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
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.