Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes

By Amanda E. Herbert

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Not in early modern England.

We know that early modern women were charged with the feeding and care of their family and friends and that lower-status women were often employed in the domestic labor of cooking, brewing, dairying, baking, and gardening. More surprising is that women were expected to collaborate in the kitchen, undertaking these traditional tasks in groups.  The expectation was that in any well-run household, domestic laborers (usually, but not always, women) would share their knowledge, time, labor, and kitchen-space – without grumbling, fighting, or competing!

Such guidelines for behaviour can be found alongside cooking in prescriptive recipe books. If you spend time with early modern prescriptive literature and printed recipe books, you quickly learn to flip to the front first: elaborate frontispieces often decorate the inside covers of these works. Although recipe books were supposedly intended for elite readers, authors and publishers marketed their products in sophisticated ways. Prescriptive literature conveyed information through images as well as writing. The mix of text and print was supposed to appeal to many different kinds of consumers. Literate people could read the text, while partially-literate people could “read” the images in order to learn about the mechanics of domestic labor in elite homes.

William Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor; Or, The Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of my favorite frontispieces can be found in William Henderson’s Housekeeper’s Instructor; or, the Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). The image shows a busy kitchen, with many workers cooking, carving, stirring, and slicing in order to prepare a meal. Most fascinatingly, the frontispiece shows itself–several people in the image are using recipe books. In the middleground of the picture, an elite woman (marked by her powdered wig) offers a book to a female servant (marked by the knife held in her right hand). At the bottom of the frontispiece, an “Explanation” of the image confirms that the picture shows “a Lady presenting her Servant with The Universal Family Cook who diffident of her own knowledge has recourse to that Work for Information.”

Men are also shown using recipe books. In the foreground of the frontispiece, two male kitchen workers carve a roasted fowl. The figure on the left points with one hand to an illustrated diagram in a book, which indicates how the meat is supposed to be cut, and with the other hand gestures toward the roast. The male figure on the right, who wields the knife, looks toward both the book and his companion for guidance. These men are not reading the text of the guidebook, but are instead examining its pictures in order to learn how to carve correctly.

The kitchen in Universal Family Cook is an ideal cooking space, being calm, pleasant, and productive. It shows both high and low status people cooperating with one another in a friendly manner as they work towards a common goal. Friendliness, cheerfulness, and passivity were also qualities that were idealized in early modern women. A good woman, this image tells us, is like her kitchen: productive and cooperative, efficient and pleasant.

But did “actual” early modern women live up to these expectations?  Did they cooperate and collaborate in their kitchens?  Find out in my next post…

Editors’ note: This blog post is based on chapter 3 of Amanda’s forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). The chapter looks at “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”


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