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Cooking Up a Vital Past

Published on Wed, 05/23/2012

Title page of 1817 cookery book showing woman milking a cow
Title page of 1817 cookery book showing woman milking a cow, implements and containers, food, women working in the kitchen

Guest Post: Rusty Annis, Belchertown, Massachusetts, Teacher

 History often comes off to students as inaccessibly dry. They read or hear facts and try to fathom a past from those few and distant clues. Artifacts can help bring the past closer, but are still often insufficient. Now two innovative organizations, the Emily Dickinson Museum and Old Sturbridge Village use "receipts"–what we call recipes–to bring history alive. The Emily Dickinson museum holds an annual historical challenge: a baking contest. It seems that Amherst’s famous poet was also a baker. (A friend wryly asked whether the recipe was for hermit cookies.) Despite her reputation, Dickinson was in fact quite community-involved in her own ways, including baking. In 1856, she even won second place (and 50 cents) for her Rye and Indian Bread at the annual Amherst Cattle Show. As a nod to this achievement in today’s bake-off, all second place finishers win an apron and 50 cents. The Museum’s contest rules include hints and some of Dickinson’s own “receipts.” Contestants may also dig up their own historical recipes. Taste and smell are powerful triggers to memory, sometimes in unexpected ways. The smell of baking with molasses and ginger transports me back to Grammie Sanger making hermits. Emily Dickinson’s Rye and Indian bread reminded me of my dad’s Boston Brown Bread. Baking is a cherished tradition in my family. Luckily my son Robert mastered the old recipe, to the delight of us all. Old Sturbridge Village also offers receipts, including the opportunity to prepare and eat an authentic hearth-cooked meal from the 1840s. The authentic meal program is open to both children and adults. Further resources for cooking up the past are scans of old cookbooks available at, for chocolate and everything else. Bon Appétit!

Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.