I have embraced digital history. What’s that, you ask? It’s a term historians use to refer to using online technologies to conduct and share historical research. The remarkable collection of American newspapers, digitized by Readex, is one example of a digital research tool. It’s available by subscription, typically through a university library. Another subscription service is the Oxford Bibliographies Online, with searchable, inter-linked research guides (by brilliant scholars such as yours truly!). Other resources are open access, searchable primary sources, such as the Papers of Benjamin Franklin or Buncombe County, North Carolina,’s online records of slave deeds. Those, and projects like my blog, are ways to make historical research or discussions of historical questions more widely available through new communications technologies.
But there’s another sort of digital history that’s as powerful, I think, as all the exciting resources and tools that absorb my and my fellow historians’ attention. (Colleagues, I know I can speak for you. I know you’re on Twitter all day long. I know because I’m there too.) I’m talking about history explored through the fingers – the digits.
Over the weekend, I taught a baking class based on recipes from Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook – the first by an African American. The class was for kids and adults. There were four kids – two 5-year old boys, a 9-year old girl, and an almost 13-year old girl – and four mothers plus a historian friend of mine. We made three recipes. We made a centuries-old type of cookie, flavored with rose water, caraway seeds and mace or nutmeg, called jumbles. Then we made a cornmeal cake, called Indian cake by Mrs. Russell. The last recipe was a marble cake, but this is not your familiar vanilla and chocolate marble cake. The white part was flavored with lemon and brandy and the dark part was a molasses spice cake. Yes, it’s really good. (If you’re asking who teaches kids to bake in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic, I won’t belabor my answer: Baking at home is part of the solution, not the problem.)
I was quite pleased with how the class went. It didn’t go perfectly. I wish we’d had a little more time left at the end for eating and talking. I would have liked to have worked more closely with all the participants. And I owe my friend a refund. She concluded, rightly, that I needed an assistant and threw herself into the job of keeping things running smoothly.
Even so, the kids, and I think, adults took some things from the class. The boys, who were younger, learned how to add ingredients, mix, marble cake batter, and roll dough. (After the class, one of the little guys asked his mom if they could do it again next week. Now there’s a compliment for you.) The girls, who were older, also learned about baking. They both had taken some cooking classes before, but hadn’t baked much and were eager to become bakers. That’s what brought them to my class. The history, however, piqued their interest too. In response to a question from one of the girls, we talked briefly about why the cornmeal cake was called Indian cake. That’s a first layer of knowledge for exploring the Columbian exchange, the role of native peoples in the 19th century U.S., relations between native peoples and African Americans, and more. And we talked a bit about Malinda Russell’s life and, in particular, about her plans – squelched when her funds were robbed – to immigrate to Liberia. Neither girl knew anything about the movement, started by elite white Americans, to send free blacks to what’s now Liberia, and, let me tell you, it captured their attention.
Will they go on to join a history club, sign up for National History Day, or major in history? How would I know? I study the past, not predict the future.
I am quite sure, though, they will make these recipes again. They are 21st-century kids and they will connect with their peers digitally – through Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and all sorts of resources I know nothing about. They will connect with a fellow baker from a distant time and very different society digitally too.