Listening, Tasting, Reading, Touching: Interdisciplinary Histories of American Food

By Theresa McCulla

When members of the American Historical Association gathered for their annual meeting in New York City in January, attendees set out to explore disciplines other than history. Or rather, they aimed to understand where and how other disciplines intersect most fruitfully with the practice of history. To our panel of four scholars interested in food, such a perspective felt perfectly apt. The study of food has demanded an interdisciplinary approach since food history’s rise to popular prominence in the 1980s. Our papers sought to illustrate the value of material, visual, spatial, literary, and sensory approaches to answering historical questions.

Spanning the colonial period through the twentieth century, in rural as well as urban sites, we used food as a lens to explore social transformations in North America. United by themes of consumer culture and ethnic encounter, our research showed how food consumption reflected, and was reflective of, notions of nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality in distinct historical moments.

Carla Cevasco, a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard University, used methods of material culture analysis to compare English Puritan, French Catholic, and Huron communion vessels in colonial America. Cevasco argued that violent imperial conflict troubled the boundaries between spiritual and secular eating, blood and wine, and cannibalism and communion in these three cultures. Protestants were suspicious of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, and yet Protestants and Catholics alike practiced medicinal cannibalism, ingesting substances derived from the human body for medical purposes. In the same era that early Puritan colonists repurposed secular drinking implements as communion vessels, the Huron used French-made copper kettles to practice a ritual called the Feast of the Dead. Cevasco argued that New World combatants were willing to kill and die over perceived differences between what were in fact strikingly similar ideas and practices. Her paper testified to the value of material culture methodologies to the historian seeking to understand the belief systems of marginalized people who left only faint traces on the historical record.

Drawing on techniques of sensory history, Ashley Rose Young, PhD candidate in History at Duke University, listened to the sounds of the late-nineteenth-century French Market in New Orleans to unearth the pivotal role of immigrant vendors in shaping the taste preferences and food culture of the postbellum city. Young argued that sound, more so than sight, touch, taste or smell, informed depictions of late-nineteenth-century ethnic identity in New Orleans. Similar to public markets in many American port cities, the French Market served as a meeting ground for the city’s diverse population—a key space where the daily rituals of consumption bonded together community members from Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Here, African-American calas vendors competed alongside Spanish oystermen and Italian fishermen for customers. Their sonorous efforts to attract the attention of passers-by manifested in a wide variety of witty, salacious, musical, and grating street cries, which writers attempted to capture. To the delight of attendees, Young sang several street vendor cries. Her performance gave shape to compositions that used to be vital economic tools and cannot be fully appreciated as words and notes on a page.

The New Orleans French Market served as a social and economic space for city residents, travelers, slaves, free people of color, and indigenous people. French Market, New Orleans, 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress.

The New Orleans French Market served as a social and economic space for city residents, travelers, slaves, free people of color, and indigenous people. French Market, New Orleans, 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress.

With the paper of Heather Lee, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the panel moved from the market to the restaurant. Lee employed methodologies of visual and spatial studies to understand Chinese restaurants as urban spaces, translating the establishments’ physical layouts into social histories of sexual transgression and exoticism. With the additional input of city anti-vice records, Lee argued that New Yorkers patronized Chinese chop suey joints during the 1920s and 1930s not to sample unfamiliar tastes, but because the restaurant experience allowed patrons to experiment with their sexuality. By staying open to the early morning hours, Chinese restaurants provided a contact zone for people looking to live outside the boundaries of propriety. Young couples could evade their communities’ social conventions of courtship by rendezvousing at Chinese restaurants, because the Chinese staff acted aloof to their clients’ behavior. Female prostitutes solicited johns on the dining floor and men interested in other men met up in secluded corner booths. In her broader work, Lee is developing a historical database of Chinese restaurants, which she will make publicly available through an interactive digital platform on Chinese migration.

Early-twentieth-century New York City's Chinatown attracted diners in search of social and sexual transgressions. New Years, Chinatown, Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant, New York, n.d., Bain News Service, Library of Congress.

Early-twentieth-century New York City’s Chinatown attracted diners in search of social and sexual transgressions. New Years, Chinatown, Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant, New York, n.d., Bain News Service, Library of Congress.

My paper shifted the frame back to New Orleans and forward to the mid-twentieth century. I read a set of letters and recipes for Creole gumbo – the signature dish of New Orleans – that Louisiana residents submitted to a 1951 newspaper recipe contest. The recipes functioned as a window onto private conceptions of regional and even racial identities in the final years of de jure segregation. I argued that New Orleans whites tried to use Creole cuisine to claim ownership of an exceptional cultural legacy, exclusive of people of color, during an era when the social and political privileges associated with whiteness were eroding. These gumbo recipes – which arrived from addresses throughout New Orleans, from cooks of varying social and educational classes – showed how the practice of being Creole and making and eating Creole food mattered just as much in home kitchens as it did in public places like restaurants. African Americans resisted such exclusionary efforts, however. Restricted from eating the food that they had cooked in their own restaurants’ dining rooms, both implicitly and explicitly, Creole chefs and cooks of color made the midcentury New Orleans kitchen a political space.

Together, our papers affirmed the inherent interdisciplinarity of food history as a strength. While we each benefitted from scholarship outside of history, our collective goal was to demonstrate the value of food history to the broader study of American history and encourage a similarly expansive, creative approach to investigating all historical questions.

Recipes and Experiment: A Poison Trial on Dogs

By Alisha Rankin

To what extent did early modern individuals experiment with their recipes and cures? I puzzle over this question quite a bit in my research, as I see fleeting evidence of experimentation in letters and other documents, but it is always hard to pin them down. Every once in awhile, however, I find an entry in a recipe collection that shows without a doubt that ample experimentation was going on.

And so it is with this fascinating entry bound into recipe collection belonging to the Princely Palatine Library in Heidelberg (Biblioteca Palatina), compiled by Countess Elizabeth of the Palatinate-Lautern (1552-85). The document is an account of a trial conducted in the city of Kassel by the ruling Prince, Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel (1532-92). Wilhelm was known for his scientific endeavors, especially his interest in astronomy, but this document shows that he had medical interests as well.

Codex palatinum germanicum 177

University of Heidelberg Library, Codex palatinum germanicum 177

The text begins by explaining that, on St. Jacob’s Day [July 25], 1580, the landgrave had “tried” a poison antidote, terra sigillata, on dogs. It continues on to detail eight different tests of the antidote: in pairs, two dogs were given a poison, and only one received the terra sigillata. The details of the effects on each poor dog are carefully recorded, numbered 1 through 8. Interestingly, the recipe is half in German, half in Latin: in each case, the description of the dog and what poison he was given was recorded in German, with the outcome in Latin. The entire document has the feel of a rather formal report. Because the antidote appeared successful – all of the dogs who took it survived, while the ones who did not eat it died – it represented a testament to a potentially potent cure for poison. Clearly, the court in Kassel found the results significant enough to share; an even more detailed version appears in print.

Now, there are many fascinating aspects to this document, and it plays a starring role in my book-in-progress on evaluating poison antidotes. In this post, however, I’d like to focus on its place in the recipe collection of Countess Elisabeth. Like many noblewomen, Elisabeth was active in making medicines, at least according to physician Jacob Theodor Tabernaemontanus, who dedicated a book to her in 1577. Several of the recipe collections in the Bibliotheca Palatina can be traced back to her, as the fabulous digitization project led by Karin Zimmerman has shown. She loved to write her name in the margins to mark recipes she felt were proven. This particular collection is a mishmash of loose recipes and other medical documents that were bound together when the library’s holdings were captured and taken to Rome during the Thirty Years’ War. We do not know whether Elisabeth would have chosen to bind these particular papers together, but they seem to have been stored together. Many entries involve people who were close to Elisabeth, including a recipe attributed to her father, Elector August of Saxony (1526-86); a recipe for “the aquafetta,” which refers to the aqua vitae for which her mother, Electress Anna (1532-85), became famous; and one entry in the hand of her close confidant, Countess Anna of Hohenlohe. Marginalia by Wilhelm Rascalon, a court physician who worked closely with Elisabeth, appear in several recipes. A good number of entries also contain Elisabeth’s own edits and/or her name scrawled in the margins, as can be seen in the recipe below.

A page of recipes against stroke. Cod. pal. germ 177.

A page of recipes against stroke. Cod. pal. germ 177.

We can’t make too much of the fact that Elisabeth seems to have kept the dog trial record among these recipes; we have no idea whether she even read it, as she would have had trouble with the Latin bits. However, the evidence suggests that she found the results significant, as one would expect given the craze for poison antidotes in courtly circles. For various reasons, poison represented a special case: both particularly easy to test and particularly useful given the panacea qualities of many antidotes. It is not surprising that a princess interested in recording proven cures would be intrigued. And the circulation of the trial report suggests that the Kassel court expected to have eager readers.

In the end, the antidote did not help Countess Elisabeth: ten years later, she died after (purportedly) being poisoned by her estranged husband, Count Johann Kasimir. But I think her possession of Landgrave Wilhelm’s dog trial report does provide direct evidence of that the oft-stated claim of probatum est in regards to cures was sometimes taken very seriously!

Editorial: To find out more about the Heidelberg University Library and the Bibliotheca Palatina, watch out for the March edition of the First Monday Library Chat when we’ll be talking to Karin Zimmermann, Deputy Head of Manuscripts and Early Printed books.

Interested in experimentation and drug trials? Visit the webpage of the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in the Pre-modern World’ working group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Want to learn more about women, medicine and recipes in early modern Germany? Check out Alisha’s book Panaceia’s Daughters. Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany.

Translating Recipes 9: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 3 – IF

By Carla Nappi

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts exploring prepositional attitudes and their translation in recipe literature. For the previous posts, see here and here!)

One of the most important aspects of a recipe is the work that it does to situate bodies and their possibilities in time. One possible way for this to happen is by opening up pathways for the possible. If X happens, then Y. If A happens, then B. If you don’t see improvement, if a patient’s body is too far gone, if the treatment doesn’t work: if, if, if. If is the engine of the imaginable, the machine that generates multiple futures, the opener of windows. If reminds us that we are entities in time, and that time creates divergences and multiplicities.

Manchu recipes were full of ifs. Like other medicinal recipes, there was no guarantee that any of the cures transcribed within the Si yang-ni okto-i bithe would work for any individual patient. Instead, the recipes were instruments: users were invited to consider them, to try them, to try again, to find what worked for themselves, if they found the ingredients difficult to obtain, if the recipe wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. The authors assured their readers of the efficacy of individual recipes by claiming that a remedy had been shown to work in some circumstances – if a person had been stung by a venomous creature, for example, or if a woman were pregnant. If created a space, here, that integrated repetition and multiplicity into the process of using a recipe. If transformed failure into opportunity: if drinking a potion didn’t work, try rubbing it on the skin. If that didn’t work, try it again. If THAT didn’t work… well, ultimately the blame could be laid on time having run out before the ifs were exhausted. A recipe was essentially a collection of ifs, always opening out into the possibility, when all ifs in one recipe were exhausted, of moving on to another.

In this way, if was a kind of when: it located and moved bodies in time. The body to be treated by a recipe was a body that extended into the future and related back to the past in very particular ways, marked by the memory of a wound or poisoning, anticipating a reaction to a medicinal drug. Translators working to render a hybrid collection of materials, names, objects, illnesses, and rules into the medium of Manchu documentary language were rendering not just terminology, then, but also were negotiating ways of being in time. How does one translate if? In doing so, is a translator helping to create ways of being-in-time for a reader? If so, are translated recipes tools of time-travel?

In the Englishing of the Manchu recipe provided below, I’ve emphasized some of the different sorts of if-ness that shape the recipe in an effort to show how important this kind of relationship is to the text. As we saw with with in the previous post, there are also implied moments of if-ness that I haven’t called attention to. And with that, here is the if translation of our ongoing series of translations of this Manchu recipe. Follow the links, which will take you off the page!

IF a person has just been poisoned use this recipe. IF not, go here.

The recipes of an eighteenth-century Amsterdam alchemist(?)

By Marieke Hendriksen

Over the past two decades, it has become increasingly clear that alchemy, chemistry and medicine were still deeply intertwined in the early eighteenth century. Mostly rhetoric attempts by scholars to establish chemistry as a respectable, transparent academic discipline and renounce alchemy as its obscure predecessor were only partly successful. This latter phenomenon appears to have been particularly strong in the northern Netherlands, even though – or maybe because – many alchemists from the German lands temporarily lived and practiced in the Netherlands.

Very little is known about Dutch alchemists in the first half of the eighteenth century, and that is why I was rather surprised to find a Dutch manuscript on alchemy from 1741 in Leiden University’s special collections. It is signed ‘op Grootenburg octob: 18, 1741,’ and a search for Grootenburg quickly led me to Burghard de Groot (1661/2-1744), who left a number of illustrated Dutch alchemical manuscripts. Grootenburg was probably De Groot’s house on the Kattengat in Amsterdam. In 1991, Frank van Lamoen published a short biographical and bibliographical study in Dutch about this wealthy Amsterdam gentleman. Exactly what De Groot did remains unclear; city records list him as a schoolmaster. From his texts it appears that he travelled through Europe and exchanged ‘processes’ with apothecaries, alchemists and physicians along the way, but he did not attend a Dutch university, nor was he a member of the Amsterdam Collegium Medicum or are there indications that he ran an alchemical laboratory.[1]

Johann Hiskia Cardilucius, Magnalia Medico-Chymica oder Die höchste Artzney- und Feurkünstige Geheimnisse..., Nürnberg: Endters 1676

Johann Hiskia Cardilucius, Magnalia Medico-Chymica oder Die höchste Artzney- und Feurkünstige Geheimnisse…, Nürnberg: Endters 1676

When Van Lamoen wrote his article, this Leiden manuscript was probably unknown (it was acquired by Leiden University at an auction in 2011), but it is interesting and remarkable for several reasons. First, it contains a number of recipes for medicinal preparations of gold, silver and zinc. Take for example a recipe for a medicinal gold powder, or ‘Cardilucius’ powder,’ probably taken from the work of seventeenth-century Nuremberg physician Johann Hiskia Cardilucius (1630–97). It involves dissolving gold in aqua regis, mixing it with rain water and precipitating it, resulting in a ‘purple powder’ that is useful in ‘malignant diseases.’ Although the idea that gold and gold preparations have medicinal qualities was quickly loosing credit among academically trained medical men in the eighteenth century, De Groot’s manuscript, which apart from Cardilucius’ powder lists four recipes for ‘Aurum potabile’ or drinkable gold, about which Tara Albert and I have written before, once more confirms there still was a strong popular belief in their effectiveness.

Pure gold precipitate produced by the aqua regia chemical refining process

Pure gold precipitate produced by the aqua regia chemical refining process

Another remarkable aspect this particular manuscript is that the handwriting is extremely neat and clear, suggesting the author intended it to be read, reproduced and understood by others – in contrast to many older alchemical manuscripts and printed texts. Although the descriptions of processes are still rather imprecise (i.e. in the recipe for Cardelucius’ powder the gold has to be dissolved in a ‘sufficient’ amount of aqua regis), there is no trace of the use of coded language and images so typical of much alchemical work. In fact, pure gold precipitate can be produced by dissolving gold in aqua regis (nitro-hydrochloric acid) and the result is indeed a powder – although a rusty orange rather than purple. Last but not least, De Groot’s manuscripts suggest the existence of a branch of an international network of alchemists and interested amateurs in the early eighteenth-century Netherlands who operated almost completely outside the Dutch academic world – a topic that certainly warrants further research.

[1] Van Lamoen, Frank, ‘Vijf Handschriften van Burghard de Groot M.D. (1661/62-1744)’, Jaarverslagen Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, 1991, 73–82. In 2013 Van Lamoen wrote a blog post about the Arab pen-name Ali Puli, probably a pseudonym for De Groot.