Recipes as a Connecting Thread: Reflections on Day 4

By Amanda Herbert and Elaine Leong

Day Four represented the best of what our “What Is A Recipe” digital conversation has come to represent.  Our contributors joined the #recipesconf conversation in a wide range of media: blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, Instagram photo essays, and Tweetstorms.  As our discussion ranged across platforms and topics, we were reminded that recipes act as a connecting thread, bringing together helpful research and insights that help us to understand the past from many perspectives, disciplines, and time periods.

We had some new recipe recreations today, via Simon Walker and Siobhan Clark.  Both of these contributors reminded us – in keeping with Marissa Nicosia’s post on early modern chocolate – that recipe recreation helps us to see a past which is available yet not necessarily accessible.

Siobhan Clark’s Spuddenly Farming experiment continued as Siobhan began to divide and cut potatoes that had been grown according to eighteenth-century farming methods.  This was not straightforward, as the potatoes came in a variety of sizes and each had very different numbers of eyes.  What started as a math puzzle quickly became an exercise in aesthetics.

But Simon Walker’s brilliant YouTube tutorial on how to make WWI Lemon Hardtack Pudding reminded us that aesthetics are sometimes lost in translation. As Simon shared, soldiers in WWI were expected to eat 4,500 calories per day, approximately 500 of which were devoted to puddings — or, as the soldiers called them, “duff.” (For another RP post on wartime duff, see Jessica Eichlin’s post on Apple Duff in the American Civil War.)

The most important things about these dishes were probably their characters (filling) as well as their contents (sugar) rather than their visual or textural appeal. Puddings made out of things like bacon grease, sugar, and rehydrated hardtack might seem today to be only marginally edible — but they were nonetheless critical to WWI soldiers’ morale and their sense of normalcy.  Both Siobhan’s and Simon’s recreations might not allow a replica of past experience, but they do offer unexpected and useful insights into things like the material conditions of labor, the impact of tradition and culture, or the importance of logistics, supply, and trade.

Two other contributors, Louise Cilliers and Véronique Ginouvès, offered blog posts.  Cilliers discussed remedies to treat breast engorgement in the ancient world, and Ginouvès reflected on her experiments with podcasting at the sound archives at the MMSH.  Cilliers shared insights about a North African doctor, Theodorus Priscianus, who was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4thcentury CE).  Priscianus’ cures for postpartum women revealed that the physician was attuned to and respectful of ancient women’s own systems of knowledge and their experiences.

Meanwhile Ginouvès wrote about the ways that  she her team have approached a series called “La Recette Du Mois,” uncovering recollections of recipes in the MMSH Sound Archive Center’s more than 8,000 hours of sound archives (6,000 of which have been digitized, and  3,000 of which are directly accessible online).  Although Cilliers’ and Ginouvès’ topics vary widely in terms of time period and topic, both offered the opportunity to reflect on the important work that recipes do in making the past seem relevant, approachable, and accessible.

This was a point forcefully born out by Lisa Smith’s tweetstorm about her innovative undergraduate teaching with recipes. Smith’s tweets directed readers to blog posts and citizen transcription projects completed by her students at the University of Essex as part of their goal to consider ‘What is a Recipe?’. For more, go here.

Finally, joining the conversation from Australia, Marguerite Johnson shared her analysis of beauty recipes from Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae via a podcast and storify.  Ovid, Marguerite tell us, offered his readers not recipes for cosmetics (make-up and such) but rather ‘cosmeceuticals’, substances which could be used to augment natural beauty. Here, we again see recipes as a connecting thread. Not only were there crossovers in the ingredients, techniques and equipment used between medical, culinary and cosmeceutical production but many of the ingredients recommended by Ovid, such as honey and egg,  are still in use today in our more natural face creams. Inspired by Marguerite (and Ovid, of course), we now view those eggs sitting our kitchens with new intentions! Who knows, next week, you might see us sporting smooth, glowing complexions! And that’s only one of the reasons why we appreciate #recipesconf.

… And in case you missed it, a Storify of Day 3 by Tallulah Maait Pepperell is available here.

 

 

More Links for What is a Recipe?

In case you missed them, check out the following posts…

Katie Birkwood at the Royal College of Physicians London looks at early modern pharmacopoeia and wonders how important provenance is in establishing what is or isn’t a recipe.

Hannah Salisbury at the Essex Records Office delves into their collections for ‘A Taste of the Past’.

The Provincial Archives of Alberta has another recipe-card installment, this time for summer recipes… from freckle removal to matrimonial cake!

Regular contributors who have been tweeting treats from their collections include: Cardiff Library and Special Collections, Thomas Fisher Library, and the Wangensteen Bio-Medical Library.

Day 4: What is a Recipe?

Page from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On Tuesday, we had a lively discussion about favourite ingredients, interpreting changes in recipes, the role of expertise and tools, growing saffron, growing potatoes, the best cows for milk, and making bread, Folger Library highlights… (See here for Tallulah Maait Pepperell’s Storify account of Day 3!) We also had medieval friars practicing alchemy and time-travelling cookery here at The Recipes Project. If you missed our Twitter chat, you can catch up with the day in Tallulah Maait Pepperell’s Storify here.

Yesterday, we also launched a new storytelling event for the Virtual Conversation (on all month!): Cooking with Anger. Take out your list of ingredients and cook away in the form of a very short story in our comment section! The Wangensteen Library was also tweeting about chocolate (@umnbiomedlib), which inspires emotions of another sort…

Today, we are entering a world of sound and vision, as well as text:

  • Véronique Ginouvès (@Bagolina) discusses what is a recipe when it comes to the sound archives at the MMSH.
  • Marguerite Johnson (@MMJ722) has a podcast here on two cosmetic recipes in the poetry of Ovid, and discusses others over here on Storify.
  • Simon Walker, in a YouTube video,  prepares and reflects on a recipe for hard tack lemon pudding from the trenches of the First World War. He will also be chatting about recipes from this period on Twitter between 1 and 4 p.m. BST (@Dark_Nocterna)!
  • Louis Cilliers joins us here for a discussion of remedies to treat breast engorgement in Antiquity.
  • Siobhan Clark is back with her eighteenth-century potato growing experiment on Twitter @Spuddenly_Farm and Instagram @SpuddenlyFarming.
  • Lisa Smith will be discussing her class on The Digital Recipe Book Project and her students’ work on a seventeenth-century recipe book on Twitter (@historybeagle) throughout the day.

We hope to hear from you — in the comments, on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter…

Theodorus Priscianus’ recipes for breast engorgement

By Louise Cilliers

We know very little about Theodorus Priscianus, only that he was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4th century CE), and was thus also a native of North Africa. We can also deduce that he was a professional doctor. The work for which Theodorus is known, is the Euporiston (a book of easily obtainable remedies), which consists of four books of medical recipes, of which the fourth, the Gynaecia, contains treatments for women’s diseases. Due to its practical applicability, the Gynaecia was very popular in the later Middle Ages; it was excerpted on numerous occasions.

A carving showing a Roman midwife, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The Gynaecia is dedicated to a midwife, a certain Victoria. In his preface, Theodorus states that he wants to “support her with his knowledge”, and he requests her to “faithfully, diligently and carefully… carry into effect the remedies for female ailments” as set out in his treatise. This knowledge was then to be disseminated among midwives and other women to help them in treating ailing women.

Theodorus’ Gynaecia comprises recipes for ten female ailments which he discusses. They are: engorgement of the breasts after parturition, swelling or contraction of the uterus, the mole, atresia, sterility, abortion, haemorrhage of the uterus, injuries to the uterus, the flux, and gonorrhoea. I will focus on engorgement of the breasts after parturition.

This is a very common problem that women experience after having given birth, and various procedures, such as poultices laid on the breasts, were followed in ancient times. Medicaments, made from vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen, were also given. Theodorus clearly has empathy with women whose breasts are taut, swollen or painful after birth. In not too serious cases, he recommends that a soft sponge soaked in a mild astringent, such as vinegar, be applied to the breast, and held in place by a light bandage. Alternatively soothing poultices, for instance, bread soaked in water-mead and oil or fresh pork fat can be laid on the breasts.

If the problem of engorgement has been resolved but the mother still wants to feed the baby, the breasts should be smeared with rush, egg and saffron, or crushed raisins mixed with the flour of beans, or pounded sesame seed mixed with vinegar and honey, or a mixture of pounded leaves of ivy and figs, or (even more directly from the kitchen) fresh pounded cheese with vinegar-honey – if these substances be made into a poultice, they would apparently have increased the fecundity of the milk.

If the patient cannot bear the weight of the poultice, the breasts must be steamed, and an even softer sponge soaked in an extract of marsh mallow, linseed and fenugreek plants be applied.

Purslane, one of the plants used in ancient breast poultices. Credit: Wellcome Library,

But if milk production should be stopped completely, alum or the seed of fleawort or coriander of purslane must be added to the aforementioned poultice, or the powder of a pounded millstone mixed with a wax salve should be applied. But if the breast has produced pus, it must be opened with appropriate aid, so that with one voiding they can be healed completely.

Throughout Theodorus warns that medicaments should be mild, and that all poultices should be applied with moderation, with consideration for the tender breasts.

Further reading:
You can find the text of Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston (in Latin) here.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine