Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes (Part II)

By Amanda E. Herbert

This page from Anne Brumwich’s recipe book shows contributions by different authors, with different styles of handwriting. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

In this blog post and in my previous post, I’m presenting material from my forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).  The material in this post comes from Chapter Three, “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”

In my last post, I discussed how early modern advice books encouraged women to work together in kitchens.  But did women follow these directions in their own homes?  Kitchen accidents and mistakes of course caused tempers to fray.  When Elizabeth Freke discovered that her servant had damaged a pot, she was so angry about it that she recorded it in her kitchen inventory, saying that the pot had been “brok out by Amey”!  But you can also find proof of women’s attempts to foster positive relationships with each other.

One of the best sources for understanding “real” early modern women’s work in kitchens is through their manuscript – handwritten – recipe books.  Recipe books were living manuscripts, typically added to and amended by many people. Women collected recipes from their female and male friends and noted donors’ names next to borrowed recipes in their books. Jane Baber’s manuscript recipe collection of 1625 included eight attributions from other women, among them a recipe “for the woorms” she had received from her “sister Earnly.” Women probably did exchange these recipes in person, but manuscript evidence shows that they also received them in correspondence from their female friends and relatives.  In the later seventeenth century, Anne Lany scrawled a recipe “for Guidiness of the head” on the back of her letter to her friend Anne De Gray. Sometimes women valued the recipes that they received from friends over those offered by male physicians: Beatrix Clerke wrote in 1665 that she hoped to procure a recipe from her friend Lucy Hastings, stating that she “doth believe that your Honor’s study and practice in phisicke is above our docters.”

Even the recipes themselves show how women helped one another in the kitchen. Female authors wrote recipes from a communal perspective. Mary Bent’s recipe book featured instructions on how “to pickle cowcombers the best way,” and the author noted that “you may put a little pepper in if you please but we do not.” The use of the plural “we” here suggested that, for the recipe’s author, pickling cucumbers was a communal rather than a solitary activity.

Women thus counted on one another for help in the kitchen, but they also used their recipes to advance female independence. Women’s recipes allowed them to share knowledge about acquiring materials and ingredients, navigating through urban spaces, and negotiating with shopkeepers. Many recipes encouraged women to purchase supplies in London, which had large numbers of apothecary shops. “M.B.’s” recipe of 1640 “to whiten the Teeth” called for “the stones of crabbs,” and readers were told that “you may buy [them] at the Redd Crosse in Cheap side a drugist.” An anonymous mid-seventeenth-century woman’s book recorded that “Vatican Pills” could be purchased from “the Apothecary . . . in the old Bayly in London.” Anne Brumwich’s book contained a recipe for a lotion that was said to prevent hair loss, and the ingredients for this lotion had to be purchased at “a Chymist a dutchmans in high holborn neare Grayes Inn field.” And Mary Chantrell’s book had a recipe for “an Excellent Coole pummatum [pomatum] for the face,” with ingredients that could be purchased “in See Lane in Holbourn.” From Gray’s Inn to Cheapside and from the Old Bailey to Holborn, early modern women used the information they gleaned from the recipe books of friends and relatives to traverse urban space. This knowledge was surely both useful and empowering. By furnishing women with information about reliable dealers, fair prices, and shop locations, handwritten recipe books allowed female recipe authors and their readers to share vital knowledge with one another and assert their independence in London’s streets and alleys.

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Manuscripts cited in this blog post:
1. Elizabeth Freke, “Kitchen Inventory,” October 18, 1711, Freke Papers, MS 45718, British Library.
2. Jane Baber, Recipe Book, 1625, MS 108, f. 18, 22, Wellcome Library.
3. Anne Lany, Letter to Anne De Gray, c. 1670, Correspondence of the Family of Gawdy, ADD 36989, F540, British Library.
4. Beatrix Clerke, Letter to Lucy Hastings, Countess Huntingdon, 1665, Hastings Collection, Box 25 HA 1466, Huntington Library.
5. Mary Bent, Recipe Book, 1664, MS 1127, f. 2, Wellcome Library.
6. Anonymous Woman [Possibly Mrs. M. Baesh], Recipe Book, 1640, MS 8086, f. 14, 19, 35B, 54, 81, 94–94B, and 102, Wellcome Library.
7. Anonymous, [possibly “EG”], Recipe Book, 17th c., MS 7391, Wellcome Library.
8. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160, f. 94, Wellcome Library.
9. Mary Chantrell and Others, Recipe Book, 1690, MS 1548, f. 84, Wellcome Library.


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