The Emotional Life of Recipes

By Montserrat Cabré

Reading Elaine Leong’s January blog entry about technologies of recipe collecting, as well as her New Year’s resolution to start filling a years-long empty recipe box, reminded me of an issue I have been thinking about for some time.

A few years ago, a friend gave me to read an excerpt of The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by cultural journalist Sallie Tisdale; she rightly thought I might enjoy it. It had been published in an anthology of food writing under the familiar title of Recipes from My Mother, a topic certainly dear to my interests.[1] It is a short, very moving text that confronted me with something that my medieval and early modern recipes do not openly show: the fact that the act of writing, keeping, filing, giving, receiving or inheriting recipes may be highly emotionally charged. That is, it made the cultural historian of knowledge in me aware of rich, unexplored qualities of recipes as historical evidence.

Recipes may be the repository of complex subjective experiences. Catherine Field wrote an interesting article on early modern British women’s recipe-writing where she explored the extent in which recipes could be a medium and a witness for the construction of personal identity.[2] I myself have recently discussed Spanish early modern recipes as a source to trace changes in the ways gender was embodied.[3] But, may recipe collections be the material expression of intimate self-identity conflicts? Can they be a source with the power to express the emotion of personal failure or success? The depository of expectation and hope in one’s own worth? The material expression of one’s acknowledgement of feeling awkward? The desire to become someone else? The wish to have been cared for in a certain way?

Fernando Salmón personal recipe collection. Photo: Montserrat Cabré
Fernando Salmón personal recipe collection.
Photo: Montserrat Cabré

Sallie Tisdale’s reflections upon the recipe collections that–to her surprise–had belonged to her mother and grandmother, show us a myriad possibilities to acknowledge meaning to those paper bits written or cut out to be kept over a life time, carefully or negligently held to pass on to heirs. For her, those recipe collections are the material expression to allow memories of significant relationships to emerge; they are a means to establish a dialogue that had previously failed between her own and older women’s generations; they are a way to discover surprising, unexpected aspects of who these women were in relation to whom they wanted to be.

Félix Sangari personal recipe collection. Photo: Montserrat Cabré
Félix Sangari personal recipe collection.
Photo: Montserrat Cabré

A single recipe, endlessly tried or never attempted, may embrace diverse and divergent meanings to different people who relate to it out of chance or out of duty, at different moments in time. Reading the emotional charge that recipes encompass may not be an easy task for the historian; however, it is crucial that we acknowledge and face that recipes have these hidden lives if we are to explore the possibilities they open for us.


[1] Sallie Tisdale,  The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (New York: Riverhead, 2000), pp. 83-88; reprinted as “Recipes from my mother” in Best Food Writing 2000, edited by Molly Hughes and Alice Waters (New York: Marlowe and Company, 2000), pp. 78-82.

[2] Catherine Field, “‘Many hands hands’: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books”, in Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle (eds.), Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 49-63.

 [3] Montserrat Cabré, “Keeping Beauty Secrets in Early Modern Iberia”, in Elaine Leong and Alisa Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp.167-190.

Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

 


7 thoughts on “The Emotional Life of Recipes”

  1. I’m so happy you posted this because it’s something I’ve thought a lot about, too. I haven’t seen much clear evidence in early modern recipe books for emotional ties either, but then I wonder why. Is it because, as historians, we are taught strict research methodologies that do not allow us to speculate about such uncertainties? Or is it because the early modernists compiled recipes in a manner and for an audience that is somewhat different from our own today?

    When I was working with the Brockman family recipes at the British Library, I was comparing a grandmother and granddaughters’ recipe books, and I found that the granddaughter copied one of the grandmother’s recipes almost verbatim, but she didn’t credit her. It made me wonder what interpersonal, familial drama might lie behind the lack of attribution, but it also might have just been that she forgot to name her, or that she didn’t think to do it because the recipe book appeared quite personal and not meant for a greater audience than she herself. Still, I will never know whether or not there was an emotional reason behind that grandmother’s missing name!

  2. Dear Michelle,
    I have seen your comment only today; I’m really glad you are also concerned with the issue.
    I think you tackle two important issues: our historical methods, what they find significant to record. We can’t change the last, but we should try to improve our methods to perceive it, and think thoroughly about it. If we have recipes associated with epistolaries, this may gives us a chance to contextualize the place recipes may have in a particular relationship. But I think there is also room for more methodological explorations. If the cultural history of science has acknowledged a rich life to objects, cannot we enhance the heuristic possibilities of the very materiality of recipes? I would love to explore all this…

  3. What a wonderful piece, Montse. I’m not sure from a historical point of view, but from an anthropological point of view I can see the possibility of interviewing people about their recipe books, the memories encased therein, the emotions evoked, the link between generations, the part they play in the construction of their identity. Last year I had a student (visiting the Basque Country from the US) whose grandmother had emigrated from the Basque Country to the Philippines and from there to the States. She had been a pastry cook, taking her recipe book with her on her travels, and my student had learnt to bake from her grandmother and had inherited her recipe book. It was a part of her Basque self and she was certainly emotional about it.

  4. This is a wonderful contribution, Maggie, and a great case for an auto-ethnography! Certainly modern historians and anthropologists could profitably use oral interviewing to analize the subjective, emotional dimension of individuals’ interactions with recipes. And historians who do not have this possibility could learn a lot from those analysis.

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