Teaching Recipes as Pattern Recognition

By Rob Wakeman, Mount Saint Mary College

In the throes of research, we often compile so much information we don’t know what to do with it. It’s not our fault, really. Working with recipe books takes us into so many wonderfully strange and intriguing corners of early modern material culture — it’s hard not to want to write about them all. I end up making circuitous spreadsheets of recipes, long meandering catalogs befitting an early modern naturalist. And so, during this summer’s research project, on migratory freshwater fish in seventeenth-century England, it often felt like I was looking at something akin to John Milton’s description of the River Trent, that

Earth-born giant [who] spreads /

His thirty arms along th’indented meads

At a Vacation Exercise, (ll. 93-94).

How do I get my hands around this monster? What do I do with these lists of fish? How does one make sense of this tangle of umber and umbrana, pike and pickerel, roach and loach, turbot and burbot?

Illustration from Mary Boutell, “Picture Natural History”, no. 224 (1869): The Pike-perch – sander. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately, I had help. Mount Saint Mary College provides excellent support for students who want to do research with faculty, offering a stipend and free summer housing. This summer two Mount students, Annalise and Tori, applied to work with me. Both students came in with a good background in early modern paleography. In addition to regularly participating in EMROC Transcribathons, Tori took my History of the English Language course, which features a paleography module as a key component, and Annalise completed an independent study on early modern neonatal medicine with me.

Although both Annalise and Tori have found paleography and the history of medicine useful in their respective museology and clinical psychology internships, I understand that most of my students generally do not find the study of recipes to be a “practical” application of the learning. Paleography and textual editing don’t directly relate to many to postgraduate plans or career goals, which tend to be pretty far afield from the literature and culture of the seventeenth century.

For that reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how the skills we learn through the examination of manuscript recipe books can translate to other fields… The careful patience and attention to detail required in the transcribing and editing of text… The creative problem solving necessary for the deduction of meaning and intent… The agility needed to place individual recipes in a larger cultural context, to connect the part to the whole and see the big picture through the particular example…

Going fishing in the archives… Frontispiece from Richard Brookes, The Art of Angling (1790). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But perhaps most of all, we talk about pattern recognition. What can you see that others might miss? How do the hidden patterns in recipes’ formal arrangement, lists of ingredients, and methods of preparation add up to something significant? Careful attention to the subtle structures of meaning is one of the most important skills we cultivate in the literature classroom, and recipe book culture offers a fertile field for this kind of analysis.

Compared with most of the literary texts we read in my class, the recipe books that we examine don’t come with a robust editorial apparatus that helps make sense of what they’re reading. Without an editor’s footlights to guide them, students have to pare down a massive amount of data into an intelligible pattern on their own. If we spend enough time comparing recipes, we learn how to read them on their own terms – why these ingredients are grouped together, why these sauces go with this meat, why this attribution is significant, and so forth. We did contextualize our research by reading a few articles each week, but ultimately this is an opportunity for students to devise for themselves the stories that can be told about recipe culture in early modern England.

Throughout the summer, the three of us met twice a week for six hours at a time to dig through manuscripts and discuss our findings. We don’t have institutional access to EEBO, ECCO, or Project Muse. And we don’t have any recipe books of our own in rare books collection. But thankfully many research libraries — such as the Folger, Iowa, UCLA, UPenn, the Wellcome —  have digitized many of their manuscript recipe books. Even though our college has limited research resources, online access to these archives gives students the valuable opportunity to work with primary source materials. We are also lucky enough to be a short train ride away from one of the great public libraries in the world. A New York Public Library card not only gives students access to a range of databases free of charge, it also allows them to work with the Whitney Cookery Collection.

Over ten weeks, we ended up examining 101 manuscript recipe books and twenty-eight printed cookbooks that dated from 1380 to 1780. We transcribed and analyzed 584 freshwater fish recipes in total.

Fish pies, image from Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (1660).

Emerging patterns in sturgeon recipes proved to be one of our most interesting findings, as we noticed they became much more common after 1660. Initially, I thought this could be explained by the influence of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), with its parade of thirty-three recipes for sturgeon baked, boiled, braised, fileted, forced, fried, soused, stewed, and stuffed. But while print cookbooks show a remarkable variety of preparations for fresh sturgeon, the manuscript recipes we found were almost exclusively pickles, perhaps a side effect of increased imports of sturgeon in brine barrels from Russia and North American colonies. Doubtlessly at play, as well, is a Restoration nostalgia for the royal feasts of yesteryear.

Sturgeon, in Rev. W. Houghton, British fresh water fishes (illus. A. F. Lydon), 1879. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons and Biodiversity Library.

The late-seventeenth century yearning for sturgeon – an expensive fish uncommon in English waters – can also be seen in a set of recipes for dishes “pickled like sturgeon.” The earliest of the sixteen such recipes that we came across were in the The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669): “to souce turkeys” tied “up in the manner of Sturgeon” and another for an “Excellent Meat of Goose or Turkey” put “into pickle, like Sturgeon-pickle.” Turkey is the most common substitute for sturgeon in these recipes, but salmon, turbot, veal, and calf’s head are also transformed into “artificial sturgeon.”

But these recipes were also met with some trepidation. Annalise hit upon a recipe for “Artificiall Stergon” in the cookery book of Lettis Vesey (Folger MS W.b.456, fols. 140-41). Following instructions to pickle a turbot or turkey, Vesey admits,

I like sturgon very well but I dont know how I should like this.

Recipe collectors clearly gathered together many recipes despite not knowing how many would be useful for their endeavors. In humanities research, we often find ourselves embracing that same spirit, following the interesting and intriguing instead of the obvious as we search for emerging patterns that others have missed.


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