Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Food Lecture, Part II: An assistant professor walks into a classroom with a volume of Genizah documents, a volume of Inquisition testimony, a knife, a cazuela, and half a pound of manchego cheese and the bartender says to her...

... bonus points to anyone who comes up with this punchline.


An Islamic historian once told me that her best undergrad intro lectures are about Visigoths because she doesn't get distracted by all the little details that she thinks are really cool or by complicated explanations that seem simple to her but that she's sort of on some level forgotten aren't as obvious as they seem now. She tells them the bare bones of what they need to know in a clear, organized fashion and she gets done with it.

That wasn't quite what happened yesterday with the food lecture, but I did end up putting together a brilliant (in the British sense of the word) class in spite (or perhaps because) of my own lack of enthusiasm for the particular subject matter.

I walked into class and told them that the purpose of the class would be more methodological and that they should pay attention to how is that the things that I'd be lecturing about could be known or found out, and less about the content of the lecture itself.

First, we looked at a 10th-century Baghdadi recipe:

Take one kayl of wheat, husk it, par-boil it, dry it, coarsely grind it, and mix it with chickpeas. Add yeast, then knead the mixture into dough. Keep it in a sunny place for 15 days and whenever it gets dry replenish moisture by adding to it extremely sour yogurt. Finely chop mint, Persian parsley, purslane, cilantro and qirt, which is kurrath al-baql. Mix the herbs with the wheat dough and shape it into disks. Bake in the sun.

After asking a student to read the recipe aloud, I asked them what parts of the recipe they recognized, and with very little prodding, they identified the list of ingredients, the instructions for preparation and the instructions for cooking. Then I asked them what they would expect to find in a recipe that they didn't see there. The first response surprised me in that one student mentioned that technology was missing — that a modern recipe would say to use an oven rather than the sun for cooking. They also noticed the lack of precise measurements of ingredients, the lack of clarity over what happens with the chick peas (the notes in the volume in fact clarify that this refers to chick pea flour), and also the fact that some terms have so puzzled the experts that they remain untranslated and inaccessible. 

I held up some za'atar bread from Kalustyans as one possibility of what this might have looked like. (The picture is here mostly because I realized that I know more than one person who will be highly amused by the fact that I served za'atar bread to my students on a xeroxed page of Goitein. Volume 4, page 260, to be precise.)

Then I sent around a piece of manchego cheese with some quince paste. After they ate, I asked them to choose a typical form of writing that they use in the course of the day to communicate — an email, a blog post, a text, a tweet, a letter to their grandmas, a graffito on a friend's dorm-room message board — and write about what they had done during the day, right up to the present moment. I asked a few of them to read what they had written aloud, and asked other students how well they could reconstruct the snack based on their classmates' descriptions, especially the ones that just described the quince paste as "a red substance." Then I sent around some pastry and asked them to describe it in such a way that a historian who discovered their notebooks in the year 2511 could reconstruct the dessert. Again, we talked about their descriptions and what was missing even when they were very conscious of why they were writing and of their audience: Do you think they'll be using teaspoons as the unit of measurement in 2511? Yes, this has the texture of Frosted Mini Wheats, but will that be useful if they don't eat breakfast cereal in five hundred years' time?

That was all just the preparatory work; it took a little longer than twenty minutes. After that was all over, I asked them to read three texts — an excerpt from the Inquisition testimony of doña Blanca Méndez, chapter XVII of part I of Don Quijote, and a recipe and a shopping list from the Cairo Genizah.

With the first two, we looked at the descriptions of food that were written as sort of incidental description in the course of describing something else. For the first, I asked them questions like the following: How well could they reconstruct doña Blanca's family's Rosh Hashanah meal? What information could they glean from her description of preparing meat? (Kashrut.) Which details were important? What was the significance of her talking about eating so much fish? (Eating fish was a way for crypto-Jews not to find themselves in a situation where they would have to either mix milk and meat in front of others or not do so and draw attention to themselves.) I used lots of images from Claudia Roden's new book, The Food of Spain, to illustrate this part of the lecture/discussion. For the second, we looked at some images of objects that had been found in a dig at a seventeenth-century site at Plaza de Oriente in Madrid and analyzed with with Don Quijote in mind and I asked them to figure out what role each object played in the chapter.

And then with the Genizah documents, I photocopied them with all of Goitein's notes and narrative and subheads removed and asked the students to see if they could figure out what the recipe would make and what kind of meal could be prepared from the shopping list. The recipe was for wine (and really the tip-off was that at the end, it tells the chef that if he wants vinegar, then he should leave it in a jar for longer), and they guessed sauces, marinades, soups, etc. They saw that just as they had done in describing the pastry, even describing a dish in such a way that an interlocutor could recreate it isn't always as useful as one would hope when plucked from its context.

The main point that I wanted to make with these activities was that reconstructing medieval history is a challenge and requires some creative approaches. In the future, I'll beef up (no pun intended — I promise!) the information I give them on historiography and methodology, but all in all I think this was a pretty successful class session.

My co-instructor and I have really been struggling to get this particular group of students engaged in the course material, and both the snacks and the fact that this was a bit freer in style (that is, not just a straight lecture and powerpoint with a few pauses for discussion) were very effective in doing that. Now we'll see if the engagement and good will carry over to the rest of the classes this semester. This was the first time that I had lectured in this class where I didn't have the whole class pretty well scripted in advance. I don't intend to give up doing that altogether, but this was an interesting experiment in having a slightly more freewheeling class. There were too many variables in play to say that this is unequivocally a better approach, and for a whole variety of reasons I don't want to scrap the script entirely. But at a minimum, I think that it's worth doing a class like this at the beginning of the semester to get that energy going from day one. 

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