Recipes are often framed as a technical genre of writing, consisting of useful and practical how-to works that prioritize exact measurements, lists of ingredients, and precise procedures for preparation. They are, in this light, staid, distant, and rather dull. However, behind many of the most complex and intricate recipes, there is often playfulness—an elaborate design, satirical word play and puns, or creative sketches and imagery. Historical recipes were often fanciful, involving rare or mythical ingredients, which could be of no practical use. They involved creativity and experimentation. And they allowed for coded meanings in colourful and pun-laden language. Recipe collections from the early modern period show an incredible capacity for inventiveness and creativity. Playfulness, in other words, was rooted in the history of recipes.
Playful elements make sense when we consider the social nature of recipes. The etymology of the term reflects this origin. The term ‘receipt’ is derived from the Latin recipere, meaning ‘to take back or receive’. Recipe collections—the communal and multi-generational collection of works—generally took form within networks of interested parties. As with other social exchanges, the bonds between participants are strengthened by the inclusion of fun or reflection at appropriate moments. These moments of recreation also stand out as reminders that recipe development has always been a creative process through which participants seek to refine and master new skills and knowledge. As we will explore in this series, the element of play involved in the creative process became an end in itself.
In her ground-breaking Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen, Wendy Wall situated the creative process at the heart of recipe development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a golden age for recipe collection and publication in Europe. In late sixteenth-century English bookstalls, books of ‘conceits’ (recipes) nestled amongst ‘merry’ comedies, lyrics and librettos of witty sayings and maxims. Readers encountered these sources of pleasure and delight as a means to master the skills of leisure and creativity. Among urban women, though, these household collections served to develop and exhibit literacy, including handwriting practice, elaborate signatures and sketches.[i] They also represented spaces for creativity and play. Elizabeth Brockman’s collection (Figure 1), for example, shows personal and playful interaction with the text. Brockman’s work includes a sketched picture of a bird and a man’s head, both smoking tobacco pipes, and the words ‘come brother will you smoke’. Tobacco smoking, being a relatively new fashion in England in the second half of the seventeenth century, reflects recipe collectors’ taste for novelty and whimsy.
Similarly, playfulness is evident in the performative elements of recipes. In early modern Europe, food art and performance were intertwined in the culture of banqueting. For example, Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660) included a recipe for a ‘Bride Pie’, to be used at a Wedding reception (Figure 2). Live birds or a snake are placed within the crust of a cold pie so that when the pie is cut open the animals surprise the guests by emerging onto the table. In the medieval period, tricks and practical joke recipes were popular (see previous Recipes Project posts here and here).
Playfulness in the form of pleasure can be derived simply from reading a recipe. Over the centuries, recipes have employed literary devices, such as repetition, simile and rhyme to make the contents more appealing and memorable, which is evident in elements of early modern alchemical poetry. Between the fifteenth and late seventeenth centuries, recipes for the philosopher’s stone circulated in English rhyme. An additional benefit of rhyme was that it could act as a guide to the pronunciation of unfamiliar technical terms.[ii] It might seem counter-intuitive to think of recipes in the same category as imaginative literature, however many recipes are aspirational, the time and expense involved putting them beyond everyday use. Imagination, therefore, plays an important part in the collection, purchase and perusal of recipe collections. The reader gains pleasure from imagining themselves buying the ingredients and involving themselves in the elaborate preparations. Similarly, a medical recipe can provide reassurance, regardless of its actual efficacy or practicality, as the reader imagines themselves cured.
Nevertheless, some recipes were not intended for practical use, but played with the form for comic or satirical effect, offering absurd solutions to problems, or commenting on social or political concerns. Parodic medicinal remedies have a long history and can be found in ancient and modern texts. The well-known joke recipes in ‘A Recipe for Cooking Husbands’, which was published in the South Carolina newspaper Anderson Intelligencer in 1885 and is still sometimes read out loud for entertainment during bridal showers. As Avery Blankenship wrote about in 2021, this recipe provides a window into both humour and struggle in domestic spaces.
The Recipes at Play series explores the whimsical side of recipe writing and introduces the hilarious and fantastical elements in the history of recipes. Vanessa Da Silva Baptista will introduce tricks used to entertain guests found in a fifteenth-century French cookbook, while Anna Speyart will showcase dinner table jokes from the seventeenth century. Touching on the mythological, Madison Clyburn examines the place of seventeenth-century recipes for flying dragons in the context of early modern spectacle. We will also be in conversation with Hannah Bower about her wonderful, playful new book Middle English Recipes and Literary Play, and with James Freeman on the unusual, and sometimes, disgusting medieval cures found in Cambridge libraries’ archives (a Recipes Project Podcast!). Chelsea Silva will be considering the relationship between word play in medieval satirical recipes and twentieth-century nonsense songs, and Amy Froide will be reflecting on her experiences teaching early modern food history through recipe recreation. This winter volume of the Recipes Project promises to be fun, inventive, and full of mischief. Now, let’s play with recipes!
[i] Wendy Wall, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen (Philadelphia, 2016).
Avery Blankenship, PhD Student, Department of English, Northeastern University “A good many husbands are utterly spoiled by mismanagement,” begins a recipe printed in the December 31, 1885 edition of the South Carolina Anderson Intelligencer , “some women go about as if their husbands were bladders and blow them up. Others keep them constantly in hot … Continue reading “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” and Nineteenth-Century Joke Recipes→
By Laura Mitchell In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms … Continue reading “And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic→
By Melissa Reynolds One of the many pleasures of studying late medieval English “how-to” manuscripts is the wide and often surprising array of knowledge to be found within them. Most contain a good bit of medical information, such as herbal recipes and instructions for bloodletting, and many also contain useful household information, like directives for animal husbandry, … Continue reading But does it work? Playful magic and the question of a recipe’s purpose→
In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however. In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes … Continue reading Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.→
By Jessica Eichlin and Amanda E. Herbert Food rations during wartime do not have the reputation for being delicious, fresh, or even edible, and this was especially true during the American Civil War. Fought from 1861-1865, the war disrupted supply lines across the United States, making food difficult to acquire for soldiers and citizens alike. … Continue reading Ironclad Apple Duff: Exploring Recipes from the American Civil War→
A compact fifteenth-century paper book, MS Sloane 1315 (British Library, London), stands as a manuscript witness to many of the works of popular Middle English instruction. The book might be said to be a miscellany or multi-text manuscript that is home to vernacular works of the kind that were widely-read and much copied in the … Continue reading Magical Charms, Love Potions, and Surreal Tricks→