Cooking for a Crowd: Recipes and the Transcribathon

[This post is part of The Recipes Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, authors Clifton, Sindelar, and Weber share their experiences  in teaching participants in a transcribathon about angelica, an herb found in many early modern recipe books.]

Nadia Clifton, Kailan Sindelar, and Breanne Weber

In April 2016, the Early Modern Paleography Society (EMPS) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte hosted its first transcribathon (for more on what a transcribathon is and how to participate, see this Recipes Project post from Feb. 2015). There was no question as to whether or not we would prepare a recipe for the event, as consuming the final products of these recipes brings the manuscripts to life in a tangible way. EMPS was, at the time, transcribing the 1689 cookbook of Timothy and Mary Cruso (Folger ms X.d.24): a book written by an early modern husband and wife containing a variety of recipes, from hashing calves’ heads to preserving quinces.

The 1st Annual EMPS Transcribathon, April 2016. Image courtesy of the author.
The 1st Annual EMPS Transcribathon, April 2016. Image courtesy of the authors.

Early in the fall semester, the Assistant Director of the Botanical Gardens at UNC Charlotte, Paula Gross, offered to partner with EMPS by growing herbs for us to use in our transcribathon food experiment. This influenced which recipe we would choose. We settled on “To Candy Angelica,” a recipe written in Timothy Cruso’s hand and listed in the Cruso book among other recipes for preserves and jams. With only a few steps and even fewer ingredients (sugar, water, and angelica), it seemed to be the obvious choice.

"To Candy Angelica," detail from Mary Cruso and Timothy Cruso, Cookbook of Mary Cruso and Timonthy Cruso, September 5, 1689, X.d.24, Folger Shakespeare Library. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
“To Candy Angelica,” detail from Mary Cruso and Timothy Cruso, Cookbook of Mary Cruso and Timonthy Cruso, September 5, 1689, X.d.24, Folger Shakespeare Library. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Angelica prefers the cooler and cloudier climates that would have been familiar to our early modern British recipe’s authors, not the hot Southern US temperatures common to modern North Carolina, so Paula ordered three plants from a botanical nursery and grew them in UNC Charlotte’s greenhouse. They grew fairly well there, but because the plants were grown outside of their traditional environment, they were almost certainly different than the version of angelica which the Crusos would have known. This raised many questions: How does the temperature, water, insects, and surrounding plants affect the growth (and maybe the taste?) of these plant? Did our plants grow too fast? They were quite tall. And could that somehow affect the recipe? Recipes like this rely on the integrity of a plant (which relies on its ecosystem), just as much as they do on the knowledge of the recipe user. Trying to recreate these recipes reveals not just what we do and do not know about them, but where early modern authors relied on outside knowledge and predictability.

Kailan with our angelica. Image courtesy of the author.
Kailan Sindelar with our angelica. Image courtesy of the authors.

Because of the gaps in our knowledge of these plants, candying the angelica required some modification and guesswork. Unsure of the Crusos’ usage of the term “nail length,” we assumed our authors meant “fingernail length” (but later learned of the term’s usage in sewing) and chopped the stalks accordingly. We allowed ourselves the room to use modern conveniences, but how do you replicate a “soft fire” when you’re using a gas stove? How do you tell when “it” (whatever “it” is) has turned green? With nonspecific instructions, we added what we deemed to be “a little sugar” and boiled the angelica until it seemed to be as tender as it was going to get.

Candying the angelica. Image courtesy of the author.
Candying the angelica. Image courtesy of the authors.

 

Ready to soak in sugar water for a week! Image courtesy of the author.
Ready to soak in sugar water for a week! Image courtesy of the authors.

In the end, though, making the recipe did make us feel closer to our early modern recipe creators. We tried our angelica after a week, and it unexpectedly tasted like a crunchy, weirdly sweet cross between licorice and celery. Presenting it to our transcribers in an appealing way was another challenge. The EMPS members were excited about the Candied angelica because we had experienced the cooking process and we all share an investment in these recipes, but what about those new to transcription who did not have a connection to early modern recipes or an adventurous appetite? We thus had to answer two questions for our transcribers: What is angelica? and Do I really want to eat it?

To address the former question, we provided an informative handout about angelica and its medicinal uses, then discussed the plant/recipe on a panel. For the latter question, we bought a lemon cake and garnished it with angelica. The result looked quite appetizing. The remaining candied angelica and some “angelica tea” (the result of steeping angelica leaves) were also set out on the table so our participants naturally took a serving as they moved down the line. Our EMPS transcribers were much more open to tasting the angelica than we had expected, and one brave connoisseur even confidently drank the tea. We were all very impressed when she downed it without making a face.

The presentation! Image courtesy of the author.
The presentation! Image courtesy of the authors.

 

Participants who encounter early modern recipes during a transcribathon may wonder what is done with them after they are transcribed. Cooking is both a logical and tangible next step, even (and perhaps especially) for those who are not working with the recipes professionally and/or academically. Many things about early modern recipes seem completely alien; we wonder and marvel at how and why people cooked like this. Transcribing an early modern recipe via a computer screen rather than by reading and studying the physical manuscript has the potential to create more distance between the source and the transcriber, making it easy for a transcriber to feel detached from their work.  But by providing a dish prepared from a transcribed recipe, it’s possible to add a physical dimension to the transcribathon. In our case, cultivating, growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking, and then eating the angelica brought us out of the mental space our minds happily occupy and into the physical realm of our tongues and stomachs, an experience to which everyone, everywhere can relate.

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Nadia Clifton is currently pursuing her MA in English with an emphasis in Literature from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she also works as a graduate teaching assistant for the Prospect for Success program. After graduation in May 2017, she intends to pursue an MA in Library Science. Scholarly interests include renaissance literature, magical realist theory, ecocritical theory, and the history of the book. Outside of the classroom, when she’s not reading for fun, she enjoys watching her thumb become greener every year as she experiments with growing orchids, succulents, and carnivorous plants.

Kailan Sindelar holds her MA in English with a Concentration in Technical and Professional Writing from UNC Charlotte. She works as a Technical Writer in Charlotte, NC. Her scholarly interests include ecocritical theory, feminist theory, and digital information design and usability. After work, Kailan enjoys volunteering at state parks and playing with her Miniature Schnauzers.

Breanne Weber holds her MA in English with an emphasis in Literature from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an adjunct instructor for the Department of English and the University Writing Program at UNC Charlotte and intends to begin pursuit of a PhD in 2017. Aside from early modern recipes, her scholarly interests include Renaissance publication practices, early modern English dramatic literature and poetry, and ecocritical theory.


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