Learning to cook in early modern England. Part I

By Sara Pennell

Where do recipes fit into historical understanding of pedagogical processes around food? Various scholars (including myself) have speculated about the compilation of manuscript recipe collections as part of a domestically-located education for young girls and teens prior to marriage. Some seventeenth-century English printed recipe collections also speak explicitly of who they are intending to educate in the ‘art and mystery’ of cookery (and, in William Rabisha’s case, who not: those without any culinary aptitude, for one).[1]

But here I want to focus on the early modern provision of what some of us might have undertaken ourselves: commercial cookery courses. Today, cookery schools are experiencing a renaissance. In London, the Waitrose Cookery School’s courses are often sold out within hours of being advertised, while eager cooks can enrol for classes on everything from the basics of egg-boiling to sushi-rolling and charcuterie masterclasses. The relative decline of school-based cookery (domestic science or home economics) has created a generation of cooks at a loss of where to start, while TV cookery has encouraged those with basic skills to seek tuition in the more arcane techniques shown on the screen.

<Wellcome Library MS 1176, attributed to Hannah Bisaker, c. 1692, designs for minced pies. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Library MS 1176, attributed to Hannah Bisaker, c. 1692, designs for minced pies. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This sort of demand – prompted by a skills gap and by aspirational appetites – arguably also existed in late seventeenth-century London, where a commercial market for cookery tuition flourished from the 1660s. Our sources for this are print and manuscript recipe collections. While many earlier cookery writers had been gentry or aristocratic experimenters, or members of manuscript coteries with specific intentions, or encyclopaedic hack writers, by the end of the seventeenth century, a new type of author had entered the field: the commercial teacher-cooks.

Perhaps the first, and best known of these, is Hannah Woolley (or Wolley). Woolley’s troubled biography – twice married and twice widowed – is often highlighted as her motivation for having to enter the commercial sphere, and market her domestic knowledge. At the same time, her experience of being a school-master’s wife, and undoubtedly involved teaching herself, make her publications domestic teaching tools, as much as portfolios of professional skills.[2] The last publication that can be securely attributed to Woolley, A Supplement to the ‘Queen-like Closet’, or A Little of Everything (London, 1674), made this explicit. In it, Woolley offers at-home tuition in a range of domestic arts, from preserving to needlework, at the rate of four shillings per diem.[3]

In the last decades of the seventeenth century, three rare texts demonstrate the connection between face-to-face instruction, and cookery books as handbooks to accompany such instruction:

  • The True Way in Preserving and Candying (London, 1681; second edition 1695)
  • The Young Cook’s Monitor; or Directions for Cookery and Distilling Being a Choice Compendium of Excellent Receipts. Made Public for the Use and Benefit of My Schollars… by M.H. (London, 1683; second enlarged edition, 1690)
  • Mary Tillinghast’s Rare and Excellent Receipts, Experienc’d and Taught by Mrs Mary Tillinghast and now Printed for the Use of her Scholars Only (London, 1690).[4]

As Elizabeth Spiller’s recent edition of Tillinghast acknowledges, little is known in any of the existing specialist bibliographies about the anonymous author of True Way, Tillinghast or ‘M.H.’. The 1690 second edition of M. H., ‘with large additions’ is given on the title page as ‘Printed for the author at her House in Lime Street, 1690’, in a relatively wealthy part of the City, which suggests that ‘M.H.’ was at least attempting to appear well-heeled.[5]

Rarer still is the trade card, masquerading as an ‘invitation’, amongst the John Johnson Collection (Bodleian Library), dating to approximately 1680. This ‘invites’ women (it is addressed explicitly to ‘Madam’), to attend a dinner put on by the ‘Ladies & Gentlewomen Practitioners in the Art of Pastery and Cookery’ taught by one Nathaniel Meystnor; acting as a decorative border near the base of the card is a sequence of highly decorated pastryworks, presumably Meystnor’s stock-in-trade.[6]

Perhaps the best known teacher-cook is Edward Kidder (c. 1665/6-1739), whose published Receipts of Pastry and Cookery exist in variant forms (both as engraved and latterly printed texts), from the first two quarters of the eighteenth century (first dated printing in 1720). Kidder was a celebrated teacher of pastrymaking: his obituary in the London Magazine claimed that he had taught ‘near 6000 Ladies the Art of Pastry’.[7]

Exaggerated though this may be, Kidder was quite the pastry entrepreneur (the Magnolia Bakery of his day, perhaps?), running schools in several different central London locations from at least the early 1700s.[8] Indeed, although the published works date to no earlier than the 1720s, a number of manuscript versions of Kidder’s receipts might date to an earlier period, indeed possibly as early as 1702: the engraved, printed titlepage of Brotherton Library (Leeds University) MS 75 is inscribed ‘London 1702’, and is followed by 71 folios of manuscript recipes similar to, if not verbatim copies of, the recipes which appear in the published Kidder texts.[9]

As these publications suggest, there was thus an acknowledged market for didactic materials recording commercial tuition in pastrymaking and cookery skills in and around London, in existence well before 1700. Who took these courses, and why, will be explored in a later post.

[1] William Rabisha, The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (London, 1661; subsequent editions in 1673, 1675 and 1683), sig. A4r.

[2] John Considine, ‘Woolley, Hannah, (b. 1622?-d. in or after 1674)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), accessed 4 June 2013.

[3] Hannah Woolley, A Supplement to the ‘Queen-Like Closet’, or A Little of Everything (London, 1674), pp. 82-3.

[4] The British Library copies of the Tillinghast and second edition of the Young Cooks Monitor were bound together, sometime during the 19th century: BL shelfmarks C.189.aa.10 (1) and (2).

[5] Elizabeth Spiller (ed.), Seventeenth Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Queen Henrietta Maria and Mary Tillinghast (Aldershot, 2008), p. xli.: see BL shelfmark C. 189.aa.(1). So far no other data for this address or author has been uncovered.

[6] Illustrated in Ivan Day, ‘From Murrell to Jarrin: Illustrations in British cookery books, 1621-1820’, in Eileen White (ed.), The English Cookery Book: Historical Essays (Totnes, 2004), pp. 98-151 (on p. 130).  Meystnor may be the ‘Mr Meystnor’ who occurs in several of Windsor’s parochial records in the 1680s: James Hakewill, The History of Windsor (London, 1813), p. 17.

[7] London Magazine 8 (1739), p. 205. See also Simon Varey, ‘Kidder, Edward (1665/6-1739)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), accessed 3 June 2013.

[8] See Peter Targett, ‘Edward Kidder: his book and his schools’, Petits Propos Culinaires [PPC] 32 (June 1989), pp. 35-44; Simon Varey, ‘New light on Edward Kidder’s Receipts’, PPC 39 (Dec. 1991), pp. 46-51 (esp. p. 48); and David Potter, ‘Some notes on Edward Kidder’, PPC 65 (Sept. 2000), pp. 9-27.

[9] Varey, ‘New light’, p. 48; Leeds University, Brotherton Library, Special Collections, Blanche Leigh Collection, MS 75, titlepage.


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