When I teach recipes, I often focus on what they might tell us about women’s domestic work, questions of amateur versus professional labor, and the historical context of early modern science. But recipes have much to teach us about the practice of reading as well. This summer, Rebecca Laroche and I co-lead a workshop at the Attending to Early Modern Women Conference where just such a question emerged. Attending to Early Modern Women is a unique academic meeting: rather than traditional panels, the conference hosts a series of 90-minute workshops which facilitate active participation and focused discussion. Workshop organizers circulate readings, questions, and other materials in advance, and then on the day of the conference, they frame them and open up discussion.
We divided our participants into small groups (4 or 5 people each) and had them transcribe a recipe. Our directions were deceptively simple: after they transcribed the recipe, they were to consider what they think they know about it as well as what questions it raised for them.
When we discussed their findings, one of the groups commented that they were surprised how recipes work against our typical linear narrative reading practice. This comment has left me pondering. Such comment caused me to reconsider how I might use recipes not only in classes with early modern concerns but courses that query the nature of texts and textuality more broadly. This fall, I will teach a graduate seminar that introduces students to the discipline of English—literary theory, textuality, authorship, etc. What if, I’ve been thinking, I have these students think about how recipes make us read differently, how they make us rethink how texts work?
A very good aproved medicine for soore eyes
Take in the month of May milke from the cowe before it be cowlde
& put it into a still & distill it when you have the water sett it
in the sonne x: or xij dayes then put to every pinte of water
as much camphire as a walnutt, if there be any heate in the
eyes use it cowlde, if not use it blood warme
Take this recipe I cite above, from Lady Frances Catchmay (d. 1629), “A booke of medicens” (Wellcome ms. 184a). What this recipe does not include is perhaps as interesting as that which it does. We know that one should collect milk in a specific month, May, warm milk (it is fresh); we know that once the milk is distilled, one should combine what remains with a walnut-sized portion of Camphire (probably camphor); and we know that the temperature of the eyes matters: if a patient has cold eyes, the application will be different than if s/he has warm eyes. But as each progressive step is dependent on what precedes it, the practice of creating this recipe, let alone reading it, is predicated on a folding back onto itself of information and action. How “cowlde” would be the right temperature? How much distilling is required to “have the water sett”? How would one know if ten or twelve days is the correct number to leave the distilled liquid in the sun? While walnuts have a generally consistent size one to another, how can one be sure to use the right walnut as sizing agent for the camphor? And what if the eyes are somewhere in-between warm and cold? How to know whether to apply the remedy on the colder side or “blood warme”?
This recipe (and I would say most other recipes) permits us to proceed in a linear way, but to understand it fully, we must move back and forth through it multiple times, ultimately coming to interpretation rather than answer. And isn’t this how texts work, really? We think we know, and we want the teleology of beginning-to-end movement, but to experience a text fully necessitates that we navigate it in messy ways, negating the definitive qualities of what we think are “page” or “book.” Reading is a practice, and the practice of (and articulated by) recipes-as-texts can help us reorient ourselves to other texts with which we are more familiar—literary or practical. Or so I hope to convince my students this fall.