Food as a Theme in the Social Studies Classroom

By Cynthia Resor posted 12-09-2017 08:59:40 AM


Food is a hot topic in modern America and can be used as a theme in the social studies classroom to illustrate many historical trends and indisciplinary concepts. A traditional holiday treat – the mincemeat pie – is just one example.

First, take a short quiz to test your knowledge of mincemeat.  Quiz: What is in a Mincemeat Pie?

Mincemeat pies are associated with the winter holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Traditionally, the filling was made of chopped meat and animal fat, dried fruit, spices, sweetening (honey, molasses, or sugar), and alcohol, often brandy. Mincemeat was prepared and preserved in the late autumn or early winter when animals were slaughtered and fruit was abundant. The minced meat often came from the odd parts of the slaughtered animals such as the feet or head.

Mincemeat pies can be used to illustrate several different concepts and historical eras in the social studies classroom.

  • Geography. Map the origins of the ingredients for mincemeat.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, meat, apples, cider, and butter came from one's own farm or a nearby market. On the other hand, many of the ingredients were shipped to America from distant, tropical locations - molasses, sugar, spices, oranges, lemons (citron).  Brandy might be made locally or imported. Mincemeat tells the story of world exploration and colonization.
  • The impact of industrialization on daily life. By 1891, pre-packaged mincemeat could be purchased for pies. More Americans moved to towns and cities and urban families could not raise their own beef and pork or grow their own apples for mincemeat pies. New food preservation techniques and food processing factories supplied more and more pre-packaged convenience foods for home cooks. The 1891 advertisement (below) was featured in a charity cookbook.
  • Temperance Movement.  As the temperance movement grew throughout the 19th century, alcohol began to disappear from mincemeat recipes. In The Skillful Housewife's Book, 1852, the author, Mrs. L. G. Abell noted "A good mince pie is a general favorite, and formerly brandy was deemed indispensable in giving them the right flavor. But we are happy to inform our temperance friends and others, that a mince pie can be made equally good without either wine or brandy." (p. 137)
  • Diverse Cultural Holiday Traditions Mincemeat is a holiday tradition from western European and British culture. Every world culture has special foods for holidays. Ask students to explore and share the history of holiday favorites from many cultures.
  • Changing Diet Trends Mincemeat can still be purchased in modern grocery stores, but it may be falling out of style. Modern recipes often omit the meat that gave the tasty pie filling its name to conform with modern tastes and diets.
  • Primary Source Analysis. Historical and modern recipes for mincemeat and other holiday favorites are excellent primary sources that illustrate change over time. For suggestions and four examples of 19th century mincemeat recipes see Mincement: Teaching History and Geography with a Holiday Food

Learn about using cookies to illustrate the history of food regulation -  Cookies and how government regulation affects daily life

For more ideas for using food as a theme in the classroom,  check out my new book -  Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies

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