This week I have the honour of giving a talk at Lydiard House and Park near Swindon. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Lydiard House and Park was the country estate of the St. John family. Regular readers of this blog are, of course, already familiar with Johanna St. John and her late-seventeenth century recipe book.
In the fall of 2012, Lisa Smith’s students at the University of Saskatchewan spent part of their semester transcribing Johanna’s book. You might recall reading some of their blogposts in December. Over the last year or so, Lydiard House and Park’s archivist, Sophie Cummings, and her team of volunteers have also been hard at work transcribing Johanna’s book and in bringing Johanna’s medical activities to a modern audience through a play staged by a youth theatre group, family education events and evening talks. At this point, you might well ask, who is this Johanna St. John and why does she merit so much attention?
Johanna St. John, or Lady J as she is nicknamed by the Lydiard group, was the eldest daughter Oliver St. John, a prominent Parliamentarian and supporter of Oliver Cromwell. Johanna (1631-1705) married her distant cousin Sir Walter St. John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire. Their grandson, Henry the first Viscount Bolingbroke was a well-known politician, diplomatist and author. During their marriage, Sir Walter and Lady Johanna divided their time between their mansion in Battersea and their country estate, Lydiard House near Swindon. Remarkably, an extensive set of correspondence between Johanna and her Lydiard steward Thomas Hardyman has survived. These letters indicate that Lydiard Park, far from being simply a summer home for the St. Johns, supplied them with all sorts of foodstuffs from fruits, herbs and flowers grown in the gardens to cheeses, butter and poultry from the nearby farms.
Johanna’s letters are a fascinating read and provide a rare glimpse into the housewifely concerns of a late seventeenth-century gentlewoman. They paint a picture of an active household manager who expressed great interest and concern in various foodstuffs and homemade products (from butter to cheese to beer to distilled medicines) produced at Lydiard. Not one to shy away from micromanagement, Johanna instructed Hardyman when to start fattening the turkeys and geese for Christmas feasts, berated him when he dared to send up unripe cheeses and gave him precise barley malt to hogshead ratios for the brewing of beer. Most interestingly, the correspondence also reveals that Johanna was in the habit of sending recipes gathered from her London acquaintances to be made up at Lydiard Park where she relied on a team of expert distillers and herb gatherers. Johanna’s detailed instructions, including specific directions to contact local experts for particular ingredients, give a clear picture of how one gentlewoman can ‘make’ medicines via ‘remote control’.
When taken together, Johanna’s recipe book and letters reveal both complex networks of contemporary lay medical knowledge amongst family members and paints a vivid picture of medical activities in an early modern English country house. Our collective transcription of Johanna’s book renders the work electronically searchable and (very soon) widely available. We hope that it goes one step towards analyzing and acknowledging the complex set of activities taken on by early modern housewives and, in Johanna’s case, her large crew of ‘helpers’.
Drawing on rich and fascinating archival sources (including a flurry of recipes), Panaceia’s Daughters is the first major study on noblewomen’s healing activities in early modern Germany. It’s available at all good bookstores including here for US-based readers and here for UK/Europe-based readers.
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.
Food writers who rummage in other people’s recipe boxes, as I am wont to do, know that many modern American families happily carry on making certain favorite dishes decades after these dishes have dropped out of fashion, indeed from memory. It appears that the same was true of a privileged eighteenth-century English family whose recipe book now resides at the New York Academy of Medicine (hereafter NYAM), under the unprepossessing label “Recipe book England 18th century. In two unidentified hands.” The manuscript’s culinary section (it also has a medical section) was copied in two contiguous chunks by two different scribes, the second of whom picked up numbering the recipes where the first left off and then added an index to all 170 recipes in both sections.
The recipes in both chunks are mostly of the early eighteenth century—they are similar to those of E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, 1727—but a number of recipes in the first chunk, particularly for items once part of the repertory of “banquetting stuffe,” are much older. My guess is that this clutch of recipes was, previous to this copying, a separate manuscript that had itself been successively copied and updated over a span of several generations, during the course of which most of the original recipes had been replaced by more modern ones but a few old family favorites dating back to the mid-seventeenth century had been retained. Among these older recipes, the most surprising is the bread crumb gingerbread. A boiled paste of bread crumbs, honey or sugar, ale or wine, and an enormous quantity of spice (one full cup in this recipe, and much more in many others) that was made up as “printed” cakes and then dried, this gingerbread appears in no other post-1700 English manuscript or print cookbook that I have seen.
And yet the recipe in the NYAM manuscript seems not to have been idly or inadvertently copied, for its language, orthography, and certain compositional details (particularly the brandy) have been updated to the Georgian era:
25 To Make Ginger bread
Take a pound & quarter of bread, a pound of sugar, one ounce of red Sanders, one ounce of Cinamon three quarters of an ounce of ginger half an ounce of mace & cloves, half an ounce of nutmegs, then put your Sugar & spices into a Skillet with half a pint of Brandy & half a pint of ale, sett it over a gentle fire till your Sugar be melted, Let it have a boyl then put in half of your bread Stirre it well in the Skellet & Let it boyle also, have the other half of your bread in a Stone panchon, then pour your Stuffe to it & work it to a past make it up in prints or as you please.
From the fourteenth century into the mid-seventeenth century, bread crumb gingerbread was England’s standard gingerbread (for the record, there was also a more rarefied type) and, by all evidence, a great favorite among those who could afford it—a fortifier for Sir Thopas in The Canterbury Tales, one of the dainties of nobility listed in The Description of England, 1587 (Harrison, 129), and according to Sir Hugh Platt, in Delightes for Ladies, 1609, a confection “used at the Court, and in all gentlemens houses at festival times.” Then, around the time of the Restoration, this ancient confection apparently dropped out of fashion. In The Accomplisht Cook, 1663, his awe-inspiring 500-page compendium of upper-class Restoration cookery, Robert May does not find space for a single recipe.
The reason for its waning is not difficult to deduce. Bread crumb gingerbread was part of a large group of English sweetened, spiced confections that were originally used more as medicines than as foods. Indeed, the earliest gingerbread recipes appear in medical, not culinary, manuscripts (Hieatt, 31), and culinary historian Karen Hess proposes that gingerbread derives from an ancient electuary commonly known as gingibrati, whence came the name (Hess, 342-3). In England, these early nutriceuticals, as we might call them today, gradually became slotted as foods first through their adoption for the void, a little ceremony of stomach-settling sweets and wines staged after meals in great medieval households, and then, beginning in the early sixteenth century, through their use at banquets, meals of sweets enjoyed by the English privileged both after feasts and as stand-alone entertainments.
Through the early seventeenth century banquets, like the void, continued to carry a therapeutic subtext (or pretext) and comprised mostly foods that were extremely sweet or both sweet and spicy: fruit preserves, marmalades, and stiff jellies; candied caraway, anise, and coriander seeds; various spice-flecked dry biscuits from Italy; marzipan; and sweetened, spiced wafers and the syrupy spiced wine called hippocras. In this company, bread crumb gingerbread, with its pungent (if not caustic) spicing, was a comfortable fit. But as the seventeenth century progressed, the banquet increasingly incorporated custards, creams, fresh cheeses, fruit tarts, and buttery little cakes, and these foods, in tandem with the enduringly popular fruit confections, came to define the English taste in sweets, whether for banquets or for two new dawning sweets occasions, desserts and evening parties. The aggressive spice deliverers fell by the wayside, including, inevitably, England’s ancestral bread crumb gingerbread.
As the old gingerbread waned, a new one took its place and assumed its name, first in recipe manuscripts of the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and then in printed cookbooks of the early eighteenth century. This new arrival was the spiced honey cake, which had been made throughout Europe for centuries. It is sometimes suggested that the spiced honey cake came to England with Royalists returning from exile in France after the Restoration, which seems plausible given the high popularity of French pain d’épice at that time—though less convincing when one considers that a common English name for this cake, before it became firmly known as gingerbread, was “pepper cake,” which suggests a Northern European provenance. Whatever the case, Anglo-America almost immediately replaced the expensive honey in this cake with cheap molasses (or treacle, as the English said by the late 1600s), and this new gingerbread, in myriad forms, became the most widely made cake in Anglo-America over the next two centuries and still remains a favorite today, especially at Christmas.
By the time the NYAM manuscript was copied, perhaps sometime between 1710 and 1730, molasses gingerbread was already ragingly popular in both England and America, and evidently the family who kept this manuscript ate it too, for the second clutch of culinary recipes includes a recipe for it, under the exact same title as the first. Remembering the old adage that the holidays preserve what the everyday loses, I will hazard a guess that the old gingerbread was made at Christmas, the new for everyday family use.
150 To Make Ginger Bread
Take a Pound of Treacle, two ounces of Carrawayseeds, an ounce of Ginger, half a Pound of Sugar half a Pound of Butter melted, & a Pound of Flower. if you please you may put some Lemon pill cut small, mix altogether & make it into little Cakes so bake it. may put in a little Brandy for a Pepper Cake
An interesting question is why the seventeenth-century English considered the European spiced honey cake sufficiently analogous to their ancestral bread crumb gingerbread to merit its name. It may have been simply the compositional similarity, the primary constituents of both cakes being honey (at least traditionally) and spices. Or it may have been that both cakes were associated with Christmas and other “festival times.” Or it may have been that both cakes were often printed with human figures and other designs using wooden or ceramic molds. Or it may possibly have been that both gingerbreads had medicinal uses as stomach-settlers. In both England and America, itinerant sellers of the new baked gingerbread often stationed themselves at wharves and docks and hawked their cakes as a preventive to sea-sickness. (Ship-wrecked off Long Island in 1727, Benjamin Franklin bought gingerbread “of an old woman to eat on the water,” he tells us in The Autobiography.)One thinks at first that the ginger and other spices were the “active ingredients” in this remedy, and certainly this is what nineteenth-century American cookbook authors believed when they recommended gingerbread for such use. But early on the remedy may also have been activated by the treacle. Based on the perhaps slender evidence of a single recipe in E. Smith, Karen Hess proposes that the first English bakers of the new gingerbread may have understood treacle to mean London treacle (Hess, 201), the English version of the ancient sovereign remedy theriac, a common form of which English apothecaries apparently formulated with molasses rather than expensive honey. I have long wondered what, if anything, this has to do with the English adoption of the word “treacle” for molasses (OED). Perhaps a medical historian can tell us.
Harrison, William. The Description of England. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994
Hess, Karen. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
Hieatt, Constance and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglysch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
“Treacle, I. 1. c.” The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1991.
Stephen Schmidt is the principal researcher and writer for The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, an online catalogue of pre-1865 English-language manuscript cookbooks held in the U. S. repositories, which will launch in early 2013. He is the author of Master Recipes, a 940-page general-purpose cookbook, was an editor of and a principal contributor to the 1997 and 2006 editions of Joy of Cooking, has contributed to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink and Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, and has written for Cook’s Illustrated magazine and many other publications. A resident of New York City, he works as a personal chef and a cooking teacher and hopes soon to complete Lemon Pudding, Watermelon Cake, and Miracle Pie, a history of American home dessert.