Sunday, August 10, 2014

Writer's Blog Tour

My genealogy friend and colleague Carol Kuzel invited me to participate in a writer's blog tour. The blog tour is a way for a writers in a variety of genres to showcase their blog and discuss their writing. I have a genealogy blog but thought this posting best fit on my personal blog. However, I have also posted a blog on incorporating social history into family history narratives on my genealogy and social history blog.

Each participant answers four questions:

What am I working on?
The biggest writing project right now is research for a thesis that will complete my graduate work for a master's in history. I am not yet to the writing stage, but am getting closer.  I am using one woman's collection of medical recipes from the 1600s as the source and am analyzing characteristics of the recipe vs. characteristics of the people who contributed the recipe.More details are available here. I have a long list of writing projects in the queue (for which I am doing some research now) that I will work on once the thesis is complete. I would like to publish the results of my thesis, as well as some follow-up work on the manuscript collection including a social network analysis of the contributors and perhaps some text mining of the recipe collection. I would also like to write a history of Mormons in the 1800s using my ggg-grandfather as a lens into the goings-on and daily life of the Mormon Battalion, trek across the plains and early settlement in Utah. I would also like to write my life history in a digital scrapbook format and to start up (today!) keeping a regular journal. I occasionally do some creative writing as well.

How does my work differ from other of its genre?
The thesis work differs from most masters theses in that it is heavily quantitative. I am a statistician by training and am able to apply that knowledge and way of thinking to analyzing historical sources. I am also more of a social historian than many historians, so I hope that my writing is less dry and more engaging to a general audience. My genealogy writing also differs from the standard genealogy in that I incorporate a fair amount of social history and other documents in order to bring the person to life.

Why do I write what I do?
I only write about topics that interest me and that I am passionate about. I want to share that knowledge with others in a way that is interesting to them. I use creativity as an outlet. Sometimes that manifests itself in writing a poem or short story. More recently it has been manifested in photography, jewelry making and paper crafts.

How does my writing process work?
Most of my writing over the past few years has been geared towards research papers for my graduate degree. For a given topic, I will take notes from a variety of sources and type them up. I will then cut up all the quotes and small notes and organize them on a table or floor in the order I want to write them. From there, I can just start writing and then move thoughts around as needed. I always save the introduction for last. Once I start writing, it usually just flows. Writing is the easy part, editing is the hard part.

I asked several other writers-bloggers to participate, but they were either too busy or not interested, so unfortunately I do not have any other writers to showcase.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Wicked bad thunderstorm

The thunderstorm that caused all this damage rolled through BEFORE we were put into a tornado warning. Yes, we do get tornadoes in MA occasionally. Hopefully things are settling down now

This is a massive tree branch that fell. Covered two cars and completely blocked the driveway
A view from the other side where you can see the split. I am guessing it was wind rather than lightning that cause all this damage
This is my car--barely escaped all the huge downed branches all around. I parked my car in a new location that has fewer trees. There is really no place that doesn't have any trees
Another downed branch--this is the one that just missed my car but grazed the car next to me and completely covers two cars on the other side of the median
Fuzzy because I was hurrying to get back inside because the thunder and lightning were starting up again. Yet another downed branch
The other side of this tree--it was totally uprooted
Another view of the tree to the right of my car (the branch fell in the opposite direction across the median
The entire parking lot was recently repaved and many of the trees had to be replaced since they were buckling the pavement. They worked hard to save the trees on this median and now all of them have been severely damaged. Not sure if they can be saved or not....

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Farmer's Market and CSA

I love the emphasis on moving back to locally grown food. I have a fruit share in the local CSA and visit the local farmer's market on Saturdays when I can. Here is my haul from this week at the farmer's market.
Peas (since my garden has stopped producing them), tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, homemade tarts (she makes such good ones), cranberry and pecan bread (I tried their cranberry and fennel bread before and it was amazing) and homemade guacamole.

I am trying to eat more fruits and vegetables and this is a good way to get them in.

Phantom of the Opera

On June 27 I went to see Phantom of the Opera with my good friends Eileen and Bekka. We had a crazy drive into Boston during rush hour traffic. Something was wrong with the GPS. It would tell us to turn left in 300 feet, then right before that it would switch to turning right. It took us on a giant loop through Boston. Finally we came to a place that I recognized and was able to guide us there. I generally walk in Boston, so don't know all the one-way streets and how to navigate them in a car.

We ate at a fabulous restaurant called TeatroBoston. We shared an appetizer of bruschetta (grilled peaches, ricotta cheese and almonds). Bekka ordered spinach ravioli and I ordered skirt steak with tomatoes. We ate half and then switched. For dessert I had "al Buio" Dark Chocolate Cake. The food was sensational. I wish I had taken pictures.

We had to get a shot in front of the poster. It is a new show and I loved the set. It was incredibly innovative. That was by far my favorite part of the show. The music of course was very good as well--very haunting. I think this is one of the few musicals that is even better as a movie. The one that came out a few years ago is excellent. I will watch it again sometime soon.


The Phantom of the Opera was, fittingly, held at the Opera House. Of all the theaters in Boston, this is my favorite. It is absolutely beautiful. It was restored within the past 10 years. We were up in the nosebleed section, but the 2nd photo below gives a hint of its beauty.
A shot looking out over the lobby


Visit to the Museum of Fine Arts

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday, July 3. Two special exhibits drew me there. The first was the Magna Carta. No pictures were allowed for that exhibit. The second was the quilt exhibit.

The image below is similar to what I saw. There were several copies of the original Magna Carta written and signed by King John (of Robin Hood fame) in 1215.This one is at the British Public Library. The one that I saw is from a church in England. It is only one side of a piece of paper that is maybe 12 inches by 12 inches or smaller. I think it was in Latin--not a language I could read. The Magna Carta is the first time in history that citizens of a government had stood up and demanded their rights. King John was forced to sign this and acknowledge that there were personal rights that a government had to respect. It set the stage for the Declaration of Independence more than 500 years later.

It was such a privilege to stand in front of this amazing document that has had such an impact on history. Even though I couldn't read it, I knew the powerful words and messages that it contained.

 The rest of the exhibit contained objects from several local historical societies, mostly centered on the American Revolution. Artifacts such as the liberty bowl by Paul Revere, a political cartoon with a banner that read "Magna Carta" and a talk by JFK in which he referenced the Magna Carta and more are all there. Well worth your time and money to see.

I was not as impressed with the quilt exhibit, but that was due to my own personal preference rather than anything with the exhibit itself. I like beautiful quilts that show artistic flair. The quilts in this exhibit were especially chosen for their eye-popping use of color, some of which I liked and some that I didn't like so much. Here is a sampling:





This was one of my favorites--it is a great optical illusion of 3D blocks

Another fun optical illusion
This was another favorite. It was made by an African American woman in the 1940s who used color to celebrate her freedom and confidence.

Gender and Domestic Medicine: Analysis of a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

A lot of people ask for details about my thesis, so I decided to write a blog post so that I can refer people here. The working title is "Gender and Domestic Medicine: Analysis of a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book". I am purposely being vague about the manuscript and its author to protect my findings until I can publish them.

My thesis is an analysis of medicinal recipes from a 17th century manuscript that originated in England and eventually made its way to America and into the vault of a local historical society. There are about 450 medicinal recipes in the book, about 400 of which are readable. The handwriting is tiny, but neat. The primary reason for a recipe not being readable is due to torn pages. For the most part, the recipes were collected by the same person and written in the same hand. As there is evidence that the recipes were collected over time and the same handwriting is used, I don't think a scribe was used. I recently figured out who the compiler was and know that she could both read and write.

Medicinal recipes are basically home remedies to treat a wide variety of ailments. They are primarily herb-based, but also include animal products, minerals and alcoholic beverages. People often ask about my favorite recipe. It changes from day to day, but currently my favorite recipe is for toad oil. Take about 100 toads and build a brick furnace in the yard. Start a fire and put in the live toads. After a couple of days, take the furnace apart and save the oil to be used in other recipes.

Almost all of the recipes have a note about who contributed the recipe. There are 90 different contributors. Based on notations such as "my sister", "Mr" and "Dr" I can determine whether the person was male or female, related or not (which assumes that notations such as cousin, sister, aunt, etc. refer to familial connections), and whether the person was a doctor or apothecary vs. not in the medical profession. I am comparing characteristics of the recipe with contributor type (male vs. female, related vs. not, medical profession vs. not). I am comparing such things are complexity of the recipe (number of steps, number of ingredients, number of days to make the recipe, etc.), whether it was a panacea or for a specific disease, whether a statement of efficacy of the recipe was included, whether directions for administering the treatment were included, whether elements of superstition and astrology were included, etc.

Although I am looking at 3 types of contributors, where I have the most variety and largest numbers are for gender, so I think that will be the primary focus of my thesis (and hence the title) but that could change as I finalize the analyses.

I am happy to be able to combine my love of history and statistics in this project. I have created a database of over 50,000 data elements and will analyze them using my statistical knowledge. Using statistics in history is rare, so the quantitative aspect of my research is innovative.

One thing that I am finding challenging is categorizing the diseases. Belief in the humoral system of balance was still strong there and disease per se was not defined. All symptoms were caused by imbalance of the humors. So even if a specific disease was mentioned in the recipe, it could be just the symptoms. They also had treatments for things such as "wind in the spleen" or to "comfort the heart". How does one categorize this? Into body systems affected, into symptoms, into something else???

Currently I am finalizing the database, then will finalize the analysis and submit my thesis proposal.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Analyzing Historic Cookbooks

This past week I attended the "Analyzing Historic Cookbooks" seminar at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe (now part of Harvard). The Schlesinger Library is a women's studies library and has a wonderful collection of cookbooks (including Julia Child's collection), so was a nice place to hold the workshop. It is one of the few Harvard libraries that is open to the public. We all had to apply to participate in the workshop, and this year 20 people were accepted (including me). Barbara Wheaton, a noted food historian and cookbook expert who is associated with the library, led the workshop.

Most participants came from an academic background, but there was a restaurant owner and a cookbook collector who were not affiliated with a university or college. Interests ran the gamut from viewing cookbooks as literature, using cookbooks to give women a voice, cultural foodways, how cookbooks can make a political statement, role of food in family development, British colonial food history in Asia, presidential dining, gender and power manifested in cookbooks, French cooking, desserts, domesticity on the frontier and in the 19 century, medieval French cooking and Chinese food history, antebellum and African American cookbooks, and cooking schools. I was the only one interested in medicine.
We started with a dinner at Rendezvous in Central Square on Sunday night. The entire meal was delicious and I would definitely like to go back. It was our first introduction to each other and to Barbara.We ate from the Sunday Prix Fixe menu. I meant to take a picture of all the courses, but this is the only one I remembered to take. I had the Boston lettuce salad with cheddar, slice apples and spiced pecans, the braised lamb shoulder with spices, peas and fava beans and potato gnocchi, and the cherry crostada with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce (above). It was all delicious, but the lamb was especially noteworthy.

This is the classroom where we were all week. Barbara (in the red) is making sure everything is set up for the first class. Breakfast pastries, yogurt and drinks were provided daily. A really nice lunch of sandwiches, salad, chips and dessert were also provided daily.
We did a lot of independent work with cookbooks. Over the course of the week, each of us analyzed 5 different cookbooks from a variety of time periods and locales. Here are some of them.
Each day was organized around a central theme: ingredients, technique and workspace, meal planning, publishing and who the cookbook touched. All were relevant in some way to my research on medicinal recipes except the menu planning.

The first day Barbara started out with some questions we should be asking about the daily theme (ingredients) and then we spent the rest of the day in independent work preparing a 4 minute presentation for the next morning. After the morning presentations, she would talk briefly about the questions we should be asking for the next theme and we would spend the afternoon in independent work. We all looked at different cookbooks across the days--there were some repeats, but many were only examined once or twice. There was more independent time than I would have liked, but I did learn a lot from listening to the other presentations and things they noticed or questions they raised about their reading. However, I wish that Barbara had shared more of her knowledge with us in a more structured way. I did make sure to take time to ask her questions that were of interest to me on a 1:1 environment during lunch or the independent work time.

Here we are hard at work. I sat in a different place by different people every day to make the most of networking opportunities.
I also made sure to talk to a lot of the other people and learn about what they were doing, which also gave me ideas about future research projects. There was an interpreter and culinary historian from Plimoth Plantation as well as other people who knew about the time period I was working in that referred me to sources I would not have known about otherwise.

I also found databases and online resources that helped answer some of the questions I had about who compiled the manuscript I am using for my thesis. It's a pretty cool story--but you'll have to wait and read about it in the thesis :)

Barbara is compiling a database in many ways similar to the database I have compiled, but has some different fields. We are going to get together later this summer to compare our databases.

The most useful part of this workshop for me was two-fold: 1) the networking with other people in the class and 2) learning more about what sorts of questions I should be asking the sources I am using in my research. As a bonus, I corrected my mistaken impression that Schlesinger doesn't have early handwritten manuscripts, and found one that is perfect for a future project.

I went out to dinner with some of the people from the class at a really good taco place in Harvard Square. Suzanne (left) is a PhD candidate studying cookbooks and politics in post-war Spain. Maddy is an undergrad studying the New England Kitchen in the 1890s.
Stephanie is a PhD candidate at Exeter in the UK. This was her first time trying tacos--she loved them. She is going to look up a couple of things for me in England when she gets back.
Because parking fills up early at Alewife, I was at Schlesinger by about 8 and the workshop didn't start until 9:30 (doors opened just for us at 9:00). I spent most days reading or chatting with other participants in Radcliffe Yard--it was such a beautiful place to wait.
I am so glad that I went!