I have known since the beginning of the CHI Fellowship that my project would revolve around Malinda Russell, the author of A Domestic Cookbook (1866). The exact shape of the project, however, changed numerous times throughout the year. I was determined to create a digital biography of Russell during the early stages of the project. It seemed only natural since I was in the middle of writing a first draft of her biography. Russell’s life story is particularly interesting and my original goal was to create a digital space where Russell’s story would be told to a wider audience, but the outcome has been quite different. Instead, Russell’s cookbook itself became the focal point of this project. In early March, I ditched the site I was working on and switched to Twine.
The circuitous nature of storytelling on Twine seemed fitting for exploring A Domestic Cookbook for a few reasons. First, my own mind organizes information best through using a web. Drawing literal connections between two sets of information in my notes is a useful exercise for outlining a paper or project. Twine allows me to make my own connections through a massive web of data on the backend, but the site visitor only has to see the clean and tidy information presented on the front end of the site. Russell’s cookbook does not appear to follow any particular order or system of organization. Some items, like Ginger Cake, have multiple recipes. I have to wonder if she was compiling her recipes from memory or if it the cookbook was made using a collection of her own personal notes. Twine was also fitting for this project since we know very little about Russell’s life. Her autobiography, which serves as the introduction to her cookbook, is only three pages long and leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Telling her life in a circuitous manner may be the key to telling a satisfactory version of her life.
Using Twine to build this project has allowed me to read Russell’s recipes in new ways. There is a short biography and a recipe glossary at the center of this project. Each recipe is a unique “passage” that includes links to more information about an ingredient or tool. Twine is a developing program used for building choose-your-own-adventure style games for both entertainment and education. Using it to explore a cookbook has allowed for me to find connections between recipes that I missed in previous readings of the facsimile. Russell’s recipes are indicative of American cuisine in the mid-nineteenth century. She was a southerner, but her recipes express her knowledge of cuisine with anglo-American and European roots as much as African American. In the end, Russell has taught me a lot about nineteenth century foodways and I hope that, through this project, she can do the same for you.