Cooking creates connections for historian

You might think cooking an exotic meal for his family or invited guests would be a welcome distraction from his labour, but it actually brings Rob Nelson closer to his work as an historical researcher.

“Food has so much to do with culture and history, so cooking a recipe from a country like Senegal, for instance, can really enhance your understanding of a place, even if you’ve never been there,” said Dr. Nelson. “You just feel like you have some kind of connection through cooking.”

Nelson, a history professor who includes colonialism and modern European cultural history among his teaching and research interests, recently authored a piece about Indonesian satay cooking in Saveur, a gourmet food, wine and travel magazine that specializes in world cuisine.

For its 20th anniversary, the magazine’s editors asked 20 chefs, food writers and home cooks to pick an issue from the last two decades and reflect upon it. Nelson chose the May 2011 issue, focusing on an article about satay, which typically consists of spiced and skewered chicken, beef, mutton, pork or fish grilled over charcoal.

Nelson seemed like an obvious choice as a home cook. A regular reader of the magazine, he has amassed a collection of more than 1,000 of its recipes, which he keeps in Excel spread sheets on his home computer. He regularly comments about them on their on-line edition, which undoubtedly caught the attention of the magazine’s editors.

“It’s really a fun hobby,” says Nelson, whose wife Kim Nelson – a filmmaker and professor in the School for Arts and Creative Innovation – inspired him to take up cooking when she gave him a book authored by the magazine’s editor-in-chief for Christmas in 2006. “I’ve always loved food, and now I understand it on a different level. I have this voracious appetite for doing new things, which can be a problem. Now I want to work on perfecting some things, and come up with some dishes I can be really good at making.”

Nelson said he’s been asked to start contributing more regularly to the magazine.