History can often seem further away than it really is, and in many ways, academia still presents itself as the imposing, ivory tower it claims to deride. But what to do? How to take these places which offer me such comfort, but which appear so alien and hostile to others? How to rearrange the academy to bring the joy I feel to those I love? Food has been my attempt at this. Historical recipes can be windows into the livelihoods of past communities, and I’ve found that they are often more accessible and intuitive than many modern recipes, especially for those with limited access to complex kitchen tools. A scotch pie can be made with a set of hands and a single pan, if one really had to. Although I enjoy my modern comforts when cooking historical meals, it is refreshing to not have to source esoteric cookery.
Food is the true great equalizer, and the greatest communicator.
When asked if she could help me bake, my aunt Sarah was at my home the next morning. Athleisure with collegiate branding is the mark of baking yet to come. Her presence is commanding.
She is the baking expert, and what pie would dare to be anything less than perfect in her company?
I had confidence with her nearby. My message would not be lost. In a biological sense, food is a simple concept. It provides caloric energy to continue one’s life in the hopes of reproduction. But beyond biology, in the realms of culture and communication, food creates and empowers communities. It establishes an identity, a sense of purpose, and a shared experience with one’s peers.
Family connections strengthened as I was led through the initial steps of melting equal parts butter and beef tallow into a pot of simmering water. I needed enough dough to cover a pound of meat, so I measured out 3½ cups of all three, and methodically began to stir. The fledgling baker that I am, I could not leave my post, no matter how negligible the risk was that something would go wrong. Sarah, the kind soul that she is, agreed to stay with me, mirroring my eternal vigil at the stovetop by standing in the doorway. Love filled the comically large archway and flowed into the paradoxically small kitchen, in which only one person could comfortably exist.
The butter and tallow melted soon enough, and with a few turns of the spoon they became homogenous with the water. The dough was about to form, and my mind felt paralyzed with nerves. Aided only by Sarah’s voice, my hands remained steady as they poured the hot mixture into an awaiting bowl. The modern comforts return as the mixture in the bowl churned for me as I slowly spooned in flour. I am grateful for them as the mixture eventually formed into a sticky, kneadable dough with a speed and efficiency that would have seemed miraculous to the Scottish immigrants first penning this recipe in the 1770s, although it should be noted that this type of pie likely existed long before the writing of that specific text.
Kneading, however, is much the same process then as it is now.
On a floured surface the dough was pushed and pulled until it was soft enough to accept my fingerprint, but attached to itself enough that it did not cling to my hand as I pulled away. The process of baking was getting easier and easier at that point. Kneading was no novel concept in my household. I simply worked the dough through the same motions my cat used on me, whenever she was desperate for attention. I imagine that she approved of my work, whenever she wasn’t distracted by slapping the dangling leaves of the houseplant. As my confidence grew, I worried less about how the pies would turn out, and more about what they would mean.
Frying onions, spices, and ground lamb while the dough rested was a simple process, and so I allowed my mind to wander. To be able to feed both oneself and one’s loved ones is a powerful position to be in, and it is a power which can too often be forgotten in historical studies. Even in the most patriarchal and oppressive societies, it is women and their domestic tasks which keep it all from crumbling. Although this is not to diminish the shameful lack of political power many marginalized groups have faced, through cooking one can recognize the power inherent to the process. The dignity. The sovereignty. Neither George III nor Elizabeth II are known for their domestic arts, but they know power, as do I, and further than that, so, too, do the Indigenous groups fighting to change the food systems surrounding us, to further empower communities so that all might feel the powerful nature of a good meal.
And this would be a good meal.
The dough was laid into muffin tins greased with the remaining tallow. Sarah guided me through pinching the pies firmly shut after spooning in meat and lamb stock. We cut slits into the top, and they baked for around an hour as I stirred up a simple gravy of cornstarch, lamb stock, and the drippings from the fried meat. Family filed into the dining room as the pies cooled. Although the kitchen could not hold us, the dining room had enough space for Sarah, Grandpa Robert, the cat, and I to all sit at a comfortable distance. Between bites of pie and occasional diversions to shoo the cat away from stealing a pie, conversation flowed. Scotch pies are still a popular dish in the UK, and so Grandpa, while brushing crumbs off of his tweed jacket, told us stories of his time there, and how he missed many aspects of teaching that got lost through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Talk moved from there to a light discussion on Colonial American history, and although we are amateur historians, we still had a lively time. The essence of academia was there with us, having been prepared in a tiny kitchen, and brought out for consumption to a spacious dining room. Between us, the cat, and the Scottish peasants who committed their knowledge to posterity, sat manifest evidence that intellectualism need not be expanded to contain marginalized groups, but rather that the established powers must recognize the intellect already existing in those spaces.