‘One does not learn remedies through books’ (Aristotle)

Laurence Totelin

My first love: Pellaprat's classic cookbook

My first love: Pellaprat’s classic cookbook

I love reading recipes. I guess that won’t come as a surprise; after all I have been working on the history of pharmacology for over ten years now. But this passion goes very far indeed. My first favourite book was Pellaprat’s Cuisine familiale et pratique (1974), which I dutifully pored over – and tore apart – from the age of one. When I read a recipe book, I feel myself surrounded, at times assaulted, by imagined smells, tastes, and visions (of sugarplums). Of course, I could not have this type of experience without growing up in a family of great cooks; I did not learn culinary skills through books, but through observation and experimentation. Most of my memories of my grand-mother are culinary in nature; and I spent hours sat on a chair in our kitchen watching my mum cook.

When I read the philosopher Aristotle’s statement whereby one cannot learn remedies through reading, I can’t help but agree:

Indeed one does not appear to become skilled in the art of medicine through books. And yet they attempt to describe not only the cures, but also how they might cure and how it is necessary to treat each individual, distinguishing his condition. But while these things seem useful to men of experience, they are useless to the inexperienced. [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics10.9, 1181b2-6]

Reading practical literature is useful for those who already have experience, but pointless for others; this does pose an issue when teaching ancient pharmacology in the modern classroom. Still, I believe written recipes, for all their dryness, can offer a very good entry point into a variety of topics. One of my favourite example here is a recipe found in a play by the great comedian Aristophanes. The god of healing, Asclepius, is treating patients who have come to his sanctuary in Athens. One of them is the corrupt politician Neocleides, whom Asclepius is not willing to cure:

Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

First of all, for Neocleides, a remedy:

Asclepius undertook to knead a plaster, throwing in

Three heads of Tenian garlic. Then he crushed them

In a mortar, mixing them together with verjuice

And mastic. Then he soaked the mixture with Sphettian vinegar,

And he plastered it on, turning out the man’s eyelids,

To make him suffer more.

[Aristophanes, Plutus 716-721]

All three ingredients in this ‘remedy’ (garlic, verjuice and mastic) would have hurt the eyes. However, this recipe is not so far from the ancient medical reality. The ancients did use very strong ingredients to treat the eyes, but applied them outside the eyelid, not inside. Also, Greek medical authors, like Aristophanes, called their ingredients by their place of origin (Tenian garlic comes from Tenos, an Aegean island; Sphettian vinegar comes from Sphettos, a district of Athens). Clearly, Aristophanes was well-versed in ancient medicine. This short recipe, thus, offers a point of entry into the study of temple medicine; political satire; and the transmission of ancient medical ideas in the ancient world.

Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root:  the three ingredients in my 'Greek' deodorant

Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root: the three ingredients in my ‘Greek’ deodorant

Despite finding Aristophanes’ recipe fascinating, I appreciate that it needs much explication, as most ancient recipes do. I cannot expect every student to understand how painful this remedy would have been for Neocleides. I cannot expect them all to know what mastic is. Indeed, I cannot expect them all to have used a mortar and pestle. For these reasons, I have started to bring my experiments with ancient remedies to an audience near you. Recently, at a conference for teachers held at Cardiff University, I have replicated my attempts at producing an ancient deodorant made from iris root, myrrh, dried rose and wine. Passing the ingredients through the group allowed us to discuss our perception of these products; what memories they evoked; what we knew of their culture; etc. I learnt a lot – I hope the audience did too. They certainly left the room with a smile on their face. It remains for me to expand this experiment and re-create remedies with undergraduate students. I know that I will have to fill in health and safety forms, but I believe that it will be worth it. Here is an opportunity to appeal to various types of learning, and I would be a fool not to grab it!

Rhetoric and Recipes in the Composition Classroom

Hillary Nunn, The University of Akron

A composition class might seem an unlikely forum for discussing early modern recipes, and I have to admit I was wary to pencil them in. The class’s focus on the rhetoric of disease, however, made it hard for me to resist a quick foray into seventeenth-century ideas of health care – and in the end, I’m glad we took up the subject. My class’s brief consideration of early recipes for heart ailments helped students see the many ways metaphors influence perceptions of bodily health. By the end of our 50-minute class session, students could see that the terms associated with health conditions, both now and in earlier centuries, have an easily overlooked rhetorical power.

Before class, I asked students to read Natasha M. Wiggins’s editorial “Stop Using Military Metaphors for Disease” from the British Medical Journal. Wiggins argues that medical professionals rely too heavily on comparisons between disease and combat, ultimately leaving dying patients to look like “losers” who could not triumph in battle. My students were eager to debate this idea, some arguing that military language empowered patients while others countered that it could make weakened people feel even more hopeless and victimized. Students could see that such metaphors relied on images of conflict, and that the words strengthened the idea of competition between people and their own bodies.

From there, I asked students to consider the term “heart attack.” Is someone’s heart being attacked, I asked, or is it doing the attacking? As they debated, I handed out the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of the term, pointing out that it first appeared in 1836.[1]  It’s not like people didn’t have what we call heart attacks before then, I stressed. They just called them something else, described them in a different way. But how?

That’s where the recipes came in. We looked at two different seventeenth century recipes for dealing with heart ailments, both from Wellcome manuscripts. Not surprisingly, when students first read the recipe transcriptions, they joked about how little hope there was for the patients. I told them it wasn’t likely that either recipe treated what we would call a heart attack, but that their titles could show different attitudes attached to heart ailments.

The first recipe, “A fomentation to comfort the Heart,” lists herbal ingredients that promise to help the sufferer “find ease.”[2] The students immediately picked up on the emphasis on resting, some seeing that as a contrast to the idea of “fighting” while others argued that calmness actually worked toward the idea of accumulating strength for the battle.

But it was the unexpected turns that came with the second recipe — “For the passion of the heart” — that made me see the strength of the exercise.[3]


Wellcome Library MS 8097, p. 63

I asked them what they thought of the term passion. First came associations with love; others saw hints of stress. Soon, students linked both states to symptoms like elevated heartbeat, sweating, and even paralysis. They talked about emotion’s ability to affect physical health, a few even laughing in recognition when I brought up the 1970s TV character Fred Sanford’s tendency to fake heart trauma in tense situations.

So, I asked, what do these recipes say about the way that early modern people thought about their hearts? What does it mean to suffer passion of the heart rather than a heart attack?

And that’s where the unexpected happened. One student observed that passion treated the ailment more like something internal, more natural than an attack that could be fended off. Then, another commented that this went along with the idea of “ease” from the first recipe – that you had to live with your disease, not just fight it. “Like hospice,” I said before I knew it. I hadn’t planned that as part of the conversation, but there it was.

“What’s the language of hospice like?” I asked, only to find two students willing to talk about recent experience with the process. They both stated that hospice tried to make death “peaceful,” which students immediately contrasted with the warrior ideas Wiggins condemned, and which many of them had earlier defended. Hospice emphasizes when to stop fighting, a student remarked. But it doesn’t call anyone a quitter, another said, and another noted that it’s about making people comfortable.

In the remaining minute of class, I pressed the students to see how we’d returned to the idea of “ease” that came up in the first recipe. Maybe, I suggested, our culture is still working to find the right way to talk about these health issues, and I asked them to think about what later centuries might think of our metaphors.

While I wouldn’t say this exercise helped students gain any greater respect for the recipes I study, the discussion left students more aware of how words shape our perceptions, and level judgment, about illness even when we think we’re using objective medical terms. Just as importantly, the activity helped them to see that science has a history, and that the words we use suggest something fundamental about the way we think about our own health.

[1] “Heart Attack,” The Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com.

[2] Wellcome Library MS 7818, p. 4.

[3] Wellcome Library MS 8097, p. 63.

Cooking Up Canadian History

Valerie J. Korinek

My area of research and teaching is modern Canadian history, with a specialization in culture, gender and histories of sexualities. My courses cover a wide-ranging swath of contemporary Canada, including one in which “recipes” figure prominently: Recipes for a Nation: Food History in Canada. This is a third year undergraduate class that enables students to approach the history of Canada through food. This class often highlights “heirloom” recipes for indigenous and European foods (pemmican’s role in the fur trade for example) or settlement (Red Fife wheat and various breads). We also look at food in commerce: various baked goods (Nanaimo Bars and Butter Tarts) and alcoholic beverages (Canadian whiskey, wine, and beer) that define and differentiate Canada, most famously Molson Canadian’s “I Am Canadian” beer adverts. It is a course that attracts students who are critically engaged in, and passionate about, food politics and are therefore able to think critically about food.

English-Language Advertisement for Molson Brewery (1924).  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

English-Language Advertisement for Molson Brewery (1924). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

French-Language Advertisement for Molson Brewery (1924).  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

French-Language Advertisement for Molson Brewery (1924). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.










But today I want to talk about a research assignment that I designed for my 200 level Canadian women’s history students. Tired of the traditional ‘term paper,’ over the past two years I’ve assigned a project that required students to do oral interviews with family members (I imagined students would interview mothers and grandmothers, but many interviewed fathers as well) about “family recipes” or family and/or community cookbooks. They were encouraged to think about how recipes and the gendered nature of their production fostered heritage, intergenerational cultural transfers, food knowledge and constructions of ethnicity. I then asked that students situate their findings in historical context of food history; cultural histories of food production and consumption; or the gendered nature of unpaid domestic work in the home.

The first year many students wrote thoughtful papers about family hunting traditions (Saskatchewan has a large percentage of students from First Nations and Metis backgrounds for whom traditional foods are still important). Another student wrote a superlative paper about food scarcity, and of the contrast between her mother’s middle class background of family recipes and her father’s working class family where recipes were an incomprehensible luxury: her Dad’s family ate food, whatever they could buy, find, or what they were given, so their diet was largely potatoes, bread and grains. Hunger was persistent, thus her paper offered a classist analysis of poverty, privation, and want in the midst of North American plenty. Other students produced papers that highlighted recipes for Christmas or Thanksgiving (although a few were “harvest” recipes); many focused on ethnicity and the transmission of ethnic heritage. Given Canada’s lack of a “national” food heritage, embedded as we are in North American food culture, it wasn’t surprising that students believed that it was only “ethnic” recipes that merited history research papers.

The second iteration of this project had a different reception. Amongst this batch of students it was clear that they simply didn’t cook and neither did their families. This was best exemplified by a student who wrote a paper about a community cookbook (many of which are produced as fundraisers for hockey teams, or for school trips, or churches) in which all of the recipes were formerly corporate recipes. Many students pointed out that parent and grandparent deaths and/or family crisis had abruptly curtailed family recipe or cookbook traditions. By and large though, if students couldn’t find some sort of “ethnic” recipe to highlight they floundered. Ethnic difference, or novelty, were the only sort of recipes that seemed to provide students with a comprehensible format for discussing food history.  Perhaps this is because much of Saskatchewn history concerns settlement and immigration of European newcomers, and hence “ethnic” recipes fit that conventional provincial historical framework? Or perhaps because these tended to get transmitted from one generation to another and hence fit my criteria for “historic” recipes it made them worthy for commentary?  Either way, the stuff of daily eating was either so unexceptional or basic that they couldn’t grasp how to analyze the class, gendered, regional, or economic trends that were exemplified in those recipes or food products.

Despite the best efforts of the Mark Bittmans, Michael Pollans, or Jamie Olivers of this world, there is a vast group of North Americans who simply don’t cook. They purchase prepared foods, eat out or combine semi-prepared products, and thus such an assignment seemed anachronistic and out of touch with “real” Canadian university students and their families. It is as true, as Donna Gabbacia so wonderfully historicized many years ago, that We Are What We Eat, but utilizing recipes, family oral history projects, and gendered notions of food production, can, in some instances, be destabilizing and distressing in the classroom.

I’m going to think more critically about how to reformulate this assignment to better reflect the realities of Saskatchewan student demographics, and to better enable the students to analyze “food” in a more holistic, inclusive fashion, less of an “Ethnicity 101” and more of an examination on the gendered nature of domestic, unpaid work and of what the evolution in food practices tell us about Canadian women’s, social and cultural histories.

Valerie Korinek is one of the co-authors (along with Franca Iacovetta and Marlene Epp) of Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Teaching Recipes as Literary Practice and the Practice of Transcription

Amy L. Tigner

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a founding member of Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC)—an international group whose main objective is to transcribe early modern receipt book manuscripts and upload them onto an open, searchable database—I, along with my EMROC compatriots, wanted to create a labor force to increase the number of transcriptions available to the public.  As many of us teach at universities, we thought it would be a great idea to conceive of classes in which a portion of the workload would contribute to this digital humanities project.  I have to be honest, that at first, I thought of my students as a kind of slave labor, but Rebecca Laroche (see previous blog post in this series) quickly reminded me of the value for students of what we were trying to accomplish as scholars ourselves.  After all, we are in the process of building a new source of knowledge and making viewable to the masses what had previously been seen only by the lucky few. Also, such a process would in fact teach the students valuable skills that they could use if they continued in the profession, or, if not, they could parlay into other pursuits outside academia.  From a traditional point of view, students would need to learn paleography, a necessary skill for any archival work. As more and more libraries are digitizing their manuscripts, there will be quite a lot of this kind of scholarly work for years to come.  Additionally, students would learn how to code their transcriptions into XML in order to upload their work to the database, Textual Communities, which is hosted by the University of Saskatchewan; this skill is clearly transferrable to the outside world.

The first class I taught that incorporated this project was a senior seminar for English majors at the University of Texas, Arlington, in spring of 2013.  The course was entitled “Recipes for Literature/Literature of Recipes.” I have a previous post that details the course, and students in the class also posted blogs about their discoveries in transcribing Wellcome MS108, a receipt book written by Jane Barber.  As this course was really successful (students generally loved working on the project), I thought I would take it to the next level and have graduate students contribute.  So the following year, I taught a class entitled “Food, Women, and Manuscript Culture.”  The course was designed to change students’ conception of the “literary” by broadening the meaning to include household writing, and in particular recipes. The graduate students (like the undergrads) first had to learn how to decipher seventeenth-century handwriting, so I (like Rebecca Laroche) had students use the Cambridge online paleography course, a site that has progressively difficult handwriting examples from the period.

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

I found in both classes group work was key, as students get easily frustrated with the kind of work, especially as most were inexperienced with difficult and archaic handwriting. As some students naturally have a greater aptitude for transcription than others, they were to become teachers—good practice for many whose future plans include teaching. When it came to coding, which was a completely new world for me, students had to use problem-solving skills or often relied upon other students to help them. This collaborative atmosphere in the class created a greater sense of intellectual community—and fun.  Another interesting thing happened, however, in the work of transcription and later of coding: students had to slow their reading down, often to the level of deciphering individual letters, in order to read the text.  Thus transcribing and coding turned into close reading, causing students to dig deeper to find meaning.  We often ask students to read a text slowly and carefully, but more and more students are losing the patience to read in this manner. Our experience with the Internet, and with media more generally, trains us to read quickly and to skim the surface but rarely to be contemplative. This digital humanities project brings together traditional scholarly pursuits with twenty-first century technology to contribute to a growing a body of knowledge about the past.