Recipe Organization: It’s not as easy as A, B, C.

By Elaine Leong

In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of a flexible search engine and information management technologies in the ‘favourites’ recipe box of the Epicurious iPhone app.  While still declaring my adoration for the app, I would like to talk a little more about issues of categorization in alphabetical information organization.

Now some of you might wonder, is she seriously offering a post about information categorization and alphabetization? Well, yes I am! And I bet this will even spark debate around your dinner table tonight!

Why don’t I start by sharing with you some of the recipes in the ‘B’ section of my Epicurious app recipe box: Baked pork chops with a parmesan sage crust, Baltimore crab cakes, Barbecue turkey burgers, Bass with herbed rice, Beef stroganoff and Blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

Of course, this is a historical recipes blog and so why don’t we pair this with a look a few of the recipes under ‘B’ in Johanna St John’s alphabetically organized mid-seventeenth century recipe book: for a kanker in a woman’s Brest, Dr Mathias for the whites and the weaknes in the Back, for a Bone ach excellent,[1] for Bleeding at the nose, For a Blast or the poison of the Toad,[2] for any knob or hardnes in the Brest or milk quard,[3] For the Bitting of a mad dog never failing and Mr Boyles Balsame of Sulphire.[4]

As you can see, inadvertently, the electronic search engines of the Epicurious iPhone app used several different knowledge categories to create the list of my favourite recipes beginning with ‘B’.  Here we have cooking method (baked, barbecue), locality (Baltimore) and ingredient (bass, beef and blueberry).  Johanna St. John, too, uses several different categories: parts of the body (breast, back, bone), action (bleeding), type of medicament (balsame), and external actions on the body (blast, dog bites).

Alphabetization and categorization is not as simple as A, B, C. While it is obvious that the Epicurious app merely assumed that the first word of each recipe title represented the key word, Johanna St. John’s parameters for categorization are not so clearly laid out. In fact, it appears that she herself was unsure about particular groupings and, in a later reading of the books, re-categorized a number of recipes.  Take a look at this folio, from the ‘W’ section, below:

Wellcome Western MS 4338, fols. 210v-211r.

 Many of the recipes on this page are to be used during childbirth. Some ease the experience of the mother-to-be, while others address potential complications.  In my mind, these recipes were first collected in the ‘W’ section as St. John saw them as a cohesive body of knowledge dealing with Women’s health concerns. However, if you look closely, you can also see a number of letters written to the right of the recipe titles.  Thus, a ‘D’ is written next to ‘To hasten delivery’, a ‘R’ next to ‘For an immoderate flux of the Redds’ and a ‘G’ next to ‘A Glister to be given in labor’ and so on…

Initially, these letters baffled me but after a bit of pondering, I realized that they are records of St. John’s second attempt to categorize her book of medical knowledge. Evidently, the second time round, she decided that a remedy to haste Delivery should be filed under ‘D’ rather than ‘W’, and that the ‘Redds’ and ‘Glister’ are the keywords in the other two recipes. St. John’s first pass at categorization suggests that, for her at least, there is a defined body of knowledge dealing with women’s health issues. In her second pass, this knowledge was folded into the rest of her collection.

So, where recipes are concerned at least, our methods of categorization are revealing of how we imagine and view bodies of knowledge. They also, as we now know, play a crucial role on whether we can ever find the required recipe again.  After all, I don’t immediately look under ‘B’ for pork chops or crab cakes, do you?


[1] Wellcome Library, Western MS 4338, fol. 14r.  For emphasis, I have capitalized and put in bold what I think are the relevant ‘B’s in these recipe titles.

[2] Ibid., fol. 14v.

[3] Ibid., fol. 16r.

[4] Ibid., fols. 17r and 18r.


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