I recently participated in a panel at the Manuscript Cookbooks Conference at Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, along with my Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) colleagues Hillary Nunn and Jennifer Munroe. Each of us spoke about how we engaged various audiences in the activity of transcription, and how the process of transcription is an important form of close reading that can transform our understanding of a text.
This is particularly true of recipes. Being a close reader of historical recipes means learning how to recognize and interpret common knowledge (of course an early modern person would know the length of a “nail”) and gaps (of course an early modern person would know to add elderberries to elderberry wine).
Jennifer Munroe talked about her experiences with undergraduates in the classroom and the kitchen, trying to interpret a recipe with no previous experience or exposure to early modern ingredients or practices, relying on their critical and creative thinking skills as they did, for example, in working with a recipe for “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb, or any other soore Eye” from the receipt book of Mrs. Corlyon (Folger MS v.a.388).
Implicit in this recipe is the specific “three leaued grasse” it features, and the recipe calls for the concoction to cook over a “soft fier” and add only enough honey for it to be “yellow,” but what shade of yellow is unclear. Students learn not only to fill in the gaps, to look for the absences as well as the details recipes in this and other books provide, but they also come to appreciate how users of these books possessed a working knowledge about plants and processes that we have largely lost today.
Hillary Nunn showed the new understandings we can extract from the most basic kitchen processes when we search transcriptions of recipe books. Her work demonstrated how easy it is to overlook the importance of seemingly common recipe ingredients. Water, she pointed out, was not just something that recipe writers could assume users got from the tap. Instead, recipe books require a wide range of different types of water, and often called for waters that has already been processed.
I spoke about you, our wonderful Shakespeare’s World contributors, and the fascinating discussions on Talk, and the “relatability factor” that is much higher for recipe books than other types of early modern manuscripts. We all prepare meals and take care of ourselves, after all, so of course we are fascinated by how earlier generations managed to do these same tasks–the similarities and differences are equally striking.
We were reminded by various participants at the conference that reading a recipe is very different from trying to make it. And, we reminded them that our goal was to transcribe the recipes precisely so that these early modern texts can be studied by scholars as well as followed by cooks (and the two are not mutually exclusive!)
At the conference we saw Irish, German, Swiss, American, and English manuscripts ranging in date from the seventeenth century to the 1960s. One of the recurring themes was how complicated it is to represent the multiple layers of production and creation, and to fully understand the two-way flow between handwritten and printed recipes. Another theme had to do with regionality, and whether or not names of recipes with geographic locations accurately represent where the recipes were “born.” Attempts to categorize recipe books can be tricky as well, but some of the suggestions included: planned vs. unplanned recipe books; recipe books acting as memory prompts for an individual vs. recipe books that are stand-alone, for anyone to use; and heirloom recipe books not meant for cooking vs. practical recipe books passed down through the generations. One of the most salient points for those of us interested in early modern recipe books was how they can be a source not just for recipes, but also for women’s history, biography, and autobiography.
The schedule of presentations for the entire conference is here.
by Heather Wolfe,
with contributions from Hillary Nunn and Jennifer Munroe