Depending on the season

By Jennifer A. Munroe

In Charlotte, NC it was 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) yesterday, with a blistering sun that felt more like mid-summer than mid-spring; today it is 50 degrees and raining so hard we are under a flash flood warning. Also yesterday, Earth Day (April 22) was met this year by a “March for Science” around the globe. Somehow, it all seems fitting: such fluctuations in the weather here in North Carolina are a product (at least in part) of human-precipitated global climate change, a phenomenon still denied by too many people (one is too many, to my mind), especially in Western countries who have too much to gain by the continued overuse of earth’s resources. But what has this all to do with early modern recipes?

Early modern recipes remind us that humans are, ultimately, subject to seasonal change, even if our actions might alter the fluctuations and intensity of temperature and precipitation—or, might affect the way we experience the seasons. That is, although it may seem that we have the power, even to act destructively, our presence on this planet is a shared presence, one borne of interdependence and punctuated by the fact that we are, ultimately, locked in an interdependent relationship with the other animals, plants, soil, and climate on the planet we cohabitate.

At a time when we can access produce like strawberries and avocados in the middle of winter, it may seem we have achieved liberation from the shackles of seasonality. But such mid-winter fruits, as any who have tasted them in January would know, are mere specters of their mid-summer relatives: they may look like the real thing, but taste like it they do not. Early moderns were necessarily bound to the sort of seasonality we aim to circumvent today. As they grew or harvested their own fruits and vegetables, they were (even with hothouse technology) generally subject to the natural course of ripening that comes as a result of having spent enough hours on the vine, stalk, or bush basking in the sunshine, or the slow release of ethylene that makes a tomato red or a blackberry soft. Calcium carbide, our modern-day chemical stand-in, may hasten ripening while a fruit is prematurely transported to market today, but it will not make it taste sweet.

I want to turn to a recipe from the manuscript receipt book of Rebeckah Winche (Folger MS v.b.366) to rethink what it (and others like it) tells us about human dependence on the seasons. If you open a manuscript recipe book, you will notice myriad iterations of “pick it when it is ripe” or “gather in midsomer,” as we do in numerous recipes from the Winche book. These books thus note the optimum time for harvest, when the plant material is at its best. A recipe from the Winche book, “To Preserve Wallnuts,” charges, “Take green walnuts about Midsomer” (153); or another, “To Drie Figges,” similarly calls for one to “Take your figges when thay are ripe & new gathred” (152). Gathering a fruit when it is ripe, or a flower when it is newly-budded, is to take that plant when its oil and sugar concentrations (and its very essence) are at their peak. But I think recipes like these do more than indicate the optimum time for gathering; they also underscore a delicate balance between the desire to thwart time (and seasonality as a marker of time) and an awareness of the futility of halting time and its effects on both humans and nonhumans alike. For while the act of food preservation (here, drying figs) is an endeavor that presumes to hold an object in time and space indefinitely, it is also a sort of hubris—after all, the moment a plant is harvested, its mortality is hastened. Take the recipe “To Drie Figges,” for instance:

Take your figges when thay are ripe & new

gathred. set on a skillet of water then take

your figges & prick them up & down wth a pin

& put them in to the water & let them boyle till

thay bee tender. then take them out & to a pound of

take a pound of loafe suger. then take a quart of

water. & one quarter of the suger & set it on the

fire & when you have scumed it put in your figs

& let them boyle a pritty while then put them in an

earthen pan & so doe for 4 days together put ing in

on gr of ye suger every day until all bee in allways

let ing the sirup boyle before you put in the figs

let them stand 2 days in the sirrup & then lay them

upon a sive & when thay are drayned scrape fine

suger on them & set them in an oven where there

is some little heat or in a stove turning them twice

a day serseing suger on them until thay be dry

then put papers between them & keepe them in a dry place.

As interesting as the instructions for preserving the figs (which ripen in summer) so they last indefinitely might sound–to suspend them in time by way of applying sugar and heat over a prolonged period–this recipe articulates protracted time in such a way that underscores flux, not stasis. Or put another way, even in the act of “keeping” (which implies a holding in time and space of an object’s qualities), recipes like this one underscore fluctuation and change. Taking the figs, “when they are ripe and new gathred” prompts this chain of events, but what follows is a process of “prick[ing],” “scum[ing],” “boyle[ing],” “drayn[ing],” “turning,” and “serseing” over the course of days, even weeks, “until thay be dry” (however long that is). The “ings” here outnumber the “eds.”

We might also recall the numerous recipes from the period in which we find alternative storage directions for different seasons: foods and medicines might last longer in storage in the winter than in the summer. And here, in the simple directions to “keepe them [the dried figs] in a dry place,” we see contingencies of seasonality—keeping something dry in the middle of summer is usually an easier enterprise than keeping it dry in the peak of the spring rains, even if your storage is tucked away and sealed. For that matter, starting a fire and keeping it regulated is easier to do during a drier season than it is a wetter one.

This recipe with a deceptively simple title, “To Drie Figges,” then, reveals a complex and ongoing interaction between human (gatherer) and an array of nonhuman things (fig, sugar, fire, sun, rain, knife, skillet, and more) that seems to defy the very premise of preservation. That is, while the notion of “preserving” seems to imply something very unseasonal—to be kept perpetually in a state over time—“To Drie Figges” reminds us of the multiple states of being, of our dependence on the seasons for the fruit’s ripeness and for its preservation (even after the loads of sugar). Moreover, any user of this recipe would need to know the season when figs ripen, as our instructions indicate merely to “take” when ripe. In England, as in the US, figs tend to ripen in summer, but the moment of optimum ripeness is harnessed not by fixing a date on the calendar to gather, but rather by attending to the particulars of the fruit’s appearance, odor, and texture. As anyone who tends a garden in this time of climate change would know, though, that precise moment shifts from year to year, and is coming earlier all the time, thanks to planetary warming. For these and other reasons, then, recipes remind us of what we might otherwise like to forget: so much is depending not so much on us, but on the season.

The Fruits of Summer in the Dead of Winter

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

In the seventeenth century, life ebbed and flowed with the seasons. In my research into the court household of Berlin, I noted seasonal shifts in livery, lighting, bedtimes, and, of course, recipes. Even with these seasonal adaptations, however, early modern Europeans sought to overcome seasonal growing constraints. One occupation primarily concerned with defying the seasonality of food was that of the court confectioner. It was his (and his wife’s) job to preserve the delicate summer fruits for wealthy Europeans to enjoy even in the depths of winter.

Nicolas de Bonnefons described the rewards of this play with the seasons in his 1654 Les Delices de la campagne, which was translated into English and German and even republished by a Berlin court physician, Johann Sigismund Elsholtz. Bonnefons raptured:

There is nothing which doth more agreeably concern the senses, than in the depth of Winter to behold the fruits so fair, and so good, yea, better than when you first did gather them; and that then, when the trees seem to be dead, and have lost all their Verdure, and the rigour of the cold to have so dispoil’d your garden of all that imbellished it, that it appears rather a desart [sic] than a paradise of delicacies; then it is, I say, that you will taste your fruit with infinite more Gust and contentment, than in the summer it self, when their great abundance and variety rather cloy you than become agreeable. For this reason therefore it is, that we will essay to teach you the most expedite, and certain means how to conserve them all the winter, even so long, as till the new shall incite you to quite the old.[1]

A view into the confectioner’s kitchen in The French gardiner, 1691,

Considering Bonnefons emphatic endorsement of summer fruits in winter, it is perhaps not surprising that confectioners were highly valued in Europe. The moist and cold properties of fresh fruit generally made it a nutritional no-no, according to Galenic principles of diet. However, candied fruits were considered medicinal and the position of court confectioner often fell under the office of the apothecary, not the kitchen.[2] In the Renaissance, it was common to seal the stomach at the end of a rich meal with either fresh or preserved fruits and fruit at a meal was emblematic of the wealth and refinement of the host.[3] By the eighteenth century, the task of the confectioner to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the table was so ingrained that one encyclopedist claimed they belonged to the artist class and prospects had to apprentice themselves to a city confectioner for six years until they had mastered their art.[4] 

Georg Flegel (1566–1638), Still life with cookies and confections (including dried cherries).

The importance of the confectioner is apparent at the court at Berlin in the seventeenth century. The household archives contain a frantic exchange from 1647 between the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688) and his counselors about finding a replacement for the deceased confectioner, Johann Schenke, whose wife did not want to carry on the job. It being early summer (Jun 27), the councilors expressed the pressing need to fill the vacancy because “now is the best time for juices and other garden fruits to be preserved.”[5] Friedrich Wilhelm ordered them to install the Prussian confectioner, Johann Tiegel, in the position. He wrote that although they would eventually draw up a contract for him, Tiegel should get started immediately collecting the fruit from the gardens and bringing them to the elector’s tables with the appropriate confections.[6]

When it was finally written, the court confectioner’s employment contract specified the supplies he would receive to carry out his charge: 700 Reichsthaler (in addition to his 80 Reichstaler salary), 960 eggs, as much flour and fruit as needed (from the gardens and from in-kind taxes), 1000 citrons, 1000 bitter oranges, as well as a supply of wood, coal and candles.[7] Occasionally, the confectioner did not get the necessary supplies, which hindered his ability to preserve fruits and was costly for the court. In 1657, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered that Tiegel surely be supplied with apples, cherries, and Black Corinths (Johannisbeere in German) in order to avoid the great expense of having to buy confections from outside of the palace, which had been necessary the previous year.[8]

Cherries were the first ripe fruits of the summer. The sandy soil of Brandenburg was well-suited to growing cherries and in 1656, there were eight varieties of cherries cataloged in the palace garden of Berlin.[9] Dr. Elsholtz wrote that cherries were ripe in June and July and described their consumption: “one eats cherries either fresh or cooked into a soup, or dried, or preserved with sugar. Some make cherry water or a syrup.”[10] Here is a translation of one such cherry recipe reprinted by Elsholtz from Bonnefons:

One makes the cherry syrup from the good, ripe cherry juice, which you press through a hair or linen cloth. For every quart of this juice, add a pound of sugar, boil that to a thick syrup. To clarify this syrup, let it run through a distillation sack.”[11]

Elsholtz’s descriptions also correspond with the menus and food receipts from the Brandenburg-Prussian household archive, which frequently list the ordering or consumption of dried cherries and cherry sauce (Kirschmus), in particular.

In some popular food literature today, there’s nostalgia for a time when humans adhered more closely to the foods nature provided each season. Even prior to industrialization, however, people clearly prized the rarity of a taste of an off-season food. What the archival record reveals, though, is that early modern Europeans of all orders were still hyper aware of what foods were available when and were careful about timing the work of preservation accordingly.

[1] Nicolas de Bonnefons, John Evelyn, and John Rose, The French Gardiner (London: Printed by F.B. for B. Took, and are to be sold by J. Taylor, 1691), p. 191-2.

[2] This was the case in Berlin. See Peter Bahl, Der Hof des Grossen Kurfürsten: Studien zur hoheren Amtsträgerschaft Brandenburg-Preussens (Koln: Bohlau, 2001), p. 365.

[3] Ken Albala, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 82-89.

[4] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Conditor,” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft (Berlin: Pauli, 1773),

[5] Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz I. Rep. 36 948, p. 57

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Ibid, p. 55. There is no mention of the quantity of sugar the confectioner would receive, but an earlier missive from the previous elector ordered the Office of the Domains (Amtskammer) to supply the confectioner with enough sugar for the dried fruits coming in as taxes-in-kind from the administrative districts (Ämter). Ibid, p. 16.

[8] Ibid. p. 73.

[9] Marina Heilmeyer, Kirschen für den König, Potsdamer pomologische Geschichten (Potsdam: Vacat, 2001), p. 10. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz’s 1656 plant catalog Horta Berolinensis can be found at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin Ms.boruss.qu. 12.

[10] Elßholtz, Vom Garten-Baw (Berlin, 1684), p. 258.  Ibid, Diaeteticon (Cölln an der Spree: Georg Schulz, 1682), p. 61.

[11] Ibid, p. 436-7. I translated Viertal as quart and “Luttersack” as distillation sack. There’s a picture of a 19th-century Luttersack here (item 30). According to Adelung, the Lutter is what came out of the first pass through the fire when making brandy (which required two firings).

Transcending Seasonality: Preserving in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Recipes

By Rachel A. Snell

By the mid-twentieth century, the combined forces of science, technology, and industrialization freed the American consumer from the dictates of seasonally available ingredients. The tomatoes, peas, asparagus, spinach, and other vegetable delicacies once proudly featured in spring and summer menus in nineteenth-century cookbooks could be obtained virtually year-round. However, the desire to conquer the limits of seasonality existed long before the origins of the modern, industrial food system. The Fiske Family Cookbook, a manuscript recipe collection likely compiled by Joanna Ober Edwards Fiske and her daughter Joanna A. Foster of Beverly, Massachusetts, over the bulk of the nineteenth century, contains a rich and detailed record of the struggle with seasonality.[1] Instructions to keep meat fresh without ice, prepare cucumber pickles, dry apples, and create other preserves hint at the challenges of food preservation in an era before reliable refrigeration.

Table Diagram from Fiske Family Cookbook, ca. 1810-1890, Winterthur Museum and Library. The appearance of two detailed table diagrams in the cookbook hints the Fiske women had other concerns or aspirations.

Mid-nineteenth-century recipes like those collected by the Fiske women suggest the considerable effort women exerted to transcend seasonality in an era before reliable canning, refrigeration, and other methods of food preservation. Preserving, the process of preventing spoiling and extending the shelf life of foods using various techniques, was a fundamental development in human history. Preservation techniques like drying, salting, pickling in vinegar, smoking, fermenting, and many others evolved and were perfected over thousands of years. While the techniques to preserve food remained nearly constant, technological innovations during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries expanded the lifespan of preserved foods. Until the invention of home canning equipment, beginning with the patenting of the screw-on zinc lid in 1858, home preserving was limited by unreliable methods to seal preserved food from bacteria. Storage was especially fraught, since for all preserved foods “the more often they are exposed to the air by opening, the more damage there is of spoiling.”[2] Prior to 1858, sealing methods were imperfect with domestic advisors recommending queensware pots or glass jars or tumblers covered with tissue paper, writing paper dipped in brandy, or oiled paper. With these imperfect methods, the housewife had to be constantly vigilant for signs of decay amongst the family’s food stores. Lydia Maria Child advised her readers to regularly, “examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mould [sic]; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.”[3]

Assortment of mason jars and lids.

Before the invention of Styrofoam trays filled with cuts of meat in refrigerated cases, preserving the meat was a considerable task requiring time and skill. In November 1852, Susan Pettibone recorded in her diary the multi-day task of butchering, processing, and preserving the families’ livestock. On November 17, Pettibone records killing a 330lb pig. On the nineteenth, she and her sister Julia “worked at the sausage meat,” but were waiting for colder weather to tackle the larger cuts. The next day, Pettibone records Julia spent the day “making brine” to complete the labor necessary to preserve the pig slaughtered four days before. Similarly, in December the sisters require several days to prepare “our beef” for brining. Pettibone does not record the brine favored in her household, but Sarah J. Hale’s The New House-Hold Receipt Book included a versatile recipe “for hams, tongues, or beef,” claimed to “keep for years” composed of spring water, coarse sugar, common salt, saltpeter, and various spices.[4] After brining for a set period, dependent on both the size and type of meat, Hale provides minute instructions for drying and smoking the cuts of meat. The following January, Pettibone records, “Mr. Pettibone brought home our hams from Mr. Shepards they are beautifully smoked,” suggesting the Pettibone family did not smoke their own meats but arranged for a neighbor to complete the preservation process. Perhaps as Hale recommends, the Pettibones’s reused their brine, adding “two pounds of common salt and two pints of water every time you boil the liquor.” Various versions of this brine circulate in both printed and manuscript recipe collections, such as “cure for beef or pork” found in Mary J. Hall’s contemporary recipe book.

To Cure Beef of Pork, Mary J. Hall, Receipt book, ca. 1851-1927, Winterthur Museum and Library.

If brining and smoking meat was the work of the cooler months, the summer months were equally filled with feverish preserving. In 1853, Susan Pettibone began making cheese on July 4th. Just over a month later on August 6, she noted, “I have made my eighth cheese which closes my dairying for this season.” Although Pettibone obscures the prodigious labor behind cheese making in her terse records, “I have made my sixth cheese today,” Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery provides a sense of the process. Cheese making required diligent cleanliness and patience. Although Leslie includes precisely heated milk and purchased rennet (she also provides instructions for preparing your own rennet), her notation, “the best time for making cheese is when the pasture is in perfection,” recalls an intuitive and experiential version of women’s domestic knowledge that was waning by the mid-nineteenth century as technology increasingly conquered seasonality and preserving took on new meaning.[5] Recipes and diaries from this era suggest both the practical purpose of preserving (extending the usable lifespan of seasonal produce) as well as the genteel desire to produce confections that evidenced classes and status. Ingenious methods for preserving eggs, instructions to salt large quantities of beef, and the trading of recipes for curing hams evidence the importance of women’s seasonal labor to preserve food well into the nineteenth century.

[1] Fiske Family, Cookbook [ca. 1810- ca. 1890], The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE ; 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, Beverley, Essex, Massachusetts, ( [database on-line]. Provo, UT), accessed March 1, 2016.

[2] Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1851), 231.

[3] Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel & William Wood, 1841), 8.

[4] Sarah J. Hale, The New Household Receipt-Book (London: T. Nelson and Son’s, 1854), 518.

[5] Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 384.

Editing the Recipes Project – 5 Years On

By Laura Mitchell

I was invited to join the Recipes Project by Lisa Smith in 2012 when I was a freshly minted medieval studies PhD working part-time at the University of Saskatchewan. I was lucky enough to be present at some of the earliest meetings about this idea Lisa and Elaine Leong had. My first post went online a few months later, in September of that year. Eventually I took over the social media duties from Lisa and I now control the Facebook and Twitter feeds (although Lisa sometimes still jumps in!).

Since 2012 I have moved provinces to Toronto, left academia, worked a year as a freelance researcher for a design company, and now work at the University of Toronto as a project manager for a grant-funded research project, Digital Tools for Manuscript Study. My time now is mostly taken up with budgets and coordinating people and schedules instead of teaching or research.

Censored charms in Trinity College Cambridge O.1.57, fols. 76v-77r. (CC BY-NC 4.0, the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

The Recipes Project has been a terrific outlet for the research I did as a graduate student and a way to disseminate some of my favourite bits of my dissertation. Once I decided to leave academia I knew that the chances that I’d publish any of my former work was pretty low – blogging seemed like a natural solution. I could write about topics like farting,  love, and censorship in magical texts to my heart’s content. It was also exciting/scary to know that my writing was reaching an audience of several thousand, which is certainly more than a traditionally published article would reach!

I took over social media duties in 2014 and I have really enjoyed being able to take an active part in the project in this way. Through the Twitter feed I’ve encountered a huge range of people and projects outside my field of study; it’s been fascinating to see what researchers in other time periods and geographic areas are working on, and I enjoy sharing these finds with our Twitter and Facebook followers (fun fact: as I am writing this The Recipes Project has 933 likes on Facebook and 7,053 followers on Twitter!). The online community around the Recipes Project is very enthusiastic about what we write about and it’s always interesting to check our notifications to see how our followers respond to us. We have even recruited contributors through Facebook and Twitter! I feel very privileged to be a part of this project and see it grow from an idea into the thriving community it is now. The Recipes Project is really a testament to the good scholarly work that can be accomplished in online communities and through social media.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine