This week we had the great pleasure of delivering a ‘history for schools’ workshop to around forty children between the ages of 7 and 11 (Key Stage 2). Taking the mid 1500s and the mid 1900s as our entrance points into the past, we helped them to discover the degree to which flavours and ingredients have changed over time. The food we eat today is of course reliant on a large network of international trade, as well as on modern technologies of food preservation and production. A map exercise enabled the children to link up familiar foods with their places of origin: tomatoes (the Aztec Empire), pineapples (Brazil), tea (China), coffee (Ethiopia), and bananas (South East Asia), to name a few examples. This was paired with facts about their history and slow acceptance into English diets.
As a group, for example, we learnt that potatoes originated in Peru and Bolivia, and were only brought into Europe in the sixteenth century, after the European discovery of the New World. By repeatedly freezing potatoes in the snow on the mountains, defrosting them in the hot sun, and squeezing them of moisture, local people in the Andes could preserve them for up to ten years! In this form they are called chuños.
An example of a black chuño shown to the class, which was recreated by freeze drying a potato over the course of a week.
Several of the activities were focused around imagining what it would have been like for people in the past to taste new foods for the first time. For example, we read the words of Jose de Acosta, a Spanish Catholic missionary living in Peru, who described chocolate in the sixteenth century:
‘Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste…The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country, are very greedy of this Chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that “chili”’
Chocolate was not made into solid bars until the nineteenth century. Before this, it was a frothy drink mixed with honey, vanilla, and chili peppers, discovered by the Spanish in Mexico in the 1500s.
The children learnt about the absence of bananas and the importance of potatoes during World War Two and thought about the novelty of spaghetti in 1950s Britain. A famous April Fool’s joke of 1957 played on this novelty, by tricking the public into believing that spaghetti grew on trees!
BBC: Spaghetti-Harvest in Ticino 1 April 1957
The highlight of the day was transporting ourselves into the past by tasting some delicious (and disgusting) historical desserts! We selected and made in advance two desserts from the mid 1500s and two from the mid 1900s. The children were asked to think about the ingredients, flavours, and textures they could detect when eating. We considered how historians can use cookbooks as a source through which to access the world of the past.
Modernised versions of the recipes that we used can be found below.
*Thanks to Jennifer Ruggier for coordinating the history for schools programme, to Jeremiah Garsha for inviting us to teach, and to all the children for being so engaged in the lesson!