Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

Looking for Meaning in Mock Turtle Soup

Claire Berman
February 19, 2016

I think that I’m a bad person. Back in the day I used to roll my eyes at seniors opting out of club meetings or skipping articles I assigned them on the Thrill because they were working on comps. But I was so wrong, so naive. Comps are hard

As a history major, my comps consist of a 35-page paper on a historical topic of my choosing. Initially I had been a candidate for honors — which is a 90- to 120-page thesis — but mid-semester health issues kept me from continuing beyond the second chapter. So now I am desperately attempting to revise and add to one of my chapters to create my final product: “The Cook Exercises a Greater Power: Female Class-Consciousness in Antebellum American Cookbooks.” 

Now, not to brag, but my topic is really fun. I began to formulate my topic last spring, when Professor Patrick Bottiger approached me and another student in his American Revolution seminar about participating in the Great Lakes College Association’s Boston Summer Seminar. I began thinking about the sources I would be able to use at the Massachusetts Historical Society and landed on cookbooks as being an underutilized but interesting lens into the past. During my three weeks in Boston, I began seeing patterns in how cookbooks were written and the social ideals they expressed. (If you’re interested in reading about the BSS, I wrote a guest post over at their blog, which you can read here!)

With Professor Bottiger’s help, I began to form my thesis: Antebellum cookbooks helped formulate class identity by proscribing certain tastes to different classes, as well as instructing women on how to interact with other classes. The era I am looking at — approximately from 1796, when the first American cookbook was published, to the outbreak of the Civil War — was formative for the capitalist marketplace that would come to define American economic structures, as well as the formation of the middle class.

It seems like a lot to gather from, well, cookbooks. And it is. I have spent hours pouring over microfilm and reading tiny text about how to properly cook a calf’s head. But I love the opportunity to look at four recipes for mock turtle soup and say, “BAM. That explains America.” (Or at least they explain it in part.) 

I have now turned into one of those hermitic seniors, furiously scribbling notes on the Great Awakening with one hand while ordering more books from LBIS with the other. Club meetings I should attend begin and pass elsewhere on campus, probably full of younger, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed sophomores judging my absence. But it’s a necessary evil.

My brain feels like it’s been running a marathon: tired, and stretched to its limits. 

But it’ll be worth it next Friday when I submit the finished project to the department and take deep breath and a nap, knowing that I’ll have a stress-free spring break.

That is, until, the reality of the oral exam sets in, and I begin another round.