Sights and smells from around the world recently filled the Panhellenic Building as students in Charles Sanft’s History of World Civilization to 1500 class shared ancient foods they prepared in their own kitchens.
On the menu: Roman sausage, Egyptian raqaq bread, Mesoamerican tamales, West African foufou, and more than a dozen other items from around the world.
“One of my core messages for this class is that we are, in fact, as connected to our distant past as we are to our recent past,” said Sanft, an associate professor in the Department of History, who asked his more than 200 students to prepare meals that would’ve existed before the Columbian exchange brought New World items to the Old World and vice versa.
“I wanted students to become aware of how our traditions are part of historical processes. And one of the best ways to share these messages is through food.”
Many staple foods, like potatoes in Ireland and capsicum peppers in Thailand, existed only after the Columbian exchange. But countless others have existed with minor alterations for thousands of years. Students were tasked with discovering those items and trying their hands at making their own versions true to the original recipes.
With the requirement of finding at least five scholarly sources for their menu items before beginning the culinary process, students were as challenged by the history as the cooking itself.
“We pulled our recipe from a translation of Apicius,” said Connor Davis, a sophomore in mechanical engineering who partnered with Owen Dougherty, a senior in microbiology, referencing a first-century collection of Roman cooking recipes.
Davis and Dougherty chose to make Roman sausage. They purchased the ingredients from Publix then went home and spent an hour and a half cooking. As many of the students discovered, the ancient recipes they found online rarely explained how much of each ingredient to use or specified cooking times. So they estimated and hoped for the best.
In their case, the sausage came out delicious.
“We were very surprised,” Dougherty said, adding that neither he nor Davis had much experience in cooking: “So that was an adventure in itself.”
Others, like public relations senior Alyssa Farr, were surprised at how common some of the historical food ingredients were in their kitchens. When she and her partner used the UT Libraries system to research Egyptian raqaq bread and beetroot dip, she found that the recipe called for olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice, garlic, yogurt, and other items she already had in her pantry. Whatever she couldn’t find, she went out and purchased from a nearby Kroger.
“These ingredients have been around for more than 4,000 years, and people are still using them in Egypt today to make the same bread,” Farr said. “That was very interesting to learn.”
Overall, Farr was happy with the way her dish turned out: “I’m definitely doing this again,” she said.
By the end of their class period, many of the students left satisfied with their efforts—perhaps none more so than senior math major Vinny Jodoin, who had waited years for a taste of the West African foufou he had read about in the Chinua Achebe novel Things Fall Apart as an Oak Ridge High School student.
Jodoin’s teacher had offered to bring the meal to class one day, but the offer never materialized. After successfully cooking up the meal with his partners Robert Chandler and Jonathan Tackett, Jodoin sent his former teacher a message to let him know he had taken care of the old promise himself.
“My teacher responded with, ‘Okonkwo [the novel’s main character] would be proud.’”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)