Finding Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I am a big fan of Epicurious and especially their ever-useful iPhone app. I have spent many happy hours browsing whilst waiting for various trains, buses and planes. As those of you familiar with these sorts of recipe sites know, the Epicurious site and app have a ‘favorites’ feature where you can your selected recipe in a virtual recipe box with the click of a button.

Recently, I have started to commute to work on the train and have accumulated a large number of ‘favourites’.  One thing I did not realize while happily click-click-clicking away, is that while the site/app allows flexible searching (ingredient, cuisine, meal, season, occasion and more), you can only organize your virtual recipe box alphabetically or by date of entry.  As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of frustration to the working-mother looking for a recipe on the fly in the supermarket at 6 p.m. That got me thinking: perhaps this is the reason that we find so many different methods of information management (as Ann Blair calls it) in our early modern recipe books.[1]  Easy information retrieval and instant access to practical knowledge would have driven early modern recipe compilers to adopt and adapt available paper technologies.[2]

Paper technologies were employed to manage recipes in a variety of ways.  While some compilers were content to mix together different kinds of practical knowledge–so recipes to make cakes could be next to cough remedies–others were keen to create distinct repositories for medical, culinary and preserving know-how. Some compilers such as Lady Johanna St. John (1631-1705) of Battersea Park, London and Lydiard Park, Swindon, simply used separate notebooks for medical and culinary information.[3] But St. John was not the only one who invested in multiple notebooks. For example, Lady Francis Catchmay instructed her eldest son William to ensure that other members of the Catchmay family have access to her multiple books of recipes.[4]  Mother and daughter, Margaret Boscawen and Bridget Boscawen Fortescue also used several different notebooks to organize and sort their medical and natural knowledge. [5]

Of course, as we all know, paper was not cheap in the early modern period and so not all recipe compilers had the luxury of owning multiple books.  Other compilers took to what Jonathan Gibson terms the ‘reverse casting-off of blanks’.[6]  That is, the manuscript creator first enters recipes in the front of a bound notebook, turns the book upside down and then enters other recipes in what was the ‘back’ of the volume. Interestingly, as Gibson tells us, this was a strategy widely adopted by manuscript creators to organize all sorts of miscellaneous information from literary material to household accounts.  Within the realm of household recipe books, one particularly pretty example of this practice is Lady Ayscough’s book, one of the first manuscripts collected by Henry Wellcome.[7]

These strategies allowed users to compartmentalize different kinds of knowledge.  If we return to my pre-dinner panics in the local supermarket, it is interesting to ask how early modern compilers ensured speedy information retrieval.  After all, many recipe compilers tended to write down their recipes as the information presented itself, i.e. organization by date-of-entry.  In these cases, the ever-handy table of contents or an alphabetically organized index does the job. As those familiar with early modern household books well know, many of these information retrieval strategies are written in a different hand to the main body of the text, suggesting that they were added to the volumes part-way through the compilation process. Perhaps, like me, our early modern compilers also got frustrated with a chronological listing of recipes.

Of course, these adopted information retrieval strategies also need not be permanent.  After all, there is nothing to stop you from rewriting your table of contents.  Scattered throughout the recipe archive are families who made multiple attempts to create useful finding aids.  The Arcana Fairfaxiana, for example, preserves two versions of Henry Fairfax’s meticulous table of contents.[8]  Not satisfied with his first attempt, Henry happily crossed it out and started again.  As I fiddle with my phone and toggle through all the myriad of recipes on my Epicurious app just to locate the right ‘thing’ for dinner tonight, I wish that rewriting the search function for my Epicurious app could be just as easy as rewriting the table of contents á la Henry Fairfax.

Finally, the archive also presents us with more elaborate uses of paper technologies.  For example, some compilers such as Philip Stanhope, the first Earl of Chesterfield and the Lady Johanna St. John, sectionalized their notebooks into alphabetical units.  Recipes are then entered into the relevant sections as they arrive in the hands of the compilers. While this method sounds meticulous and organized, as I’ll explore in another post, alphabetization brings with it a whole load of other issues…


[1] Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

[2] Anke te Heessen, ‘The Notebook: A Paper-Technology’, in Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. B. Latour and P. Weibel (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press), 582-589.

[3] St. John mentions the two separate recipe books in her will of 1704 (PRO PROB 11/480/426).  Her medically orientated ‘great receipt book’ is now in the Wellcome Library (MS 4338).

[4] Like St. John, only one of Catchmay’s multiple books have survived and it is in the Wellcome Library (MS 184a). A tantalizing note on the front flyleaf of the manuscript refers to ‘This Booke with the others of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye’ alluding to Catchmay’s other receipt books.

 [5] Anne Stobart, ‘The Making of Domestic Medicine: Gender, Self-Help and Therapeutic Determination in Household Healthcare in South-West England in the Late Seventeenth Century’ (Middlesex University, Unpublished PhD thesis, 2008), 43.

[6] Jonathan Gibson, ‘Casting off Blanks: Hidden Structures in Early Modern Paper Books’ in James Daybell and Peter Hinds (eds.), Material Readings of Early Modern Culture. Texts and Social Practices 1580-1730 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 208-228 (209).

[7] Frances Larson, An Infinity of Things. How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37. The manuscript is now Wellcome Library MS 1026.

[8] George Weddell (ed.), Arcana Fairfaxiana Manuscripta. A Manuscript Volume of Apothecaries’ Lore and Housewifery nearly Three Centuries Old, Used and Partly Written by the Fairfax Family (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Mawson, Swan and Morgan 1890).


2 thoughts on “Finding Recipes”

  1. I just bought Ann Blair’s book – it arrived yesterday. Very interesting that ‘information management’ is a hot topic with historians as with everyone else, right now. You’ve just inspired me for my next post here…!

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