Historic Hower House menu becomes class project


DSC_1666 (1).jpg

The Hower House sits stately on the edge of campus hiding behind large trees. The Victorian mansion, now a museum, was completed in 1871and lived in by the Hower family until the mid-1980s.During its heyday, it was home to many elaborate dinner parties hosted by the Howers with prominent families such as the Barbers, Buchtels, Bierces, Firestones and Seiberlings, among others.

In 2021, an exhibit at the Hower House explored these lavish dinner parties by examining the recipes found on a bookshelf in the house. Once Dr. Hillary Nunn, professor of English, learned about it, she was immediately intrigued.

“There were a lot of recipes, and they were really interesting,” explained Nunn. “They all would tell us how Blanche Hower oversaw the cooking in her house, did the cooking in her own right and would host these parties.”

Nunn, known for her research that explores the connections between Renaissance literary culture and domestic medical text and cookbooks of that era, decided to use Blanche Hower’s recipe books as inspiration to develop an [Un]class called “Menus & Manuscripts at the Hower House.”

A group of 13 University of Akron students, hailing from a variety of majors, signed up for the class and their first task was to transcribe 74 recipes. For many students, this was their first encounter with a rare book, making it an interesting and novel experience.

The [Un]class structure empowered the students to shape the project collaboratively. They had to decide the project's direction, plan their approach and set steppingstones to achieve their goals. Nunn had one ground rule: everyone had to contribute to transcribing and blogging about their experiences.

“They were to approach it in a way that felt meaningful to them. To find a way that was substantial and well researched, but also showed something about the Howers that they didn’t know before — all while working in conjunction with the Hower House,” explained Nunn.

The students chronicled their progress through blogposts, allowing for creative expression. Some students even created additional websites, cooked dishes from the recipes or made videos to showcase their work.

Students used the recipes, along with other materials from the UA Archives, that would show the dinner menus that Blanche put together. Determined to make their research a peer-reviewed publication, they created a book through the University of Akron Press that provides versions of these recipes, describes the dinner parties and uses pictures found in the archives to show a sense of what it was like to live in the Hower House.

DSC_1593 (1).jpg

“Students will have something to take out of it to show other people. That’s not normally something you can take to show at the end of a course. To say, ‘I have an essay in this book and it’s a collection of historical recipes,’ it’s an attractive takeaway,” said Nunn.

The book, titled "Menus and Manuscripts," is scheduled for release in December 2023. Nunn expressed her admiration for the hands-on nature of the class, where she worked alongside her students, learning from them as they discovered new perspectives on the material. The collaborative spirit of the class was a model of how diverse experiences can lead to unexpected outcomes.

Story by Bree Sabin