Imperfect practice: a case for making early modern recipes badly

By Kate Owen

I used to think “what’s the point of recipe making if you know you will not be making them with the diligence and expertise needed for practice based research?”

Recreating early modern recipes is not part of my academic work and the thought of making them from the manuscripts I work with was initially quite intimidating, especially when the threat of failure is ever present. That
failure is also highly visible, material, and sometimes requires a time consuming clean up. Making an early modern recipe requires the maker to confront the gaps and absences which are created in the process of translating physical acts into written recipes. This empty space reflects the difficulty of translating action and experience into the written word, or the inability of transferring a ‘knack’ for something from one person’s muscle memory to another’s brain. Some of the pitfalls I encountered when recreating early modern recipes in the 21st century were also present 250 or
more years ago, but have become almost impossible to avoid as time stretches away from these moments. The most obvious differences observed were the working environment, cooking equipment and tools, and variations in the production, look, and taste of ingredients. However, the most striking is assumed knowledge: the things that the recipe author had deemed so elementary to everyday cookery that there was no point wasting ink on their description. When so much amazing work is being done on recreating early modern recipes, is there any purpose of trying it at home when those results are (mostly) unachievable?

My first successful attempt at recipe making was born out of necessity when I needed to make a dessert for my partner’s visiting parents. It was a very busy week and by picking a simple early modern recipe, I could introduce my partner’s parents to my research and avoid any cake rising disasters. I baked some rosewater biscuits from Frances Springatt’s receipt book. [1] This triggered a madeleine moment for my partner’s mother, who suddenly remembered a similar biscuit she loved as a child, but had long forgotten. The act of making this recipe had produced a non-physical gift along with the physical product, and created a special moment between me and my partner’s parents . Since that first biscuit I have made early modern recipes frequently, still without the conscientiousness of faithful recreation, and have learned the ways in which the making process operates in the life of the maker in addition to producing the product. I realised that the social and bonding functions of recipe making that I had read about academically in Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge and Leong and Sara Pennell’s ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace”‘ were just as relevant to my recipe recreation.[2] Like early modern recipe book users I have made recipes for social reasons and gifted them to potential friends, to ease the stress of fellow students during our dissertation presentations, and to show solidarity with striking staff.

Photograph of a plate with biscuits. The biscuits are pale in colour and covered with rose petals.
Kate Owen’s version of Springatt’s biscuits, made without ‘the herb coffins’ and gluten free (c) Kate Owen

The ways early modern recipes have acted in my own life have made me more appreciative of the invisible impact of recipe compiling and testing in the early modern period. What did people gain from making recipes that could not be
quantified by a usable (or unusable) product or a new addition or annotation in a manuscript recipe book? I began to wonder about the less tangible, often emotional, by-products of recipe making that left no material trace, such as
satisfaction, relief, frustration, or an altering of a sense of identity. Scholarship on recipe book compilation has described how the organisation and upkeep of these manuscripts created a place for self construction and expression
in a society where a successful household had social, religious, and political implications. Since starting recipe making myself I am interested in how the individual testing process can equally feed into the maker’s sense of self.[3]  By attempting to create the physical product, rather than just reading recipe books, one can gain insight to the emotional impact of recipe making that is often not captured on the page.

Looking back, it was rather naive of me to believe that you had to begin recreating a recipe with the guarantee of a perfect end product. In actuality, recipes are written to inspire action and I have gained so much appreciation into the manuscripts I work with through making them. Recreating these recipes can be both an insightful and emotional experience for the modern maker.


Kate Owen is a second year PhD student at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, University College London. Her project looks at knowledge organisation in early modern manuscript recipe books.

[1] Wellcome MS.4683

[2] Elaine Leong, Recipe and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Elaine Leong and Sara Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Market Place”‘ in Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies c. 1450-c.1850, ed. By Mark S.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[3] Catherine Field, ‘“Many hands hands”: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books’ in Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, ed. by Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)


2 Replies to “Imperfect practice: a case for making early modern recipes badly”

  1. I agree that early modern food from period recipes, no matter how imperfect, is worth doing! I have been doing it for medieval to early Modern (1100’s – 1500’s) diligently for about 15 years, and sporadically for many years before that. I and my collaborators have learned a lot, not only about history, but about cooking in general and food in different regions and seasons. I have one quibble with your article – you didn’t include your gluten free redaction of the rosewater biscuit recipe!

  2. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Kate. I have also attempted old recipes (German c. WWI) for my household and for sharing. I was painfully aware of the gaps in assumed knowledge and ingredients but hadn’t put a name to the emotional qualities as well. Thank you for sharing!

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