Winter 2023


at play


By Elizabeth Hunter, Winter 2023 Guest Editor, with R. A. Kashanipour

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.

Figure 1 – Signature page of Elizabeth Brockman’s recipe collection, dated May 8th 1674.  Elizabeth has included drawings of an owl and a man smoking pipes, and the words ‘come brother will you smoke’. Courtesy of the British Library Board, BL ADD MS 45199, fol. 1r.

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).

Figure 2 – An anonymous illustration from the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’.  Hiding live animals within a pie crust formed part of Renaissance banqueting recipes similar to The Accomplisht Cook (1660).

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).

[ii] Anke Timmermann, Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry(Leiden, 2013), esp. pp. 18-20.

NEW IN this issue

Dinner and a Show: Magic Tricks at the Medieval Table

By Vanessa Da Silva Baptista (Coming February 9)

AROUND THE TABLE PODCAST: An Interview with James Freeman about Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries

By Sarah Peters Kernan (Coming February 16)

PUBLICATION HIGHLIGHT: Hannah Bower, Middle English Recipes and Literary Play, 1375–1500 (Oxford University Press, 2022)

Coming February 23

It Roars and Breathes Fire! A Sixteenth-Century Italian Recipe for Wonder in The Flying Dragon

By Madison Clyburn (Coming March 2)

Bitter Salsa

By Hannah Dryson (Coming March 9)

TEACHING WITH RECIPES: Playful Learning with Food: Historical Recipes in the Classroom

By Amy Froide (Coming March 16)

Tales from the Archives

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine

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