Sunday, May 4, 2014

Primary Sources and Why They Matter

Now that we're just a scant four weeks away from the kick-off of the Historical Food Fortnightly, I bet you're busy planning your challenges and researching recipes. It seems like as good a time as any for a talk on primary sources, so that we're all on the same page, and a reminder of the purpose of this challenge.

Some of you many be well-versed in primary sources. Some of you may not even be familiar with the term - and that's okay! Simply put, a primary source is a document from the actual time period about which one is researching in - in this case, it's a document from whatever time period you are interpreting in your cooking. By contrast, secondary sources are documents which come from a later time period, or offer a later perspective, on the era being researched. Both are valid sources in historical research; however, secondary sources by nature come loaded with a different author's bias and interpretation.

Here's an example from my own research. One of the books I have been referencing in my planning is A Prairie Kitchen by Rae Katherine Eighmey. This book is a collection of recipes from The Prairie Farmer, a magazine popular in the Midwest during the 19th century. Rae Eighmey (who is a literal genius and definitely a kindred spirit, go check out some of her books) has taken recipes, tested them, translated them into modern language. Super convenient, right? However, in her testing and translating, she may have made different choices, substitutions, or conversions than I would. I can't know for sure without going back to the primary source, and deciding for myself whether or not I would make the same choice.

Thankfully, in this case all the recipes are dated and the source is listed, so I can go back and compare the translated recipe with the original recipe. But that might not be so easy with other recipes. What if, for example, I find a great recipe for gingerbread that claims to be from the 19th century, but there is no source listed? I could go back to different primary sources to compare recipes, thus backing up my secondary sources with primary sources. Secondary sources can be a great place to jump in, but it is then your job to do the research to document the choices you yourself made.

Why not just use secondary sources? Why go to all the trouble of doing all that research? Because research matters. Many of us participating in this are living historians who interact with the public - a public who is relying on us to present history accurately, the way it really was. And even if you aren't, it's really, really, really cool to be able to cook something the way it was meant to be cooked, to consume it, to taste how it tasted to people who lived and breathed and loved  and ate many years ago. It's a time-travel moment; it's experiential archaeology. It's more than just pretend - it's real!

Anyone can make a modern recipe - we're time-traveling.

So, don't just support each other in meeting each challenge - support each other in finding and sharing primary sources. Document your research so others can learn from what you've done. Challenge yourself - it will absolutely be worth it!


  1. Hear, hear! I mainly read old cookery books to find the odd cosmetics recipe, which is my special interest, but the sentiments in this post are valid for all kinds of research!

  2. Amen! I spent part of my weekend trying to find a circa 1796 recipe for bread, ideally from France, such as was eaten by the lower classes. Bread recipes should be common whatever the country/time period, right? I'm still looking. :) I can find 1796 American, I can find 1790s British.. its the French that is proving difficult. Still... it's an fascinating research project. :)

    1. You're not the only one who has that problem with bread recipes. Historical writers often seemed to assume their audience knew how to make it and so didn't bother to record the process, and I suppose that was probably a fair assumption for the authors to make.

  3. Thank you for this! And we always have to remember copyrights - if the book with the recipes is reeeaaally old, you can share recipes in the internet with others, but you just can't copy someone else's work (and perhaps livelihood). Like we don't copy sewing patterns but buy them... at least I hope so.