By Elaine Leong
Deep in my closet is a battered 1970s red and white tin box decorated with various characters from the Peanuts cartoon strip with the word ‘RECIPES’ written squarely on the front. I, of course, am not the real owner of the box, after all how can I possibly be old enough to purchase anything in the 70s? The box is actually one of those objects that I appropriated from my mother’s possessions as a child. While the box’s outward appearance suggests a treasure trove filled with 1970s dishes – lasagna, duck l’orange, meatloaf, shrimp cocktail and more – the box is actually sadly empty and lingers, though much loved, unused.
My Peanuts recipe box is part of a larger trend of using index cards as a paper technology. Some might comment that such cards are outdated, but I am willing to bet my last mince pie that a stained and worn set of index cards filled with culinary recipes still adorn many kitchens around the world. For decades, these 3×5 inch recipe cards served as one of the main ways in which food recipes were exchanged in North America and beyond. Women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal included pre-printed recipe cards in their publications and, indeed, Martha Steward Living continues to issue tear-out recipe cards. Even websites such as Epicurious allow readers to print out their recipes on either a 3×5 or a 4×6 card format. The index card provides note-takers with a flexible and extendable system, allowing them to rearrange their notes to their fancy. So, we can mull over and change our minds repeatedly on whether Yotam Ottolenghi’s Turkish Baked Eggs recipe rightly belongs to the section on ‘breakfast’ or ‘light lunch’ or ‘vegetarian dishes’ or ‘dinner’. In addition, the diminutive size of these recipe index cards made them portable and the standard dimensions ease the exchange of cards and the combining of different collections.
Alas, index cards or loose paper slips were not a paper tool adopted by early modern recipe collectors. In the case of index cards, this is not surprising. Recent studies demonstrate that the modern day index card system was developed in the 18th century in association with the collecting of botanical information and library catalogs. However, systems of information organization involving loose paper slips were well established in the early modern period. Scholars have uncovered a number of readers, such as Conrad Gesner, Robert Boyle and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz to name a few, who organized their notes with such systems. Yet, the majority of early modern recipe collections now in libraries and archives exist in bound volumes. Undoubtedly, recipes circulated on loose slips of paper (in letters or just handed over in person) but the information on these loose slips were more often than not diligently copied into the family recipe book. Why did early modern recipe compilers shy away from keeping loose recipes? One reason might be the precariousness attached to such collections. Whilst loose paper slips might have allowed recipe compilers to endlessly re-categorize and rearrange their collections, they were also unstable in the sense that individual slips could easily fall by the wayside. Recipes were just too precious to keep on loose paper slips. One also wonders whether the very act of writing a particular recipe into a bound book served to consolidate both the recipe’s place within the family treasury of household knowledge and the recipe donor’s place within the family’s social network. After all, it may be easy to get rid of a loose slip of paper but much more work is required to delete a recipe written in the middle of a bound notebook.
This is the time of New Year’s resolutions and, normally, I don’t much go in for that. However, this year, I think that I will resolve to better organize my recipe collection (i.e. no more desperate Epicurious searches at the supermarket). I just found a stack of index cards in the stationary cupboard at work and 2013 might just be the year that I will start filling up my Peanuts recipe box…
 Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines. About Cards and Catalogs 1548-1929 (Cambridge, MA and London: The M.I.T. Press, 2011) and Isabelle Charmentier and Staffan Müller-Wille, ‘Natural History and Information Overload: The Case of Linnaeus’, Studies of History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43, 1 (2012), 4-15.
2 thoughts on “Recipes, index cards and paper slips”
Have you seen the British Library Brockman MSS collection of loose recipes? There is a huge bundle of them still folded with titles written on the outside, probably a few generations worth. It’s a great source and I don’t think anyone has looked at it– most scholars have focused on the two recipe books in the collection. If you haven’t looked at these yet, I’ll dig in my notes and send you the files. I had it in the back of my mind to do something with them, but I’m moving on to other stuff and it’s a better fit for your research than my own!
Thanks for your comment and for sharing your info about the Brockman loose recipes. It’s very kind of you. Yes, I have looked at them and they’re part of a chapter in my book-in-progress. There’s some fascinating material there inc. juicy pieces of early modern gossip…love it!