Category Archives: Digital History

Quantities in Recipes

In my post last month, I discussed an online course in which students contributed their transcriptions of Lady Frances Catchmay‘s recipe book to the Textual Communities site.  Two of these students from Fall 2013 continued their work in the spring, and this post and the next are the results of some of their research.  – Rebecca Laroche

By Kayla Perkins

While transcribing a rather long recipe, “A good Receyte to make matheglin” from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript, I came across a peculiar phrase, “. . .toe hundred gallans of fayre water or more. . .” Two hundred gallons?! Even now that would be quite a feat.  Why so much water? This question drove me to discover what Metheglin is and if using such amounts of water was common practice.

Metheglin is a spiced or medicated variety of mead, originally popular in Wales. Starting with the Wellcome’s amazing cache of recipe manuscripts, I first compared Catchmay’s recipe to six others. Each recipe I read through made Catchmay’s preparation more unique, and they were all variants of each other. Despite the variants, however, there are aspects that each of the recipes share.

For instance, in preparing Metheglin, the two main ingredients are equal parts honey and water boiled together. They are continually boiled until the mixture can ‘bear an egg.’ Catchmay does not include this step within her recipe, which places hers in the minority. For each recipe, the quantities of honey and water vary quite a bit. Where Catchmay calls for two hundred gallons of water, the recipes of Mrs. Carr call for just five gallons, and another recipe calls for just a few quarts.

An assortment of herbs and spices is then added to the brew, the most common among the recipes being ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Catchmay is again differentiating here; her preparation does not call for just a handful of herbs. She has the longest, most detailed list for ingredients required. Not only does she advise when it is best to gather these herbs;[1] she also provides directions on how to clean and prepare said herbs.

While the Metheglin is fermenting one has to periodically skim barm off the top. The liquid is then stored in a variety of containers with directions on how long it keeps and when it should be consumed. Thanks to the honey, Metheglin keeps for quite a while. I believe that is why Catchmay chose to prepare such large batches.

Each recipe shows the different levels of what the compiler expects from her reader. Catchmay is extremely detailed with her ingredients, how they should be prepped, and gives an almost exhaustive description of Metheglin’s preparation. The Jacob recipe, however, is not overly detailed. While, one would like to assume that Catchmay was able to read through and gain inspiration from the others. This is not the case as Catchmay’s manuscript dates to around 1625 and the earliest (Elizabeth Jacobs) of the other recipes is dated at 1654. The six recipes in the Wellcome catalog that I read through share too many similarities for it to be coincidence. I believe Catchmay’s recipe was either isolated from or improved on by others. Either way, it is fascinating to see the uniqueness of the recipes and how each preparer made it her/his own. After becoming familiar with the ingredients, I can see Metheglin being a comforting beverage for these coming winter months. Bottoms up!

[1] Catchmay advises the herbs be picked around the time of Michaelmas and Lammas. Lammas takes place around the 1st of August and is celebrated by baking bread taken from the first harvest. Michaelmas takes place near the end of September, for the feasts of St. Michael. I can see this period of the year being used to stock up for the cold months ahead.


Teaching Recipes Online: Building Community and Purpose

By Rebecca Laroche

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.17.58 PMI started teaching an early modern survey of women writers online in 2002.  My reasons were many, not the least of which were feminist.  Serving a largely military community, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs had more than its share of military spouses, mainly women, who had suddenly found themselves single parents as their husbands were deployed in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and online courses provided the means to continue their education in a flexible manner. The fact that extensive research in early modern women coincided with the establishment of online databases meant that the course’s content was also in line with its form.  Our primary “textbook” was Women Writers Online, then recently released by Brown University. My position at a rapidly growing research university serving a large geographic region meant there were resources for teaching online, and we were in many ways ahead of the national trend. I was able to experiment with different discussion formats and social media manipulations that spoke to the need for intellectual community and deep inquiry within the format.

It wasn’t until a necessary hiatus from online teaching while chairing the department and a sabbatical in 2012 that I came to a profound realization about this aspect of my teaching self, however. Many professors who are teaching online, including myslef, have gone about it all wrong.  The online environment is not simply an update of the classroom to which one translates what you’ve already taught, approximating in the virtual that which we’d come to value in the real. Rather it is its own sphere with its own pedagogical aims and outcomes.  And in this realization, I have developed Early Modern Women Writers Point Two.

You see, during 2012, I also became a founding member of the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), an international group of scholars committed to creating a database of English recipe manuscripts 1550 to 1850, transcribed and searchable. With hundreds of these manuscripts extant, the task was huge, yet we had all come to recognize the importance and richness of the work.  And with women’s key roles in the genre, it was feminist work, clearly. In our first meetings, it became apparent that this work could sustain generations of scholarship, but it also became certain that it could sustain teaching.

Before becoming chair, I had begun to incorporate “online edition” assignments into ENGL 3200, as one challenge to having Women Writers Online as one’s textbook was the lack of editorial mediation for students.  They could not understand the texts, not because they were incomprehensible, but because they were early modern and had not been “Nortonized.” I wanted students to see that, in line with the theorization of Margaret Ezell, the problem of women writers in the Renaissance was not that there were so few but that there were so few made accessible to modern readers.[1]  Having students make their own edition not only helped to make the works more accessible to students it also made them to realize the work of making things accessible, work from which the male canon had benefited for a century and which still remained to be done for many early modern texts.

From this assignment, recipes were an easy leap, and in the last two manifestations of the course I have made EMROC’s mission the work of the second half of the course.  In these months, students learned to transcribe (currently I use the Cambridge University transcription site and various handouts from Textual Communities), read entries from the Recipes Project blog (to learn about the extensive scholarship at play), performed group work in transcription, transcribed a page of the text themselves, took on the basics of XML, and submitted the document either directly to the database (making them a contributing member) or to me to be submitted with a note to their work. It is difficult scholarship, and at first quite daunting, but the group support meant that the task that first seemed impossible suddenly (often magically) became recognizable.  With the help of the OED (introduced during the online edition portion of the course), they were developing early modern vocabulary and became enmeshed with early modern concerns.  The early modern period, and the labor women did in that time, was alive to them in ways never before experienced.

After two semesters of teaching the course this way, I have had several students catch fire with this mission and with their roles as undergraduate researchers. In October, you will be able to read the research done by two students who continued their coursework on Catchmay in an independent study. One of these young women is even looking into her MLS degree so she can continue to work in the archive.  As they contribute to the database a year after their coursework, I will be teaching two sections of the course in the Spring of 2015.  As my students are transcribing in tandem with other face-to-face courses across the country (see Amy Tigner and Jen Munroe later this month), the online medium underlines the future of collaboration.  You see, to this day, the steering committee of EMROC continues to meet bimonthly on Google+.

[1]. Margaret Ezell, Writing Women’s Literary History (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Teaching Recipes: A September Series

By Amanda E. Herbert

Classrooms in 1897 at the Francis M. Drexel School.
Classrooms in 1897 at the Francis M. Drexel School. Courtesy of Wikipedia Images.

In January of 2014, I wrote a post called “Chocolate in the Classroom,” which described a special lesson that I’d designed for my undergraduate Tudor and Stuart Britain course: to learn about the aesthetic and cultural changes accompanying the “Consumer Revolution” of the seventeenth century, students taste-tested chocolate that had been made according to an early modern recipe.  Most of the students really disliked the flavor of the chocolate – which featured spices such as chili, cinnamon, and nutmeg – but the response to my post on The Recipes Project was enthusiastic, with teachers from around the world writing in to talk about the ways that they used recipes in their own classes, seminars, and tutorials.

Recipes are wonderful pedagogical tools.  Deceptively simple, they encourage students to dig beneath and around a seemingly straightforward list of ingredients and directions, provoking conversations about historic foodways, linguistics, conceptions of race, socioeconomics, praxis, and religious and cultural prohibitions.  They require students to become close readers and sensitive, careful thinkers.  And they enliven discussion, as students and teachers alike imagine how a food or medicine might smell, look, taste, or feel.

During the month of September, The Recipes Project will feature a special series of posts on teaching recipes.  Our contributors will demonstrate the many excellent ways that recipes can be used in a variety of classrooms – from university lectures to elementary school classrooms – and in a range of disciplines, including classical studies, composition, history, literature, and the histories of medicine and science.  A particular strength of the series will be the use of recipes in the digital humanities, as several of our contributors are teaching students about web-based transcription via manuscript recipe collections and household account books.  Look for posts by Rebecca Laroche, Jennifer Munroe, Amy Tigner, and Hillary Nunn on the many exciting ways that students are digitizing and analyzing recipes for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC).  But the series will also feature the work of those who have taken a more “practical” approach to teaching recipes, as Amanda Moniz, Valerie Korinek, Laurence Totelin, and Tovah Bender talk about their efforts to recreate and remake historic foods, medicines, and supplies, and how modern students experience the sensory worlds of the past.

We hope that our readers will be both impressed by the work of this group of scholar-teachers, and inspired to incorporate recipes into their own syllabi and lesson plans.  Please let us know how you’re using recipes in the classroom!  To contribute to the discussion, just hit the “comments” button below.  We look forward to hearing from you.

First Monday Library Chat: National Library of Medicine

Founded in 1836 and located in Bethesda, MD, the US National Library of Medicine is the world’s largest medical library, with nearly 22 million items in its collection. Within this is the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, which features over 600,000 printed works (including more than 580 incunabula), manuscripts dating back to the 11th century, and a rapidly growing digital collection of texts, images and audio files. Today I’m chatting with Michael North, Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts, and Beth Mullen, Manager of Web Development and Social Media.

Readers of this blog use recipes as a source for talking about larger trends in cultural history, history of science and medicine, and culinary history, among other topics. Can you recommend any relevant subject guides, calendars of manuscripts, or digital resources that could help them start exploring the NLM’s vast collection?

Thank you for this opportunity to tell people about our extensive collection of recipes, cooking and nutrition at the National Library of Medicine.

The best approach to finding our recipes is to delve into our online catalog,, which covers our entire collection. Our earliest printed books about food and cooking include five 15th-century editions of Bartolomeo Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, considered the first printed cookbook, which focuses on medieval and Renaissance dishes. The Library also has three 16th-century editions of the Roman cookbook De Re Coquinaria by the fourth or fifth century gourmand Apicius.

We have digitized over 11,000 books from our collection, primarily 19th-century printed material from the United States and Latin America, but some of it dates back to the thirteenth century. I would recommend that people go to our Digital Collections page and type in “recipes” or “cooking” into the search box at the top- you’ll instantly see hundreds of books with recipes. Because of our bent towards health and medicine, and because we were founded as a military medical library back in the 1830s, you will see an emphasis on cookery for the sick, at home or in the hospital, and on cooking for soldiers. But the variety is vast.

Last month, the NLM hosted the symposium The National Library of Medicine, 1984-2014: Voyaging to the Future, reflecting on the successes and setbacks of the last 30 years and considering opportunities for the future. What changes and opportunities do you see for the History of Medicine Division?

There has been—and there will be for many years to come—an ever-rising expectation of our collections being available in digital form and our related databases being easily searchable and cross-searchable to enable the best possible discovery of materials for research, education, and learning. As HMD voyages into the future as part of the NLM as a whole, we are committed to preserving our collections for future generations, curating them through our exhibitions and our blog, Circulating Now, and generally providing excellent access to them, whether for scholars seeking material for their next book or article, health professionals wishing to explore the history of their field, educators seeking resources for their classroom, or members of the public interested in the history of medicine generally.

Could you tell us about your bound and unbound early manuscript recipe collections?

Early manuscripts in the collection extend back quite far, including the Library’s oldest European manuscript called Recepta Varia, created in England in the late 12th century, containing hundreds of recipes for keeping the body’s humors in balance. You can see a detailed catalogue of our early manuscripts and incunabula in Dorothy Schullian’s A Catalogue of Incunabula and Manuscripts in the Army Medical Library, published in 1950.

Manuscript circa 1150
Recepta Varia (England, ca. 1150). Therapeutic recipes from Byzantine physician Alexander of Tralles’s Collection of Remedies.

Your collection also includes an impressive number of print recipe collections and related items, including formularies, herbals, and domestic guidebooks. Could you give us a couple of highlights? Do any of these items ever feature in your public programming events or digital exhibitions?

Several items in the Digital Collections stand out, including Annie Wittenmyer’s A Collection of Recipes for the Use of Special Diet Kitchens in Military Hospitals, published in St. Louis at the height of the Civil War in 1864, and produced by the U.S. Christian Commission, which took over the kitchens of many of the Union Army’s hospitals. Another interesting book is Mary Anne Boode Cust’s The Invalid’s Own Book: A Collection of Recipes from Various Books and Various Countries, published in New York in 1853; it is the result of having gathered recipes while caring for an invalid family member while living in “The Spanish Main, many of the Dutch, French, Spanish, English West Indian Islands and North America.” The oldest Latin American item containing recipes is the anonymous Novisimo Arte de Cocina, published in Mexico City in 1831 and dedicated to “las Señoritas Mexicanas.”

Novisimo arte de cocina, ó, Escelente colección de las mejores recetas (Mexico City, 1831).
Novisimo arte de cocina, ó, Escelente colección de las mejores recetas (Mexico City, 1831).

We have used our digitization program to supply content for a number of online exhibitions, including our latest one, From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, which focuses on how life forms such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds can cause sickness or restore health, and help produce foods and beverages. Featured in this exhibition website is The Golden Treasure, or, A Choice Selection of Well Tried Domestic, Experimental, and Medical Receipts, published in New York in 1835. Also on view, with a look at food from a different angle,  is James Cutbush’s Lectures on the adulteration of food and culinary poisons, published in Newburg, New York in 1823.

Mary Anne Boode Custs, The Invalid’s Own Book: A Collection of Recipes (1853).
Mary Anne Boode Custs, The Invalid’s Own Book: A Collection of Recipes from Various Books and Various Countries (New-York, 1853).

The NLM recently launched the blog Circulating Now. What was the impulse behind this? Are there any posts that might appeal to our readers?

The National Library of Medicine is a federal institution—its collections belong to the nation—and the Library’s mission includes a strong element of public access.  In the History of Medicine Division we develop and maintain a range of reference and interpretive resources to support the use of the collection by the public, Images from the History of Medicine, IndexCat™, Profiles in Science, and an award winning Exhibition Program to name a few.  Our new blog, Circulating Now, blog is both part of that effort and a portal to these and other resources. It provides opportunities to share timely and relevant information with the public, highlight collection materials, enhance collaborations, and reach new audiences. Your readers might find our posts about chocolate, childhood obesity, beer, smoking, or horse care to be of interest and I hope many others to come in the future.

Thanks, Michael and Beth! More information about how to visit the NLM is available on their website. Next month we’ll be back in England with the Royal College of Physicians.