Food & History of Science

Lilian Brown, dressed in a Sari (~1920)

When I'm not working, one thing I like to do is cook.  I've often wondered if I should not switch the order of my priorities: start working in a kitchen and read history in my free time.  I've also toyed with the idea of working as a cook in the afternoons and evenings, saving my mornings for writing.  Alas, some friends with restaurant experience have disabused me of these naive notions.  There's no way I would get a job sans professional experience other than maybe (maybe!) prepping veggies in the morning and washing dishes all night.

So I've been casting about for other ways to combine my work and free time.  Or rather, I should say, for ways to pass my hobby off as work.

As some of you may know, I'm supposed to be writing a dissertation about the history of paleontology around the turn of the 20th century.  One of the people who figures pretty prominently in my story is  Barnum Brown (who some of you may remember from a previous post).  It turns out that Brown was a rather fascinating character, in more ways than one.  For example, he was named after PT Barnum, whose circus was playing near his home in Topeka Kansas on the day he was born.  Later, after he had become a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Brown used to delight in telling people that he was destined to run a great fossil menagerie.

Barnum Brown, dinosaur hunter extraordinaire
Brown was not just a crack paleontologists, he also had a knack for spotting promising oil prospects.  So, when a jilted lover tried to blackmail him around 1920 he high-tailed it off to Ethiopia.  His mission was to inspect a minerals concession the Anglo-American Oil Company had just acquired in the Ethiopian highlands near Djibouti and what is now northern Somalia.  The AMNH agreed to give him a leave of absence from his curatorial duties on the condition that he collect specimens along the way.

While Brown was on a steamer crossing the Atlantic, he met a young woman named Lilian who was traveling with her aunt.  It was not long before the two were engaged in a trans-atlantic love affair.  In fact, they hit it off so well that they made plans to meet up and travel around India after Brown had concluded his survey of the Ethiopian oil fields.  Now, it turns out that Lilian was not only smitten with Barnum, she also harbored ambitions to make a name for herself in the business of travel writing.  So the debonair scientist on his way to find oil in Africa followed by fossils in India must have seemed like a perfect opportunity to kick start her career!  And, indeed, Lilian went on to write highly amusing accounts of their globe-trotting adventures with titles like "I Married a Dinosaur" and "Bring 'em Back Petrified."

What does all of this have to do with my desire to connect the history of science and cooking?  Well, just this: as I was reading Lilian's travelogue of her time in India I came across a recipe for Mango Chutney she had learned from one of Barnum's native field hands.  This is just great, I thought, especially since I had never made chutney before!  So I gathered all the ingredients and set about recreating a dish from the foothills of the Himalayas.  Well, unfortunately Lilian didn't provide especially detailed or precise instructions, because the end result left rather a lot to the imagination.  Still, I really liked the idea of eating something that was not too dissimilar from what my historical actors had also enjoyed!

The reason I am writing this is because I wonder if other people also cook food they have come across in their research.  Have you found any good recipies at the archive?  In addition to Lilian's Chutney I've also seen an enticing set of instructions for how to make corn biscuits that a late 19th century fossil hunter used to eat when he was out in the field.  I haven't gotten around to making them yet, in part because doing so involves burying a cast iron pot in the ground with some hot embers from your campfire and leaving it there overnight.  Then, of course, it's also a lot of fun to look around for old recipe books on google (such as this one, this one, or this one).

(Just as a fun aside: another great thing to do is look up old dueling manuals.  I especially enjoy this one, written in verse, as well as this one, in prose, which provides much sage advice for the neophyte!)  

So, if you have a good story please share the recipe (especially if it's an older one from the 18th or 19th century!) in the comments section.  Even better would be if someone succeeded in making an historical dish and took pictures -- if so, feel free to e-mail them alongside a description (rieppel at fas dot harvard dot edu) and I'd be happy to put the text and images up as a new post.


I've heard from a few historians of science that this has proven a fun, if hit-or-miss, enterprise in this regard.

You'll also take pride/be shocked at the author of the preface - I wonder if she's gone further into Emma's larder?

Ah, yes, of course it would be the Darwins! I myself have been thinking of getting a copy this recent book, which chronicles the lives of four immigrant families via their eating habits in a tenement house around the turn of the century in New York's Lower East Side.

And then of course there's this, which we have in our kitchen and which at least pretends to do it differently - and it's history and science (at least ostensibly) rolled into one.

Ah, yes, Harold McGee: truly a classic of it's time! Well, if you want to share cookbook tips, I would totally (totally!) recommend Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking -- both for the recipes and for the author's fantastically pedantic tone throughout! No connection to science, per se, but definitely worth purchasing.

One of the actors in my dissertation was quite a foodie: Thomas Barbour, director the the MCZ, and a herpetologist who worked especially in in the Caribbean. I've not tried to emulate him, as his epicurean adventures included sea turtle eggs and manatee steaks. (He was also a big advocate of conservation in Florida!)

There are images from Life of him serving up turtle soup under a photo of Agassiz:
And having lunch with colleagues at the "eateria" he set up in his MCZ office:

No recipes... though I think he describes how to make some tropical drinks in his book on Cuba.

BTW, dumb question, but I can't seem to hyperlink any text. No option when right-clicking. Anyone know how in Safari?

I love this post! Lukas, I've often considered the same switch in priorities--my compromise is writing about food history and dreaming of my future cafe. There are lots of canned food recipes that I come across that I would emulate if it weren't for those evocative descriptions of botulism poisoning that I also often come across. Doesn't sound like a pleasant way to go... I'll stick with the USDA guidelines for now. Ooh, but a guy in our department did bring Perfection Salad (as described by Laura Shapiro) to a holiday party. Nothin' like Jello molds.

Thanks, AZ! Your comment reminds me of a question I have: Is it just me or has home canning made a serious comeback in the last five years or so? Now when you go into a kitchen store, or often even just a hardware store, they put a canning kit front and center. I certainly don't want to cast aspersions on the practice. On the contrary, I think it's a great thing. I am just wondering if you have any idea what precipitated the trend. Is it just a outgrowth of the larger locavore movement, or is there more going on? (Nostalgia, perhaps? Although I guess that might be in part responsible for the growing interest in locally sourced food as well.)

Lukas: Turns out, that is also a question that I have! In fact, although I’m now writing more about industrially-canned food than about home-canned food, this new upsurge in canning activity (my own included!) was totally one of the things that inspired my initial dissertation ideas. (I wrote a little about this in the first page of my proposal, which you can read here). In my project, I’m still stuck in the early twentieth century and thus haven’t given as much thought to the current picture as I will be doing later (as my last chapter will likely follow canned food into the twenty-first century), but I definitely think that the locavore movement and a renewed emphasis on seasonality, along with a desire to be self-sufficient (in the wake of impending disaster—climate-based or otherwise), go a long way in explaining this “Canvolution” (cheesy, I know, but I guess that’s what some people are calling it.) In any case, I’m all for nostalgia… (maybe we should have a canning workshop at the next HSS?!)

Oh dear me. And here I've been trying to keep my lives as a canning blogger and a historian of science separate. To make a long story short, you can't get botulism from acidic foods, which makes most chutneys very safe. I say this with all the authority invested in me as a founding member of the Canvolution (that is, not very much).

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