Boys in the Kitchen

When I was in middle school, girls had to take home economics and boys had to take shop. End of story.

Today kids have more choices. But when it comes to getting children engaged in hands-on activities at historic sites, traditional gender roles often kick in. Boys (mostly) sign up for workshops in blacksmithing and woodworking. Girls (mostly) take classes in quilting and baking.

Genesee Country Village & Museum photo.

We could debate whether such tendencies should be encouraged or not. In fact, I remember participating in such debates at various museum conferences I attended during the years I worked at Old World Wisconsin. One educator in particular felt strongly that kids learned an important lesson when they were separated by gender, with only traditional activities made available.

My bottom line? I think it’s great for girls and boys to learn anything about the past. When I worked in museum education my first goal was to engage kids in fun and active ways. Once they were excited about history, all things were possible. That said, though, I don’t remember ever having boys sign up for a cooking workshop. So I was intrigued to see that one large historic site in New York has addressed the issue directly.

Genesee Country Village & Museum includes over forty historic buildings, which progress through three different time periods:  the Pioneer Settlement, 1795-1830; the Village Center, 1830-1870; and the Turn-of-the-Century Main Street, 1880-1920.

GCVM offers an impressive list of day camps, scout programs, and classes. The first time I saw their offerings, I noticed “Boy’s Cooking” on the agenda, both beginning and advanced. Interesting.

I was able to visit last summer while one of the boys’ cooking classes was underway. Not wanting to disrupt the program, I peeked into the large kitchen where the boys were working. Instantly several boys greeted me enthusiastically:  “Want to see our possum?” (At least I think it was a possum.  Perhaps it was a raccoon.)

The boys proudly showed me everything they were cooking and baking. The workshop leaders provided guidance, but the boys were in charge. No sugar cookies and tea here. These boys were preparing the types of food that single Yankee men might have prepared when they moved into the area a century or so ago.

Later that day, while I was visiting other exhibits, the boys paraded through the village with their main course. It now looked a bit charred. No matter, they were excited.

I enjoyed touring the whole site. I had a great time chatting with interpreters, and learning about an area I knew little about. Still, seeing those boys so revved up was the highlight of my day.

Two other things impressed me. The site’s roster of kids’ programming included environmental topics. This is sometimes overlooked at historic sites (understandable, given scarce resources), but it’s difficult to consider and interpret the worldview of people in an earlier time without considering the natural environment in which they lived.

The programs list also includes “Historic Fiction Comes to Life–Farmer Boy,” “Tom Sawyer Day,” “Laura Ingalls Wilder Day,” “My Side of the Mountain,” and “1857 American Girls’ Book by Miss Leslie.”  Incorporating literature? Another gold star from me!

If you’re traveling through New York, be sure to check out everything Genesee Country Village & Museum has to offer.

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