viernes, 1 de diciembre de 2017

Concepts & History: Social Status & Food

Since the semester is over, I thought I'd use this blog to post some ideas on how to discuss certain concepts in history class.

One of the most difficult ones to explain to my students has been social status and social class. I suspect the reason for this is that these concepts are both very present in their lives, but our society (Mexican middle class) also trains us to ignore them. Ask any Mexican high schooler (particularly in an urban setting) if they'd consider taking a job as a street cleaner, and they'd just KNOW it's a lower class job than being president. Nonetheless, if you point this out to them, it's still not a direct connection.

This also happens when I've tried to connect the concept of social class to the concept of rigid social structure. I ask my students if it's true that in Mexico anyone could be born poor and become President and they say yes. However, when I ask them if Mexico has specific social strata that have specific jobs, which means only certain high-status people are allowed to govern, they also say yes.

It's tricky, but those contradictions are not uncommon in today's societies. Nonetheless, I watch a lot of Youtube, and I got an idea.

Recently, I came across a Youtube channel called English Heritage, which focuses on making history videos about Great Britain. It has a specific series called The Victorian Way, where (among other things) they recreate recipes from the real-life recipe book of Mrs. Avis Crocombe, who was the cook at Audley End House, Essex, around the end of the 19th century.

The videos are short and fun, as well as superbly produced, probably to promote the Mrs. Crocombe tour at Audley End House. While watching them, I noticed Mrs. Crocombe tends to emphasize the social class of her recipes. It sounds odd, but see if you also notice it:

1. Mince Pies. When making mince pies, which are a traditional, high-class meal for the Christmas holidays, Mrs. Crocombe points out that her pies are small because Lord and Lady Braybrook must eat delicately. She also specifies that it's hunting season, so Audley End House will be receiving a lot of visits, presumably from other high-class individuals who also eat delicately. In describing the ingredients, she points out that there are modern variations to this recipe (particularly not adding meat and using puff pastry instead of shortcrust pastry), but that Lord and Lady Braybrook are "very traditional", which is why she ignores these variations and uses traditional ingredients (like ox tongue). Other ingredient, like sherry, spices, and caster sugar, were traditional and also too expensive for most people in 19th century Britain, because they required long manufacturing processes and were probably imported from British colonies like India.

2. Curry. Without much introduction, Mrs. Crocombe points out in the first few seconds of the video that curry is a middle-class meal, but that she "occasionally" also makes it for Lord and Lady Braybrook, if only because Queen Victoria herself (now also Empress of India) apparently approves of it. In order to understand this reasoning, it's important to point out that middle classes in the 19th century were just as rich, if not richer than higher classes. The difference was middle classes only obtained their status by having money, usually by being industrial capitalists, and spending it on cooks and expensive, spicy meals. On the other hand, high classes got their status from being traditional nobles, but not necessarily being rich. At the time, it was an uncomfortable position for higher classes to have to adapt to the practices of middle classes, like eating impractical meals from across the globe, just to maintain their status. 

3. Chocolate Pudding. Again, in the first line of the video, Mrs. Crocombe points out that this pudding is nothing but "a treat for the servants," which makes it a lower class meal. This can be noticed, not necessarily in the entire recipe being cheap (she says it's a treat and specifically suggests buying "the best chocolate you can afford"), but in how it makes use of bread crumbs (which are made from stale bread) instead of fresh flour, as well as how it involves a very short preparation process (literally just mix all the ingredients together) and may be left unattended while it steams. The recipe is clearly designed to make use of leftover ingredients while not distracting servants from their main jobs, which were to take care of Audley End House. Notice how it doesn't include any type of pastry, meringue, or spice, all of which require more labor and money. 

Another interesting point is that while each meal has a clear social status, Mrs. Crocombe specifies certain crossovers. Lord and Lady Braybrook may be nobles, but they sometimes enjoy curry, and Lord Braybrook eats a more delicate version of the chocolate pudding she makes for the servants. Similarly, her curry recipe includes a lot of vegetables, probably to make it cheaper, and the servants are said to be able to afford expensive chocolate sometimes. The 19th century was a time where social status was still important, but the lines were becoming blurred, and this made people crazy. I explain this a little in my video about the concepts of nationalism and fatherland: 

I hope you learned something. Comment below if you think I should make a cooking video explaining this.