Final Project: Appliance Cookbooks Exhibit

One of our core classes, Survey of the History of Food, requires students to create a final project or paper for the end of the semester. But this fall, Professor Kyri Claflin took a different approach, encouraging students to design a food exhibit rather than a more traditional research paper. Hear from one of her students, Lucia Austria, below, and check out the food exhibit website that she created with Tiesha Lewis.

by Lucia Austria

On the first day of class, Kyri Claflin presented her grand idea for a final project to give her ML622 Survey of the History of Food class—design a food exhibit.  It was a museological approach to the history of food that takes a theme and teaches a public audience about its significance, as well as why that knowledge is relevant today. Groups were to present their topic on the last night of class, and each student was responsible for writing their own research paper related to that topic. The class had the freedom to choose their own theme and groups.

Sounds interesting? Yes, it was certainly a welcome change from the normal 15-18 page research paper. Sounds easy? No, it definitely wasn’t. The class had a difficult time forming groups, because let’s face it, choosing just one topic in the wide scope of food history is pretty daunting. There are infinite themes, time periods, and foods to choose from, and I already had a hard enough time deciding what to bring for the class snack.

By the fourth class, I still had no idea what aspect of food history I wanted to research, and hardly any groups were formed. We had a guest speaker that night, the curator for the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Marylène Altieri. She gave us an amazing presentation on the culinary collections available at Schlesinger, included the type of cookbooks one could find and use in their research.

I was inspired by Marylène ‘s presentation Being an aspiring antique cookbook collector myself, I decided to find other students interested in researching cookbooks. Together with Tiesha Lewis, who also has a personal interest in cookbooks, we narrowed down our topic to appliance cookbooks.

Despite their categorization as culinary ephemera, Tie and I felt that a lot could be discovered from such cultural debris. From preliminary research, we learned that due to the harnessing of electric power, there was a surge of appliances manufactured during the early half of the 20thcentury. We eventually focused our project on using appliance cookbooks published between the 1920s and 1960s and their influence on American housewives.

Tie and I pulled the content for our presentation from our individual research paper topics. She aimed to answer the question of whether appliance cookbooks were truly representative of daily cooking and consumption practices, as well as the social norms imposed by appliance manufacturers on women. Extending the use of culinary ephemera beyond serving mere nostalgia, I investigated the marketing and advertising practices of the appliance industry by using basic semiotic theory when researching appliance cookbooks. Together, we created our exhibit website, “Appliance Cookbooks: Transforming Women & Food.” From our research at Schlesinger, we came up with four main themes that our exhibit that we felt would tell the story of women and kitchen appliances. Tie and I put together a video and created graphics that communicated a “museum feel.”

The project took a lot of time and visits to Schlesinger, but it was a great exercise at archival research and doing food history. We learned a lot about appliance cookbooks, and thanks to our exhibit website, you can too.

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