All posts by amandamoniz

Amanda Moniz is the assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association. A pastry chef before going to graduate school, she teaches occasional historic cooking classes at the Hill Center in Washington, DC, and blogs at

American Bitters

By David Shields 

Nowadays bitters are an aroma and a flavor used in building cocktails, or a digestif taken in small doses after heavy meals. Prior to the twentieth century they were a medicinal infusion of vegetable material in alcohol. In the Galenic humoral system, they countered an excess of choler or bile in one’s system.

After the Islamic invention of the distillation of alcohol, distillates of bitter herbs could be preserved and volatilized more efficiently than in a water solution. Bitters became a standard stomachic in Renaissance pharmacology. Physicians had such faith in the power of bitter plant matter to right disorders of the stomach that they gave a general prescription for Extractum amarum, not specifying which bitter plant should be used, or what variety of gastrointestinal disorder was being dosed.

From the 1750s to the 1850s bitters were patent medicines prepared according to secret proprietary formulae. American newspapers brimmed with ads for improbable tonics: Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilious and Stomachic Bitters; Dennison’s Improved Jaundice Bitters; Plantation Bitters; Stoughton’s Bitters; James Gartland’s Genuine Herbaceous Bitters.


What did these elixirs promise?

“These Bitters stimulate and strengthen the coats of the stomach and intestines, expel wind, correct the bile, remove redundancies, assimilate the nourishment, and possess a suitable proportion of nervine and diaphoretic properties; which, by restoring to the nerves their tone and firmness, and acting on the surface of the body by insensible perspiration, restore that balance and equilibrium so necessary to health.” [“Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilius & Stomachic Bitters,” Norfolk Commercial Register (November 29, 1802), 3.]

When Dyspepsia (acid reflux indigestion) became a cultural obsession in the early nineteenth century, bitters enjoyed an efflorescence in popularity.

In North America, the flora differed from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the materia medica ready to hand for concocting bitters recommended a change in formulae. In William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States the bitter medicinal plants are flagged: tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera; marsh pink, Sabbatia angularis; bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis; flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum; small magnolia, Magnolia glauca; stinking chamomile, Anthenis catula; checkerberry, Gaultheria procumbens; black alder, Prinos verticillatus; yaupon holly, Ilex vomitorium. Yet the one repeatedly published recipe in American newspapers from the 1780s to the 1830s used none of these common bitter plants. Furthermore, it had a curious set of features: water as a liquid base rather than alcohol; and calamus as the principle bitter agent, rather than gentian (the favorite old world bitter).

Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.
Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.

“Take the common meadow calamus, cut into small pieces, or rue, wormwood, and chamomile or centaury of hore-hound, or each two ounces, add to them a quart of spring-water, and take a wine glass full of it every morning fasting.” (1788) [“A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3].

Calamus as the central ingredient of bitters became a peculiarly American choice. Even enormously famous British bitters formulae—Stoughton’s Bitters,a gentian and sour orange peel brew dating from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, would be transformed in the United States by the substitution of sweet flag for gentian. Here is the recipe for the transmuted American version of the Stoughton’s Bitters found in The Independent Liquorist.

½ pound wormwood

1 dozen canella bark

1 dozen cassia

1 dozen coriander

1 dozen grains of paradise

¾ dozen cardamoms

1 ¼ dozen chamomile flowers

4 dozen orange peel

½ dozen calamus

The ingredients were infused ten days in ten gallons of 20% spirits; “then take 60 gallons spirits proof and run it through a felt filter containing 9 pounds red sanders, after which you run the infusion through; then add one quart white syrup and 10 gallons water.” (p. 62).

If gentian was the hallmark of European Bitters, and the prime ingredient of Angostura Bitters (1822) , the preference for calamus was not universal in America. In that most European of American cities, New Orleans, tastes tended rather toward gentian. Peychaud Bitters (New Orleans 1830), the city’s historical cocktail concoction, made the taste central in its amalgamation of orange oil, caramel, oil of cloves, and maybe cinnamon oil to spirits. Some thought a synthesis of bittering agents—a formula using both gentian and calamus such as Seaman’s Bitters, doubled the tonic effects.

The non-alcoholic recipe calling for calamus, rue, wormwood and chamomile first appeared in the Pennsylvania newspapers toward the end of summer in 1788. In 1812 it appeared again in St. Louis. In 1826 it found its way into papers in South Carolina and was reprinted in state’s first cook book, The Carolina Receipt Book by “A Lady of Charleston” in 1832.

Why the firm retention of water as the base of the decoction, despite its comparatively modest capacity to volatilize? I suspect it may have to do with children as much as the rising popularity of temperance. Water based bitters can be administered to children without qualms about the effects of alcohol. The number of recipes devoted to stomach problems in household manuals cue the acute cultural concern for the digestive health of offspring.

Sources: “A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3.

David Dennison & John Parker Whitwell, His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent. Improved Jaundice Bitters (Boston, [1800-1813). Charles Julias Hempel, A New and Comprehensive System of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (New York: William Radde, 1865), 2: 570. L. Monzert, The Independent Liquorist (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866), 95.

David S Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.  He publishes monographs in the fields of early American literature and culture, the history of photography, and Food Studies.



The Exotic Taste of Rice

By Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia

Rice pudding is simple. Neutral in color and mild in taste, it has a minimal list of ingredients and always pleases a crowd. It’s also familiar. So, when we kept seeing rice pudding recipes in manuscript recipe books from centuries ago, we wondered why. And what, if any, differences were there between past and present versions? In the spirit of our project, Cooking in the Archives, we decided to make two distinct rice pudding recipes. A rice pudding face-off!

While in the twenty-first century the ingredients required to make rice pudding are pantry staples – rice and sugar are readily available, as is dairy – in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English households, rice pudding was probably a more exotic affair. England does not produce any of its own rice, so we asked where did the rice came from.

This sent us on a hunt for early modern England’s rice suppliers. Today, as in the past, the majority of the world’s rice is produced in Asia. Both recipes we cooked come from the eighteenth century. Until the later decades of the seventeenth century, England’s rice came from Asia through overland routes or through overseas trade.[1] The rice that made its way into England’s kitchens in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would likely have come from British colonies in South Carolina. Carolina Gold Rice  was developed from African seed stock and is distinct from Asian varieties. It thrived in the Low Country, anchored South Carolina’s economy, and was largely cultivated by African slaves. Scholars of American history and food are currently debating the theory of “Black Rice,” which argues for the centrality of West African women’s agricultural knowledge to the successful cultivation of rice in the Carolinas.[2]  The recipes we decided to cook were both included in manuscripts from a particular historical moment: the moment when the rice supply-chain changed and Carolina Gold Rice arrived in England’s kitchens.

Our rice puddings come from LJS 165 and MS Codex 631. Each recipe is just one in a cluster of rice pudding recipes, demonstrating cooks’ variations on a base recipe. (Rice pudding could also be adapted into other recipes; two rice pudding recipes in MS Codex 631 include instructions for adapting them to almond puddings instead.) For contrast, we chose to cook one recipe that started with whole rice and another that used rice flour as a base.

The Recipes

A whole grain rice pudding from LJS 165.

LJS 165 image

Rice Puding
A quart of Creame a pound of Rice 2 Eggs, Orangado a
1/4 of a pound, Cinamon a quarter of  an Ounce, a
little Rosewater & Ambergreese some grated bread 3/4 of a
pound of suger some Marrow boyle Salt in the Creame

Rice flour puddings from MS Codex 631.

To Make a Rice Pudding

Take six ounces of Rice flower a quart of milk set them over [th]e fire & stir them well
together while they are thick, then put in half a pound of Butter six eggs one nutmeg sweeten
it to y[ou]r tast, Buter y[ou]r Dish that you Bake it in /

The Results

rice puddings 1

Our rice pudding-off was a success! These rice puddings couldn’t look or taste more different. The “whole grain” rice pudding from LJS 165 is toothsome, with surprising depth of flavor from the caramelized sugar and rosewater. The cinnamon adds a spicy note, but the orange flavor is harder to identify. This rice pudding is especially thick.

The rice flour pudding from MS Codex 631, on the other hand, is bland. Nutmeg is the primary seasoning; even the strong notes of nutmeg don’t cut just how creamy this pudding tastes. With a very firm custard texture, it would form a good base for other tastes, such as fruit, or with additional flavors added.

In the eighteenth century, rice pudding represented the world in a bowl. Rice from West African seeds was cultivated in American soil by enslaved Africans in the Carolinas and shipped east across the Atlantic to England. The sugar probably came from the Caribbean. Nutmeg and cinnamon from places like the Moluccas made their way west through Asian and European ports. Oranges imported from Seville and other warmer climates scented the dish. The eggs, milk, cream, and bread are the only ingredients early modern cooks would have been able to source locally. These ingredients rely on both trade and labor – their production depended on plantation agriculture and their presence in England came from a highly developed global network. Paying particular attention to this single ingredient, rice, has reminded us to consider how ingredients entered early modern kitchens before they became the recipes in a household manuscript.

What surprised us most about making these dueling rice puddings was the true difference in taste. In both, the taste of the rice remains – even through the single note of nutmeg in the rice flour pudding and the dense combination of flavors in the rice grain pudding. The taste difference, furthermore, is deliberate: the presence of multiple rice pudding recipes within the same manuscript recipe book indicates attempts to explore the versatility of this ingredient, to incorporate other flavors into a recipe that has one umbrella name but many flavorings and techniques. In both cases, we were able to follow the ingredients and techniques fairly closely (minus ambergris and marrow), so what we tasted in our dueling rice puddings seems, to us, a likely descendant of these puddings as they were originally prepared.

[1] Renee Marton, Rice: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), esp. 35-43; Francesca Bray, “Introduction: Purity and Promiscuity,” in Rice: Global Networks and New Histories, eds. Francesca Bray, Peter A. Coclanis, Edda L. Fields-Black, and Dagmar Schafer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 6-8.

[2] Bray, “Introduction,” 10.  We would like to thank Katie Rawson (UPenn) for telling us more about Carolina Gold Rice.

Alyssa Connell holds a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She studies British literature of the long eighteenth century (1660-1800), specializing in travel writing, book history, cartography, and epistolary fiction. She has taught classes on periodical culture, Jane Austen, eighteenth-century travel narratives, British Romanticism, and nineteenth-century fugitive stories, as well as a monthly community literature seminar in Philadelphia. With Marissa Nicosia, she is the co-founder of Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a public history digital humanities project that curates transcribed and updated recipes from early modern English household manuscripts for an audience of food historians and culinary enthusiasts alike.

Marissa Nicosia is an Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Abington where she teaches, researches, and writes about early modern English literature, book history, and political theory. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania and previously taught at Scripps College. Marissa’s current book project studies the history play in the seventeenth-century to argue that the genre forged speculative political futures. Her work has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon- Rare Book School Fellowship in Critical Bibliography and the Folger Institute. With Alyssa Connell, she is the co-founder of Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a public history digital humanities project that curates transcribed and updated recipes from early modern English household manuscripts for an audience of food historians and culinary enthusiasts alike.

Leftovers: Cooking, Blogging, and Studying History from Old Recipes

By Alma Igra

I started the “Leftovers” project because I wanted to bring together two of my greatest loves: history and food. I began my BA in History in 2007 and my work as a food writer and recipe developer in 2008, but I never actually got to combine the two. I approached this project in 2014 as a PhD student at Columbia (and as part of the “History in Action” program in my department, part of the American Historical Association-Mellon Career Diversity Pilot Program that year) thinking that I understand what it would mean to write about food history: historians are storytellers, and food would be a nice, attractive anecdote for this storytelling.

beef broth pic
Ancient Mesopotamian beet broth. Photo by Avner Barak

Well, I got it all wrong. Cookbooks are not plots or colorful anecdotes for history: they are history. Just like primary sources in the archive, we have to interpret them, read them in context, and read between the lines to look for motivations and interests. Cookbooks can be ideological, they can make medical arguments, and they can serve as charity projects. Like every piece of history, it’s not only about writing or telling a story, but about developing as a reader, and constantly challenging your sources and your own presumptions.

Shortly after I won the History in Action grant, the Leftovers blog became a team project. My husband, Avner Barak, is a food photographer, and worked on the photos of the different dishes that we tried. Jordan Katz, my colleague from the History Department. joined me for the process of researching and writing the posts. Jordan studies Early Modern history of medicine, and brought a lot of her own work on food and the world of medicine, alchemy, and artisanship to this project. Our blog became an experiment not only in writing short, snappy texts on complicated historical topics, but also in writing something together. Very refreshing thing to do while working on the seven-year process of writing a dissertation on your own…

Spinach with yogurt from a 15th-century Ottoman Cookbook. Photo by Avner Bara

As a student of Professor Pamela Smith, Jordan also came with the ideology of recipe reconstruction as part of collaborative knowledge recovery. Recipes are historical documents that rely on specific contextual knowledge. Many instructions require you to cook “until right” or add “enough” water. Every culture had a particular culinary common sense that we had to try to recover. As an experienced cook, I usually read the recipes and tried to prepare them based on what I know from today’s cooking methods. Jordan’s framework was different: every recipe preserves some kind of old knowledge that someone found important, and she felt that we had to work as close to the original recipe as possible. Even if we didn’t like the taste of what we cooked, there was a lesson to pick up from the different norms of what was considered tasty at different times.

In trying to stick to “old” methods, I had to abandon my wonderful blender and electric mixer and go back to tools such as mortar and pestle. It took us more time to prepare the food, but we also learned to appreciate the different kinds of knowledge that one could recover from old cookbooks: knowledge of the muscles, knowledge of the palate, knowledge of the senses.

Another type of knowledge we had to analyze was the quantitative practices of cooking. Most of the recipes that we tried did not have any clear quantities, and were based on the assumption that the cook had experience and familiarity with the dish. When we did see quantitative instructions, they were often prescribed as percentages, requiring 40% milk and 20% butter, for example. In this manner, recipes gave us insight into different quantitative perceptions throughout history.

From the very beginning, we made the decision to make our collection of recipes as diverse as possible. I created a map and timeline, and promised myself that we would try to have recipes from as many places and historical eras as possible. This wasn’t an easy goal, but it helped us identify “big” arguments and conclusions that can emerge from culinary history. Some of these themes – class, gender, trade, knowledge, and community life – reappear in sources that, despite their geographical and chronological disparity, embody shared human concerns.


Alma Igra is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, department of history, working on 20th century British Empire. Her other fields of interest include food history, environmental history and history of development in the Middle East. Alma holds a BA in history from Tel Aviv University and a MA from the Central European University. She write a very popular vegetarian food blog in Hebrew since 2008, and her recipes have appeared in different publications in Israel.

Historic Recipes as Sources: A Special Series

By Amanda Moniz

Historians are currently engaged in a project of learning to use food as a source and as a medium for the study of history.  Long an aspect of historic sites’ programs, the history of food and eating is increasingly attracting the interest of historians working in a broad range of institutions.  Museums, such as the National Museum of American History, now feature exhibits and events about food history.  More and more scholars are studying the production, consumption, and meaning of food in various times and places.  Blog, journals and listservs are examining the topic.  Elementary, secondary, and college educators are integrating the history of food into their curricula.  Meanwhile, with interest in the history of sensory experiences burgeoning more generally, scholars are experimenting with making and eating recipes as part of the study of the history of food.  This special series examines some of the issues this endeavor raises.


Food is appealing and accessible as a means for studying the past.  As the posts in this series explore, that accessibility encourages scholars to address familiar questions about interrogating sources in distinct ways.  Alma Igra, recipient of a “History in Action” grant from the American Historical Association-Mellon Career Diversity Pilot Program for the Leftovers project, reflects on the tension between necessarily bringing her experience as a cook to historic recipes and faithfully recovering those recipes.  Comparing two early-modern rice pudding recipes, along with the larger history of global trade and labor they reveal, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia of Cooking in the Archives consider how historic recipes allow us to approach, though never fully reach, an appreciation of palates in the past.  David S. Shields, a leader in both the field of American food history and the repatriation of historic American foods, examines the unusual nature of American bitters, probing recipes for their insights into cultural preoccupations.

As these authors so insightfully discuss, making and eating historic foods raises questions experientially about cookbooks, recipes, and ingredients as sources.  The nature of cooking and eating, along with practical considerations, also fosters more collaboration among scholars and in historic foodways projects than in historians’ typical work, as the various endeavors of the scholars in this series show.  Much as the musical Hamilton innovatively explains historians’ reliance on an incomplete record to craft historical narratives, historic cookery similarly offers scholars’ opportunities to work with one another and with students and broader publics to grapple with the making of history.  We invite you to join our exploration of food as source and medium for studying the past and welcome your thoughts.

Amanda Moniz is assistant director of the National History Center and Program Coordinator at the American Historical Association.  A former pastry chef, she pursues public history projects about food.