Room for Food, Spaces for Eating

Participants engaging with a wide range of nineteenth-century cookbooks held at the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections. Photo Credit: FEAST online journal.
Participants engaging with a wide range of nineteenth-century cookbooks held at the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections. Photo Credit: FEAST online journal.

By Rachel Rich

Good food brings people together around a table, and apparently so too does the opportunity to look at good cookbooks. On Saturday April 16th, Catherine Bertola and I co-hosted a workshop organized by online journal FEAST and the Manchester Metropolitan University Library’s Special Collections. We had invited immersed ourselves in the Special Collection’s newly acquired Home Studies Collection, which contains several hundred books on cooking, nutrition, domestic economy and related topics. On the day of the workshop, twenty or so people gathered around a table on which I had placed several editions of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as books by Charles Elme Francatelli, Alexis Soyer, Eliza Acton and many lesser know cookery cookery authors who wrote in the nineteenth century. I talked for about half on hour about the collection, the books, and my own research, after which we spent 30 minutes looking at and discussing the books in a more hands-on way. My hour was followed by an hour during which Catherine presented her work, and discussed her art as a response to the books in the collection.

I started with a general discussion about cookbooks, linked to the workshop’s title ‘Room for Food, Spaces for Eating’. I argued that we should consider the domestic dining room as two spaces sharing the same place. The dining room can be both a private space for intimate family gatherings, and a public space through which a family forges and maintains its community bonds and networks. I urged participants to observe that each book contains recipes for both simple, affordable meals and more elaborate and impressive once. Women are urged to play two parts, of the frugal holder of the purse strings, and the conspicuous consumer who displays the family’s success, two personae which must not have sat easily together.

From here we went on to discuss how cookbooks are introduced, and the very peculiar ways that author’s formulate their introductions and address their imagined audiences. In The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness (1803) the author, John Armstrong wrote:

To the Young Females of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, This Work is most respectfully inscribed, as a new, safe, and pleasant Guide to the purest and most lasting sources of happiness, and which essentially depends on the just performance of the various Duties of their Sex, whether as Servants, Daughters, Wives, Mothers, or Mistresses of Families.

The preface to another book began:

The Collection of Domestic Receipts now presented to the public could not have been formed in any age but the present. The wisdom of this age has been to bring science from her heights down to the practical knowledge of every-day concerns and the number of its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man. [1]

Eliza Acton was equally earnest about the task at hand, putting the fate of civilization itself in the hands of young homemakers:

It is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skillfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization.

Colin Mackenzie made extraordinary claims for the usefulness of cookbooks:

In truth, the present volume has been compiled under the feeling, that if all other books of Science in the world were destroyed, this single volume would be found to embody the results of the useful experience, observations, and discoveries of mankind during the past ages of this world.[2]

This last example led to a discussion of the importance of the concepts of science, rationality and modernity in nineteenth-century cookbooks. Victorians’ commitment to these ideals has been well documented, but few historians (with the notable exception of Caroline Lieffers) have linked this to the kitchen. Yet in so many books, the title itself is an attempt to capture the reader’s imagination, praying on the middle classes’ commitment to progress and improvement.[3]

In explaining her work, Catherine discussed the ways that the books can make a reader feel trapped in endless housework. She evoked women imprisoned in an endless round of tasks which are never completely done and always need to be redone. Her comments reminded me of Margaret Beetham’s analysis of women’s magazines, and in particular of her argument that women’s magazines—and I would suggest that the same can be said of cookbooks—present femininity as ‘at once axiomatic and fractured.’ Though the assumed reader is a woman, she is also presented to herself as being continually in the process of becoming a woman, because there is no possible endpoint to this project, no conceivable point at which a woman can be imagined to be allowed to be satisfied with herself or her accomplishments. Catherine’s work here, and elsewhere where she has, for example, worked with dust itself as a way of engaging with the endlessness and futility of domestic work, seem to be a manifestation of the impossibility of living up to the high standards set by cookery writers.

Participants ranged from graduate student to artists to members of the public who like thinking about cooking. The atmosphere was informal and discussion seemed to come effortlessly as participants passed around the cookbooks and exchanged memories and experiences from their own culinary lives. Though the consensus was that nineteenth-century recipes are not appetizing to twentieth-century palates, the desired effect of mealtime sociability—getting everyone around a table to make connections—clearly worked.


Rachel Rich is History Programme Leader at Leeds Beckett University. Her research interests include food, eating and domesticity. Rachel is a member of the editorial boards of Food and History and Women’s History as well as being an occasional contributor to The Recipes Project.


[1] The New Family Receipt Book, Containing One Thousand truly Valuable Receipts in Various Branches of Domestic Economy (1837)

[2] Five Thousand Receipts in all the Useful and Domestic Arts, (1823)

[3] Some examples from within the Home Studies collection include: Alexis Soyer A Shilling Cookery for the People: Embracing an entirely new system of plain cookery and domestic economy (1855), Anon, The Family Cookery Book, or Improved system of Domestic Economy containing above eight hundred valuable receipts, many of which are entirely original, the whole forming a most useful ECONOMICAL COMPANION (1812), and Mrs Mary Holland (Professed Cook), The Complete Economical Cook, and Frugal Housewife: An Entirely new system of Domestic Cookery (1835)

To break or not to break: Reading Van Beverwijck´s Steen-stuck (part 1)

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647)
Portret of Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647)

Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647), who we introduced in our first post, was one of the most prominent medical authors of the Dutch seventeenth century. His Steen-stuck [Treatise on the Stone] (1637, 1649, 1656) was the first of his publications in which he proposed not only how to prevent a disease, but also how to cure it. The treatise was rather conventional in its structure however. Being a learned physician, Van Beverwijck discussed where in the body gravel and stones occured, their cause and signs or symptoms and prevention as well.

The compiler of our manuscript (BPL3603) was exclusively interested in chapter eleven, about both medicinal and surgical treatments.

Similar to his dealings with Van Helmont´s work on the plague, the compiler consulted a treatise about the particular affliction he was interested in. He copied five passages from Steen-Stuck into the manuscript, alongside his discussion of master Reijmers, which I examined previously.

As a “Nota” to Reijmers´ recipe, the compiler first copied a recipe that Van Beverwijck singled out amongst several compound medicines.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL3606, p. 121 (selection): first passage copied from Steen-stuck under the page heading "Tried remedies to break the stone".
University Library Leiden, MS BPL3606, p. 121 (selection): first passage copied from Steen-stuck under the page heading “Tried remedies to break the stone”.

The use of the word “Nota” signals that Van Beverwijck´s recipe functioned as an comment on Master Reijmers´ , as another example of a stone-breaking remedy. The compiler cited Van Beverwijck as its source, rather than “Dr. Quercetanus´ Pharmacop. Dogm.”, to which Van Beverwijck referred.

The compilers´ choice for this recipe as the first passage to copy from Steen-stuck, deserves further attention because it shows how he read Van Beverwijck´s treatise. The recipe wasn’t the first in the chapter and earlier passages in the source text are copied later in the manuscript.

The content description at the start of the chapter explains the compilers´ choice. The eleven chapter parts are numbered and named. They move from the lightest treatments to the severest: that is, from treatments that would make it easier for a stone to move out from the bladder naturally, to those requiring an operation to remove it. The compiler disregarded this structure and skipped to number six, “on compound medicines to break the stone“. This brought him straight to the recipe that he copied under the page headingTried remedies to break the stone. The content description thus helped him find what he was looking for, information about stone-breaking compounds.

Van Beverwijck had built in a structure by which Steen-stuck could be read from front to back, from the causes of stones to their cure. The content descriptions at the beginning of each chapter however, facilitated different ways of reading the treatise. From this manuscript, we can tell that the compiler used this navigation aid quite effectively.

After including the anecdote about the hare-catching boy in the manuscript, the compiler apparently returned to this chapter in Steen-stuck. His interest in stone-breaking remedies brought him to number four in the chapter, to “those <medicines> that break the stone”. From there, he read through the rest of the treatise and selected four more passages to copy into his manuscript. These selections I will cover in part two of this post.

A Stitch in Thyme?: Why Are There So Few Knitting Patterns in Recipe Books?

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

When I first began researching early modern recipe books, I was struck by how they upended my expectations of the genre.

Some of the recipes seemed to me, quite frankly, weird: the making of puppy water, the application of dung to a wound, the addition of ground human skull to a medicine. And it became clear that they comprised all manner of early modern daily life, not just food. I was struck by how the recipes jostled together on the page, often with little overt organization.

In thinking about the genre, it struck me that this kind of writing is relatively unique to the domestic sphere. Recipe books look nothing like court documents or epic poetry, sermons or stage plays.

The Knitting Woman, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Knitting Woman, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
They do, however, resemble another kind of domestic writing: knitting patterns. Since early modern recipe books contained instruction for making food and medicine and cosmetics, why not instructions for making clothing?

From my experience with modern recipes and knitting patterns, it seems like a perfect fit: like recipes that specify ingredients and quantities in cups and teaspoons, modern knitting patterns indicate necessary materials in fiber content, exact yardage, and the diameter and length of needles. As with a recipe, this quantification is followed by instructions for converting the raw material to the finished product. The writing is plain and seldom figurative. Indeed, one could call a knitting pattern a “recipe” for clothing.

Knitting patterns, however, are singularly absent from recipe books of the early modern period. There is, however, a telling exception. Sue Davies has pointed out that the 1655 medical compendium Natura Exenterata: or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquiste Anatomizers of Her, contains several pattern at the end of the work.

In the Natura Exenterata, the patterns, like recipes, are laid out one per entry to favor ease of location and organization. And like recipes, the instructions are written in a straightforward, matter-of fact tone, with very little editorializing or figurative language.

To make Network like seven Eyes.
The first course, wind your thread about your pinne at every stitch, and the second course take two long stitches upon your needle and turne the second stitch into the first long stitch inward to your hand and pull it through your first stitch, and the thread of your first stitch, turn it inward through the second stitch down to your pinne like a loop or a Nouse, so that the thread of the loop must lye upon the nouse upper∣most, then work your nouse down to your pin, and the next stitch or thread that lyeth upon your nouse work down to your pinne, and make a stich.
Provided alwayes if your work go true you have two knots toge∣ther, and a wide bout between, and the next third course begin your work again and round your thread about your pinne at every stitch, as you did before at the beginning of your work.

It’s telling, however, that with the knitting patterns in this compendium there is no indication of the quantity or type of materials needed. The knitting pattern is composed exclusively of instructions, unlike a contemporary pattern.

It would be fascinating to know when that shift occurred. One

The ladies' knitting and netting book, 1838; University of Southampton Knitting Reference Library
The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book, 1838; University of Southampton

excellent resource for such a question is the digitized Knitting Reference Library at the University of Southampton. In that database, we can see some movement towards quantification happening in the mid-19th century. In The Ladies Knitting and Netting Book of 1838, for example, there is only occasionally mention of the type of yarn (“German Wool”) and no note of the size of needles required. By 1874, however, we can see in The Lady’s Knitting Book that “pin” (needle) sizes and type of yarn are frequently listed.

I wonder if the shift into recording the exact quantities of materials–together with the addition of pictures of the final product (as seen here)– reflects a contemporary insistence on mass reproducibility. There is an implied guarantee that, if the identical brand of yarn, the exact fiber content, and precisely the same size needles are used, the final product will be an exact replica of the (perfectly lit, professionally photographed) final object.

I wonder, too, about the future of these genres, recipes and knitting patterns. Crafting books and cookbooks are now often published under “celebrity” names. There are famous knitters like Kaffe Fasset, Debbie Bliss, and even Vanna White (of “Wheel of Fortune” fame). Issuing cookbooks are any number of cooking channel celebs, from Padma Lakshmi to Emeril Lagasse to Nigella Lawson. And both genres are being revolutionized by the digital world: whether one needs a recipe for crepes or cardigans, one need only consult Google.

Workhouse Diets: Paucity or Plenty? [Part II]

By Lesley Hulonce

"Members of the United Cooks' Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse for the Lancashire Operatives," in The Illustrated London News (1863). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“Members of the United Cooks’ Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse for the Lancashire Operatives,” in The Illustrated London News (1863). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

This is the second part of a post which appeared on Tuesday, 10 May.

As Edward Ostler reported to the 1834 Royal Commission, ‘humanity dictates that the inmates of a workhouse should be fed quite as well as a labourer’s family’, and the food, whilst wholesome, should be ‘of the plainest description’. Ostler described the pre-1834 diet in most workhouses as meat, broth and pea soup, each for two days, with fish on the seventh day. No amounts were given, but Ostler also reported that the diet should be ‘sufficient’.[1] In earlier years of the ‘new’ poor law some guardians had attempted (unsuccessfully) to instigate a system whereby unmarried women of ‘profligate habits’, who had been delivered of two or more children in the workhouse, should be given a reduced diet and wear a ‘badge’ to differentiate them from other women.[2]

Following the formation poor law unions in 1834, the central authorities expected that all meals would be weighed and measured to ensure the amounts stipulated were received by the paupers. Whether or not the quantities were ‘sufficient’ is, and was somewhat subjective. Although the central authorities envisaged that workhouse diets should follow the principle of less eligibility and not be of better quality or higher quantity than the ‘ordinary’ diet of a labourer’s family, this proved unfeasible as many of these labourers’ diets were too poor to sustain health.

Although the diets within workhouses appear ‘sufficient’, the food offered was indeed monotonous; the disallowance of a delicacy such as treacle would have been a blow to the four girls mentioned above. The workhouse dietary for 1837 allowed for five ounces of meat three times a week, one and a half pints of soup three times a week and 12 ounces of rice or suet pudding weekly. Breakfasts were 6 ounces of bread and one and a half pints of gruel and supper either one and a half pints of broth or two ounces of cheese with 7 ounces of bread.[3] Some workhouse soups were a little suspect, as a poor law inspector found that dirty clothes were being boiled up on the stove in a pan next to the broth, and he wisely declined to sample the soup as a result. Over the years, the main changes in workhouse diets were in the variety of foods and quantities more or less remained the same with a little more protein and vegetables and a little fewer carbohydrates. Some dishes were made more palatable, such as the suet pudding, to which was added more suet along with currants and spices. By the 1870s, ‘pie crust’, tea and butter once a week were included in the children’s dietary. The early twentieth century diet of children also included cocoa, porridge, sugar, cake, biscuits, roast beef and mutton, savoury mince, barley soup, bread pudding, boiled bacon and rice milk.[4]

Food was also used as reward as well as punishment. Various treats were given to children throughout the year and most included food that could be considered an indulgence. These treats were promoted as being obtained by good behaviour and by conforming to the projected ethos of work, independence and thrift as adults. One annual trip to a beach also saw the children ‘plentifully regaled with tea and plumcake’ and special teas were often arranged.[5]

The early 20th century diet also included cocoa, porridge, sugar, cake, biscuits, roast beef and mutton, ‘scouse’, savoury mince, barley soup, bread pudding, boiled bacon and rice milk. The local press always appeared deeply moved by both the children’s plight and the guardians’ beneficence. Concerning an earlier outing to Caswell Bay, the Welsh newspaper The Cambrian was ‘glad to find’ that the guardians showed ‘deep interest and kindness towards the children confined in our union’ and on a similar occasion it was reported that the ‘poor’ children ‘gambolled over the hill right merrily’.[1]

So, gruel was a workhouse staple, as it was across Britain for all classes. However, benighted workhouse inmates never had to rely on it as their only form of nutrition. What is gruel anyway? Or ‘skilly’ as it was often called. Basically, its just a watery porridge; here is an 1872 recipe if you want to try it at home.

Gruel recipe 1872:
16 ounces oatmeal

8 pints of water
4 ounces treacle,
Allspice to be used occasionally

"A selection of puddings," in The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton (London, 1861). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“A selection of puddings,” in The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton (London, 1861). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

The tedium of these meals was relieved by special teas which were organised by local ladies and on outings in which food was part of the treat. One annual Whitsun trip to a local beach saw children ‘plentifully regaled with tea and plum cake’. At Christmas, guardians would organise a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding for all workhouse inmates, and oranges was also a favoured gift from medical officers. Here’s a recipe for Christmas pudding that might beat us all. 

1930s Recipe for workhouse Christmas pudding for 300 (yes, 300!)
36 lbs Currants

42lbs Sultanas
9 lbs Dates
9lbs Mixed Peel
26 lbs Flour
16 lbs Breadcrumbs
24 lbs Margarine
26 lbs Demerara Sugar
102 lbs Golden Syrup
102 lbs Marmalade
144 Eggs
2lbs 10oz Mixed Spice
13 lbs Carrots

Although these workhouse food strategies could be described as humane, their main objective was to curtail what was perceived as a ‘once a pauper, always a pauper’ culture thought prevalent among the destitute in Victorian Britain.

Sounds rather familiar…

[1] The Cambrian, 23 July 1858, 24 May 1861.

[1] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Administration and Practical Operation of Poor Laws, 1834, appendix C, 173.

[2] WGAS, U/S 1/1, Guardians’ Minutes, 20 June, 4 July 1850.

[3] TNA, MH12/16437, 29 May 1837.

[4] WGAS, U/S 1/33, 20 December 1900.

[5] The Cambrian, 15 June 1860.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is historian and lecturer of health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. She is co-director of the Research Group for Health, History and Culture and her research interests include the histories of children, disability, poverty, gender and prostitution via state and voluntary action. She is completing her first monograph about the lives of pauper children in England and Wales which will be published in August.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine