Tag Archives: manuscript recipe collection

Reflections on Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century Recipes

By Katherine Allen

For the ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation on Saturday, 24th June, I reconstructed two eighteenth-century recipes from Mary Wise’s recipe book: a lip salve remedy and a pound cake. You can find out how these experiments unfolded over at my blog, and you can also check out Twitter @KAllen622 for the tweets on making the lip salve, and Instagram @raspberrythriller62 for photos of the pound cake.

The task: choosing a manuscript recipe collection

Actually, this wasn’t difficult. I knew that I wanted to pick both recipes from the same manuscript because this gives me insight into what one individual (or connected group of people creating one collection) desired to record: whether it was out of use, interest, or preserving inherited knowledge. I’ve long been interested in the two manuscripts belonging to the Wise family of Woodcote, which are housed at the Warwickshire Record Office, so I decided to look at these manuscripts for inspiration. For more information on the manuscript I selected, and the family, please refer to this post.

What’s particularly interesting about the lip salve remedy and the pound cake recipe is that they are the third and fourth recipes recorded in Mary’s collection. This means that she could have been inspired to begin a manuscript and had these recipes in mind at the start, and they could have been her own creations or ones passed down to her. Or, she copied recipes from another collection/printed work/letters and these recipes are again among the first she selected.

It’s also worth noting that this manuscript is organised with a table of contents, with a large proportion of the medicinal recipes following the culinary ones written in two different hands. Yet, there are several intermixed medical/culinary recipes (such as these two) recorded at the start of the collection.

Much of the research involving manuscript recipe books is based on speculation and inference: why the compiler began his/her collection, why recipes were selected, if these recipes were deemed effective/valuable, and why the compiler organised the work in a specific way. As neither of these recipes have annotations or statements of efficacy to guide me in determining their value and use, they proved an exciting and unknown challenge for reconstruction. They were also safe to create and I could source the ingredients.

The challenge: selecting a medicinal remedy to re-create

I would have loved to make a plaster or medicinal drink, but I quickly found the ingredients to be prohibitive. For instance, most early modern plaster and salve remedies for treating aches or burns contain lead and turpentine (no thank you!). The main category of remedies found in eighteenth-century recipe collections is for digestive complaints, and many of the recipes I considered contain purgative ingredients such as senna and ‘true’ rhubarb. These ingredients were common since early modern medicine focused on evacuating the body as part of treatment.

I also don’t think my local Boots chemist has Peruvian Bark (cinchona) on hand, and let’s not even get started with the opiates to avoid… I also obviously don’t have access to popular early modern panaceas like Venice treacle (theriac) or mithridate, both of which were cited several times in Mary’s collection for plague and bite of the mad dog (rabies) recipes.

Even when ingredients weren’t toxic, they were difficult to source. Many remedies are herbal-based and I simply don’t have the time or resources to try and track down handfuls of fresh flowers/herbs (unless they’re available at the supermarket). I was additionally restricted by the process of creating recipes. Although my research is on household distillation in eighteenth-century England, I do not own a still and, in any case, wouldn’t feel confident trying to distil a cordial water.

‘How to make Lipsave’

For a transcription of the recipe and my troubles with re-creating it please see my blog post.

Once I settled on this recipe (a few weeks ago) I knew that I had to source beeswax, golden pippins, and orange flower water. Orange flower water could be prepared at home via distillation, and some early modern collections contain recipes, though Mary’s  does not.

As Mary may well have purchased her orange flower water, I too ordered a bottle off Amazon. Simultaneously, I was fortunate enough to find exactly a 1 ounce bar of beeswax! The golden pippins were more difficult to find. They certainly don’t sell pippins in my local shops, and it’s also the wrong season for harvesting apples. So, I opted for golden delicious.

The final line of the recipe is ‘& if you see occasion pair of the Drops’. This instruction presumably meant that you can use it in conjunction with another liquid-based remedy. However, nowhere does it specify what the drops are for, and, moreover, there is no recipe in either of the Wise family books that has ‘drops’ in the title. This leads me to suspect that Mary copied this recipe from another source, but omitted the accompanying ‘drops’ remedy.

‘How to make a pound Cake’  

Again, please see my blog post for further details on the process of creating this cake.

Sourcing ingredients for this culinary recipe was easier. I ordered a bottle of rose water at the same time as the orange blossom water off Amazon. The only ingredient hurdles I encountered were substituting medium dry sherry for sack (an antiquated term for fortified white wine), and deciding how many large eggs I would use, since early modern eggs were likely not as big.

Upon reflection, this was a hugely rewarding and enjoyable experience and I’m thankful that I was able to participate in this virtual conversation on several platforms. The challenges I faced sourcing ingredients in a modern marketplace (and interpreting instructions) likely compare to those that eighteenth-century compilers could have faced when navigating which recipes and remedies to collect and prepare. Sometimes ingredients are simply unattainable, unsuitable for one’s constitution, or undesirable. Instructions are frequently lost in translation, and households needed to improvise and adapt recipes to their available equipment and domestic circumstances.

It is a few days later and I’m still using the little pot of lip salve, and my lips feel very smooth! The cake is disappearing slice by slice.