Category Archives: Research and Writing

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Here’s to a New Year!

By Lisa Smith

A celebration party given in honour of a good harvest. Engraving by B. Picart, 1733, after himself after Vergil's Georgics. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A celebration party given in honour of a good harvest. Engraving by B. Picart, 1733, after himself after Vergil’s Georgics. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

September 2017 will mark The Recipe Project‘s fifth anniversary: a big one in the blogging world. And on 29 December, we published our 501st post!

We’ve come a long way since Elaine Leong and I had the idea of setting up a blog. One of our goals right from the start (besides sharing our love of recipes) was to build a community of scholars and recipe enthusiasts

In this endeavour, we’ve been successful. Since 2012, we’ve had over 100 wonderful contributors–and two co-editors (Amanda Herbert and Laurence Totelin) and one social media editor (Laura Mitchell) have joined our team. In 2016 alone, we’ve had over 198000 unique readers and over 525000 unique visits.  Our Twitter feed continues to grow (over 6500 followers), as does our Facebook page (over 830 followers). Thank you, dear readers and contributors for making The Recipes Project such a success!

Now, what were our top five posts of 2016? The vast majority of our readers come directly to the home page and browse through the latest posts, which means that actual favourite posts are difficult to measure. But the top five posts that lured in readers directly to the page reveal an intriguing range of interests and reading patterns.

  1.  ‘Palm Trees and Potions: On Portugueuse Pharmacy Signs’, Benjamin Breen (2 August 2016).
  2.  ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?’ James Brown and Angela McShane (20 September 2016).
  3.  ‘Hans Sloane: Eighteenth Century Mixologist’, Amanda Herbert (12 January 2016).
  4.  ‘Of Dirty Books and Bread’, Anke Timmermann (12 May 2013).
  5.  ‘Transcribing Early Modern Recipes with the Crowd on Shakespeare’s World‘, Victoria Van Hyning an Paul Dingman (2 February 2016).

The New Year brings new opportunities and challenges. As ever, we are always interested in new contributors. If you’ve been thinking that you’d like to contribute to RP or to set up a new themed series, please do send us an email–we’d love to hear from you! With a number of our Ph.D. student contributors graduating this past year, we’re also keen to encourage junior scholars to become a part of our community.

Over the years, we’ve noticed that the blog provides a wonderful snapshot of recipe research, but one topic has repeatedly emerged: the difficulty of pinning down what exactly a recipe is in different regions and different time periods.  With this in mind, the RP editors will be hosting an entirely virtual conference on ‘What is a Recipe?’ in the summer.  We are super excited about this and hope to see many of you involved as participants. Please keep your eyes open for our upcoming Call for Participation!

With the lead up to our fifth anniversary, we will be including a new feature for the year that will add a soupçon of historiography to our monthly mix.  RP editors and invited contributors will reflect on the past, present, and future directions of recipe scholarship, as well as what the blog has meant to us.

Thanks again for your support. We hope that you enjoy our new directions in 2017 as we will!

An obese doctor acknowledging the favours of a French chef in his kitchen; denoting their complicity, the chef's food providing patients. Coloured etching by C. Williams, c. 1815. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
An obese doctor acknowledging the favours of a French chef in his kitchen; denoting their complicity, the chef’s food providing patients. Coloured etching by C. Williams, c. 1815. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

 

 

 

Research from the Kitchen: Emma Schreiber’s “Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish”

By Rachel A. Snell

Author's creation of Emma Schreiber's "Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish" served with custard.
Author’s creation of Emma Schreiber’s “Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish” served with custard.

“Boil 12 good juicy apples or more if not of a large size in a pint of spring water,” Emma Schreiber’s Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish, a recipe for a molded apple jelly served with custard, begins with a curious mix of specificity and ambiguity. This recipe, from a manuscript recipe collection compiled in the Toronto area during the mid-nineteenth century is, seemingly, among the most complex in the collection, requiring a great amount of instruction and filling most of the page. The dish’s name references the growing significance of gentility in previously rural and isolate areas. Labeling it as a “corner dish” signals its placement on the table, balanced by a similar dish at the opposite corner. In the 1830s and 1840s, instructions for creating a pleasing tableau for a dinner or tea table became commonplace in domestic guides, such as the diagram below. The types of dishes and their placement on the table indicated the gentility and status of the hostess.

Bill of Fare: Dinner of 16 Persons, Book of Household Management (1861)
Bill of Fare: Dinner of 16 Persons, Book of Household Management (1861)

Schreiber’s recipe collections and related sources demonstrate the translation of the genteel lifestyle to a rural, agriculture-based transnational region focused on Lake Ontario. Much like the adapted recipe for Snowballs in the Frugal Housewife’s Manual, Schreiber’s recipe demonstrates shift in the types of recipes women collected and the focus of their domestic labor. This change is reflected in the growing emphasis on “fashionable dishes” that ornamented the tea or dinner table and had far reaching consequences for women’s household labor. Among these “fashionable dishes” were recipes like the apple jelly featured on the first page of Emma Schreiber’s recipe book.

Early in my research process, I frequently experimented with the recipes I found in archival sources. However, writing deadlines, teaching responsibilities, and life changes left little time for culinary experimentation. Although Schreiber’s recipe for apply jelly figures prominently in a chapter of my dissertation, I had never attempted to produce the recipe. Fortunately, contact with other researchers reminded me of the value of kitchen-oriented research. In Cooking in the Archives, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia translate early modern recipes for twenty-first century cooks. They argue, “these historical recipes belong in the modern kitchen – that they can and should be read and enacted as instructions, as well as studied as archival texts from a specific historical period. After all, what are recipes if not primarily instructions for cooking?”[1] Inspired by Nicosia’s talk at the Manuscript Cookbook Conference at NYU, after three years of working with Schreiber’s recipe book, I determined to bring my work back into the kitchen. It proved to be transformative.

Recipes for Ratifia Cakes, Damson or Green Gage Jelly, and Apply Jelly for a Corner Dish, “Recipe book of Emma Blomfield Schreiber, 1856-7,” Una Abrahamson Collection, Special Collections, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.]
Recipes for Ratifia Cakes, Damson or Green Gage Jelly, and Apply Jelly for a Corner Dish, “Recipe book of Emma Blomfield Schreiber, 1856-7,” Una Abrahamson Collection, Special Collections, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.]

Reading a recipe and following a recipe are, of course, two completely different acts. At my desk, I read recipes to uncover insights into women’s daily lives. I compared recipes from different sources, mapped women’s recipe sources, and tabulated the types of recipes in a collection. In the kitchen, I confronted new questions. What exactly constituted a juicy apple? How could one determine if an apple was sufficiently large? Should the dozen apples be peeled? Cored? Cut into small pieces? While I consulted more detailed recipes for apple jelly, I frequently had to rely on my best judgement.

First attempt at Schreiber's Apple Jelly.
First attempt at Schreiber’s Apple Jelly.

The results of my first kitchen foray was a very sturdy, apple-cider colored jelly with a subtle apple flavoring. A second attempt with peeled, cored, and sliced the apples produced a more translucent jelly, but far from the translucency described by one cookbook author, “it should be so transparent as to let you see all the flowers of your china dish through it, and quite white.”[2] Even my unskilled efforts revealed the attractive display of the molded apple jelly alongside a creamy custard, the custard serving to offset the translucence and shape of the jelly. The flavor was much nicer than I anticipated and the pairing of the jelly with the vanilla custard was really quite lovely, even elegant. Like any proud chef, I sought an audience for my creation. The students in my third-year Honors tutorial were the lucky taste-testers.  The students overwhelmingly liked it or were very polite. One declared it “the best mid-nineteenth century jelly I’ve ever had!”

Second attempt at Schreiber's Apple Jelly.
Second attempt at Schreiber’s Apple Jelly.

Producing the jelly not only provided me with a new way to connect my students with my research, it also revealed new insights. Prior to my jelly-making efforts, I assumed molded jelly recipes like Schreiber’s were time-consuming and required great skill. In fact, I poured my first jelly into a plastic container rather than a mold because I firmly believed it was a flop. But I was amazed by how easy the jelly was the prepare. I could easily imagine allowing the apple to simmer and the juice, thickener, and sugar to boil while preparing other dishes and pouring the resulting liquid into a mold to sit in a cool place until the next day’s dinner or tea. Schreiber’s recipe made molded jelly, a symbol of gentrified refinement, approachable for women who did their own cooking.

[1] http://www.archivejournal.net/issue/4/notes-queries/cooking-in-the-archives-bringing-early-modern-manuscript-recipes-into-a-twenty-first-century-kitchen/

[2] The Lady’s Own Cookery Book, and New Dinner-Table Directory (London: Published for Henry Colburn, 1844), 221.

History Carnival 159: A Question of Scale

By Lisa Smith

Image credit: Wikipedia, Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com.
Image credit: Wikipedia, Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com.

Welcome to History Carnival 159! We’re delighted here at The Recipes Project to be hosting the September edition. It’s been a great month for history blogging and I was spoiled for choice. Some months, themes just seem to suggest themselves. What jumped out at me was ‘big’: discoveries, personalities, thinking and questions…

First up, September 2016 was notable for an exciting  discovery in Canada’s north: the HMS Terror. The HMS Terror was one of the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, which had set out in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage. Out of the ones written this month, my two favourites were by Tina Adcock and Shane McCorristine. The first I like as much for its presentation (a Twitter essay) as for its powerful story in which Adcock looks at the forgetting of indigenous knowledge and the legacies of colonialism. The second is an article by Shane McCorristine rather than a blog post, but I’ve included it for its supernatural twist to the history of the expedition. (And we are heading into the spooky month of October, after all.)

HMS Terror. Image credit: After George Back - National Archives of Canada / C-029929.
Image credit: HMS Terror, After George Back – National Archives of Canada / C-029929.

There were also a lot of big personalities who arrived in my submission pile. Yvonne Seale provides a beginner’s reading list for medieval nuns, which includes some fantastic biographies of interesting women and will appeal to academics and non-academics alike. James Keating introduces us to the iconic Australian feminist, Vida Goldstein, and her contributions to the international suffrage movement. He considers why Australian women like Goldstein remained marginal figures in the transnational campaign, despite their early success back home. (Answer: local context is everything.)

The one woman I really wanted to meet, though, was Mary Scales*, an Australian psychic and ancestor of Samadhi Driscoll. In Driscoll’s words:

A famous clairvoyant, Mary would fall into dramatic psychic trances in which she would foretell the future. She apparently foretold everything from the Boer war to the winners of the Melbourne Cup. Then there were her highly-publicised and victorious court appearances in both criminal and civil trials – one of them at the High Court of England, where Mary’s eccentric antics captured the imaginations of the media worldwide.

Need I say more?

In September, thoughts of historians lightly turn to thoughts of… methodology. There was a lot of big thinking going on this month. As part of a roundtable on LaShawn Harris’ book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, Brian Purnell reflects on ‘The Difficulty of Uncovering Obscure Lives and Hidden Histories’. He wonders: ‘How can a researcher and writer find information and recreate a story about people and practices that, by their very nature, did not want to be found or known?’ The result, he notes, is a complicated methodology and messy categories. Categories were also Brodie Waddell’s inspiration for thinking about early modern society, more specifically terms used to describe people’s social status.   As Waddell puts it, “if we hope to understand past societies, we need to know much more about how people labelled themselves and their neighbours, and how these labels related to the concrete realities of daily life.”

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For Nadine Weidman and Will Pooley, historical imagination and narrative were at the heart of their musings. Weidman revisits Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale to think about how ‘Ulrich faces, as all historians must, the fundamental unknowability of the past’—in her case through imagination, close-reading and contextualisation. Pooley wonders how we can find causes for behaviour in the past and the importance of big (issues) and small (individual behaviour) scale in the narratives we find. I also include his post for its reference to cheese and magic and one of the post’s comments, which is a cracking example of cheese-related history.

Historians were also asking some big questions. Some questions were with the intent to explain. Andrea Eidinger attempted to answer her students’ question: how can they identify peer-reviewed articles? Her focus is on Canadian History journals, but she gives useful advice for students more generally! If you’ve ever wondered how Spanish got its ‘n’ with a tilde, there’s a helpful v-log for you. Other questions were broader. David Brydan looks at Franco’s Spain to identify how the Francoists found their way around a tricky situation: “how to talk about international cooperation without adopting the language of liberal or socialist internationalism, particularly without recourse to the familiar internationalist language of peace, freedom, tolerance and equality?” For Migraine Awareness Month, Katherine Foxhall has a thought-provoking post entitled ‘’Migraines were taken more seriously in the past – where did we go wrong?’

But historical recipes, in particular, highlighted the way in which fragments of information can be used to answer big questions.  RP editor, Amanda Herbert, has the chance to use a test kitchen to try out old recipes. She concludes that ‘through careful study and experimentation, our community of scholars uncovered important, large-scale concepts: questions of authorship and identity, experiences of material culture, evidence of labor patterns, constructions of gender and social status, and examples of the cultivation, dissemination, and sharing of early modern knowledge.’

An episode in Tristram Shandy: Doctor Slop, having fallen off his horse, is greeted by Obadiah. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
An episode in Tristram Shandy: Doctor Slop, having fallen off his horse, is greeted by Obadiah. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

With all of the ‘big’ themes going on this month, it is important not to forget the opposite—those small stories, those fragments. September certainly offered up some tasty crumbs of history. Hels offered a few thoughts on Shakespeare’s schooling. Rebecca Johnston looked at one fascinating letter, which was written to the Cheka in 1921 to request the release of an art historian and critic, Nikolai Punin. And last, but certainly not least, Sharon Howard offers a tale of a strange horse-related accident in eighteenth-century Denbigh.

Take care and travel safe, everyone. See you at History Carnival 160, which will be hosted by Frog in a Well on 1 November!

*Could Mary Scales’ name be any more appropriate for this month?