Recipes in space (domestically speaking…)

By Sara Pennell

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. "The Kitchen Companion and House-keeper's Own Book ... [Cover]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1844. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/67adab53-a909-2adb-e040-e00a18065a56
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. “The Kitchen Companion and House-keeper’s Own Book … [Cover]” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1844. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/67adab53-a909-2adb-e040-e00a18065a56
What spaces do recipes occupy? They occupy a distinctive place on the page and might take up a few inches of shelf-space, when bound together. But these textual traces are only the runes of practice; as such, while they survive in one textual dimension for us to recover as historians, they occupied space and travelled through it in being transmitted, written out or printed, and of course, made.

In two recent posts, the spaces in which recipes might have materialized have been touched upon. Rachel Rich reported on how dishes realized from recipe books might have sat on imaginary and real Victorian dining tables, in dining rooms that were the recommended place for eating, where domestic space afforded such luxuries. William Cavert took us into seventeenth-century London commercial breweries, to think about the consumption of coal as a hidden ingredient in recipes for beer production.

But the kitchen, the space which one might associate most with recipes and their creation/recreation, is surprisingly absent from the majority of blogposts here. The ‘kitchens’ tag is applied to only three other posts – including one on the technology transformations of the mid-Victorian kitchen; and one on twentieth-century Louisiana creole cuisine. The word ‘kitchen’ crops up in other blogs, but mainly as an unexplored descriptor: ‘kitchen workers’, or as a caption to an image, ‘a kitchen interior’. Recipes have come to embody, but as importantly hide, the physical space of the kitchen. Indeed some authors use ‘kitchen’ to mean cuisine, as in the food culture of a period or place, rather than primarily thinking of it as a space and material assembly.[1]

BEKcoverSerious histories of the kitchen as a domestic space are thin on the ground, at least for Britain before 1800, which may explain in part why recipes have so often been decoupled from where they might be made. In my new book, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850 (Bloomsbury, 2016) I’ve reunited recipes, food processing and ‘kitchen physic’–as well as childcare, leisure and domestic religion–with the room which we so glibly call today ‘the heart of the home’. In this way, my book is less about food than it is the spatial stories of the kitchen and how these discourses developed circa 1600 to 1850. Many do involve food and eating, especially in non-elite households without dining rooms, but there are also architectural, technological and cultural strands to unpick.

The distinctions we can make between types of recipe–distilling and brewing, veterinary, dyeing, cosmetic and medical, conserving and preserving–are as much about spaces as processes. Householders’ social status and geography, as well as the ends of production (for home or for commerce?), profoundly influenced where a recipe might be realized: kitchens of different sizes and sophistication, stillrooms, closets and larders, apothecary shops and cookshops, dye houses and breweries…

Even within domestic households, different types of recipes were practised in different spaces. What came out of a kitchen in an aristocratic house like Ham House (Surrey, National Trust) was not the same as what issued from its purpose-built stillroom (still in existence), or its meat larder, as surviving seventeenth-century inventories of equipment kept in these rooms document. (2) And these spaces tell very different stories about the environmental conditions  and technological requirements of production: the stillroom on the ground floor, light but north-facing, well-ventilated to take off the fumes from the charcoal stoves (listed in the inventories); the kitchen at basement level, possibly located there not only as a nod to continental architectural aesthetics, but also to aid delivery of water from the local spring.

The energy transition to coal that William Cavert discusses, was also a domestic revolution. Cooking hearths were transformed by burning coal instead of wood, peat or other fuels. What did this then mean for adapting early modern recipes? Coal ranges meant different hearth arrangements and the potential for new cooking kit, too. Mechanical roasting jacks and flat-bottomed sauce- and stewpans were not just harbingers of culinary shifts, but of technological reorganization. What was elaborate and aspirational for the seventeenth-century well-to-do classes (e.g. instructions for pastryworks or other baked confections), became commonplace by the late-eighteenth century. The later print and manuscript recipes for biscuits and cakes signaled the renaissance of home-baking–fuelled (literally) by the incorporation of ovens into ranges or as separate features in middling kitchens.

Illustrated frontispieces in printed English recipe books from the late seventeenth century onwards fed readers ideas about ‘dream’ kitchens. Few illustrations represented real kitchens–although there is one honourable exception in the mid-nineteenth century [3], just as few menus in the same books necessarily recorded what was actually eaten at elite or middling tables. But the frontispieces themselves are a recipe for the reader: they propose what spatial and equipment ingredients made ‘the compleat housewife’ of the early eighteenth century and the modern systematic housekeeper of the early nineteenth century.

As with all recipes, the reader had to contribute something to the creation of these spaces in real life. Alongside the food preparation and other work that occurred in the kitchen, the aspiring housewife needed to accommodate architectural constraints, technological challenges, domestic service (where it could be afforded) and other household occupants–lodgers, children, dogs and even the odd parrot!  The kitchen may have been the cookery book’s idealized home, but in this crowded space, recipes and their realization were (and are) only one of the ingredients in its spatial story.

To understand recipes as practical texts, therefore, we need to think not only about the words on the page, but also about the spaces and materials that enabled (or no less importantly, inhibited) their making.

[1] E.g. Hannele Klemettilä, The Medieval Kitchen: a Social History with Recipes (Reaktion, 2012).

[2] These are fully transcribed in Christopher Rowell, ed., Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage (Yale, 2013).

[3] George Scharf’s c. 1850 sketch of the publisher John Murray’s kitchen (now in the British Museum) became the frontispiece to the publisher’s 1850 edition of Eliza Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery.


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