On Close Reading and Teamwork
The tale of Bunchfussy begins with @parsfan’s comment:
‘The second recipe is a guest appearance by another hand, perhaps Mrs Bunchfussy herself, who sounds like a refugee from a Dickens novel.’
That would be delightful! Unfortunately, as I spotted immediately, this was the Mrs Dunch who had been mentioned in several other recipes. But… what WAS that word immediately after her name? Team Bunchfussy’s quest to identify the word reveals a lot about the importance of close reading and teamwork.
Since I’ve started transcribing recipes online (first with EMROC and now with Shakespeare’s World), the way that I read them has changed. As a busy researcher, I ordinarily would have skipped over a mystery word like this one. In the interests of maximising research time and ploughing through lots of sources, I probably would decide that identifying the word was unimportant. There was already plenty of information: a name, an ailment, a list of ingredients. Missing this word out would not be a problem.
Transcribing online is different, though. The Shakespeare’s World system, which only presents one decontextualized page at a time, forces the transcriber to read closely. The handwriting can be difficult and, without an entire manuscript for reference, the only clues to decode an excerpt are on that page. Every letter, every mark, every word is important. And the transcriber is compelled to linger, focusing on the details and considering the possibilities.
Close reading is usually solitary, but on Shakespeare’s World, it often becomes collaborative. Perplexing examples are posted on Talk by transcribers where we puzzle over them together.
@mutabilitie joked that ‘it looks like “pissy” to me, but I suppose we can safely rule out that reading.’ Except… it did look rather like pissy.
The debate on the page initially focused on whether the first letter was a ‘p’ or an ‘f’, with contributors mustering evidence about letter shapes elsewhere in the recipe.* The general consensus was ‘f’. Perhaps it might be ‘firstly’ or ‘fully’ or even ‘fussy’? @S_Powell reported back that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), fussy would not have yet been in use. Then @elaineleong suggested ‘fissy’, but didn’t think it made much sense. She also suggested that we were all might be on the wrong track. What if the word belonged to the first recipe line rather than the title and attribution?
Indeed, what if it went with the word directly under it? Fussy smalligs. Fuzzy smallage!!! A quick check of the OED revealed that fuzzy was in use in the seventeenth century. And suddenly we had an answer. It may not have been Bunchfussy, but the second word was indeed fussy after all.
An individual researcher might have skipped over a seemingly unimportant word, but ‘fussy’ turned out to provide a surprising amount of information that would have otherwise been missed. The knowledge that fuzzy smallage rather than plain old smallage was included in the recipe is interesting in two ways. First, the fuzziness might indicate its particular stage of growth—perhaps when in flower. That might indicate the timing (late summer) for preparing the recipe. Alternatively, it might be specifying use of the leaves rather than the stalk. Either way, this was a clue that would have been left out of a quick read of the recipe. Second, ‘fussy’ has not yet been listed in the OED as a variant of ‘fuzzy’.
Close reading, perseverance, and teamwork are rewarding. In an age of perpetual busy-ness and fast reading on the web, that the internet can also bring opportunities for slowing down fills me with delight.
*In addition to those named above, thank you to @Hannebambel @Greensleeves @Cuboctahedron for their contributions, which included points of clarification and transcriptions.
And …why we love recipes
In the inaugural post of the series, Heather Wolfe made a passionate case for why we need to transcribe and study the tens of thousands of early modern letters in our libraries and archives. Today, we turn to the wonderfully rich world of early modern recipes. Recipe books, like letters, are common finds in archives and the Folger Shakespeare Library has an exceptional collection of these fascinating texts.
In Shakespeare’s England, many households had a notebook in which they jotted down culinary, medical and household recipes. These short texts gave readers instructions to make a wide range of products from roasted pike to cough medicines and sustaining broths to ways of keeping linen white. The miscellaneous nature of these texts reflects the multifaceted role taken on by householders and household managers in the period. The close juxtaposition of culinary and medical recipes, reminds us of the close association between food and medicine; for example, you might see a remedy for a fever listed next to a recipe for a pie. This is due not only to the holistic nature of humoural medicine, but also to the crossovers between the spaces, technologies and materials used to produce food and medicines.
Recipes to make a range of foodstuffs—cheesecakes, pies, stews—give us an idea of the kinds of foods served on early modern tables. By transcribing a large number of recipes, we can track food fads and fashions, continuity and changes in the country’s food staples and much much more. After all, with Christmas coming up, you might be interested in learn that turkey (roasted, in pies or as turkey hash) also graced tables around this time in seventeenth-century England. Recipe books also open a window into other “housewifely” tasks such as the making of different kinds of cheese and the brewing of beer and ale. As many of the recipe books that we’re transcribing in Shakespeare’s World were created by well-off gentlewomen, one might imagine that these tasks were done by teams of housekeepers, dairy maids and cooks rather than a lone housewife in the kitchen.
As you work through our recipe selections, you’ll encounter scores of health-orientated recipes. Cough syrups, medicines for the jaundice or remedies for the ague are dotted throughout the recipe archive. These recipes reveal the everyday anxieties and health-concerns of men and women living in early modern England and the many ways in which they tried to ease their symptoms. While there were various options for medical care in the period, family and friends often served as the “first resort” for patients seeking to alleviate their ailments or sicknesses. Then, as now, men and women tended to mix commercially available medicines with those made in the home. After all, whom among us has not mixed an over-the-counter pain-killer with a home-brewed honey, lemon and ginger “tea” during bouts of cold and flu?
You might wonder from where householders gathered all this medical and culinary information. The answer here is, as always, a complex one. Much like how we might build up our own “family cookbook”, householders in the early modern period relied on their networks of family, friends and neighbours, contemporary printed books and encounters with experts—medical practitioners, farriers, tavern maids—to fill their recipe books. After all, who would better know how to keep bottles sweet smelling than someone who works in the pub?
Interested and would like to learn more?
- Here is my feature story on recipes in early modern households.
- The Recipes Project is a collaborative research network exploring histories of pre-modern recipes.
- EMROC is a research-led teaching experiment where students work to create transcriptions and a database of early modern English recipe books.
- For more on food in the period, see, for example, Joan Thirsk’s Food in Early Modern England (London, 2007).
- A wonderful introductory text to medicine in early modern England is Andrew Wear’s Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
All examples in this post are taken from the recipe book of Margaret Baker which was compiled around 1675 (Folger MS v.a. 619, fols. 81v-82r, 79r and 54v.) The manuscript is available in entirety here and is included in Shakespeare’s World.
By Elaine Leong @elaineleong