Early Modern Comfort Foods

By Amanda E. Herbert

Today we associate “comfort foods” with tradition, indulgence, and familiarity.  These humble but beloved foods have received a lot of recent attention from cooks and culinary specialists – the Guardian food blog even produced a full-page spread of its favourites last month.  But what were the early modern equivalents of comfort foods?  And how did early modern people feel about incorporating new or exotic foods into their diets?

A recipe collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts helps to reveal culinary adaptations made by early modern Britons: this is the Charles Brigham Account Book.[1]  Like many early modern manuscript recipe collections, the Brigham book had multiple author-compilers, and was maintained over a long period of time, for nearly one hundred years (c. 1650-1730).  Although little is known about the provenance of the book, at one point it was “given to Sarah [by her mother] when she moved to Grafton amonst the Indians [in] 1731…so that she could do her own Cooking & [doctoring] as there was no Dr in the county.”  This was probably Sarah Prentice (1716-1792), whose ownership mark appears in the book, and who was married to the Rev. Solomon Prentice (1705-1773), the first minister of Grafton, Massachusetts.

But the Brigham Account Book did not originate in Massachusetts.  Early entries in the book suggest that it was instead created in Britain.  It was first compiled by “Anna Cromwell,” who labeled the text “my booke of receipts December the 23 1650.”  Cromwell included a recipe for “fitts of the mother,” which encouraged readers to purchase ingredients from “Mr. Seamer an appothicary over against Aldermanberry Church [London].”  Another one of Cromwell’s recipes taught how “to make a Lestershiere plover.”  As later author-compilers made their own contributions to the book (it contains six different ownership marks), each added their own familiar, go-to recipes.  Some of these “comfort foods” had Scots influences, such as one “to make Skinke” (soup made from beef shin, traditionally from Scotland), and another “to make a haggesse pudding.”[2]  One or more of the compilers also had access to an extensive library of British gardening, cooking, and natural history texts.  The manuscript contains recipes copied from Digbys Closset and Verulams Nat Hist–and specifically fruit wine and cider recipes from Wordlidge Vinet Brit.[3]  There’s even a recipe for “Damson wine with Raysons, Woolley” which matches, ingredient for ingredient, a recipe in Hannah Woolley’s Queen-Like Closet (London, 1670).

But towards the end of the book, the recipes begin to reflect the influence of trans-Atlantic commerce, travel, and trade.  The recipe “to sauce a turkie like stargion [sturgeon]” suggests that one of authors learned how to cook “new world” breeds of animals, like turkeys, by preparing them in the same familiar, comforting way as fish eaten regularly in Britain.  Later recipes in the book celebrate the new plants and foods that were at colonists’ disposals; one recipe “to cleanse a skurffy skin” instructed practitioners to “bath the place where the scurff is with spirit of nicotiane,” a reference to Nicotiana tabacum, or tobacco.  Another recipe provided directions for making “jockaleta biskits,” or chocolate biscuits.[4]  Lists of accounts at the back of the book note the sums paid by the one of the book’s owners for “2 gallons of Rum of River Town,” as well as “2 galons molasses,” and “5 pnd of tobacco,” all popular colonial commodities.  Marginalia, too, reflect a change in geographical perspective, with authors centering themselves in British America rather than in Britain.  The author of a recipe for “incomparable cosmetick of pearl,” noted that “this is one of the most exelent beautifiers in the world this oil if weel prepared is richly worth seven pound an ounce in England.”

The increasing prevalence of “new world” recipes, as well as these subtle geographical and rhetorical shifts, suggest that the Brigham Account Book made a trans-Atlantic voyage sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably carried by one of its owners as they journeyed to a new life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As people struggled to adapt to colonial environments, familiar recipes and remedies from home could have provided comfort to colonial British Americans. Manuscript recipe books, handed down between family members and friends over generations, surely provided important and lasting senses of connection with loved ones who had been left behind. The Brigham book also reveals the adaptability of these early colonists, and demonstrates how recipe authors used their books to learn about and use the plants, animals, and foodstuffs available to them in their new home.

Thanks to Molly Warsh and James Roberts for their help with this post!

[1] Charles Brigham Account Book, MMS Dept., Folio Vols. “B,” American Antiquarian Society.  Charles Brigham was another early resident of Grafton, MA, and his ownership mark also appears in the book.

[2] For more on haggis recipes and their possible origins, see Chris Hilton’s Recipes Project post on Robert Burns Day here.

[3] Probably references to Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie (London, 1669); Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: or A Naturall Historie (London, 1627); John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider (London, 1678).

[3] In the late seventeenth century, “jacolatta” or “jockelatte” were common terms for chocolate.  For example, Samuel Pepys called the cacao-based drink “Jocolatte” when consuming it at a London coffee-house on 24 November 1664.  For more on early modern chocolate, see Amy Tigner’s Recipes Project posts here.


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