The Secret Ingredient: Using Recipes as Tools in Construcing Historical Narrative

Sophie Hicks

This is the first post in a summer series exploring societal, community, and familial connections to food and food history.

Exploring food history through archived cookbooks or recipes provides a unique glimpse into culture, place, and identity of communities, families, and individuals. Recipes can hold significance on the family level, a broader community level, while also serving as a  representation of a culture or time period depending on when and where they were used. Food history intersects with capitalism, colonialism, globalism, gender, race and a range of other social conditions. The work of historians Ian Mosby, Janis Thissen, and Kesia Kvill points to the ways in which food can be used a lens to understand history and communities.

cover of Feeding the Flock cookbook

Feeding the Flock, a cookbook compiled by the Evangelical Free Church of Lena, Illinois

When I think of my own connection to familial food history, one cookbook comes to mind: Feeding the Flock, a cookbook constructed by the congregation of the Evangelical Free Church of Lena, given to our family in the late 1990s while we lived in Illinois. This collection of recipes differs from the many church cookbooks my mother has accumulated over the years because it houses the recipes for the chocolate chip cookies and brownies that my sisters and I would recognize as distinctly hers, even though she had no involvement in constructing the cookbook entry. From my perspective, the recipes that have become “hers” were seemingly stumbled upon by chance, or in rarer cases recommended by a friend and remade based on personal taste or feedback from family. How could I have such a strong association with a recipe that originally had nothing to do with my family?  

It may only be nostalgic reasons or purely because my mother has built an association by making these recipes hundreds of times. This question of connection may seem to be superficial, but it opens the discussion of why recipes are important in the first place.

Even though the list of ingredients and directions that go along with a recipe are not always personal to the individual making the dish, recipes take on this characteristic when applied.  In the acknowledgements of Feeding the Flock, while thanking those involved in compiling the recipes, there is one line that accurately sums up the significance of historical recipes: “You have not only shared your family’s favorite recipes, but you have shared a part of yourselves”.  Recipes can act as an intimate and personalized view of history that contributes to identifying regional differences, or nation-wide trends as other primary sources do; they simply do so in a different way.

Historic information revealed in recipes is not always explicitly stated. This does not mean that the information is any less valuable, it is only to say that recipes require a different type of investigation in order to understand their historical context. The ingredients, language used, and even the dish itself can reveal key insights into the time, place, culture, or necessity of different demographics. A recipe’s contents can show what food was available to Canadians, how they were influenced by cultures they came into contact with, how they coped with events that had financial or social ramifications, and many other factors that greatly contribute to our understanding of Canada simply by reading with a critical eye.

Although a certain amount of information can be gathered from solely reading a recipe, going through the step by step process of making the dish creates a more immersive experience while bringing questions and/or answers to the forefront and revealing challenges or successes that lead into a deeper investigation.

In this series of blog posts I will use these principles to explore how the act of making historical recipes can information historical knowledge, memory making, and historical practice.

Sophie Hicks is an undergraduate history student at Algoma University.  Her academic and research interests include food, gender, and political history, as well as examining the intersection of these areas.

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