Review: La donna che amava i colori

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

“They [the Italians] seem to commence everything with spirit to get tired of it before it is finished.”[1] Mary Marrifield’s letters from Italy to her husband are full of charming–and if you are Italian sometimes engaging–reflections. The importance of the publication of Mary P. Merrifield’s (1804-1899) letters for the history of recipes will not pass unnoticed to the reader of this blog as well as to those interested in the transmission of the art techniques. Merrifield published the first English translation of Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte (1844),and a few years later, following her journey in Italy, The Art of Fresco Painting (1846), and the Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849), works that have made the history of modern artistic techniques.

Recently found in Brighton by Zahira Véliz Bomford, Merrifield’s letters have never been published in English. Sent by the English Royal Fine Arts Commission, Merrifield travelled in Italy for several months between 1845 and 1846 to collect as many historical manuscripts on painting techniques as possible. The objective of the search was to enhance the English arts, which were called to glorify the British Empire at its acme. The letters are a refreshing, revealing, and entertaining look of northern Italy in the years before the political turmoil of 1848, as well as a dive into Merrifield’s world and vision. Giovanni Mazzaferro now publishes the full text of the correspondence in an enjoyable Italian translation, La donna che amava i colori: Lettere dall’Italia 1845-1846 (Milano: Officina Libraria, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-88-99765-70-5).

An independent scholar at his second publication –the first being  Le Belle Arti a Venezia nei manoscritti di Pietro e Giovanni Edwards (2015)–Giovanni Mazzaferro keeps a renowned blog, Letteratura Artistica, which started around his rich collection of published sources for art history. Mazzaferro thorough apparatus of footnotes will be of use to the growing number of scholars interested in Merrifield as it spans from the identification of manuscripts and paintings, to individuating the people Merrifield met during her quest, and to secondary literature. In the substantial introduction, Mazzaferro insists that studying Merrifield under a single perspective, such as the artistic or the scientific one, deprives us of a full understanding of the complexity of her character. Merrifield was a multifaceted intellectual, almost the nineteenth-century woman version of a Renaissance virtuoso. A swift but careful overview of her life and works shows this vast breath: she published in the field of artistic techniques and colors, of maritime biology, and, toward the end of her life, for the advancement of women in society.

Merrifield’s familial practices predate her written commitments to the advancement of women. During the journey in Italy, Merrifield travelled accompanied by her son Charles, while her husband stayed in Brighton with their other four children. Husband and sons were all working for Mary, as they were involved in the transcription, translation, and writing of Mary’s books. Such odd family arrangement, at least for the time, presents us with an unconventional nineteenth-century woman. Overall, Merrifield does stand as a complex figure whose progressive private arrangements are parallel to her deep patriotism, her commitments to the English empire, and her Victorian style. Her figure reminds us that intellectual and private identities cannot be easily defined: a progressive stand on the role of women does not necessarily conflict with an imperial vision, the interest in old manuscripts, and color techniques can go hand in hand with a passion for algae.


[1] Mary Merrifield to John Merrifield, November 2, 1845.

The Crown and the Chrism: The Recipe of the Coronation Oil

By Colleen Kennedy

This post will turn to the television show The Crown to focus on the English coronation process, attending specifically to the most sacred aspect of the ceremony, the anointing of the monarch, and the ingredients of the holy anointing oil.

Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy) is anointed. Image Credit: The Crown (episode: “Smoke and Mirrors”, Netflix) 2016. Screenshot.

In the fifth episode “Smoke and Mirrors” of the Netflix series The Crown, Princess Elizabeth, having recently ascended after the death of her father King George VI (r. 1936-1952) and the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII (1936), plans for her coronation televised for the first time and overseen by her husband Prince Phillip.[1] Three times within the episode, the characters discuss the most sacred gesture of the hallowed affair: the anointing of the monarch, a transformative and aromatic event.[2] The episode begins with a flashback to the days before the coronation of Elizabeth’s loving father “Bertie.” He asks his young daughter to play the Archbishop of Canterbury so they may practice the anointing ritual, explaining to her: “When the holy oil touches, I am transformed, brought into direct contact with the divine. Forever changed. Bound to God. It is the most important part of the entire ceremony.”

When four Knights of the Garter carry a golden canopy to cover Elizabeth, the television producer cuts away from the anointing process—showing an image of the stained-glass windows of Westminster Abbey instead. Unlike the rest of the coronation, the anointing was neither photographed nor televised (unlike the rest of the ceremony). Elizabeth’s abdicated uncle, the Duke of Windsor explains to his party of expats and French socialites, “Now we come to the anointing, the single most holy, most solemn, most sacred moment of the whole service.” After a member of his viewing party in Paris asks why they cannot see this moment, Windsor replies, “Because we are mortals.”

But we, the viewers at home, do get to see this dramatized anointing. The Archbishop repeats the lines Elizabeth once practiced with her father as we watch him pour the chrism from the ampulla onto a spoon, and then anoint Elizabeth’s hands, breast, and forehead, and we see Elizabeth’s transformation in a close-up of her face as she listens to his performative utterances, “As kings, priests, and prophets were anointed, and as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet so be thou, anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord thy God has given thee to rule and govern.” The Archbishop’s words link the young Queen’s body both to former British monarchs as well as Biblical priests and prophets, and the monarch’s temporal kingdom to Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Although the historian Wesley Carr admits that each coronation is altered, adapted, and modified (using Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation as his point of study), “the basic structure of all subsequent coronations can be seen in the original rite,” which dates back to the crowning of the English king Edgar in 973, but also had earlier Christian European antecedents.[3] The chrism was sacred and used repeatedly, with the same recipe used from the coronation of Charles I (1626).

Closeup of the 1953 Coronation Oil. Image Credit: The Coronation (BBC) 2018. Screenshot.

The Current Dean of Westminster, showed off the 1953 chrism in a recent documentary about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation: “It is kept very safe in the Deanery, in a very hidden place in a little box here, which has in it a flask containing the oil from 1953.  And it is not just olive oil, it’s quite a complex mixture of different things. This is the recipe for the Coronation Oil. The composition of the oil was founded upon that used in the seventeenth century. Then you see what it consists of sesame seed and olive oil, perfume with roses, orange flowers, jasmine, musk, civet and ambergris.”[4]

Closeup of the Coronation Oil recipe. Image Credit: The Coronation (BBC) 2018. Screenshot.

There have been occasional interruptions in reusing the oil. Mary I, as the Catholic successor of her Anglican half-brother Edward VI, refused to use the Protestant chrism and procured oil from the Catholic Bishop of Arras. After Elizabeth I’s long reign, the balm was either exhausted or compromised by time, and James I needed a new batch. The oil intended to anoint Edward VIII (who abdicated) and instead anointed George VI was not used for Elizabeth II, as its container was destroyed during the bombing of London, but Charles I’s recipe was restored and reused for her coronation, nonetheless. We can imagine that when the current Prince of Wales (the future Charles III) succeeds to King, a new batch of anointing balm will be created using the recipe of Charles I, that the anointment will still remain a guarded and sacred affair, and that no bloggers or Twitter accounts will capture this aromatic and ritualistic moment.


Future related posts will further consider the ingredients of the chrism, and the historical and innovative significance of the chrism to Elizabeth I and Charles I.

[1] Hannah Furness. “Secrets of the oil used to anoint the Queen at her Coronation.” The Telegraph. 14 Jan. 2018. See also the documentary “The Coronation,” BBC (2018).
[2] Wesley Carr. “This Intimate Ritual: The Coronation Service.” Political Theology 4.1 (2002): 11-24.
[3] “Smoke and Mirrors,” The Crown, season 1, episode 5, (2016) Netflix.  You can watch the Coronation on YouTube at: The Royal Household, “The Coronation,” The Home of the Royal Family.  https://www.royal.uk/coronation  or “BBC TV Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: Westminster Abbey 1953 (William McKie),” YouTube, uploaded by Archive of Recorded Church Music, 2 June 2018.
[4] “1953. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: ‘The Holy Anointing,’” YouTube, uploaded by pedrcymro29, 21 Oct. 2013.

‘The Cholera Manuscript’: A collection of recipes and cures from Co Limerick

By Dorothy Cashman

Several years ago a manuscript collection of recipes came up for auction in Dublin. At the time, Ireland was in the throes of an IMF bailout and funding across all cultural institutions was grinding to a halt. This was the background to my suggestion to the National Library of Ireland that they should consider purchasing this manuscript to add to their collection.

Several things stood out about it, not least a nota bene attached to a recipe for White Current Wine, which for obvious reasons had particular resonance, and lent a touch of gallows humour to the initial reading of the contents (Fig. 1).[1] There was very little to grasp onto in terms of family history, other than an assertion that a block of the recipes were taken ‘from Lord Buckingham’s cook’, that reference to Mrs Hawksworth in the nota bene and the name ‘C. O’Carroll’ on the inside flyleaf. A trade label indicated that the slim book had been purchased from James Draper of Crampton Court in Dublin, bookbinders and paper merchants who coincidentally were appointed stationers to the Bank of Ireland in 1802.[2] The auctioneer verbally indicated that the manuscript was from Co Limerick.

National Library of Ireland, MS 42,105 .

The entries span twenty years, 1811 to 1831. The reference to Lord Buckingham’s cook, John Simpson, has added resonance for Irish readers, historically and in the present. Lord Buckingham, the first marquess, was twice lord lieutenant of Ireland, briefly in 1782/3 and subsequently from 1787 to 1789. In this latter period he created, by royal warrant, the Order of St Patrick.[3] The great ballroom of Dublin Castle was renamed St Patrick’s Hall at the time of the first investiture and is known as such to this day. It is the setting for the Irish State’s most significant ceremonial occasion, the inauguration of the President of Ireland, and where Ireland’s most honoured visitors are entertained.

Buckingham was also connected to Ireland through his marriage to Mary Nugent, daughter of the 1st Viscount Clare, and died two years after this manuscript was commenced, predeceased by a year by his wife. There is no reference to the fact that the recipes are from John Simpson’s published cookbook itself,[4] from which one could infer that the reflected glory from the provenance of these recipes arises as much from the fact of Lord Buckingham being the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland as it does from being a marquess on a distant shore.

Mrs Hawksworth, the other name accorded some weight by the scribe (Fig. 2) may be traceable to John Hawksworth, agent to Lord Castlecoote. One of the estates held by a junior branch of the Coote family through to the early twentieth century was in the townland of Mountcoote, Co Limerick, lending some credence to the intimation that the manuscript was of Limerick origin.  Interesting and amusing as the interjections and references to John Simpson and the chief bookkeeper of the Bank of Ireland were, it was the unusual assembly of four remedies for cholera that caught the attention, to the extent that I mentally referenced the collection as ‘the cholera manuscript’ thereafter.

National Library of Ireland, MS 42,105

Anglophone Ireland was an avid consumer of household and childcare books produced in Britain. There was also a healthy Irish market in reprinting popular British books; the copyright laws did not extend until the turn of the nineteenth century. Information of a domestic nature contained in gazettes, magazines, circulars and other printed material was quickly absorbed into the narrative in Ireland and this collection is evidence of this, notably so in the entries regarding the deadly disease. Cholera morbus is recorded as arriving in Limerick in June 1832.[5]

Tellingly, the recording of the first cure for cholera is located between a cure dated April 1831 and another dated August of the same year. This predated the spread of the disease from Britain to Ireland, indicating a heightened awareness in Ireland of impending disaster. This first entry is a close unattributed transcription of one appearing in The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany of 1831.[6] By March 1832 the disease had struck Belfast and Dublin, and between April and June it was ‘wrecking destruction in Ennis, Limerick and Tullamore’.[7]

Subsequent entries concerning cholera are positioned some time after October 1831, indicating perhaps a growing sense of panic in the household. The first of these, an ‘effectual cure for the cholera’, is transcribed as published in both The Lancet and The Isis: A London Weekly Publication.[8] The second is a cure ‘sent by Dr Shanfer from Warsaw to the Prussian Government’, while the final one is via the ‘Hon. Mrs Knox’, attributed to the Asiatic Journal ‘published nearly two years ago’. The disease having progressed through the country, normal domestic life resumes with the next entry, to take out stains or spots upon silk.

The National Library purchased the manuscript at auction. It fits neatly into their collection as being representative of what appears to be the narrative of one of the ‘less grand’, if not minor households in Ireland. Although relatively anonymous, it is noteworthy with respect to all of its quirks and sotto voce commentary, and recording of the passage of the dreaded cholera through the medium of possible cures.  Sufficiently noteworthy that they decided that it (MS 42,105) would be the first of the household manuscripts to be digitized. [9]

[1] The Irish state stepped in to secure Bank of Ireland in the form of a state guarantee in 2009.

[2] Mary Pollard, A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800 (London: Bibliographical Society, 2000), 168.

[3] The highest chivalric order for Ireland, established February 1783. The last peer appointed was in 1922. Since the foundation of the Irish state the order is officially dormant, as it was never abolished.

[4] John Simpson, A Complete System of Cookery (London: W. Stewart, 1806)

[5]Historical Records of the Existence and Progress of Cholera in the City of Limerick During the Months of May and June (Limerick: Edward Deane, 1832).

[6] The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, Vol. 5 New Series May-August 1831, (London, Parbury, Allen, and Co.)  The recipe appears to have been copied from Thomas J. Graham, M.D., Modern Domestic Medicine, A Popular Treatise, (London: published for the author, 1827).

[7] T. De Bhaldraithe, ed., Cín Lae Amhlaoibh  (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), 135. Sligo town suffered the highest number of fatalities in Ireland or Britain, fifteen hundred in a six-week period.

[8] The Lancet, 1831-32 (London, Mills, Jowett, and Mills), 216; The Isis: A London Weekly Publication,[iv] ed. Eliza Sharples, 1832, No 5, Vol. I, 74.

[9] The manuscript is un-paginated, the first cure for cholera morbus may be found on page sixty-four of the digitized copy. In its collections the NLI has the most extensive collection of archival material relating to Irish culinary history in public ownership, and the author would like to record her gratitude for their unfailing support in this regard.


Searching for Something Special in Northeastern China’s Cuisine

By Loretta E. Kim

Mixed noodles with broth and sauce. Credit: Loretta Kim.

The “eight major cuisines” (ba da caixi) of China, a culinary taxonomy sometimes reduced to four types and at most expanded to sixteen, reflects Chinese pride in the diversity of ingredients and flavor palettes that are associated with historical variations in material culture developed from differences in topography, climate, and biota. However, the Chinese word caixi, which translates to the English term “cuisine”, generally refers to foods that are attributed to the Han people who constitute the ethnic majority group in the past and present. Foods of non-Han peoples are also consumed by Han people, but are often considered part of “food and beverage culture” (yinshi wenhua) or “folk customs” (minjian xisu). The exclusion of non-Han foods from the cuisine classification and attribution of them instead to geographical regions and culture serves to reinforce the conception of non-Han peoples as marginal members of Chinese society.

Natives of Northeastern China, customarily defined as Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang provinces, are proud of their food, but people in other parts of the country often remark that Northeastern food (Dongbei cai) is not an authentic type of “cuisine” because it is “simple” (lacking complex flavors), “tasteless” (or “too salty”), and “monotonous” (most dishes are made of the same ingredients). Most of these uncomplimentary stereotypes of Northeastern China’s food are based on the staples and homemade favorites of Han households in the region, such as “three fresh flavors of the earth” (di san xian), a dish made by sautéing potatoes, eggplants, and green peppers with garlic, green onions, and peanut oil, and dishes cooked by stewing an assortment of ingredients (dun cai).

Although they are generally not explicitly cited in criticisms of Northeastern food, several attributes of the region influence how Chinese in other areas develop these prejudices. Northeastern China is a borderland and socio-cultural frontier between China and neighboring countries, so it is not considered as a distinct culinary region like other borderlands such as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

Another characteristic of Northeastern China is that its ethnic minority (non-Han) populations are not well-known to people in other areas of China, either by group name or distinguishing characteristics. Chinese in central and eastern China may know of Manchus and Mongols, two of China’s largest ethnic minority groups, but struggle to name or describe any others. So unlike Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Guizhou, which are known as the homes of ethnic minorities that produce food which is very different from Han food and therefore quite appealing to Chinese consumers who seek epicurean novelty, the culinary reputation of Northeastern China does not benefit from its ethnic diversity.

Most ethnic minority people in contemporary Northeastern China are fluent and literate in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) but do not actively translate or otherwise bridge knowledge from their heritage languages into China’s Sinophone mainstream society. Moreover, most ethnic minority recipes in Northeastern China are not documented and standardized, and few people can read or write texts produced in these languages so there is no substantial audience for such records.

Despite these disadvantages to changing popular attitudes towards Northeastern China’s cuisines, pre-twentieth century sources reveal that non-Northeastern people formerly associated certain foodways with places and peoples of the Northeast. One such source is the section about food in the Classified Anecdotes of the Qing Dynasty (Qingbai leichao). The author, Xu Ke (1869-1928), was a native of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province and a member of the literati class who earned an official examination degree.

Unlike many of his fellow southern-born cultural doyens, Xu included references to the north, including the northeast, in his writings. About the people of Ningguta, a place now known as Ning’an, in Heilongjiang province, he observed “The da gao [a cake usually made of glutinous rice (nuomi 糯米), honey and/or white sugar] is made of glutinous millet (huangmi 黃米) in Ningguta (emphasis mine).”[1] Xu Ke  also observed that Ningguta people like “yellow pickled vegetables” (huangji). “Yellow pickled vegetables” are ubiquitous throughout China to the southernmost region of Guangdong, where huangji is pronounced  wong zai) and the vegetable in question is a cucumber that is served minced. How the Ningguta pickle was eaten, and in fact what is, goes unexplained, but Xu’s reference to it piques the imagination about what made it unique.

Xu also discusses the foods of non-Han peoples in Northeastern China in his miscellany, such as the two ways in which Mongols eat meat: “(Mongols) boil beef and lamb slightly in plain water, or roast (these meats) directly over bovine manure. When the pieces (of meat) are roasted, the left hand is used to hold the meat, while the right hand holds a small knife to cut (the meat), a little salt is added and the meat is eaten without being chewed.”[2] Roast meat is not a sophisticated dish, if sophistication is appraised by the number of ingredients or required steps to cook it. But the mental image of a Mongol diner holding and cutting his meat inspires us to think about how culinary sophistication and tradition as only defined by Han people or by ethnic minorities who are commonly known for being “exotic” inhibits a more inclusive and potentially more interesting interpretation of “cuisine” in China.


[1] Xu, Qingbai leichao, 6248.
[2] Xu Ke, Qingbai leichao (Classified anecdotes of the Qing dynasty)(Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1917, reprint, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2010), 6247.



Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine