Category Archives: Food and Drink

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

800px-margarine-on-toast
Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.

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Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Cookery, Ancient and Modern

By Henry Power

This post is about two sort-of-recipe-books published in the first decade of the eighteenth century. When I say sort-of-recipe-books, I mean that although both of them are full of culinary precepts, neither is likely to have been used in the kitchen. But taken together, the two books give an insight into the cultural tensions of the early eighteenth century.

Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In 1705, Martin Lister published an edition of the recipes of the Roman cook Apicius. Subscribers to the volume included Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane, Christopher Wren, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; this was a work destined for the shelves of the great and the good. Lister was, as the title page makes clear, a medical man – chief physician to Queen Anne. Apicius on the other hand was, on the other hand, largely associated with gluttony and intemperance. In his lengthy Latin introduction, Lister tries to rescue Apicius from the charge of gluttony—and indeed to stress the health-giving properties of his recipes. Generations of moralizing historians had argued that the fall of Rome was at least partly down to excessive gourmandising. Lister takes the opposite view: the barbarian sack of Rome halted the Romans’ development of healthy, nourishing seasonings and sauces.

Lister was, in the parlance of the time, a ‘Modern’. That is to say, he believed in the continuing progress of human learning since antiquity. He also believed in the application of modern scholarly techniques to ancient texts, and in studying a broader range of texts and topics than the fairly narrow classical canon than had traditionally been taught in schools and universities. His edition of Apicius is thoroughly informed by these principles: it presents one of the most neglected and marginal classical texts with all the apparatus of modern scholarship, and it also builds on the knowledge of that text – bringing Lister’s scientific knowledge to bear on Apicius’ recipes.

One contemporary reader found such an expenditure of scholarly labour ridiculous: the application of considerable intellectual resources to a book about anchovy sauce and stuffed dormice. William King, a fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, was firmly an ‘Ancient’. He frequently bemoaned the fact that the Moderns were disregarding and denigrating the staples of the canon: above all, the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Lister’s Apicius was evidence of the skewed priorities of the Moderns, and King hit upon the perfect way of satirizing it.

In 1708, King published a book-length poem called The Art of Cookery. Though the short title indicates a conventional recipe book, the long subtitle points to a more literary origin. The book is, we are told, written ‘in imitation of Horace’s Art of Poetry: with some letters to Dr. Lister, and others: occasion’d principally by the title of a book publish’d by the doctor, being the works of Apicius Coelius, concerning the soups and sauces of the antients.’ One of the strangest works of eighteenth-century satire, King’s Art of Cookery is a rewriting of Horace’s Art of Poetry (the most famous work of classical literary criticism) in which gastronomic instructions take the place of poetic ones at every opportunity.

To give one example, Horace’s insistence that poetry should be charming (or ‘sweet’) as well as beautiful is applied to pastry:

Unless some Sweetness at the Bottom lye,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the Pye? (p. 71)

One of the poem’s satiric targets is the importance attached by people like Lister to material that was previously considered trivial. Horace wrote his poem so that future writers could emulate the great epics of Homer and Virgil; these hallowed precepts were now being applied to mere cookery. In one of the prefatory letters addressed to Lister, King ironically bemoans the fact that gastronomy is not properly taught in schools:

For what hopes can there be of any Progress in Learning, whilst our Gentlemen suffer their Sons at Westminster, Eaton, and Winchester, to eat nothing but Salt with their Mutton, and Vinegar with their Roast Beef upon Holidays? What      Extensiveness can there be in their Souls? … and as to Sauces, they are in profound ignorance. (pp. 3-4)

King has another target in his sights. The Art of Cookery records, in its odd way, the huge expansion of English diet at the turn of the eighteenth century. Sometimes, King confronts head-on the increasing diversity of food served in England, as in this passage (which corresponds to Horace’s advice about the use of recently-coined words in poems):

Be cautious how you change old Bills of Fare,
Such alterations should at least be Rare
Fresh Dainties are by Britain’s Traffick known,
And now by constant Use familiar grown;
What Lord of old wou’d bid his Cook prepare,
Mangoes, Potargo, Champignons, Cavare? (p. 61)

Just as a scholarly turn to marginal authors like Apicius is threatening the status of canonical authors such as Homer and Virgil, so the general enthusiasm for such-newfangled delicacies as mushrooms and mangoes is threatening plain, traditional English cookery, as exemplified by roast beef and mutton. That anxiety is frequently encountered in eighteenth-century England; what is interesting about King is that he associates this perceived alteration in diet with a Modernizing tendency to value novelty above all else.

And for King it is the ‘soups and sauces of the Antients’, as encountered in Lister’s edition of Apicius, which are the ultimate symbol of modernity.

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Henry Power is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is currently editing (with Nicholas McDowell) The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1640-1714, to which he is contributing two essays: one on ‘Learned Wit and Mock Scholarship’, and the other on ‘Recipe Books.’

Meeting Madam Geneva

By Emma Major

Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Government’s decision in 1736 to make gin prohibitively expensive through levying hefty licensing fees was met by a flurry of prints, poems and tracts lamenting the government’s cruelty in depriving the poor ‘of a chirruping Glass’.[i] ‘No more can I seat me to Study/ Than a Fish can swim without Fin,’ cried Timothy Scrubb; ‘My Brains are confus’d and quite muddy/ By losing my Comforter Gin.’[ii] Other writers complained of how all levels of society would suffer from the loss of gin: from poet to oyster-woman, whatever your role in the division of labour, gin, it seemed, ensured success and happiness.

Gin, or genever, or Geneva as it was first known when it was popularized in England, had become so popular in the few decades following the accession of William and Mary in 1688 that it had taken on the character of a boozy old lady, a familiar, friendly face who could be relied upon to help celebrate or commiserate in everyday life. She emerges as a demotic, alcoholic counterpart to the more sedate Britannia who also flourished in high and low culture during these years. Madam Gin, Queen Gin, Mother Gin: whatever her title, she came from impeccable Protestant lineage and offered a patriotic alternative to French brandy.  According to her eighteenth-century historian and panegyrist Stephen Buck, Gin had first aided the Protestant cause in general and England in particular by providing the troops in the Thirty Years’ War with the alcoholic fire or Dutch courage to triumph over the Roman Catholic opposition. (Indeed, he claimed English military success was not due to the famous national taste for ‘Beef and Pudding’, but to its adoption of gin.)[iii] The OED notes the folk-etymological connection historically made between genever and Geneva, that most Protestant of cities, though Buck dismisses any connection to foreign religious fanaticism, and praises it as a home-grown native beverage, scorning the snobbery and disloyalty of those who drink gin in secret and prefer Holland Gin to the British variety.

Madam Geneva’s demise by legislation in September 1736 was marked by mock mourning processions in the streets of London, Bristol and elsewhere.[iv] The authorities were concerned about riots when the act came into force, but although protests were vociferous, civil war did not break out. Lavish encomiums were published about Gin, though as you can see from the two commemorative prints I’ve included here, depictions did not glamorize or flatter. Indeed, ‘Mother’ and ‘Madam’ Gin may also be in the sense of ‘bawd’; this meaning of ‘mother’ was popularized during the eighteenth century as it drew on the anti-Roman Catholic slang that equated mothers, abbesses and nuns with brothel-keepers and prostitutes.[v] There are many visual similarities between William Hogarth’s depiction of the drunken mother in his 1751 print of Gin Lane and his depiction of bawds elsewhere in his work. Yet despite her general depiction by admirers as well as critics as a figure lacking in youth, beauty, or visible power, Gin was popularly regarded with affection, as offering a sociable tonic you could purchase from street-sellers and gin shops, or even via the world’s first vending machine, the ‘puss-and-mew’ mechanism that was devised to dodge licensing fees. Designs varied but the customer would address the cat shaped device with a ‘Puss’, and if gin was available would be told ‘Mew’; money would be put in a drawer and the gin dispensed either through a pipe connected to the cat’s tail, or via a filled container in the drawer. (Thomas Pink recreated this for a publicity event in 2014, using pink gin: see http://www.thomaspink.com/london-collection/content/fcp-content .)

Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

What was actually dispensed? The noun ‘genever’ or ‘Geneva’ came from the Dutch drink jenever, which came from the word for juniper. But juniper was not always present in the substances sold as gin, whereas turpentine, lime oil, and sulphuric acid, often were. Gin was also often watered down, so it is difficult to know the alcoholic strength or actual flavor of what was sold as gin, especially at the lower end of the market. The moonshine versions of gin sound foul-tasting, but the idea of gin, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, possessed magical properties for many, representing cheerful sociability, curative powers, aphrodisiac properties, and simply the promise of ‘best’ dispelling ‘all human Woe’. [vi](Buck, 10) For many, it seemed, gin, whatever its actual composition, was the ‘chirruping glass’ of universal cheer.

[i] Thomas Chaloner, The merriest poet in Christendom (London: for the author, 1732), 23.

[ii] Timothy Scrubb, Desolation: Or, The Fall of Gin (London: J. Roberts, 1736), 16.

[iii] Stephen Buck, Geneva: A Poem in Blank Verse (London: T. Cooper, 1734), 5.

[iv] Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (London: Profile, 2003), 126-30.

[v] Emma Major, Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and Nation 1712-1812 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 145-8.

[vi] Buck, Geneva, 10.

Emma Major is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Department of English and the interdisciplinary Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York UK. She has published on religion, national identity and gender in Britain 1670-1820, and is currently working on a book on faithful citizens 1789-1829. She has a sideline in gin studies.

 

Thinking About 17th c. Potatoes (And Eating Them)

Amanda E. Herbert

[A version of this post appeared on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog, a current, sometimes playful, and always lively resource on a wide range of Shakespeare topics. Shakespeare & Beyond is created for the great variety of Shakespeare enthusiasts—young and old, from across the US and around the world.  You can see the original post here, and read more about our “recreation” of the recipe in a related post, here.]

Potatoes are an iconic food in the United States  They’re a staple of most American diets, and at holiday meals they often appear twice – white potatoes mashed with butter, and sweet potatoes layered into casseroles with gooey marshmallows melted on top (a dish invented by the Cracker Jack Company in 1917) – on tables around the country.  But potatoes have a complex and sometimes troubled American history, one that started outside of today’s United States.

Culinary historians and archaeobotanists now think that potatoes originated in Peru, and they were eaten by women and men living in South and Central America long before western Europeans arrived in these areas in the fifteenth century.  Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are frequently conflated or confused with yams (genus Dioscorea), and this slippage began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Sweet potatoes are of American origin, but their first major migration was westward, across the Pacific: in the 13th c. CE, they were taken to Easter Island and Hawaii, and later to New Zealand.  At the end of the fifteenth century, they traveled eastward across the Atlantic, when they were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus around 1493.  Yams, another edible root crop, are native to many different places around the world: Africa (Dioscorea cayenensis), Southeast Asia (Dioscorea alata, batatus, bulbifera, esculenta, japonica, and opposita) and even South America (Dioscorea trifida).  Potatoes and yams have a high yield, thrive in any kind of soil, are drought-resistant, and grow in many different climatic zones.  Their taste is not dissimilar and neither is their method of cultivation (although yams extend much deeper underground and it takes more work to dig them up).  And in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people of African, American, Asian, and European origin were all growing, selling, and eating these plants, and they didn’t always do a good job of distinguishing between them.

By 1500, the sweet potato (and/or yams) had become an established crop in western Europe.  They were a staple of European sailors’ diets.  And they were fed – often with great violence, and by force – to enslaved women and men, on the African continent, during the middle passage, and after arrival in the Caribbean and the Americas.  “Common,” or white potatoes, took a bit longer to catch on; they arrived in Europe as a cultivable vegetable between 1550-1570.  Metropolitan Britain was one of the last European countries to take to the potato; the first mention of potatoes (sweet, “common,” or otherwise) in a printed British book was in 1596, when famed herbalist and botanist John Gerard included it in his Catalogue.  This was apparently so well-received that a year later, Gerard devoted an entire chapter of his famous 1597 Herbal to this new and unfamiliar plant.

"Of Potatoes of Virginia," in John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
“Of Potatoes of Virginia,” in John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more British subjects – enslaved and free, and on both sides of the Atlantic – began to grow, harvest, cook, and eat potatoes (as well as, and alongside, yams).  In the early modern period, news of the potato spread through contact with print as well as people.  Women and men learned about potatoes through experimentation, books, and word-of-mouth.  They exchanged potato recipes with friends.  They shared potato cuttings with their neighbors.  They read about potatoes and tried their hands at preparing them.  And some were forced to learn about and eat potatoes out of necessity, because they had – or were given – nothing else.

A team of Folger researchers recently uncovered a very early European potato recipe in our archives.  The Folger Library in Washington, DC is proud home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States.  And in one of these recipe books, a manuscript collection kept by the Grenville family from c. 1640-1750, is a recipe entitled “to make a potato puding.”  The recipe called for some ingredients that would have been familiar to any early modern British person, like butter and eggs.  But it also included ingredients that might have seemed luxurious and even exotic: sweet wine imported from Spain, cinnamon (which was sourced from India and Sri Lanka in the early modern period), and three pounds of potatoes.  This recipe reveals one family’s attempt to bring a new and unfamiliar food to their table, but it also teaches us about wealth and social status in seventeenth-century Britain.  The Grenville’s potato pudding was a fancy dish, saved for special occasions, and something that most early modern families would not have been able to afford.

Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, (ca. 1640-ca. 1750), V.a.430, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, (ca. 1640-ca. 1750), V.a.430, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

We learned a lot about early modern markets, economies, foodways, and methods of cultivation as we studied the Grenville recipe for potato pudding, but we also wanted to try it for ourselves.  So we invited Dr. Amanda Moniz, a former professional chef, veteran Recipes Project contributor, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy, to visit the Folger in order to help us re-create the Grenville’s potato pudding in our test-kitchen.

We faced three major challenges in making this dish in a form that early modern people would have recognized.  First, the recipe calls for sack, a type of sweet fortified wine originally produced in Spain and the Canary Islands.  Sack fell out of use in the nineteenth century, and isn’t available in most American markets.  The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern sherry, and especially a dark sherry like Oloroso, which is what we used in our adaptation.  The second challenge is that the pudding calls for a lot of eggs: eight of them, both whites and yolks.  Early modern eggs were smaller, less uniform, and had different moisture levels than our modern American ones.  In order to reach the right consistency, we cut the number of eggs in our potato pudding down to five, and we adjusted our cooking time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes so that the pudding would set properly.  And last, the recipe doesn’t specify what types of potatoes the Grenvilles used in their pudding.  But since sweet potatoes were the first kind of potato to be widely adopted in early modern Europe – and since we thought that those flavors would be more familiar to most modern Americans today – that’s what we chose.

When it was finished, the potato pudding was delicious, earning high marks from all of the members of our Folger tasting team.  Creamy and rich, delicately scented with sweet wine and cinnamon, this early modern sweet potato pudding was both unusual and familiar, imparting a sense of the past without compromising the sensibilities of a present-day palate.  We don’t know how often the Grenvilles made this potato pudding, but I’m going to be making it again very soon.

Sweet potato pudding. Image courtesy of the author.
Sweet potato pudding. Image courtesy of the author.

The Grenville Family’s Sweet Potato Pudding (adaptation)
Ingredients:

3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
¾ lb. butter, softened
½ c. sherry (we recommend a dark sherry like Oloroso)
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
5 whole eggs, lightly beaten

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 350F.  Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil.  Add potato pieces and cook until tender.  Drain.  In a large bowl, mash the potatoes with the butter until uniform and combined.  Fold in the sherry, cinnamon, and eggs.  Bake in a buttered casserole dish for 45 minutes, or until the pudding has pulled away from the sides of the dish and the middle jiggles slightly when shaken gently.  The pudding will continue to set as it cools.

Sources & References:
Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006); Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd., 1993); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972); Redcliffe N. Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949).

Interested in learning more about early modern potatoes?  Check out this Recipes Project post by Rebecca Earle from 2014, and learn more about her ongoing research project “The Early Modern Potato: A Global History.”