All posts by amandaeherbert

Amanda E. Herbert is Assistant Professor of History at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. She holds the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in History from the Johns Hopkins University, and completed her B.A. with Distinction in History and Germanics at the University of Washington. Her first book, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain, was published by Yale University Press in 2014. She is currently at work on her second book project, Spa: Faith, Public Health, and Science in Early Modern Britain. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaeherbert

Tales from the Archives: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a seasonally-appropriate post by Molly Taylor-Poleskey.  In this piece from January 2014, Taylor-Poleskey discusses the ways that religious beliefs overlaid the cultural meanings – as well as the baking practices – of honey cakes in early modern Prussia.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

How to cure a ‘headache’ in a Mesopotamian way?

Strahil V. Panayotov
(The BabMed, ERC-Project, Free University of Berlin)

In 7th century BC Nineveh, in an area located within today’s much-troubled Iraqi city of Mosul, an astonishing episode of human history occurred. Thousands of texts from all corners of the Assyrian empire were brought into the royal capital of Nineveh in order to create the first universal library in human history. The majority of the excavated tablets are now being kept in the British Museum, London.  (On these tablets, see this article and this post).

Among the texts transported to the Ashurbanipal library, there were works of literature such as the tale of Gilgamesh, written descriptions of rituals and prayers, litanies, explanatory works, and large collections of omens, or royal letters. Numerous collections of healing texts, magical and medical prescriptions, rituals and incantations also found their way into the archives of Nineveh (SAA 7, chapter 7). Among the thousands of manuscripts dealing with healing, one collection stood out. It was written down in cuneiform by highly educated scribes who carefully edited a handbook with medical prescriptions, incantations and rituals on behalf of king Assurbanipal. This handbook was arranged into distinctive series, addressing body parts in a sequential order from head to toe. Each series had its own name and chapter called simply ‘tablets’ in Akkadian. The majority of tablets in this handbook carried the same colophon (i.e. inscription at the end of a tablet with facts about its production):

Palace of Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of the land Assyria, to whom (the gods) Nabû and Tašmētu granted understanding, (who) acquired insight (and) a high level of scribal proficiency, that skill which among the kings, my predecessor(s) no one has acquired. I (i.e. Ashurbanipal) wrote, checked, and collated tablets with medical prescriptions from head to the (toe-) nail, non-canonical material, elaborate teaching(s) (and) the advanced healing art(s) of (the gods) Ninurta and Gula, as much as exists, (and) I placed (them) within my palace for my reading/reciting. (BAK, no. 329)

The colophon illustrates that this collection aimed to include all the existing healing knowledge and to thus create an encyclopaedic handbook that would serve as a reference source for the royal palace. We might imagine that such a precious collection could have been accessed and consulted only by royal or high-profile physicians.

The first series from the handbook was called ‘If a man’s cranium contains heat (fever).’ We will look at the first prescription and incantation of the third tablet (CDLI no. P365746):

Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The third tablet begins accordingly:

If a ‘headache’ due to ghost affliction (lit. ‘Hand of a ghost’) continuously persists in a man’s body and cannot be loosened, (nor) does it cease despite bandage(s) and incantation.

The beginning of this diagnostic part gave the name of the third tablet, since in Mesopotamia the first line of a certain text was used to designate the whole text.

‘Headache’ in its broadest sense is an interpretive translation of the Sumerian term SAG.KI.DAB.BA ‘seized forehead/temple/brow’. The suffering was caused by a ghost, which originated in a diseased person (Geller 2010: 154-55 and passim). The title of this tablet suggests that if a normal treatment with bandage(s) and an incantation were not helping in such a case, one needed special therapies, preserved on the tablet. It contains extraordinary prescriptions and incantations which were specifically designed to counteract a ‘headache’ from a tough ghosts’ afflictions. In the first prescription, directly following the diagnostic part, the healer had to sacrifice a bird, and mix some of its body parts in a resin of a plant. This mixture was then magically enriched with an incantation:

You slaughter a captured goose. You take its blood, its throat, its gullet, its fat, the rind of its gizzard. You char (them) over charcoal. You mix (them) within cedar ‘blood’, and then three times recite the incantation ‘Evil Finger of Mankind’. You repeatedly anoint his head, his hands and everything that affects him and he shall get better. The ‘headache’ will be eradicated. (modified after Scurlock 2006: no. 113)

The animal substances were charred, and subsequently mixed within cedar ‘blood’. The designation cedar ‘blood’ is a metaphor of the sometimes reddish appearance of cedar resin, which flows out of the tree like blood from a body.

Everything was thoroughly mixed and an ointment was created, over which the healer had to recite this incantation:

The pointing of the evil finger of mankind, the evil rumor of the people, the bitter curse of god and goddess, the transgression of the limits of the gods – in order to continually go around safely in the presence of the(se things), to loosen their curse . . . he is the god . . . the regions, [Enki, son] of the Abzu and his son Asalluhi, [gods … : Ea] and his son Marduk, [gods … ] I … have changed …‘hand’ of ghost . . .” (Scurlock 2006: 39, no. 114a; see also p. 113, fn. 389).

Thus, the magical power of the incantation was transferred into the ointment, creating a potent cure. The healer anointed first the head, then the hands and all affected body parts until the ‘headache’ was gone.

Beside the goose’s blood and the fat, body parts and organs connected to food intake and digestion were selected. This suggests a certain symbolic significance: the suffering had to disappear, like the goose digested its food. But, the cure was not only magical. The use of cedar resin implies natural oils with a pleasant smell. It might well be that the fatty ointment had a pleasant smell, which made the patient feel better especially by massaging it into the skin. Thus, magic, massage, and aromatherapy were all part of this prescription.

Similar texts, and possibly fragments belonging to the same tablet (fig. 1), are lying still in the soil of Iraq. We can only hope that the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh, which now lies within occupied Mosul, will not be vandalized again, and blown into the air like Nimrud.

Literature:

BAK = Hunger, H. 1968. Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 2. Neukirchen-Vluyn.

SAA 7 = Fales, M. and Postgate, J. N. 1992. Imperial Administrative Records, Part I. State Archives of Assyria VII. Helsinki.

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden–Boston.

Geller, M. J. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB)–Malden, Mass.

Further Readings:

Finkel, I. L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah. London, pp. 44-45; 60-65.

Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (Link http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/mjw65/jmc/de.html)

Scurlock, J. 2014. Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Writings from the Ancient World 36. Atlanta, Georgia.

A Recipe’s Place is in the Classroom

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  Here, series editor Amanda Herbert discusses the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Test-Kitchen.”  This piece was cross-posted on the Folger’s blog, The Collation, which seeks to present bite-sized pieces of useful information and observations from staff and researchers of the Folger Shakespeare Library.]

Cookery and Medicinal Recipes (c. 1675-c.1750) V.a.429, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library's LUNA: Digital Image Collection.
Cookery and Medicinal Recipes (c. 1675-c.1750) V.a.429, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s LUNA: Digital Image Collection.

Amanda E. Herbert

The Folger Shakespeare Library is many things: an internationally-renowned research library, a museum, a performance space, a center for innovative digital initiatives.  But it’s also a classroom, or even many different kinds of classrooms: education is central to the Folger mission, and every year the Folger offers hundreds of programs designed for all kinds of classrooms, from bright, lively elementary-school homerooms to spare, echoing college lecture halls, and from traditional school-houses filled with desks and chalkboards, to pioneering online learning communities populated by students from around the world.

This past summer, the Folger created a special kind of classroom: a test-kitchen.  The Folger’s test-kitchen was used during a week-long skills course in paleography (the study of handwriting) for scholars who study the early modern period (c. 1450-1750).  Under the direction of Folger Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe, the students in this workshop learned how to read and transcribe early modern handwritten documents.  They did this through their own “hands-on” work: scrutinizing letters, notebooks, and diaries written by women and men hundreds of years ago, experimenting with historical writing materials (bird-feather quills, iron gall ink, and rag paper), and – best of all, from my perspective – bringing an old recipe to life.  Our paleography students used a recipe taken from an early modern book (Folger V.a.429) to make an early modern dish: Almond Jumballs, a sweet, cookie-like confection that was a popular treat in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Ingredients for our modern Jumballs. Image courtesy of the author.
Ingredients for our modern Jumballs. Image courtesy of the author.

Kitchens are my favorite kinds of classrooms, and recipes are my favorite teaching tools.  I’ve written about using recipes in my own higher-education classrooms.  Friends and colleagues have also used them to great effect in elementary/primary schools, high schools, and in museum and library programming intended for members of the general public.  Recipes seem simple, and they seem approachable and even familiar, and for this reason they draw in people of all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and kinds.  But once you start to examine a recipe more closely, it reveals incredibly rich, complex details about the moment and place in which it was written: recipes tell us about socioeconomics, migration and immigration patterns, and religious prohibitions and practices.  They teach us about environmental policies, agriculture and sustainability, foodways, and cultivation practices.  They offer evidence of mercantilism and trade, of culture and aesthetics and taste.  They tell stories of war, dearth, and conflict as well as those of peace and plenty.

Toasting almond flour in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.
Toasting almond flour in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.

Under the guidance of Marissa Nicosia (Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature at Penn State Abingdon, a Folger fellowship recipient, and the co-creator of Cooking the Archive, a blog devoted to re-creating historical foods) our paleography students read, studied, and transcribed the Almond Jumball (pronounced like “jumble” with a hard J) recipe.  There’s an excellent post on Cooking the Archive which provides a step-by-step description of the experiment, and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in re-creating the recipe yourself.  I’d also recommend two Folger food resources: a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast featuring Wendy Wall, where she talks about her new book, Recipes for Thought, and our Shakespeare & Beyond blog post on early modern food culture and food in Shakespeare’s plays.

But there were also some larger scholarly lessons that we took away from our afternoon in the Folger test-kitchen.  The ingredients in the Jumball recipe included almonds, orange-flower water, and about a pound of sugar, and it called for the use of a kitchen “syringe,” a specialized instrument used by chefs for piping and shaping foods; all of these things were high-end, valuable commodities in the early modern period, and suggest that the Jumballs would have been commissioned and consumed by higher-status people, even if the labor involved in making them might have fallen to lower-status ones.  The recipe’s instructions called for the combination of “shelf-stable” ingredients in stages, which would have kept the food from spoiling and allowed the maker to start and stop cooking at intervals, a gendered, pre-industrial labor pattern common to early modern households.  And the recipe, like the book in which it was contained, was possibly collaborative, as the collection was compiled by several women from the same family: Rose Kendall, Ann Kendall Carter, Elizabeth Clarke, and Anna Maria Wentworth.  Despite their familial ties, the authors did not, however share chronological or geographic ones: the book was compiled gradually, over the course of about forty years (c. 1682-1726), and members of the family lived in locations across England, including Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bedfordshire, and London.

Heating sugar syrup in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.
Heating sugar syrup in the Folger Test-Kitchen. Image courtesy of the author.

The time that it took to make the Jumballs in the Folger test-kitchen was brief, lasting only a few hours, but the exercise has continued to make me think.  The Almond Jumball recipe seems to offer just the smallest scrap of evidence about the early modern world.  But through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.  Although the charm and ostensible simplicity of historical recipes draw many people in to study the past, it’s the big-picture ideas engendered in their study which help to demonstrate the value and impact of our scholarly work.  This is the kind of payoff that we can expect from recipes, and it’s why they’re wonderful pedagogical tools, suited to all types of classrooms.

The Literary Cookbook

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, Carrie Helms Tippen offers her thoughts on teaching food-writing and food-reading, and on the future of the culinary literary imagination.]

Photo of the author. Credit to Whitney Sawyer Photography.
Photo of the author. Credit to Whitney Sawyer Photography.

By Carrie Helms Tippen

I often come across people who tell me that they collect cookbooks, and I always ask them: “Which ones do you use? And which ones do you read?

The thing I love most about studying cookbooks as a career is that I can talk about my research with almost anyone. The conversations are always rich, whether I’m talking to the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office, the woman who cuts my hair, or my university’s president.

Last month, on a layover between flights, I was talking cookbooks with the woman next to me at the gate. She always kept one or two new cookbooks on her nightstand and read them at night when she couldn’t sleep. “Only you would get this,” she said to me and patted my knee like an old friend.

Of course, I’m not the only one who gets this. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues in “Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performance Medium” that experienced cookbook readers approach cookbooks as imaginative texts to be read, and perhaps never used: “Cookbooks, now more than ever, are a way of eating by reading recipes and looking at photographs. Those books may never see the kitchen. Indeed, experienced readers can sight-read a recipe the way a musician sight-reads a score. They can ‘play’ the recipe in their mind’s eye.”

Just as an experienced reader of fantasy novels can conjure an entire world by reading words on a page, a cookbook reader imagines a recipe like a narrative in which the reader is the protagonist, chopping, sauteeing, seeing, smelling, and tasting.

Moreover, today’s cookbooks come packed with stories in long narrative prefaces, chapter introductions, and recipe headnotes. The reader may be the protagonist of the recipe, but the cookbook author provides pages and pages of autobiographical narrative and anecdote.

Take, for example, Ruth Reichl’s 2015 cookbook, My Kitchen Year. Reichl documents the “136 Recipes that Saved My Life” in the year after Gourmet magazine closed and her job as editor in chief disappeared. The recipes are arranged as they appear in the story of that year: the Shirred Eggs with Potato Puree that Reichl made for breakfast on the day the closing was announced, the Thai-American Noodles she made for lunch while thinking, “I’d spent too many years trading time for money. Was I better off now?” The chapters are divided by season, and each chapter is arranged chronologically, organized around Reichl’s tweets from that season. It is clear that the book is intended to be read, in order, from front to back, like a memoir.

In her blurb on the back cover, famed chef Alice Waters highlights the narrative quality of Reichl’s book: “Ruth is one of our greatest storytellers,” Waters writes. “This book is a lyrical and deeply intimate journey told through recipes, as only Ruth can do.” The product being sold is a story, and Reichl is the protagonist.

While there is an alphabetical recipe index at the back, the book does not lend itself to recipe browsing by course or ingredient. Of course, the cookbook can be used. Reichl encourages readers in “A Note on the Recipes” to innovate with the recipes in this book: “What I really want is for my recipes to become your own.”

However, even the cooking is meant to be an imaginative practice involving Reichl’s persona as character. Reichl describes recipes as “conversations” between herself and the reader, and she encourages readers to imagine “we were standing in the kitchen, cooking together.” Reichl asks to be included as a character in the kitchen performance. The intimacy established between author and reader in reading is continued even when imagination turns to creative action in the kitchen.

Bedside Reading: An incomplete collection of 21st century Literary Cookbooks. Credit to Carrie Helms Tippen.
Bedside Reading: An incomplete collection of 21st century Literary Cookbooks. Credit to Carrie Helms Tippen.

I call this type of cookbook made for reading a “literary cookbook.” The focus is on an encounter with the authorial persona, and often, the writers of these cookbooks are well-known as “authors” in their own rights. In each, the organization, tone, language, narrative, and marketing of the book all guide the beholder into the role of imaginative reader first and user second, if at all.

This spring, I will teach a course called “The Literary Cookbook” for graduate and undergraduate students in Creative Writing, and Reichl is up first on the syllabus. The course will focus on the cookbook as a literary genre with its own set of conventions. We’ll talk first about how to read a literary cookbook, and then we’ll think about how to go about writing one.

“Recipe writing is a direct reflection of culture,” Reichl writes in the Prologue to My Kitchen Year, “which means that it changes along with the times.” For now, the times seem to be pointing to a cookbook reading experience that merges literary imagination with creative kitchen action.

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Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carrie studies literary food writing and food in literature. She teaches courses in American Literature and Creative Writing. Her work has been published in Food and Foodways, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society. Her ongoing book project, titled Stories of Southern Cooking: Defining Authentic New Southern Identity in Recipe Origin Narratives, examines the rhetorical value of proving authenticity in contemporary cookbooks.