Philosophy and Snickerdoodles: An Interview with Richard Taylor on Festive Recipes and an Old Tradition
by Nicola Polloni
January 2023 – How are Averroes and al-Ghazali connected to Sponge cakes, Rice Krispies, and Snickerdoodles? In the cold lands of Wisconsin, when the freezing wind blows from the lake and reminds to everyone that autumn will soon become winter, a professor of philosophy has started a long-lasting tradition that has made life far sweeter for hundreds of students and professors of philosophy. IPM Monthly had to find out more about this. We contacted Richard Taylor, from Marquette University. In our interview, Richard expands on the list of students’ recipes that he has started to collect in 1986 and the reasons behind this fascinating tradition. He also gives some culinary advice and reflections on how to build rapport with the students when dealing with philosophy and its history.
Nicola Polloni: Thank you very much, Richard, for this interview. As the holiday season is approaching, there is something quite unique that always comes to my mind when I think of possible treats to cope with the cold winter: a strange book of recipes from Marquette University. Can you tell us more about that?
Richard Taylor: In my fourth year at Marquette (now I am in my forty-first year) I decided to do something humorous and non-academic to relieve the common stress of undergraduate students at the end of the Fall as final exams and papers were coming due. So I asked my students to return from the short Thanksgiving break with one of their family’s favorite holiday recipes to share. I then assembled the recipes and made mimeographic copies to distribute to the students in the last classes, along with cookies I baked for them.
NP: This is a fascinating way to increase one’s cooking style and to build rapport with the students, too. How did the idea of collecting your students’ recipes occurred to you?
RT: Well, baking cookies for them was already my habit as a stress reliever. The idea that your professor would bake cookies for you and share them while talking about the upcoming final exams and papers seemed kinder and more effective in preparing them rather than giving a gruff and threatening lecture. It was an expression of my genuine care that they succeed in their studies. (As the saying goes in English, You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. The source is apparently Italian: Il mele catta più mosche, che non fà l’aceto. Giovanni Torriano’s A common place of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases, 1666. It seems a version appears in Ben Franklin’s 1744 Poor Richard’s Almanack: Tart Words make no Friends: spoonful of honey will catch more flies than Gallon of Vinegar. See https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/honey-catches-more-flies-than-vinegar.html.) But then it occurred to me that I should ask them to share something as well.
I used the old mimeograph machine (blue ink and messy to make multiple handouts: you are too young to know of this ancient device) to make copies of each page and then collated them, stapled them together and distributed them to students. Later I started also distributing them to faculty and friends. But technology changed that when photocopying became less expensive. Yet as it grew in size, it became expensive and the Philosophy Dept at Marquette would no longer support it. I then turned to PDFs and email for distribution. Graduate students also now contribute, including some from KU Leuven who are enrolled in the transatlantic graduate course on Aquinas (with emphasis on his sources from the Arabic Tradition) that Andrea Robiglio and I co-teach at KUL and Marquette annually in Fall (since 2011).
The Dean College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette has recently asked permission to print the recipe list for distribution to alumni. She first learned of the list in Fall 2021 in the midst of another increase in COVID infections. Her office then contacted the local Fox Television Station about the list. So one morning while baking with my son, the two of us appeared live via Zoom and I was interviewed by a young Marquette alumna. It was a cute story in a time of stress. Later when I had an appointment with my dentist, she told me she saw the video clip at Christmastime while visiting her mother in Indiana. (Stations share human-interest short stories around the country.)
NP: How do the students react when they find out about this long-lasting tradition?
RT: In the first decades the students were delighted since I put their names, class, and year thereby giving them some participation in eternity, however modest. Alas, however, American FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) required that I strip away all identifying information or (impossibly) procure signed permission from each and every student contributor.
NP: Now let’s move on to talk about the important stuff. What is your favourite recipe in the book? And did you try them all?
RT: If I were to have tried all of the recipes, I would be a very much larger man than I am now, and probably with a much larger (physical) heart in an unhealthy way. The recipes are rich with love and care and sugar, fat, salt, chocolate, eggs and other so-called goodies (bonitates).
I have several favorites that come to mind. I personally bake Snickerdoodles in large quantities for students, faculty and neighbours. These are simple and easy (without nuts to avoid allergy issues). The Mega Cookie requires a huge mass of chocolate bars, sugar, nuts and much more. I broke two mixers making them, so “Baker beware”! But they are very good (tasting, not good for health: Cf. Plato’s Gorgias and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of course). The “Pseudo-Mrs. Field’s Cookies” are very good and come with a story about urban myths. Perhaps the best is “3. Chocolate-Cheery Nuggets.”
Advice for “4. Lemon Tea Cookies” includes this addition:
“NOTE – for better drop cookies: When dropping dough on a cookie sheet, allow ample room for cookies to spread during baking. Prevent excessive spreading of cookies by chilling dough, dropping onto a cooled cookie sheet, baking at the correct temperature, mounding dough when dropping it, and by softly singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” throughout the process. When storing, do not mix soft and crisp varieties in the same container, or the crisp types will become soft and Santa may be unhappy with the results when he gobbles his milk and cookies at your house on Christmas Eve. (Some modest editorial revisions of no special substance have been made to the original version given to me by [name suppressed].)”
NP: With so many recipes, you got to know the students’ tastes quite well. What is the ingredient they tend to use the most (flour, butter, and eggs aside)?
RT: I get a sense of their cultural backgrounds. Not all recipes are for sweets, though most are. Given the mixture of peoples that make up the US, it is not surprising that I received Indian, Middle Easter, Indonesian, South American, Chinese and other recipes in addition to many that come originally from Europe. And, of course, Andrea and I have wonderful groups of students from around the world in our KUL Fall classes who occasionally contribute.
Ingredient most used: sugar.
NP: Do you have a special recipe for this 2022 winter break?
RT: Alas, no. As I said, I baked for students and friends. I baked 8 batches of Snickerdoodles but ate none. (My son did a little taste testing to be sure all were well. Years ago I made some for my children and they looked wonderful. But I forgot one ingredient: suger!) Our own household this year is successfully dieting to lose some of the pandemic isolation pounds or kilos from the last couple of years.
NP: Thank you very much for this delicious interview. And happy winter holidays!
Thanks for providing me with the opportunity to discuss this long tradition. I attach for you a copy of the current list of recipes. Feel free to share widely.