Category Archives: Posts

Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate

By John Kuhn, Wesleyan University and Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University-Abington College

On a chilly November afternoon, we gathered in a student lounge to grind cocoa nibs in a borrowed molcajete and read early modern recipes with a class of undergraduate students. Inspired by previous hands-on exercises, we asked students thinking about indigenous cultures in the seventeenth-century Atlantic to consider recipes as a kind of evidence. [1]

This pedagogical exercise took place at Wesleyan University in Fall 2016, in John’s course entitled “Pirates, Puritans, and Pequots: Literatures of the Early English Atlantic,” which brought together the literary archives of the English Renaissance and the first century of English expansion westward into the Atlantic. The course’s final two sections dwelt extensively on Anglo-indigenous and Anglo-African contact, real and imagined, in the early Atlantic. In these units, students engaged with a recent wave of scholarship that has attempted to expand our sense of the colonial archive. Scholars like Walter Mignolo, Elizabeth Hill Boone, and Birgit Rasmussen have shown the limitations of approaches to the question of early modern indigenous history that focus solely on texts produced by Europeans; Saidiya Hartman, in the slightly different context of transatlantic slavery, has made a related point about the archive. One way around this problem—that of the European near-monopoly on textual production and the ties between textual production and the often violent action of colonial development—is to turn to the techniques of material history, thinking through how the circulation of objects and technologies worked in the newly global economies of the seventeenth-century. Attending to these stories helps expand our ideas about agency and cultural contact. This is perhaps clearest in the history of food and, particularly, the wide-ranging influence that indigenous technologies and tastes relating to tobacco and chocolate had in the period, as Marcy Norton’s work has demonstrated. Turning to the history of food, then, has the potential to show students a more nuanced story about cultural contact that uncovers the agency and influence that indigenous cultures exerted back across the Atlantic.

We had the idea of bringing these scholarly insights about Anglo-indigenous contact to the classroom by tracing food history through English recipe books: unruly documents rich with medicinal, culinary, and other household materials such as accounts and records of births and deaths. On the one hand, these books provide rich material about places, people, ingredients, and practices unlike other archives. On the other hand, they are difficult to read, classify, and often mute on the conditions of their making and aspirations of their makers. Among the many things recipe books can show us about food history, these manuscripts bear the record of indigenous influence in Europe.

Winche’s recipe for ‘chacolet’. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library: http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/d3uh21
Making chacolet. Credit: John Kuhn

Rebeckah Winche’s hot chocolate is a case study in rendering a familiar food strange. [2] Our recipe workshop had two distinct parts: transcription and cooking. Transcribing a few recipes, including Winche’s receipt for “Chacolet,” introduced students to using recipe books as sources and to reading secretary and italic handwriting. The recipe starts with roasted and ground cocoa beans. It is heavily spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, and chili pepper and sweetened with sugar. The instructions advise you to form your chacolet mix into cakes and let them cure for three months before using. This is a delectable and portable preparation in its original form. We didn’t wait three months. Following the practices Marissa developed in the Cooking in the Archives project, we asked students to identify the key ingredients and practices in Winche’s recipe. Then we distributed three different updated versions of the original recipe. One group started with roasted cocao beans and ground them by hand in a molcajete. Another used cocoa powder. We taste-tested the different mixes, all possible modernizations of Winche’s original recipe.

Making chacolet. Credit: Marissa Nicosia

Students had prepared for the workshop by reading Marcy Norton’s “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” and this was the starting point for our discussion. As we moved through the ingredients and Marissa spoke about them in turn, students were also struck—as we had hoped they would be—by the vast global trade networks embodied in a single recipe. They were also, once the final product was assembled, interested in the strangeness of the hot chocolate—both the graininess of the hand-ground nibs and the unfamiliar spiciness added by the chili pepper—helping them to see the way that indigenous chocolate-making tastes were influencing even English recipe keepers like Winche living in London and Buckinghamshire. This exercise, paired with a later digital material history project that examined the many objects found in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative,[3] produced in the contested Anglo-Algonquian Massachusetts borderlands around the same time, helped students to see the way that material history can reveal new stories about cultural contact in the early modern world.

[1] Amanda E. Herbert, “Chocolate in the Classroom”; Amy L. Tinger, “Making Ink”. Marissa has written about teaching with recipes here: “Cooking Almond Jumballs at the Folger Shakespeare Library

[2] For more information about Winche’s manuscript, take a look at this post written for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective Transcribathon. Elaine Leong, “The Winche Project.”  Here is a link to images of the manuscript. Marissa also has also written about preparing this hot chocolate recipe. Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, “Chacolet,” The Collation. Amy L. Tigner wrote a wonderful series for this site about chocolate recipes in early modern manuscripts: Tinger, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part I”; Tinger, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part II”.

[3] This digital project, called “A History of Mary Rowlandson in Seven Objects,” built on the insights about material history begun in this cooking project, and can be found here.

What is a Recipe?: A Recipes Project Virtual Conversation

We are excited to announce an upcoming event to celebrate The Recipe Project‘s fifth year. From 2 June to 5 July 2017, we will be hosting a Virtual Conversation on ‘What is a Recipe?’ Details are below. Please share our call for participation widely!


The Recipes Project is a DH/HistSTM  (Digital Humanities/History of Science, Technology, and Medicine) blog devoted to the study of recipes from all time periods and places. Our readership and contributors highlight the growing scholarly and popular interest in recipes. Over the five years that the RP has been running, our authors have continued to revisit one key question: what exactly is a recipe?  How do we know one when we see one?  What is their structure? What functions do recipes serve? How are they shared and passed on? Are they a set of instructions, a way of life, or a story? Aspirational or frequently used? Prose, poem, or image? The list could go on!

A doctor on the telephone (which is linked up to a television screen) to a patient whom he can both observe and talk to from a distance; representing possible technological innovations. (D.L. Ghilchip, 1932.) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And the question becomes even more complicated when we consider  the ways that social media creates new and innovative formats for conversations about recipes, across disciplines, academic/non-academic boundaries, and the world. At the RP, we’ve found that blogging is a wonderful way for recipes scholars to share their work and interests, but we recognize its limits as static text.

Introducing… the Virtual Conversation

We would like to invite you – whatever your background – to join us in our first Recipes Project Virtual Conversation, which will take place across a series of online events over the course of one month (2 June to 5 July).

Modern Medicine Pamphlets, Recipes (1930s). Credit: Wellcome Library.

The month-long event will be framed by two more traditional panels of speakers. The first, “Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy,” will be convened at the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians in June. The second will be held in the UK in July, and will feature all of the RP’s editors.  We’ll record these two panels and post them online for discussion.

In between these panels, we’ll host a series of virtual events during which we flood social media with images, texts, and conversations about ‘What is a Recipe?’

Are you a visual person who loves Pinterest or Instagram? Or do you prefer the brevity and playfulness of Twitter? Do you use recipes in historical re-enactment, or try to reconstruct historical recipes in the lab? Are you a knitter who uses old patterns? Whether you’re a recipes scholar, or a recipes enthusiast, there is a place for you in our conference.

During the Virtual Conversation, we will be collecting and archiving presentations for a post-event exhibition site.

Types of Presentations

Designs for mince pies from Hannah Bisaker’s recipe book
1692. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

We are open to any form of online presentation on the topic of ‘What is a Recipe?’ You might use Twitter for poems, stories, or essays… Or Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat for photo-essays… Or YouTube, Vimeo, or Facebook Live for videos… Or a blog forum… Or you might have another brilliant idea, which we’d love to hear!

Participation is open to ALL, whether you decide to present or to simply join the discussion.

How to Participate

Please register your interest in participating by contacting Recipes Project editors Lisa Smith and Laurence Totelin (historicalrecipes@gmail.com) by 30 April 2017.

In your email, please indicate your activity, medium, and (if any) preferred dates between 2 June and 5 July. In the interests of open participation, we are not vetting abstracts.

But in your application, please be detailed, because this will help us as we organise online activities, find participants, and ensure that we have permission to reproduce work on our exhibition site. Some virtual technical support may also be possible, depending on your needs.

We have reserved two hashtags for the conference: #recipesconf and #recipesproject. Please use these for all presentations and discussions, so participants can be sure to find each other.

We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Sites of Inspiration

An apothecary making up a prescription using scales, his wife holds a recipe for him and two assistants are working with the bellows and pestle and mortar. Line engraving by F. Baretta after P. Mainoto. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If you’re looking for digital inspiration…

Funding for this conference has been provided by the University of Essex.

A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections.

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.