Catching More Flies with … Butter?
I don’t know why I thought teaching my History 101 class to make butter would be a good idea.
In April of last year I packed two glass mason jars, a pint of heavy cream, some spoons, cheesecloth, bread, and salt before making my long trek to Queens College. As I switched between local subway and express subway, then subway to bus, the jars clanked against each other. I adjusted the cheesecloth to protect my lesson from breaking. I wished I had written a lecture instead.
I couldn’t write another lecture on “early modern Europe, 1500 – 1815” that week. I might drag myself to Queens College, but I couldn’t drag myself from behind a net of anxiety and depression that partly coincided with the moment teaching responsibilities had been shoveled on my 23-year-old corpse. My equally young psychiatrist planted pills over my grave, resulting in me coming alive with frightening, whip-like intensity, only to collapse back. I was suffering from what a later practitioner called “medication induced Bipolar Disorder,” an illness not yet recognized by the field or by my doctor at the time.
When I reached the office I shoved my butter supplies under my desk. I read memos from my mailbox. Checked e-mail. Made coffee. Talked to the secretaries. Smiled, or rather tried to pull my face into something resembling happiness, at the department chair when he mentioned he enjoyed the class on early modern fairy tales that he had observed the week before. I wondered what he would think if he realized that instead of talking about Little Red Hood taking butter to grandmother we would be making it that day. I felt like a wolf, that if cut open, would reveal 90 students desperate for a lecture on the Thirty Year’s War.
That spring culinary treatises like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques guided me; I had little use for the self-help of Feeling Good and Oprah. I celebrated thickened béarnaise, studied the molecular structure of goat’s milk, and put shameless wedding registry abusers to shame with my kitchen tool purchases. I suspect that I found instructions for making butter online, since I don’t own Turn the Kitchen Clock Back 500 Years.
Making butter at home is simple. Leave heavy cream out overnight to warm and allow the fat molecules to become imperceptibly rancid, giving the butter a more complex flavor. Dump the warm cream into a jar or water bottle about double its volume with a very secure lid and shake for about 20 minutes. The agitation damages the fat molecules, which are otherwise suspended in liquid. After enough shaking you will produce a glob of butter sitting in real, uncultured buttermilk.
Now in the classroom, I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. I chastised myself for spending days staring blankly at Mario Batali and Giada de Laurentis on the Food Network instead of typing up the page and a half of notes that would have maintained the illusion that I could handle teaching. I held the big mason jar of cream over my shoulder and moved it like a martini shaker so that my students would replace their looks of disbelief with laughs. I handed the jar to the nearest student and instructed them all to shake for a few moments then pass it on. I talked distractedly about career possibilities in public history for people who like to convey historical knowledge in less conventional learning settings like “living museums” and Civil War battlefields.
I could have written a sociological study on how students reacted to The Jar. The girls in Uggs boots made faces, wrapped their manicures around the jar, gave it one shake, and passed it on. I felt bad for their boyfriends. The boys on the baseball team, which I liked to conflate with the softball team, shook so vigorously that they seemed to stop breathing, leaving their faces flushed deep pink. I reminded myself to discuss early modern gender roles next meeting.
The students who kept up with the reading, took notes during lecture, and answered questions thoughtfully during discussion shook the jar exactly as I did for a few moments, then passed it on. There were the people who looked unshakably uninterested they passed the jar as soon as it was given to them.
By the time the jar traveled halfway across the room of 45 students something was happening. The shaking started looking like a violent stabbing motion rather than bourgeois cocktail construction. The softball players, Uggs girls, and my pets stared into the jar, some of them making noises as they imagined our project going straight to their hips. Some of the students slowly turned the jar to watch the glob of butter splash in the buttermilk that remained. The public history discussion died as students stood up to see their jar transformed.
As I took back the jar from the last student and poured out the buttermilk I fielded questions. Is this safe to eat? yes. Are we going to die? yes. But not from this. Is this the way people made butter in early modern Europe? yes, although they had other, bigger vessels for agitating the cream. Isn’t butter what Little Red Hood was taking to her grandmother in the second version of the story that we read?
Yes. In an instant, the net of illness that had secretly separated me from them was gone, and off we went, racing to compare the ingredients of Miss Hood’s basket in each of three versions of the tale, talking about respective value of the foodstu
ffs in her baskets, and how the richer ingredients in later versions betray the movement of fairy tales up the social ranks to the King of France’s own secretary. I shared theories about the transmission of culture in early modern Europe. Hands bobbed for attention, voices blurted out questions and answers, and I scribbled some quick notes on the board.
We talked about household economy and the overlooked role of women as household managers in history. We passed through chalk and cheese England, the early modern market, and social divisions that resulted in some people eating roasted peacocks dressed in a robe of their own uncooked feathers while others ate so much gruel or polenta that their facial structure changed due to malnutrition.
I used water borrowed earlier from the department fountain to wash the remaining buttermilk from the wad of butter. I explained that buttermilk left in the butter would make it smell and taste musty after a few weeks. Then I flopped our butter onto a square of cheesecloth gross! and used two wooden spoons as paddles to squeeze any pockets of water and buttermilk from the interior of the butter. I scooped up our project, set it in a bowl and added salt. In this case, the salt was fleur de sel, the salt once collected from the sea for the kings of France. Salt was also important at the time because of forced salt taxes, including the French gabelle that would play a role in the French Revolution.
I sliced bread, stuck a knife in the butter, and invited my students to sample their work. They approached me like I was a plague victim offering a bowl of fluid from a lanced buboe. One bold, probably hungry student finally grabbed the knife, smeared the soft, faintly yellow butter onto a crust of bakery baguette. And another. Some students came back to the table a few times, others took samples to their friends and relatives.
After the classes ended I packed my bag with the jars, cheesecloth, knife, and spoons. The load was lighter now that the cream and bread were divided among the students. As I glided home I let the jars clank against each other; it sounded like music to me.
I didn’t reach every student that day. Some of them left the room as quickly as they could, uninterested in the class’s handiwork or prolonging their stay in History 101. But I could see that others were now bonded to the study of the past. In later class meeting they exclaimed over their new knowledge. Some made butter at home for their families. I like to imagine them telling the old versions of fairy tales to unsuspecting relatives and regaling them with the history of the Renaissance as they take turns shaking the jar.
In the year since my experiment, I’ve found ways to better integrate it into the curriculum. I’ve included primary source readings from an actual sixteenth-century cookbook on the day that we also use a Renaissance diary to talk about home life. But my pedagogical ideas are not without their detractors. One colleague suggested that perhaps next year I would discuss the Black Death by bringing in a rat infected with Yersinia pestis and having the students watch it die. I agreed that teaching 90 students in History 101 to make butter does not, on the surface, seem nearly as important a lecture.
I worried the next semester about my failure during the previous year to consistently lecture. I compared myself to my inexperienced psychiatrist, artificially leavening my students then leaving them deflated in the classes of instructors who might expect them to know who signed the Peace of Westphalia. So I started replacing discussions of sleeping arrangements and Marquis de Sade read-a-longs with lectures. I poured dates and names into my students and they gave them back to me in their quizzes.
It turned out that lectures in my class are like oxygen and the human body: a bit of it keeps the system pumping, but too much kills. When I couldn’t stand that I was covering glowing curiosity with chalk dust and turning faces down to sheets of notes I packed my jars, cream, cheesecloth, and spoon again.
I suspect that making butter may be the best idea I’ve had as a teacher. It reached kinesthetic learners, challenged the assumption that history doesn’t teach useful information, connected multiple lessons into one very tangible activity, and was a transmission of my love for my chosen field, in the package of my life-giving hobby, to students, some of whom now shout to me across the quad that they are history majors. And if, as postmodernists argue, history is little more than literature, shouldn’t studying it be fun?
- Jan 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm […] Catching More Flies with … Butter? […]