Consumers of the Exotic: summary of a workshop in Cambridge, April 5-6, 2017

By Emma Spary and Justin Rivest

By Reede tot Drakestein, Hendrik van,1637?-1691 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The project “Selling the Exotic in Paris and Versailles, 1670-1730”, running in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, and funded by Leverhulme Research Grant 2014-289, held its planned workshop in April this year. Its theme, “Consumers of the Exotic: European commerce and the consumption of exotic materia medica, 1670-1730”, brought together a group of international scholars working on these questions in a broad variety of European contexts.

Our goal at the workshop was to produce a comparative picture of the ways in which exotic plant materials were processed, bought and consumed in Europe. Why did European consumers buy—and more significantly ingest—exotic plant materials? What did exoticism mean to them? While recent work has focused on colonial bioprospecting and the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, our aim was to investigate demand within Europe itself, exploring divergences and similarities across contexts. The choice of a restricted timespan—the decades around 1700—provided a baseline for comparison of drug production, sales and consumption in different cultures. Alexandra Cook (University of Hong Kong) kicked off the programme with a study of a proprietary drug, Garcin’s “Maduran pills”, sold around Europe in the early eighteenth century by an entrepreneur whose Protestant faith led to a complex intellectual and commercial itinerary. Cook argued that exotic ingredients were not necessarily a selling point for eighteenth-century patients. Harun Küçük (University of Pennsylvania) provoked us to think about the complexity of defining the exotic, and the importance of a multi-perspectival view of the history of drugs: Ottoman healers associated New World exotica like cinchona bark and ipecacuanha root with French medicine, since these substances often reached them via French commercial and intellectual networks. Continuing the global theme, Samir Boumediene explored the place of drugs in the missionary activities of the Society of Jesus. The decades around 1700 represented a decline in the relative importance of Jesuits in the global drug trade, as new players came to disrupt their initial privileged position.

Šebestián Kroupa (University of Cambridge) offered a counterpoint to the workshop’s focus on European consumption by exploring the supply of European drugs to transplanted European populations—Manila in the Philippines. European drugs were in fact imported in large volumes to this “exotic” locale; little attention was paid to the pursuit of plant substances that might be commodified in the metropole, an exception being the Saint Ignatius bean. Victoria Pickering explored the diverse trajectories, contacts, and exchanges that were necessary to assemble the massive collection of exotic plant substances of Sir Hans Sloane.

Moving to early modern Russia, Clare Griffin suggested that its unique geographical connections—in the form of a land route between Europe and the Far East—led commentators to represent distant substances and peoples as subject to incorporation into the Empire, rather than “exotic” in the sense of “foreign”, as the case of rhubarb showed. Paula De Vos concluded the first day with an account of Palacios’ prominent 1706 pharmacopoeia. Early modern Western pharmacy was indebted, for its materia medica, to the Indo-Mediterranean world rather than the continent of Europe. The slow appropriation of new drugs spread outwards from this Indo-Mediterranean core to the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean, and eventually the Atlantic world.

On day 2, Laia Portet explored the architecture of exoticism in printed French materia medica. Where familiar European plants tended to be classified alphabetically, unfamiliar exotics were classified by parts (roots, barks, leaves) since this was the form in which they entered the European marketplace. Emma Spary used a case history of an exotic aromatic, cinnamon, to point up the disjuncture between textual, material and empirical knowledge of drugs, a conundrum for medical experts, market regulators and individual consumers. Hjalmar Fors provocatively suggested that for early modern Europeans, “the exotic” primarily evoked traded material goods, including spices and drugs, rather than foreign peoples or distant geographies. Lack of knowledge about the places of origin of drugs was critical to a substance remaining “exotic” in European eyes.

Justin Rivest spoke of the encounter between political power, the emerging state and the large-scale administration of drugs in France, looking at how personal trialling of drugs by successive ministers of war led to a centrally administered programme of dispensing exotic drugs like tobacco, quinquina and ipecacuanha to French troops. In a very different take on the end-user, Wouter Klein introduced us to the uses of print culture as a research tool for relating newspaper advertising and ships’ cargoes of drugs in the Dutch republic after 1700.

Several common themes emerged from the papers. It seemed that “colonial bioprospecting” had its limits as a way of understanding European engagement with non-European materia medica. Most substances discussed did not reach Europe thanks to state intervention, but rather were trafficked by a heterogenous set of actors: missionaries, trading company officials, entrepreneurial merchants and court physicians. Many papers also showed that “exoticism” was not necessarily inherently desirable. A drug’s value was established through consensus-building over time. Furthermore, “exoticism” was a relative, context-specific category, subject to change, not solely a feature of geographic origin, or of a core-periphery relation between European metropoles and their colonies. The papers demonstrated that exoticism was also, perhaps largely, a product of degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which varied widely across different European contexts. In sum, rather than being inherently valuable objects of appropriation, exotic drugs were socially constructed goods.

Contributing to The Recipes Project – Five Years On

Editorial: This is the seventh of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Katherine Allen and Sally Osborn

We’ve both had the privilege of being regular contributors to The Recipes Project for the past five years, and we’ve found it a really rewarding experience. Life as a PhD researcher can be a little lonely and disorientating, and it’s been fascinating to be able to get glimpses into other people’s research, activities and thinking in so many diverse and yet still relevant areas.

Katherine says: My first post was on distillation in eighteenth-century recipe books, with a case study on Rebecca Tallamy’s unique manuscript. I wrote that post to introduce my work to the public on a digital platform —  a task I agonised over, since I’d never shared my thoughts and writing with such a large audience — and I used the opportunity to develop my ideas at an early research stage.

What is distillation?
From Katherine’s post The Art of Distillation Image: Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 2r.

Since that first post, my work on distillation became a focal chapter in my thesis, a published journal article, and I’ve presented that research at several events, most recently at the 2017 Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry Seminar in Oxford. These past five years I’ve enjoyed sharing different aspects of my work-in-progress, including recipes and spa culture, ‘movember’ in recipe books, medical recipes in newspapers, and emotions in communicating recipes; this was immensely helpful in formulating my arguments.

I completed my doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2015, and I’ve used The Recipes Project to stay connected to fellow historians of recipes as I dip in and out of the academic sphere. The Recipes Project remains my favourite platform on which to share my research relating to eighteenth-century manuscript recipe books, and it has kept that passion for scholarship alive while I’ve struggled to find a career path and permanent employment in an extremely competitive and precarious academic job market.

Sally says: I started a blog when I began my PhD research and found it a useful way of trying out concepts, thinking and sometimes off-the-wall connections, and just as regular exercise for my writing muscles. I therefore welcomed the chance to contribute on the wider platform of The Recipes Project, which has become a valuable network of people with a seemingly endless range of research interests.

Recipe for artificial Westphalia ham
From Sally’s post Not Quite the Real Thing Image © Wellcome Collection

Like Katherine, I shared ideas at a relatively embryonic stage, such as ‘What is a recipe?’ which became part of the exploration in my thesis of recipe categories and formats. My first contribution, ‘Chicken soup for…’, was a light-hearted look at the area of food as medicine, which I developed at much greater length in a conference paper and a chapter section on diet drinks. I’ve been able to indulge my interest in the history of food more generally with posts on ‘counterfeit’ dishes and Victorian vegetarianism. There’s also nothing like agreeing to write a conference report for encouraging you to analyse and compare the presentations you attend. Now that I’m spending my time restoring a house built in 1789, maybe I ought to look up the recipes from my post on eighteenth-century DIY – and maybe even try building that ice house…

While writing up my PhD I regularly visited The Recipes Project for ‘time out’, knowing that I was bound to find something there that would stimulate my thinking or point me to work I hadn’t come across before. It is so often the case that a stray comment in someone else’s writing will lead to that ‘aha’ moment that helps unravel a knot in your own argument. Two years later I still look forward to reading the diverse posts on The Recipes Project, finding in them an endless source of interest as well as research envy!

We’ve both enjoyed reading posts from other scholars and continue to be truly amazed at the depth and breadth of scholarship relating to recipes. We look forward to continuing to share our love of eighteenth-century recipes and remedies, and we’re excited to see what the next five years hold for this community.

Strawberries: Delicious and Devotional

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While looking through the Newberry Library’s extraordinary collection of medieval books of hours, I was surprised to see how frequently strawberries dotted the marginal illuminations. The berries usually appear alongside colorful flowers; while obviously decorative, I began to wonder why this food was so prolific in imagery, yet relatively more obscure in contemporary recipes.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 27r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Books of hours are books for Christians that provide prayers and devotions, particularly the Hours of the Virgin. The Hours of the Virgin are an abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these books were enormously popular. Scribes created copies for readers of varying socioeconomic levels, and the most expensive books of hours were lavishly illuminated. Containing colorful images and frequent goldleaf, these manuscripts allow us to see the beautiful, opulent life of the wealthiest nobles and royals in the late Middle Ages. The images can be a feast of information for scholars, incorporating medieval clothing, table settings, and room décor with familiar Biblical imagery. Although I set out trying to locate images of food and dining in books of hours, strawberries kept attracting my attention. Whether French or Flemish, fourteenth- or fifteenth-century, and moderately or lavishly decorated, it seemed as though strawberries were everywhere.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 104r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Strawberries were undoubtedly consumed in medieval Europe. Fruit sellers sold the berries on the street, having advertised them with musical cries. The Parisian street cries for fresh strawberries lived on in an anonymous thirteenth-century (c. 1280) French motet; you can listen for “frese nouvele” sung in conjunction with other sounds of Parisian life. Strawberries appear in household records of the aristocracy and royalty. England’s King Henry VII not only received these fruits as gifts in 1506, but his gardener at Greenwich cultivated them. Entries in the records of Anne Stafford, dowager Duchess of Buckingham, reveal her purchase of the berries throughout the summer of 1465.[1] The fruit also occasionally appears in contemporary menus; the French Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (1555) lists strawberries in a course served alongside items like almonds, a Flemish cake, and white jelly.[2]

Despite these references to strawberries in a variety of texts, the fruit appears infrequently in medieval recipes. French recipes, to my knowledge, exclude this ingredient. Only a few medieval English recipes include strawberries. Some include little instruction, such as:

“Freseyes. Streberyen igrounden wyþ milke of alemauns, flour of rys oþur amydon, gret vlehs, poudre of kanele & sucre ; þe colur red, & streberien istreyed abouen.”[3]

Other recipes include more informative details:

“Strawberye.—Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of ȝere in gode red wyne ; þan strayne þorwe a cloþe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun oþer with þe flower of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do þer-in Roysons of coraunce, Safroun, Pepir, Sugre grete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale ; poynte it with Vynegre, &a lytil whyte grece put þer-to ; colure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with þe graynys of Pome-garnad, & serue it forth.[4]

Still other recipes, such as one for darioles, a type of custard-filled pie or tart, invite the cook to include strawberries alongside dates and other spices, only “if it be in time of yere.”[5] While strawberries were obviously a known, accessible, and popular summer berry, they appeared relatively infrequently in contemporary recipes.

The Christ Child holds a basket filled with strawberries.
Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 50.5 fol. 135r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Why, then, do these berries appear so frequently in the religious imagery of books of hours given their proportionately few occurrences in recipes? I conjecture two main reasons. First, the number of recipes including strawberries is likely quite low because the fruit was probably most often served fresh and whole, rather than in prepared dishes, as mentioned above in the course of a French meal. After all, how many strawberries do you manage to carry into your kitchen after a harvest in your strawberry patch or a U-Pick farm? Freshly picked strawberries are quite easy to consume in embarrassingly large quantities, no cooking required!

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 47 fol. 87v
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Second, strawberries were rife with symbolism in medieval Christian iconography. Depending upon the context, as well as the viewer/reader’s subjectivity, the red berries could represent drops Christ’s blood, while its trifoliate leaves were suggestive of the Holy Trinity.[6] Or when paired with flowers, as strawberries typically are in horae marginalia, they represented righteousness. The fruit was also associated with the Virgin Mary.[7] I have selected a variety of personal images from my research in the Newberry Library’s books of hours, each illustrating at least one of these interpretations of strawberry iconography.

Strawberries were likely depicted in these devotional margins because they were so popular. The little fruit did not require the preparations which burdened other victuals. A noble reader, especially, would instantly recognize the berry not only as a delicious fruit so easily eaten out-of-hand, but also one symbolizing Christ’s suffering, the Holy Trinity, and the dedicatee of Books of Hours, the Virgin Mary. What a great amount of work for such a tiny fruit.

NOTES

[1] Christopher Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 109.

[2] Ken Albala, and Timothy Tomasik, eds., The Most Excellent Book of Cookery: An Edition and Translation of the Sixteenth-Century Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (Prospect Books, 2014), 241.

[3] Constance Hieatt, and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury) (Early English Text Society, 1985), 46.

[4] Thomas Austin, ed., Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Early English Text Society, 1888), 29.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[5] Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 24; and Celia Fisher, “Flowers and Plants, the Living Iconography,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography, ed. Colum Hourihane (Routledge, 2016), 460–1.

[6] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood, 2004), 22.

The Ichthyologist’s Garden

By Didi van Trijp  and Robbert Striekwold

On a gloriously sunny day in May we rang the doorbell of ichthyologist Martien van Oijen’s home in Leiden for a rather peculiar project. Even though the original plan had been to carry it out in a laboratory setting, on account of the beautiful weather we all agreed to move the project outside. In his garden, Martien had set up a table on which had been placed an array of equipment for dissection together with some specimens of red seabream that he had bought at the fish market that morning. The reason for all this? The replication of an eighteenth-century recipe for preserving fish skins.

The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.
The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.

This method was developed by Johan Frederic Gronovius (1690–1762), a physician and botanist based in Leiden. He boasted an extensive cabinet with all sorts of naturalia ordered according to the Linnaean system. In his quest for collecting specimens he developed a method for drying and compressing fish skins that would allow one to glue them to the pages of a book – much like dried plants in a herbarium. He described this method in a letter to Peter Collinson, who read it at a meeting of the Royal Society and had it published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1742.[1] Compared to other ways of preserving fishes Gronovius’ method was quite easy and affordable, as few materials were needed. The only requirements were a pair of scissors, wooden plates, a linen cloth, ‘minikin pins’, and cartridge paper. Thus, according to Gronovius, “in the space of 24 hours, the fish is prepared.”

We set out to replicate Gronovius’ method step by step, carefully documenting each act with photographs and taking extensive notes along the way.[2] The first order of business was to cut the fish open with a pair of scissors, while making sure that the fins were not accidentally destroyed.

Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.
Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then most of its right half and all of the intestines were removed, which resulted in a rather gruesome sight.

Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.
Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then we washed the left half and patted it dry with a linen cloth. After spreading the fins with pins, we exposed the half fish to the sun so that it could dry further (in the absence of sun, Gronovius recommended exposing it to the hearth).

Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.
Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.

We noticed fairly soon that some of the steps were not entirely clear to us. For one, what to do about the impressive swarm of flies that instantly flocked to the carcass once it was laid out to dry?

Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.
Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.

Most importantly, although Gronovius said the skin could be separated from the flesh “with very little trouble” after the drying step, it took considerable effort to do so. This may have to do with the fact that some of the steps are described in a somewhat ambiguous manner. We interpreted the step telling us the “back-bones are then to be cut asunder” to mean that the backbone should be cut but not removed.

Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.
Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.

After drying, however, these bones were very hard to remove, so we now think the entire backbone should be discarded before the drying step. Subsequent attempts with new specimens should shed more light on these issues.

The replication of this method is proving to be very insightful by giving us first-hand experience with a pertinent aspect of our respective projects: the preservation of fish specimens so that they could be collected, circulated, stored and classified. Fishes were notoriously difficult to preserve, losing their shapes, colours, textures, and often spoiling despite the collector’s best efforts to prevent these processes. So far, Gronovius’ method has indeed proven to be very quick and remarkably doable, and it appears to preserve the fish in very good shape, although we are not quite done with it yet.

After removing the dried flesh, the skin was placed between paper and left under a press overnight.

Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.
Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.

The next morning an elegantly flattened half-fish came out that would have done Gronovius proud.

Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.
Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.

Unfortunately, it did not smell quite as good as it looked. Our next step will be to use the recipe for a particular varnish that has been written up by Gronovius in a letter to one of his correspondents after having received a number of rotting fish skins. If all goes well, this should remedy the stench of the specimen – now safely stored in the freezer awaiting further treatment – and keep it in its current unspoilt state for many decades.

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*****
1
J.F. Gronovius, ‘A Method of preparing Specimens of Fish, by drying their Skins, as practised by John Frid. Gronovius M.D. in Leyden’ in Philosophical Transactions 42 (1742) 57-58.

[2] Robbert did the dissecting, Didi the documentation.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine