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Education Lesson Plans

What Stories Do Meals Tell

  • Grade level: 9–12
  • subject: history and social studies

Time Needed

Two 45-minute class periods


Students explore an interactive and the narratives of the Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America online exhibition. In Class 1, students learn about a two-course, mid-day meal featured in Dinner in 1773, an interactive on the Fire and Freedom website. They make observations and pose questions about an illustrated ‘winter dinner’ with 10 dishes and read the recipes related to the meal from a book published in London in 1773. Students contextualize the meal in America during the same time period, using their existing knowledge of U.S. history. They finish the class with an essay assignment for writing their thoughts on what the meal from the interactive might reflect and represent in America in 1700s. In Class 2, students are introduced to the main theme and historical perspectives in Fire and Freedom—i.e., meals tell stories of power and relationships among peoples, genders, races, and classes. They are guided to consider the meal from Dinner in 1773 as an example of a customary mid-day dinner on an American plantation during the time of slavery. First, students discuss questions related to those who work to produce and prepare such a meal. Then, they read the Fire and Freedom online exhibition closely, in order to revise their essays from Class 1 into op-ed articles that introduce Fire and Freedom to the readers of a school newspaper.

  • learning outcomes

    Students will be able to:
    • Determine the central ideas of primary and secondary sources.
    • Use and apply information from primary sources to a different context, using existing knowledge of history.
    • Describe two examples that support the idea that meals tell stories about relationships and power exchanges among peoples, genders, and classes.
    • Demonstrate reading comprehension skills through written summaries and in-class discussions.
    • Write informative and persuasive texts to demonstrate the concept meals tell stories.
  • background information

    This lesson plan uses Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America, an online exhibition that offers the idea that “Meals can tell us how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes.” Using its online interactive, Dinner in 1773, the lesson introduces an English meal customary to the affluent class in 1700s, as an example of mid-day meals in America during the time of slavery. The exhibition narratives offer historical perspectives and stories of the people who labored to produce, prepare, and serve such meals without a seat at the table. In order to guide class discussion and activities, teachers are encouraged to preview the online exhibition, Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America, as well as the Dinner in 1773 interactive in its digital gallery section.

  • vocabulary

    The following terms may be introduced or defined during the lesson as needed:

    • Printed character, “ƒ”, translates as an “s” in modern spelling of English words
    • baste; claret (a type of red wine); collops; dinner (a midday meal); eschalot (a type of onion); forcemeat (a mixture of finely chopped and seasoned foods); giblets; marmalade; packthread; pinions; quince; sack (dry sherry, a type of wine); scrag of mutton (inexpensive cut of lamb); scotching; snipe (a game bird); sweetbreads; tansy
  • materials

    Print All Materials
    • Writing an Op-Ed on Fire and Freedom (PDF)
    Other materials and set-ups:
    • A display set-up for class—e.g. interactive white board, a projector, or a white board to display class materials and to record student responses as they share with the class
    • sticky notes, or index cards and tape (3 per student)
    • online access to or equivalent printouts of the following websites:
  • class 1 procedures

    1. Begin class by posting the following see-think-wonder questions as column headers on a class wall or display boards:
      • What do you see?
      • What do you think about what you see?
      • What does it make you wonder?
    2. Display the Dinner in 1773 interactive (the main diagram) from the Fire and Freedom website and provide three sticky notes to each student. Tell students to write their responses to each question on a sticky note, then to post it under the question on the wall.
    3. Allow students to read posted responses, then share those that stood out to them by rephrasing the response in their own words. Call on some students to elaborate on why a response stood out to them. Use this discussion to review, correct any misunderstandings and erroneous assumptions, and summarize students’ observations and questions about the “winter dinner” table diagram in Dinner in 1773.
    4. If not already covered in students’ responses or during the class discussion above, call out that the interactive:
      • Is a part of a larger website titled, Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Earlier America.
      • Is based on a primary source—i.e., 1773 publication titled, The Complete Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, authored by Eliza Smith.
      • Features a meal, called ‘winter dinner,’ that consists of two courses with 10 dishes and related 11 recipes.
    5. Call out some of students’ questions related to the dishes featured in the interactive. Tell students that the questions may be answered as they read and summarize the recipes for the dishes. Provide students online access to Dinner in 1773 and assign each student one of the 11 recipes to read and write its summary that includes:
      • Name of the recipe
      • A brief description of what you learned from each recipe
      • One thing you already know about U.S. history in 1700s
    6. Call for students to share their summaries with the class, identify answers to the questions, and record what students already know about U.S. history in 1700s. Guide students in making the inference that a customary mid-day meal in London probably was similar to a mid-day meal in affluent plantations in the Americas at the same time period.
    7. Ask students to consider a meal, similar to the one in Dinner in 1773, at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation in Virginia. Then, guide a class discussion in order to help students contextualize a two-course meal with 10 dishes on an American plantation in 1773. Use any relevant questions generated by students on the “wonder” response cards, which may include:
      • Who might enjoy such a meal?
      • Who might prepare such as meal?
      • How would food production and producers be connected to the meal?
      • How much work was involved in preparing the meal?
      • What knowledge of U.S. history supports your responses to the questions above?
    8. Assign students a homework assignment of writing a two-page essay that answers the question: What might a ‘winter dinner’, a two-course, mid-day meal with 10-dishes, represent and reflect in the context of your knowledge of the 18th-century American history?
    9. Class 1 Evaluation: Teachers will evaluate students’ learning progress through the students’ participation in discussion.
  • class 2 procedures

    1. Start the class by having students work in pairs to exchange and read each other’s homework essays. Call the class together and have students share different or similar perspectives in their own and their partners’ essays.
    2. Tell students that the online exhibition, Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America, presents the idea that meals represents not only the foods on a table, but also the whole process and peoples involved in its preparation and consumption. Display the Introduction page of the Fire and Freedom exhibition, and read aloud the main statement.
    3. Summarize the exhibition’s theme and perspective that meals tell stories of “how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes.” Have students consider independently how this idea may reshape or add to students’ essays on what a meal might represent and reflect.
    4. Tell students that they are to read through and examine Fire and Freedom online exhibition, in order to revise their essays into an op-ed article.
    5. If needed, provide a brief instruction on what an op-ed is and provide a couple of resources that can guide students’ understanding of and writing an op-ed article. For example:
      • Define that an op-ed is short for “opposite the editorial page,” an article that expresses the writer’s opinion on a topic/issue.
      • Review or provide online resources, such as copies of sample op-ed articles from local papers; or “Basic Op-Ed Structure” and “Tips for Op-Ed Writing,” available on The OpEd Project site.
    6. Distribute copies of Writing an Op-Ed on Fire and Freedom and review the task as a class to address any questions about the assignment. Provide students online access to Fire and Freedom or copies of printouts of all exhibition pages.
    7. Allow students to work independently to explore and read the online exhibition and revise their homework essay into an op-ed article. Tell students that their op-ed articles are due at the beginning of next class.
    8. Class 2 Evaluation: Teachers will evaluate students’ learning progress through the students’ participation in discussion and by collecting students’ op-ed articles in the following class.
  • extension activity

    1. Students select one of the readings below. Individual students summarize key information and offer analysis of their reading as a PowerPoint presentation to the class:
  • common core standards

    • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    • Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
    • Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
    • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.