Interview with the author: Elaine Leong

Our very own Elaine Leong’s new book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England has just come out with the University of Chicago Press. We are super excited to offer you this interview with the author.

TRP: Congratulations Elaine on your new book! We have read it with such pleasure. Ina few sentences, could you tell our readers why they should read it too?

Sure! My book offers a window into the rich and diverse knowledge practices in early modern English households. Using a range of sources such as recipe books, letters and more, it brings into focus what I term “household science” – that is, quotidian investigations of the natural world – and situates these within broader and current conversations about gender and cultural history, the history of the book and archives and the history of science, medicine and technology. Using a number of case studies, I argue that household science involved a range of activities from conducting structured, multi-stepped recipe trials to gaining in-depth knowledge about the natural and material world. I also show that knowledge-making in the home was deeply framed by a number of concerns, from social obligations to household economies to family strategies.

All that said, if you’re interested in 17th century methods for fattening turkeys, pickling samphire, brewing ale or creating a family archive, this is the book for you.

TRP: What drew you to researching household medicine? Why is this important?

The sources! Very early on in my research career, I spent a few amazing days in the Wellcome Library looking at their manuscript recipe collections and was hooked! I had so many questions during those first few encounters with the manuscripts, many of which became central themes in the book. For example, my initial curiosity about how these books were created and how the know-how contained within was tried and tested were developed into chapters 1 (Making Recipe Books in Early Modern England), 3 (Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step) and 4 (Recipes Trials in the Early Modern Household) in the book. For me, recovering the everyday knowledge practices of the household is crucial as it pushes us to recognize that exploration of the natural world can happen in the humblest circumstances and conducted by a wide range of actors.

TRP: Your book contains several beautiful illustrations, including photos from manuscripts. Can you tell us a little about the materiality of recipe writing in the Early Modern England?

For sure. As some RP readers might know, I have long been interested in paper use within the household. Working on this project, I was struck by the many ways in which householders used pen and paper to record and communicate knowledge practices. Many used their notebooks from front and back, entering culinary recipes on one side and medical ones on the other. Others used multiple notebooks to separate different kinds of tasks. Within the books themselves, we see householders annotating, writing over and scrawling out recipes. I use these very material practices to tease out the multi-step assessment processes used in recipe trials.

The cheesecake recipe in the Godfrey family collection is one of my favorite examples as it shows how the family tried over and over again to test and modify the ingredient proportions and baking instructions, only to declare it “not to be write”, i.e. not to be added to the family’s go-to recipe book. This eagerness to preserve or salvage the recipe, as I termed it, is due to the fact that the know-how was afforded both social and epistemic value. If recipe exchange was a way to strengthen social relationships and build networks, it makes sense that householders thought twice (or three times) before discarding the gifted recipe.

Cheese cake recipe in the book of the Godfrey family. Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. With kind permission from the Wellcome Collections.

TRP: Since we are in the festive season, could you tell us a bit about ‘Bess’ Turkey’,which you discuss in your book?

Ha! That is one of my favorite episodes in the book. The dozens of detailed letters between Johanna St. John (see here and here) and her steward Thomas Hardyman were a really lucky find and made writing the chapter about household management super fun. In the end, it was difficult to pick and choose between the numerous examples offered by their epistolary conversations. I settled on talking about raising turkeys, maintaining the Lydiard garden and distilling medicines to display the broad range of natural, material and technical knowledge utilised by householders (masters/mistresses and servants) on a daily basis.

The turkey episode was fascinating. At first, I was a little surprised to discover that turkeys occupied such a central place on early modern tables, and reading deeper into the letters, I found the “turkey letters” (as I call them) to be revealing of contemporary knowledge about animals and the difficulties of managing a household from afar. Basically, in this period, Johanna St. John and her family were residing in Battersea but relied upon their country estate at Lydiard Park near Swindon to produce a myriad of foodstuffs from turkeys to bacon to cheese to venison. A run of letters demonstrates Johanna’s particular concerns about her dairymaid Bess’ skills in rearing turkeys. She continually pleaded for more turkeys to be sent to London and repeatedly complained that the sent turkeys were either not fat enough or past their prime. Wonderfully, Johanna tries a number of strategies to encourage or scare Bess into doing a better job and ends up offering detailed instructions on how to feed turkeys. Initially, this seemed like a lot of fuss about poultry but contemporary menus revealed a food economy where one turkey was transformed into a number of meals. Like 21st century cooks, the St. John household first ate their turkey whole and then feasted on the leftovers like cold meat or turkey hash for many meals afterwards. The final piece of the puzzle came when Johanna confided in Hardyman that she’d love a turkey to give away. It turns out turkey was one of Johanna preferred “little presents” (as Felicity Heal terms them), in the vibrant early modern economy of food gifts and returned favors. 

Second to Bess’ troubles with fattening turkeys, my other favorite episode in that chapter involves the runaway gardener and bickering over plant cuttings. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more.

Image of a turkey taken from Conrad Gesner, Historia animalium (Tigvri : Apvd Christ. Froschovervm, anno MDLI[-MDLXXXVII] [1551-1587]). With thanks to the National Library of Medicine.

TRP: One aspect of your work that stood out for us was your attention to recovering the experiences and expertise of servants, not just of gentlemen and gentlewomen? How did you go about this?

This is a wonderful question. As all our readers know, while manuscript recipe books are rich and fascinating sources, they are mostly created by gentlemen and gentlewomen. Early modern gentry households though, as social historians have shown, were filled to the brim with people, each with a specific role. While the mistress and master of the house have received quite a bit of attention in the past, I was really eager to dig deeper into who did what and into the social relationships and power dynamics between the different actors. With my focus on household science, I was also interested in finding out more about what Steven Shapin has termed “invisible technicians”.

As I outlined in the previous question, I was lucky to find the series of letters between Johanna and her steward. Johanna was quite the micro-manager and so it made it possible to understand the various tasks taken on by household servants and the complex web of obligations and expectations held by both parties. Another series of letters, this time about beer brewing and water boiling, between Edward Conway and his nephew Edward Harley further revealed how Conway viewed the Petworth brewers in incredibly high regard, refusing to conduct recipe trials on their advice. The appearance of dairy maids, gardeners, herb women, cheesemakers, brewers, stewards and more in these letters remind us of the need to view early modern households as collective of knowers and makers and to tease out dynamic relations within these communities.

Aside from these two runs of letters,  I also scoured handwritten recipe books for hints of servants’ experiences and expertise. As readers of the book will discover, sometimes these were noted in recipe titles, other times it might just be a change of handwriting. I remain committed to recover the knowledge activities of a wide swath of historical actors. I think that there is still a great deal of work to be done here which makes for many fascinating research projects to come (see for instance Leah Astbury’s project).

TRP: Could you share with us an anecdote or story about your research?

Gosh. This has been such a long project that there are definitely stories, though most are quite nerdy. One thing though sticks in my mind. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Warwick, I sat next to the inestimable Bernard Capp for some seminar or another. In passing, Bernard mentioned to me that he had just read a letter where the writer claimed that he was sent recipes which had originated from the writer’s own collection. I was fascinated and followed-up the generously provided citations. The letter was sent by Viscount Edward Conway to his nephew Sir Edward Harley and one in a series of letters which I now consider one of the most revealing sources about recipe knowledge in early modern England. In them, Conway described how he assessed recipes on paper, assigned expertise and detailed how he sent Harley on recipe hunts or to follow-up on his recipe trials. The Conway/Harley letters formed the central case study for my third chapter “Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step” and were crucial in helping me figure out the rich knowledge practices behind the hundreds of recipe books in our archives. I probably would never have found the letters were it not for the chance conversation. In many ways, this anecdote reflects some of the main arguments of the book – that knowing so often comes from the “practices of everyday life”.

Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is available and also directly from the University of Chicago Press website where readers can 20% off the list price using the code UCPNEW.



Cite this blog post
laurencetotelin (2018, November 29). Interview with the author: Elaine Leong. The Recipes Project. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/td5i

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