Tisbury students get a taste of history

Colonial-era johnnycakes topped with bacon were a hit in a social studies class cooking challenge hosted by Island Grown Schools.

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Asher Gates, left, and Charlotte Packer admire the rice pudding topped with custard and fruit. — Stacey Rupolo

Tisbury eighth graders had their culinary skills and knowledge of colonial history put to the test last Thursday as part of the Colonial Chopped Cooking Challenge, hosted by Island Grown Schools (IGS). Students competed to see who could cook the best-tasting and most historically accurate dish from the colonial era.

Teacher Reuben Fitzgerald split his two social studies classes of 35 students into groups and assigned each a different grain — rice, corn, or barley — and asked them to make a meal that came from the colonial era, roughly from 1607 to 1776, in a program coordinated by IGS.

Students had to research the crop, find out where it was grown, and how it was harvested and processed. They also had to explain how that process has changed, and where the crop is grown now.

Then they had to cook it.

Mr. Fitzgerald told The Times that students learned firsthand how difficult this actually was. Some students cooked their dish at home, while others cooked on a griddle in class. They could only use ingredients available in colonial times, so the options were limited.

“There wasn’t the abundance of food that we have today, and the process of cooking food was difficult,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Mary Sage Napolitan, IGS coordinator for the Tisbury School and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, led the students in the challenge, alongside Mr. Fitzgerald.

“It’s a way to be able to connect to the curriculum and have kids see food through a social studies lens,” Ms. Napolitan said.

Tisbury School Principal John Custer, who was one of the judges, said that each grade in the school has one project with IGS, and he commended the organization.

“They do the heavy lifting,” Mr. Custer said.

Mr. Custer and Associate Principal Sean Mulvey shared in the general enthusiasm as they questioned students about their dishes and the history behind them.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s first class had three groups. The group assigned corn made johnnycakes — traditional cornmeal pancakes adopted by colonists from local Algonquin cuisine in the 1620s — which they topped with bacon and maple syrup. Eighth grader Vitor Lage explained that during the colonial era, most food didn’t taste good, so meat was used in a lot of dishes to enhance the flavor.

“We put bacon on them because everybody loves bacon,” Vitor said.

The second group used rice as their main ingredient. They made a rice pudding that was adorned with custard, raspberries, and raisins. Students said that rice was first imported, then cultivated in the Carolinas and harvested by slaves. They talked about how the Carolinas provided an “advantageous climate” for rice to grow.

Barley was the main ingredient for the last group. They made a barley lime pudding, a dessert from the 1600s. Students said that lime would have been imported and traded for other ingredients. Barley was an ancient grain that came from Mesopotamia, they said.

The johnnycakes received the “most historically accurate” award; the rice pudding received “best presentation”; and the lime barley pudding was awarded “most surprisingly tasty.” Among the three competing groups, the johnnycakes was declared the overall winner, with the best-tasting and most historically accurate dish.

Asked what her favorite part of the challenge was, Asher Gates said, “It’s kind of fun all working as a team. And obviously, there’s food involved.”

Mr. Fitzgerald said the benefit of a project with IGS is the manual aspect. Because it goes beyond solely sitting in a classroom, students remember these kinds of experiences.

“With IGS, what I think is best is it’s hands-on learning, instead of learning from a textbook,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “IGS has assignments that take us outside the classroom.”