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.
5 thoughts on “What Recipes Can Teach Us About Reading”
I’m no academic, but, as an enthusiastic cook/lazy gardener have fallen across various titles over the past 50 or so years, written in the voices of women long dead, sharing recipes and domestic/gardening hints – and, for some weird reason – have always been fascinated by them. I hadn’t thought of them this way, however. So thanks for this insight.
PS The conference sounds great. Sadly, I live in Australia. Will conference papers be accessible after the event?
Thanks, Marguerite. It is a fabulous conference, though I’m afraid no conference proceedings will follow. I appreciate your kind words about the post and am so glad to meet a kindred spirit in this material.
Recipes as text is a fascinating topic. I research Colonial Australian recipes, which like your example are presented as a narrative; rather than divided into ingredients, method and other subheadings. If all I intend to do is read them, then I actually find them easier to read than their modern counterparts because of this. But when it comes to cooking from them, they can be very frustrating (especially when there’s a saucepan on the stove needing urgent attention and I’m trying to find the right point in the recipe to see how much cinnamon to add!). I usually end up rewriting Colonial recipes in the modern format if I intend to test them.
I also have to second Marguerite in saying that the conference sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, I too am in Australia!