Tag Archives: feminism

The Recipe as Feminist Text: A Reflection on the Writing of Preserving on Paper

By Kristine Kowalchuk

Cover illustration of Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books. University of Toronto Press, 2017.

In writing Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, (University of Toronto Press, 2017) I found the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between often came to mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I have long been interested in food and language and the relationship between the two. The most obvious link is, of course, the recipe, but in my own postsecondary education, I always felt somewhat dissatisfied by the scholarship (or lack thereof) I encountered on these.

As a student of science and then of English, I noticed that recipes were either overlooked or disparaged in the courses I took. None of my biology teachers mentioned the role the recipe might have played in the formation of the scientific method (nor did they talk much about the historical context of science at all). And in my English courses, recipes, if considered, were regarded as a non-serious genre that could never be sufficiently contorted to fit literary expectations. Few academics at the time, it seemed, gave recipes much thought and no one seemed to know quite what to do with them. And I kept having this niggling feeling that we were missing something important.

During a graduate research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I accidentally called up a seventeenth-century receipt book. Serendipity! Holding the manuscript in my hands, I felt reverence…and also confusion. I had no paleographical training, so struggled with the recipes themselves, but it was clear there were many different forms of handwriting. Why so many? What explained all the marginal notes and attributions? Who was the author? Weren’t only a few women literate at the time? And what did the manuscripts say about the women themselves?

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 7v-8r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

I ultimately decided to focus on these manuscripts and their relationship to the women who wrote them for my doctoral dissertation (finally, a clear topic!), and I began an archaeological-like digging into the past to try to answer my questions above.

And finally, I stumbled upon the deep and diverse research happening by many scholars on recipes–including the same scholars who contribute to The Recipes Project. I learned how to read seventeenth-century handwriting. I read all kinds of helpful texts on the history of women’s literacy and physical work, on seventeenth-century food and farming, on Galenic understanding of human health and the virtues of plants, on kitchen tools and architecture.

Gradually, I began to piece together a better understanding of the period and of women’s work and writing within it. I completed and defended my dissertation and felt confident about my knowledge in this field of early women’s writing in English.

However, six months after I had successfully defended my dissertation and was teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the book, I was struck by an idea that changed my entire understanding of these manuscripts and of the recipe itself. We were discussing Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and I realized that my own modern assumptions about authorship and subjectivity and “literary” writing had led me, and many others, to miss the point entirely.

Receipt books did not reflect women’s oppression, nor, conversely, did they reflect the rise of modern subjectivity, because women were, until the seventeenth century, already the respected authorities on food and medicine.  Furthermore, they were collective keepers of this knowledge, rather than individual authors or owners. It is this culture, so very different than our own, that is preserved in receipt books – meaning they reflect an end of women’s wider authority rather than a beginning.

Patriarchal values of dominion over nature, individualism, and capitalism arose as new, male-dominated professions – chefs, doctors, and apothecaries – assumed individual authority over women’s collective knowledge and dismissed, ridiculed, and persecuted the women who persisted with special knowledge in food and medicine.

This is the history of the modern cultural view, and our inheritance of it today has caused most of us (including Foucault, who saw the “postauthor utopia” as occurring only in the future, not the past) to largely forget what came before, so that we have been complicit in the continued dismissal of, rather than pride in, both women’s traditional work and the not-so-humble recipe as the material form of this authority.

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 55v-56r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Our modern cultural outlook means we give Francis Bacon credit for creating the scientific method, even though women were cooking and curing at home long before men were performing experiments in labs (and many of us continue to believe that we might be objective observers of nature in the first place).

This culture regards traditional knowledge and household work as less valuable than academic knowledge and professional work. It marginalizes midwives and home care workers and mothers who breastfeed. It rewards celebrity chefs who collect traditional and “country” recipes and sell them in cookbooks under their own name. It subscribes to the cult of the single author. It regards recipes as unimportant. And it sees women’s traditional work as repressive, rather than recognizing its role governing the most critical cultural knowledge.

For this reason, as I say in Preserving on Paper, I see receipt books as “the ultimate feminist texts.”

I also can’t help but see how our cultural amnesia connects to current events related to women’s rights. To understand women’s struggles today, we need to look back and try to understand their origins. It is past time for all of us to deeply consider the particular historical construction of authority in the west, and to recognize that it once looked very different. A recipe for sugar puffs, say, or a remedy for an itch, might at first seem frivolous, but they are in fact windows into a world in which women’s collective authority was assumed.

That’s history worth remembering.

Teaching Recipes Online: Building Community and Purpose

By Rebecca Laroche

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.17.58 PMI started teaching an early modern survey of women writers online in 2002.  My reasons were many, not the least of which were feminist.  Serving a largely military community, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs had more than its share of military spouses, mainly women, who had suddenly found themselves single parents as their husbands were deployed in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and online courses provided the means to continue their education in a flexible manner. The fact that extensive research in early modern women coincided with the establishment of online databases meant that the course’s content was also in line with its form.  Our primary “textbook” was Women Writers Online, then recently released by Brown University. My position at a rapidly growing research university serving a large geographic region meant there were resources for teaching online, and we were in many ways ahead of the national trend. I was able to experiment with different discussion formats and social media manipulations that spoke to the need for intellectual community and deep inquiry within the format.

It wasn’t until a necessary hiatus from online teaching while chairing the department and a sabbatical in 2012 that I came to a profound realization about this aspect of my teaching self, however. Many professors who are teaching online, including myslef, have gone about it all wrong.  The online environment is not simply an update of the classroom to which one translates what you’ve already taught, approximating in the virtual that which we’d come to value in the real. Rather it is its own sphere with its own pedagogical aims and outcomes.  And in this realization, I have developed Early Modern Women Writers Point Two.

You see, during 2012, I also became a founding member of the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), an international group of scholars committed to creating a database of English recipe manuscripts 1550 to 1850, transcribed and searchable. With hundreds of these manuscripts extant, the task was huge, yet we had all come to recognize the importance and richness of the work.  And with women’s key roles in the genre, it was feminist work, clearly. In our first meetings, it became apparent that this work could sustain generations of scholarship, but it also became certain that it could sustain teaching.

Before becoming chair, I had begun to incorporate “online edition” assignments into ENGL 3200, as one challenge to having Women Writers Online as one’s textbook was the lack of editorial mediation for students.  They could not understand the texts, not because they were incomprehensible, but because they were early modern and had not been “Nortonized.” I wanted students to see that, in line with the theorization of Margaret Ezell, the problem of women writers in the Renaissance was not that there were so few but that there were so few made accessible to modern readers.[1]  Having students make their own edition not only helped to make the works more accessible to students it also made them to realize the work of making things accessible, work from which the male canon had benefited for a century and which still remained to be done for many early modern texts.

From this assignment, recipes were an easy leap, and in the last two manifestations of the course I have made EMROC’s mission the work of the second half of the course.  In these months, students learned to transcribe (currently I use the Cambridge University transcription site and various handouts from Textual Communities), read entries from the Recipes Project blog (to learn about the extensive scholarship at play), performed group work in transcription, transcribed a page of the text themselves, took on the basics of XML, and submitted the document either directly to the database (making them a contributing member) or to me to be submitted with a note to their work. It is difficult scholarship, and at first quite daunting, but the group support meant that the task that first seemed impossible suddenly (often magically) became recognizable.  With the help of the OED (introduced during the online edition portion of the course), they were developing early modern vocabulary and became enmeshed with early modern concerns.  The early modern period, and the labor women did in that time, was alive to them in ways never before experienced.

After two semesters of teaching the course this way, I have had several students catch fire with this mission and with their roles as undergraduate researchers. In October, you will be able to read the research done by two students who continued their coursework on Catchmay in an independent study. One of these young women is even looking into her MLS degree so she can continue to work in the archive.  As they contribute to the database a year after their coursework, I will be teaching two sections of the course in the Spring of 2015.  As my students are transcribing in tandem with other face-to-face courses across the country (see Amy Tigner and Jen Munroe later this month), the online medium underlines the future of collaboration.  You see, to this day, the steering committee of EMROC continues to meet bimonthly on Google+.

[1]. Margaret Ezell, Writing Women’s Literary History (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).