Summer Research Partnership in Russian: Swan as a Dinner Dish

17 January 2023

In Summer 2022 Marjorie Mitalski ’24 worked with Laura Goering, Professor of Russian, on the project Swan as a Dinner Dish. Swan was a staple of Medieval and Renaissance banquets, yet by 1650 it had virtually disappeared from European tables. The culinary landscape then began to shift, with European nation-states developing independent culinary practices. In France, swans vanished from cookbooks, while in England, recipes for swans continued to be copied and republished even though swans were not being consumed by anyone other than elites. Through a study of historical cookbooks and newspaper articles, we investigated the mechanisms by which the idea of eating swan was perpetuated over the centuries, eventually becoming firmly embedded in notions of British national identity.  Marjorie shared her experience as an SRP with the Humanities Center

“Looking at primary sources such as French cookbooks and English newspapers was very interesting. There was a lot to sift through, but a few sources had treasure troves of information and were fascinating to look at. I never expected that finding an entry on swans in a French cookbook from the 18th century would brighten my entire week, but that happened. It was also very interesting to see ideas get replicated and republished. We found two specific cases, one starting in the 1500s and going until the late 1700s, and one starting around 1916 and continuing into the 40s. The same text was printed in multiple sources, spreading almost as a modern-day meme would. The first was a set of instructions for carving birds including swans, and the second was a newspaper article about swans being eaten for dinner.

I learned good communication skills when working on a project with a supervisor who is not always present to guide me. It put me in a situation where I needed to problem solve and then decide on the best course of action. I also gained organizational skills as I was creating a large bibliography with hundreds of sources.

Working with Laura was very fun. We worked separately for the most part but had frequent check-ins. It was always interesting to fill her in on new leads (or dead ends) and hear where she thought we should go next. Her passion for the subject was obvious and made me feel invested in the topic, even if culinary history through the focus on eating swans is not a topic I would have chosen for myself!”