Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Food History: An Experiment in Online Pedagogy

Yesterday I began a long term experiment in teaching food history. It is not only online with recorded lectures, which I've done three or four times before, but now includes a live google hangout meeting every Monday night for the semester. During this time, up to three hours, we will cook recipes from historic cookbooks. Students are organized into teams for cooking in one designated kitchen.The students buy ingredients, interpret the recipes, and so forth, on their own. Most recipes, I think, will come from the reader for the course.

Organizing the groups was difficult, as was dealing with students as far ranged as Paris and Utah. And as I feared, over 9 groups was not possible so one team never got on until one team went off. Worst of all, the google hangout is designed to pick up sound and broadcasts whoever happens to be talking. Now, when everyone starts to chop and pots begin to clang, there is not only cacaphony, but it switches speaker every second or two. It was like John Cage composing for kitchen on computer. I had to make a sign, backwards of course, to say PLEASE MUTE.

Despite these odd disconnects, I think this worked quite well. And nearly everyone said what they cooked tasted good. These were recipes 3,500 years old. The oldest on earth. Cuneiform. We tried as hard as possible to follow the vague directions, and we thank Laura Kelley for glossing many terms that are not translated in Bottero, which has grave shortcomings for cooks. But on the whole, there was nothing odd at all. In fact I think we all learned something about flavor and technique. Most recipes were described as broth. I think a bad translation from Akkadian to French to English. But there are no measurements, so who knows? Mine looks more like a stew.

It's a lamb stew with crushed leek, onion, garlic. And fat, plus flour. Just boiled nothing browned first. Yoghurt (maybe, or sour milk) added at the end. It thickened beautifully. And actually it tasted better after cooking 40 minutes, not after simmering a couple of hours, when I had dinner later. I always thought you couldn't cook yoghurt long, but it was fine.

Most importantly, I think every team liked what they cooked. None were right or wrong per se, but very different interpretations of the recipes. Some were thin soups, some thick black sauces on meat. Which is right, who knows? Maybe none, maybe all. But we all now have an idea of what people liked millennia ago.


Prof. F said...

What a fantastic idea. I hope we will get weekly updates!

Laura Kelley said...

Hi Ken:

Thanks for letting me know about this. I think the best way to view the tablets are as flavor guidelines rather than as recipes in a modern sense. The outcome of the recipe is up to the cook depending upon the relative proportion of the ingredients, stew, braise, roast with sauce - its all up to the cook and whoever she (or he) is cooking for.

One sees the same flexibility in the mersu recipes - a, "one from column A mixed with one from column B," approach that maximizes variability from sweet to savory depending upon the selections. A different mindset that I find really attractive.

Anyway, if i can be of further assistance in this effort, please let me know. (I also found some never before cooked ancient Mesopotamian recipes, so another cookoff may be coming down the pike.)


Ken Albala said...

Thanks Laura, This is very helpful info!!

Judith Klinger said...

I would love to do something like this...completely fascinating. Would be fun to get some Italian friends involved since they all think the way they've done things is the correct and only way! Great concoept.

Ken Albala said...

It looks like adobe connect is infinitely superior, so we're going to try that next week with Archestratus. It allows up to 99 participants!!

Mutton Kidneys said...

Great ideas! I teach a seminar which looks at the history of food in Ireland, seen through Irish short stories (fiction) as well as being a signification of commodity culture and the way in which contemporary food writers interpret the anthropology of food

The Food Museum said...

Am putting The Food Rant up on foodmuseum.com soon. Great stuff, thanks!