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
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