Anne Dormer wrote a series of letters to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull between 1685-1691 about her health and unhappy marriage to the widower Robert Dormer. She described how ‘I apply my self to tend my crazy health, and keep up my weake shattred carcase broken with restless nights and unquiet days.’ She reflected in one letter that her body was ‘like a horss [horse] to tug through all I have endured of illness and childing.’ She was overwhelmed by her troubles and worried that she could not ‘write of my affaires so freely as I would and has kept me from writing many times when it would be an ease to my heart to taulk to thee.’ Dormer, like most early modern English middling and upper sort women, self-medicated. Kings Dropps ‘alwayes relieiue me’, she described. She also, however, sought to ‘divert’ herself by playing with her two ‘sweete children’, thinking of her ‘kind friends’ and ‘a dish of chocolate’. This latter indulgence she found the ‘ greatest cordiall and revivieing in the world.’
Dormer’s approach to restoring her health was tripartite: she took, purchased, or prepared remedies, took comfort in the presence of friends and family, and consumed chocolate. Such reflections are the central historical interest in the AHRC Cultural Engagement project supporting collaboration between medical historian Leah Astbury and the artist Emma Smith, alongside several Cambridge community groups. ‘Recipes for Relationships’ seeks to explore the connections between food, medicine and the household in seventeenth-century England and the current practices of Cambridgeshire residents through a series of workshops led by Leah and Emma.
In March we had The Recipes Project’s very own Dr Lisa Smith talk to us about ‘Recipes to Improve Your Love Life: Advice from the Eighteenth Century,’ which attracted a diverse crowd of interested university and non-university members. The discussion was diverse and engaged. Through workshops and at the talk, we have been collecting recipes and ingredients that people use to strengthen and ease relationships, from aphrodisiacs, to foods to quieten small children, or in the case of Anne Dormer, things we use to self-medicate during times of distress.
Unsurprisingly chocolate continues to be a source of solace in times of stress. Interestingly, what our workshops have revealed is that although household routines shift and change with age, food continues to be personally medicinal in the same way that Dormer describes.
As medical historians we are constantly reminded of how central age and the life-cycle was in determining diet and regimen in early modern culture, and community members similarly reflected on how their domestic routines and habits had changed with age and different family structures. We recently met with a knitting group. Most of the members are 70+ year old women who now live alone. This change in circumstances has meant fewer laborious family sit-down meals – or at least this is limited to one day a week when children and grandchildren visit. Food, however, continues to play a personal and restorative role in these women’s lives even when preparing meals for one. For one woman, a simple dinner of poached eggs on toast was a tonic. For others there was nothing sweeter than a glass of wine in the evening.
Anne Dormer’s dish of chocolate, and the knitting group’s eggs on toast, will form part of the ‘Recipes for Relationships’ recipe book we are compiling. This book will be shared at a four course banquet on 29 April in Murray Edwards College, Cambridge to thank contributors and share our findings.