In this section, Prof. McCants describes two workshops that she teaches every winter. These workshops are intended to give participants a taste of life in medieval Europe.
During MIT's annual Independent Activities Period (IAP), I teach two workshops related to life in medieval Europe: the Old Food class and the Distaff Arts class.
IAP is about having a good time and I strongly hope it stays that way. These workshops are not strictly related to the course but provide a fun glimpse into medieval life that's complementary to the course. The workshops also serve as an informal setting in which participants can spend time with a cross section of MIT: faculty, staff, alumni, undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs, and postdocs' spouses. We talk about medieval life and economic history, but much of the value of the experience is also in the impromptu conversations, advice, and mentoring.
For the Old Food class, we get together for one ridiculous day. It's completely exhausting, and we just make a ton of food, all from ancient medieval recipes.
I have an agenda there. I want to talk about global trade, and I want to talk about food. It all just kind of happens in the process of talking to them while we're cooking.
What ends up happening depends on who shows up and how much expertise they have in the kitchen. There have been some years when I've had a couple of students who knew what they were doing and it has been amazing. In those years, I've been able to focus more attention on the conversation and less on the cooking.
There have been other years where honestly, half the people there weren't quite sure how to boil water. If a lot of them don't know how to cook at all, we end up doing very little history because I'm trying to keep food from burning through the bottoms of my pots, or keep them from chopping up their fingers.
For the most part, we make fantastically good food. Everybody ends the day completely stuffed to the point of death. Every year it's just like, "Oh my God, how can we get rid of all this food?"
The Distaff Arts class is so much fun. It's a weeklong class, in which we start with a fleece and we make a finished product using most of the same methods used in medieval Europe. The class is more slow-moving – the dye-pots are on the stove, but otherwise nothing else is cooking. Because the class runs for a week, we have plenty of time for conversation.
Read more about the Distaff Arts class in an MIT News article from January, 2007.