Recipes and the Unanticipated

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, Jen Munroe discusses the unintended – and wonderful – consequences of bringing recipes and transcription into the curricula.]

Hubert Robert (French, 1733 - 1808) A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery, about 1765, Red chalk 45.7 × 33.7 cm (18 × 13 1/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Hubert Robert (French, 1733 – 1808)
A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery, about 1765, Red chalk
45.7 × 33.7 cm (18 × 13 1/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

By Jennifer Munroe

Teaching recipe transcription has become a regular part of my classroom practice. And the more I teach about recipes and transcription, the more I’m convinced that one could do so in virtually any class context. The connections are there in more obvious ways when I am teaching a course on early modern texts and culture—a graduate seminar on knowledge-making in the period or an undergraduate/graduate “Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory” course, for instance. Its relevance is perhaps less obvious to an “Introduction to Graduate Studies” or “Ecological Theory” course, but the import of recipes and transcription have resonated in ways that neither I nor the students anticipated.

My focus here is on the unanticipated consequences of teaching recipes, on the ways that they have come to the connective tissue between theory and practice not only for me as a scholar, but in my classroom and beyond. In spring 2015, I had the pleasure of teaching “Thinking Green: Ecological Theory” to a group of some of the most talented graduate students in our Master’s program. In that course, I introduced them to early modern manuscript recipes, to the practice of transcription, and to the Folger’s incredible transcription software, Dromio. As we turned to the opening page of “A Booke of such medicines as have been approved by the special practize of Mrs. Corlyon” (Folger MS v.a.388) with our focus on ecological theory meant that we asked questions about how the recipe for “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb, or any other soore Eye” related to how it reflects the relationship between the practitioner and the nonhuman world. But something else happened in that classroom, something I didn’t expect: the ink on the page, the curious qualities of stamped wild daisies and yellowing honey, the “soft fier” compelled the students, made them obsessed, really, to do more.

That one class period on recipes turned into a summer-long directed reading of transcription, which then became a full-on student organization on campus committed to the study and transcription of recipes: that is, the several hours of discussion I planned became much bigger than I or that group of students in the room with me. It was in that room, and because of Mrs. Corlyon, that EMPS (the Early Modern Paleography Society) was born.

Our summer of transcription was, then, without our realizing it at the time, a prelude to these amazing students fully embracing their obsession with early modern recipes. True to their fashion, the students who did the Directed Reading with me during the summer wanted a special challenge: not only did they want more transcription, they wanted a more difficult hand. So we turned to Lady Frances Catchmay’s “A booke of medicens” (Wellcome MS 184a), a difficult book in multiple hands, including secretary. Over the summer, these students became more than familiar with this challenging book and its component parts; they became fluent with the particulars of early modern handwriting, of the domestic practice and relation to the household and its surrounds articulated in the book. Such fluency laid the groundwork for the year that followed, in which these impressive students joined with others and made early modern recipes have a greater presence in our English department and on our campus.

In fall, 2015, Breanne Weber, Taryn Dollings, Kailan Sindelar, Robin Kello, and Nadia Clifton became the co-founders of an official UNC Charlotte campus organization, EMPS. [Editor’s Note: in our next post, the members of the EMPS offer their own post on their group and its activities.]  Over the course of the academic year, EMPS transcribed one full book during their regular meetings—the “Cookbook of Mary Cruso and Timothy Cruso” (Folger MS x.d.24), composed blogs about their experiences (which were featured on the EMROC website), and hosted a transcribathon where they transcribed a second book, an anonymous 17th century cookbook (Folger MS w.b.653). At the transcribathon, they also served candied angelica (which they made using a recipe from the Cruso book) and hosted a panel of faculty, graduate students, and an employee of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, who grew the angelica for the event. The panel discussed a range of topics from researching early modern recipes to growing and harvesting plants to the relationship between recipes, domestic practice, and sustainability issues today. And more than 70 students, faculty, and others participated in the transcribathon, a much higher turnout than achieved for most campus events.

What began with a handful of students in a small classroom with no windows over a year ago, then, transformed into something much bigger, something very much unanticipated. And isn’t that one of the things recipes do? They remind us that what we think might happen doesn’t always happen, or at least it doesn’t always happen in the ways we expect; and their sphere of influence extends beyond the individual to the others, the many named and unnamed whose practice is contained in their pages.

*****

Jennifer Munroe is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches courses in early modern English poetry and prose, Shakespeare, ecofeminism and ecocriticism, gender studies, literary theory, and film. She is co-author (with Rebecca Laroche) of the forthcoming Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (Bloomsbury/Arden, 2017), author of Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature (Ashgate, 2008), and editor of Making Gardens of Their Own: Gardening Manuals For Women, 1550-1750 (Ashgate, 2007). Munroe is co-editor (also with Rebecca Laroche) of Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (Palgrave, 2011); and with Lynne Bruckner and Edward J. Geisweidt of Ecological Approaches to Early Modern Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching (Forthcoming. Ashgate, 2015). She has published articles in Shakespeare Studies, Tulsa Studies for Women’s Literature, Prose Studies, Early Modern Studies Journal, Renaissance Studies, and Pedagogy. Munroe is currently working on a monograph, an ecofeminist literary history of science that examines the relationship between women’s everyday practices, nature, and writing in seventeenth-century England. In addition, Munroe is a founding member and blogger for EMROC (Early Modern Recipes Online Collective), a group that is developing a public-access database of transcribed manuscript recipe materials from the early modern period. Munroe’s work with EMROC stems from her interest in making women’s manuscript recipes (and the way women’s everyday practices with plants in particular are instructive about their relationship with the nonhuman natural world) available to a wider public as well as from her commitment to collaborative research.


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