All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 1

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

La Varenne’s Ham Omelette

(Recipe #76)

Simply take a dozen eggs, and break them, saving only half the egg whites. Beat them together. Take your ham, and prepare as necessary (chop / dice / etc). Mix it with your eggs. Then, take some lard, melt it, and throw it in your eggs, making sure not to overcook the mixture. Serve.

The omelette lulls the novice cook into complacency. While it only requires a few ingredients, it demands skill, confidence, and timing to pull off with panache. One eggshell in the mix, an overly heated pan, or the unsuccessful flip, and the entire effort falls flat. Cooked to perfection, it represents the quintessence of modern French cuisine. It draws together fresh ingredients, developed for flavor. Simplicity and balance marry creamy texture and delicate, fluffy eggs.

Ever curious archivists, we wondered where the omelette made an early impression. We’ll be honest; we were a little hungry that brainstorming day. While this seemingly humble dish has become a brunch and Tuesday evening staple in our repertoires, the hunt was on to find its initial publication in a historic cookbook. A bit of determined searching later, we found a likely early contender.

Le cuisinier françois… Paris: Chez Pierre David, 1652.

In his 1651 cookbook Le Cuisinier François  (hereafter LCF), François Pierre de la Varenne helped transition France away from an Italian-style of cooking requiring expensive imported spices into its modern form. La Varenne was not solely responsible for altering the state of cooking, but he was the first to put these innovations in writing.

LCF contains over eight-hundred recipes divided by courses, soups and broths, starters, second courses, and small dishes. The first recipe describes “La manière de faire le Böuillon pour la nourriture de tous les pots, soit de potage, entrée, ou entre-mets [the manner of making bouillons for stews, soups, main courses, and small dishes]…” Beginning with the basics—seasoning broth—La Varenne built upon foundations to introduce dishes like bisques and pottages.

Instructing cooks to prepare locally-sourced ingredients in a recognizably “French-style” reinforced a sense of transferable cultural heritage connected to food. While the English and Italian cookbooks of its time offered primarily recipes more akin to potions or subsistence-level fare, this book emphasized the development of flavors in seasonal, taste-based dishes. Instead of tending toward preserves and the extension of foodstuff, La Varenne introduced foundational flavoring methods still in use today. La Varenne printed the earliest instructions for the roux, the béchamel sauce, and notably, the omelette.

LCF presupposed readers understood proportions, could adapt ingredients when necessary, and could interpret directions like “heat” or “boil” to suit their “kitchen” environments. By prioritizing the combination of  ingredients for flavor and texture, alongside instructions for presenting the dish in an appealing fashion, La Varenne established a new format for cookbooks. His legacy thus relies both on its place in the history of cooking in France and its status as printed object.

La Varenne, a commoner, started cooking as an apprentice in a local kitchen, participating in the guild system as a cook and eventually rising to the rank of kitchen clerk for Louis Chalon du Blé, Marquis d’Uxelles (1619-1658). As kitchen clerk for the Marquis’s household, La Varenne was responsible for all food service. His rise to this status was exceptional, as the role of kitchen clerk was traditionally reserved for nobility.

His humble roots and unprecedented success perhaps inspired him to share his passion with the general public, who he addressed so fondly throughout his career. In LCF he includes a letter which reads:

Dear Reader, in recompense all that I would ask of you is that my book be for you as pleasurable as it is useful.

By encouraging utility and enjoyment, La Varenne made cooking more than just a necessity, but a skill that could be elevated to an experience in even a modest household.

Cooking in medieval and early modern France had been largely a profession that relied upon oral transmission of secret knowledge through the guild system. Membership within the trade guild established apprenticeships and monitored job opportunities for individual cooks who worked in the large houses of the French aristocracy.

For two centuries prior to La Varenne’s text, perhaps in part due to the control enforced by the guild system, French cuisine languished, with no new cookbooks coming to market. Both English and Italian cookbooks dominated. In placing acquired knowledge in a sustainable, replicable form in the printed book, LCF circumvented time-honored traditions of gaining information. By presenting professional secrets to an open marketplace, this text suggested cooking was within reach for whomever had the means to purchase the book.

This quite naturally spurred controversy within the cooking community and sparked conversations about how much information should be shared. Despite the controversy—or perhaps because of the controversy—given England’s own rocky political situation in the 1650s, LCF was the first known cookbook translated from French in English in 1653. It remained a bestseller in both forms into the eighteenth century. Within the first 75 years, LCF had gone into 30 editions (Scully 11). Its ground-breaking translation, titled The Frenchy Cook, went into 61 editions before 1754.

While moveable type dated back to Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1440s, the seventeenth century encouraged the spread of print culture as general costs went down. Texts like LCF could be more easily exchanged, copied, and even translated for travel across the channel, especially as cities such as Paris and Amsterdam served as printing hubs.

Polly Russell, curator at the British Library,  explains that La Varenne’s cookbook was marketed to ‘every private family, even to the husband-man or labouring-man, wheresoever the English tongue is, or may be used.’ And the cookbook remained an international bestseller until the French Revolution!

To be continued…

From an English translation of La Varenne: The French Cook (London, 1653), p. 95.

Sources

John Crerar Collection of Rare Books in the History of Science and Medicine

La Varenne, François Pierre de, Le Cuisinier François (1651).

La Varenne, François Pierre de, and Scully, Terence. La Varenne’s Cookery : the French Cook ; the French Pastry Chef ; the French Confectioner. Blackawton, Totnes, U.K., Prospect Books, 2006.


About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.

This Month’s Banner: Sin Eating

From: John Frederic Bernard and Bernard Picart, The ceremonies and religious customs of the known world (1737), p. 83. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As you may have noticed, we (try to) change the blog banner once a month — sometimes thematically, sometimes just because the editor that month likes the picture.

This month’s choice is inspired by the darkness of autumn, and the coming of Halloween. It is an engraving by Bernard Picart that shows English funeral customs (including sin eating). You can read more about this fascinating eighteenth-century book here, which considered religion origins and traditions comparatively. But if it’s the sin-eating that has captured your interest, this Atlas Obscura article by Natalie Zarelli offers an excellent introduction to an intriguing subject!

Feeding Under Fire: Medicinal Food

By Simon Walker

When I first began Feeding Under Fire, I was excited for the episode on medicinal food because it offered the chance to combine my public engagement platform and my PhD research into the improvement of soldiers’ bodies in the First World War. Now that the video is up, it is important to consider the role that food played in the improvement and recovery of soldiers’ bodies, while also drawing attention to the peculiarity of medical improvements during the war being supported by traditional recipes.

Let’s start with calories. According to the British Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual soldiers were supposed to receive between 3000 and 5000 calories per day dependant on the strenuousness of their activities.[i]

From: Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual, p. 60.

The manual also notes that a varied and healthily diet was important for ‘general health and liability to disease’.[ii] Obviously, food was an important aspect of keeping men healthy, and meal plans were devised to attempt to ensure that soldiers were getting enough to eat.

Food also played a regenerative role. Within the 1915 Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, several recipes are displayed under the heading ‘When soldiers are required to attend their sick and wounded comrades the following simple recipes are useful’.[iii]

Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, p. 48.

These recipes include ‘Toast and Water’, essentially burnt bread steeped in water, ‘Calves food Jelly’, a citrus treat with sugar that had to simmer for a full day, and the onion porridge from my episode. This dish of boiled onion, salt, pepper, corn flour and butter would be very much at home on the side of a roast dinner, but instead the instructions read ‘eat the porridge just before retiring for the night. This is an excellent remedy for colds’.[iv]

Cook’s Guide And Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, p. 53.

Onions have a long history of being associated with folk medicine. Gabrielle Hatfield, for example, explains that they were already considered a cure for coughs and colds in ancient Egypt.[v] The recipe that is printed in the manual has almost the exact same wording as in Charles Elme Francatell’s 1868 Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, except Francatell’s claims the recipe ‘…was imparted to me by a jolly, warm-hearted Yorkshire farmer’.[vi]

The story for my other recipe, rice water, is similar.  This dish, dating back to ancient Chinese medicine, has hundreds of different versions, including additions of milk, sugar, or fruits, and is found in numerous recipe books including John Milner Fothergill, Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty (1880).

Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty.

It is interesting that while improvements such as blood transfusions, plastic surgery and disease prevention through sanitation and inoculation were being employed. The British army were still somewhat reliant on recipes that soldier’s parents may have just as easily made for them as a home remedy.

Moving to consider those whose maladies carried them off the line and into medical facilities, although some of these home remedies may have remained part of their diet, overall all, food whilst in a hospital bed could be significantly more substantial. After the war, Private George Elder wrote in his memoirs about how being transferred to the hospital could have meant ‘…comfort, good food, bed and skilled attention.[vii]

Towards the end of the RAMC Manual there are several pages of recipes for hospital cooks including, meat dishes, vegetables, breakfast foods, desserts and beverages. Next to Gruel and Stewed Tripe (see Episode 7 of Feeding Under Fire for the “delicious” use of tripe in the trenches), there is also Roast Fowl, Fried Filleted Plaice, Lemon Jelly, and Lemonade.[viii]

These recipes were not only far from the ‘trench’ treatments of a nice bowl of onion porridge, but also seemingly beyond the usual fare that men were getting for their regular meals both in and behind the trenches. They may have been sick, wounded, controlled by tyrannical medical staff and wearing a blue pyjama uniform, but at least it seems the food was good.

Ultimately, food was an important part of maintaining and improving the health of soldiers, but is it interesting to note that in the face of traditional medical dishes being printed in the official military medical handbook, that its seems old remedies still had a place next to ever improving military medical practice.


References

[i] Anon, Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual (London: HMS, 1911), p.60

[ii] Ibid. p.61.

[iii] Anon, Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, (London: HMS, 1915), p.48

[iv] Ibid. p.50.

[v] G. Hatfield, Encyclopaedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions (Oxford: Clio, 2004), p.255.

[vi] C. E. Francatell, Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: Richard Bentley, 1868), p.53.

[vii] G. Elder, From Geordie Land to No Man’s Land, (London: Bloomington, 2011), p.76.

[viii] RAMC Manual, pp.415-426.


About the author

Simon Harold Walker is a Military Medical Historian in the final stages of his PhD at the University of Strathclyde. His PhD Research focuses on how British soldier’s bodies and identities were created, conditioned and controlled over the course of the First World War. He has published on the role of Army Chaplains within the medical services in the First World War and presents a popular YouTube series, Feeding Under Fire, which examines First World War soldier’s food. Simon has also researched inoculation and power and is in the process of researching soldier’s experiences and medicinal food in the First World War.

The Recipe as Feminist Text: A Reflection on the Writing of Preserving on Paper

By Kristine Kowalchuk

Cover illustration of Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books. University of Toronto Press, 2017.

In writing Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, (University of Toronto Press, 2017) I found the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between often came to mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I have long been interested in food and language and the relationship between the two. The most obvious link is, of course, the recipe, but in my own postsecondary education, I always felt somewhat dissatisfied by the scholarship (or lack thereof) I encountered on these.

As a student of science and then of English, I noticed that recipes were either overlooked or disparaged in the courses I took. None of my biology teachers mentioned the role the recipe might have played in the formation of the scientific method (nor did they talk much about the historical context of science at all). And in my English courses, recipes, if considered, were regarded as a non-serious genre that could never be sufficiently contorted to fit literary expectations. Few academics at the time, it seemed, gave recipes much thought and no one seemed to know quite what to do with them. And I kept having this niggling feeling that we were missing something important.

During a graduate research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I accidentally called up a seventeenth-century receipt book. Serendipity! Holding the manuscript in my hands, I felt reverence…and also confusion. I had no paleographical training, so struggled with the recipes themselves, but it was clear there were many different forms of handwriting. Why so many? What explained all the marginal notes and attributions? Who was the author? Weren’t only a few women literate at the time? And what did the manuscripts say about the women themselves?

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 7v-8r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

I ultimately decided to focus on these manuscripts and their relationship to the women who wrote them for my doctoral dissertation (finally, a clear topic!), and I began an archaeological-like digging into the past to try to answer my questions above.

And finally, I stumbled upon the deep and diverse research happening by many scholars on recipes–including the same scholars who contribute to The Recipes Project. I learned how to read seventeenth-century handwriting. I read all kinds of helpful texts on the history of women’s literacy and physical work, on seventeenth-century food and farming, on Galenic understanding of human health and the virtues of plants, on kitchen tools and architecture.

Gradually, I began to piece together a better understanding of the period and of women’s work and writing within it. I completed and defended my dissertation and felt confident about my knowledge in this field of early women’s writing in English.

However, six months after I had successfully defended my dissertation and was teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the book, I was struck by an idea that changed my entire understanding of these manuscripts and of the recipe itself. We were discussing Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and I realized that my own modern assumptions about authorship and subjectivity and “literary” writing had led me, and many others, to miss the point entirely.

Receipt books did not reflect women’s oppression, nor, conversely, did they reflect the rise of modern subjectivity, because women were, until the seventeenth century, already the respected authorities on food and medicine.  Furthermore, they were collective keepers of this knowledge, rather than individual authors or owners. It is this culture, so very different than our own, that is preserved in receipt books – meaning they reflect an end of women’s wider authority rather than a beginning.

Patriarchal values of dominion over nature, individualism, and capitalism arose as new, male-dominated professions – chefs, doctors, and apothecaries – assumed individual authority over women’s collective knowledge and dismissed, ridiculed, and persecuted the women who persisted with special knowledge in food and medicine.

This is the history of the modern cultural view, and our inheritance of it today has caused most of us (including Foucault, who saw the “postauthor utopia” as occurring only in the future, not the past) to largely forget what came before, so that we have been complicit in the continued dismissal of, rather than pride in, both women’s traditional work and the not-so-humble recipe as the material form of this authority.

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 55v-56r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Our modern cultural outlook means we give Francis Bacon credit for creating the scientific method, even though women were cooking and curing at home long before men were performing experiments in labs (and many of us continue to believe that we might be objective observers of nature in the first place).

This culture regards traditional knowledge and household work as less valuable than academic knowledge and professional work. It marginalizes midwives and home care workers and mothers who breastfeed. It rewards celebrity chefs who collect traditional and “country” recipes and sell them in cookbooks under their own name. It subscribes to the cult of the single author. It regards recipes as unimportant. And it sees women’s traditional work as repressive, rather than recognizing its role governing the most critical cultural knowledge.

For this reason, as I say in Preserving on Paper, I see receipt books as “the ultimate feminist texts.”

I also can’t help but see how our cultural amnesia connects to current events related to women’s rights. To understand women’s struggles today, we need to look back and try to understand their origins. It is past time for all of us to deeply consider the particular historical construction of authority in the west, and to recognize that it once looked very different. A recipe for sugar puffs, say, or a remedy for an itch, might at first seem frivolous, but they are in fact windows into a world in which women’s collective authority was assumed.

That’s history worth remembering.