. They were already skilled in stretching dear or expensive ingredients like butter, sugar, tea, coffee, meat and preserves – the precise foods that were rationed in Canada during WWII – and were therefore well-prepared to make do with less of these items during the war in much the same way as they had for years. But for middle-class and wealthier families who had escaped the ravages of unemployment during the 1930s and therefore didn’t personally experience it as a decade of hunger and want, the war truly did require far more drastic cutbacks in the kitchen. War, for these families, really did taste a lot more like sacrifice and austerity and, to that end, it was a quite unique culinary experience that harkened back to the previous war far more than the hard years of the 1930s.[1]


War or Poverty cake? (I honestly can’t remember which is which.)

Historical recipes, in other words, can often be fun, tasty and occasionally useful classroom props. But they can also teach students much more important lessons about the historian’s craft, particularly when the students, themselves, are the ones doing the cooking. That’s why I designed an assignment that required each student to give a five-or-so minute presentation on a recipe of their choice from one of the more than 13,000 cookbooks housed in Guelph’s fantastic Culinary Collection that, in some way, related to that particular week’s readings. In doing so, students would not only use the recipe to assess some of the broader themes that we were discussing in seminars – which ranged from “food and colonialism” to “industrial foodways” to “food, health and risk” – but I also asked that they spend some time discussing the challenges they faced while attempting to recreate their historical recipe of choice.

The students quickly learned that, while many of these old recipes could be quite delicious, they were also surprisingly difficult to recreate. Many of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century recipes they found, for instance, often failed to include important information like – oh, I don’t know – how long to cook something for, what temperature to cook it at, how much a handful of sugar or a knob of butter might be, or what a slow oven refers to. And if students could actually read the handwritten recipes from old manuscript cookbooks, they often found that they were designed for kitchen equipment that no longer exists outside a museum or, in other cases, that our highly processed, standardized modern ingredients act nothing like their historical counterparts.

Ultimately, the most important lesson that the students seemed to come away with was that primary sources – whether recipes, letters or census tracts – need to be read carefully and with a decidedly critical eye attuned to the source’s particular historical context. Not only did they learn quite a bit about what different forms of culinary literature said about women’s lives, labour, and everyday life; the revolutionary impact of changing household technologies; or the industrialization of food and the transformation of print culture – but they also learned quite a bit about the limitations of primary sources more generally. When you misinterpret a recipe or fail to account for its historical idiosyncrasies, the result is immediate: the cake fails to rise, the meat is undercooked, or the soufflé collapses in on itself. When you fail to do the same for our reading of the census, on the other hand, the result is less immediately obvious but no less devastating: your data is simply wrong and your conclusions similarly turn out to be only half-baked.

Even more important, from my perspective at least, was that students really got in to the spirit of the assignment and gave some fantastic presentations. Whether it was the student whose exploration of a 1970s-era, back-to-the-land, foraging-themed cookbook led her out to a frozen pond digging up cat-tail roots (which tasted like muddy rope and provided her with about 1/20 of the calories that it took to harvest them) or another student who taught the class the hard lesson that the recipes in early twentieth century banana-advertising cookbooks had never been tested or tasted before going to print (a lesson that the still-lingering taste of sardine-banana salad will never let me forget), students managed to get into the spirit of things and bring the themes of the course to life. Here, for instance, is just one fun example that a student posted to YouTube:

Food, in other words, is not simply a great way to get students interested in history. As museum curators and public historians have long known, the sensory experience of history can sometimes be far more powerful and illuminating than the text-centric narrative structure that historians tend to rely upon. It’s therefore worth exploring the ways in which we can apply some of these lessons to both the classroom and our own scholarly research. As Joy Parr’s fantastic book Sensing Changes and its associated Megaprojects website have both shown in recent years, sensory history offers new vistas for historical analysis. It’s up to the rest of us to start to make the past more tangible and sensible in our own teaching, research, and writing.


[1] A much more nuanced version of this argument – using a much wider variety of sources! – will appear in my forthcoming book, Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture and Science of Food During Canada’s Second World War (Vancouver: UBC Press).


Ian Mosby is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph and studies the history of food and nutrition in Canada during the twentieth century. You can read more about his research, publications and teaching at

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8 thoughts on “Eat Your Primary Sources! Or, Teaching the Taste of History

  1. Joanna

    Hi Ian,

    This looks like a really great assignment and an excellent way to address the issues you’ve raised. I’m wondering, though, how does the assignment deal with potential food allergies? I’d be a bit nervous bringing some things into the classroom with so many people having various food restrictions, allergies, or intolerances.

    (That video is great!)

  2. Ian Mosby Post author

    Hi Joanna. I checked with the class at the beginning of the semester and there were no allergies. If there were, though, you could still get the students to do the assignment at home and just take pictures of the food (which many did anyway, depending on whether they chose something that needed to be served hot). There was no requirement that they needed to eat anything, either.

  3. Jonathan Dresner

    Fantastic stuff. I’m increasingly using food history in my courses, and fascinated by the results: I’ve learned a great deal about my students this way.

    I just have a quibble: your food history course syllabus, though it has some great material on it, really misses a huge swath of humanity and history. I know, because I teach World History, how hard it is to teach (and read) as broadly as necessary for something like that, but as an Asianist I just get a little tired of seeing courses given universal titles, when they’re really relatively recent, entirely Western history.

  4. Ian Mosby Post author

    Hi Jonathan. Unfortunately, as a postdoc, I don’t have any control over the name of the course, otherwise I would have called it North American Food History or even Topics in North American Food History. But I would eventually love to teach a full-year global food history course, as there’s plenty of amazing work out there.

  5. Jonathan Dresner

    If students understand that the titles mean something like “topics in…” that makes sense.

    I’m seriously considering putting a food history course in our catalog. Right after I get done with the US-Asia course and India course I put there…

  6. Sean Kheraj

    This approach to food history picks up on a lot of themes in sensory history and some of the arguments of those using 3D printers to recreate physical artifacts. I like the idea of thinking of different media we can use to understand the past. In your example, taste, smell, and touch perform functions for understanding the past that historians usually reserve for reading texts and analyzing images. Thanks for sharing!

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