Darra’s courses at Williams include Feasting and Fasting in Russian History, Twentieth-Century Russian Art and the Birth of Abstraction, Food and Society, and The Cookbook Through History.
Feasting and Fasting in Russian History
This course uses the methodology of food history to explore the broader historical, economic, and artistic conditions that gave rise to Russian culture. We will examine culinary practice as well as the social context of cooking and eating in Russia. In order to elucidate the important interplay between culture and cuisine, we will discuss such issues as the domestic roles of women and serfs, the etiquette of the table, the role of drinking and temperance movements, and the importance of feasts and fasts in the Russian Orthodox Church calendar. Short stories, memoirs, and cookery books will provide insight into class and gender differences, cooking techniques, and the specific tastes that characterize Russian cuisine. This class will present Russian culture from a predominantly domestic point of view that originates from the wooden spoon as much as from the scepter.
Twentieth-Century Russian Art and the Birth of Abstraction
Such revolutionary artistic movements as Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, and Constructivism profoundly influenced the development of twentieth-century art throughout the Western world, just as the 1917 Russian Revolution upset the world’s political balance. This course will investigate Russian art within a cultural framework and explore the relationship between artistic production and politics. We will begin with a brief overview of important developments in Russian art that prefigured the twentieth-century artistic revolution: the introduction of icons from Byzantium, the founding of St. Petersburg and the rise of Western- style portraiture, and the fin-de-siecle movements that united painting with music and ballet. However, the focus of the course will be 1910-1930, when radical innovation was the order of the day and revolutionary ideas sparked entirely new conceptions of art. We will then look at the Socialist Realist style of the Stalin era, Soviet dissident art, and Moscow conceptualism, ending the semester with an exploration of current trends in post-Soviet Russian art.
Food and Society
The French critic Roland Barthes famously said that food is a system of communication. This multidisciplinary course is designed to introduce students to different ways of thinking about food through an exploration of the complex social and cultural rules that underlie food’s consumption. Because our food choices communicate who we are—or what we aspire to be—the study of food reveals how societies throughout the world construct difference, whether religious, ethnic, national, or racial. The class will also examine nutrition, hunger, ideals of desirability in body image, and visual representations of food in advertising and art.
The Cookbook Through History
More than a compilation of recipes and instructions, a cookbook is a means of cultural transmission. This course will read between the recipe lines, exploring cookbooks as important documents that reveal a surprising amount about history and society. As Arjun Appadurai has noted, cookbooks “tell unusual cultural tales, combining the sturdy pragmatic virtues of all manuals with the vicarious pleasures of the literature of the senses.” We will begin by examining the cookbooks of antiquity for what they can tell us about social status, global trade, and the distribution of foodstuffs and wealth. Moving into the medieval period we will look at cookbooks-cum-medical texts and consider the importance of diet and nutritional advice. Many early modern cookbooks were also agricultural and household primers, so we will touch on garden and table design and also discuss how the recipes reflect the great shifts of the Columbian exchange. The “receipt” books kept by many women were often their sole means of expression; these manuscripts will lead to discussions of gender and class. As we progress to the 19th century, we’ll look at cookbooks intended to assimilate immigrant groups, as well as the cookbooks those groups published to keep their culinary traditions intact. We will see how nutrition becomes ever more prescriptive, as do “domestic science” and “home economics” as ways of validating women’s kitchen labors. The 20th century brings a proliferation of culinary instruction in new forms, including artists’ books, TV shows and videos. Because cookbooks engage with issues still pertinent today–gender, race, immigration, global trade, national identity, health, and religious and cultural tensions–we will approach the books through many different disciplines, from culinary history to sociology and anthropology, to the visual arts, gender studies and nutrition. Students will actively use the rich collection of rare cookbooks in Chapin Library. This will be part of “The Book Unbound” initiative, which is a yearlong initiative centered around the theme of books, libraries, and information.