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 Some might comment that such cards are outdated, but I am willing to bet my last mince pie that a stained and worn set of index cards filled with culinary recipes still adorn many kitchens around the world.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.
In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of a flexible search engine and information management technologies in the ‘favourites’ recipe box of the Epicurious iPhone app. While still declaring my adoration for the app, I would like to talk a little more about issues of categorization in alphabetical information organization.
Now some of you might wonder, is she seriously offering a post about information categorization and alphabetization? Well, yes I am! And I bet this will even spark debate around your dinner table tonight!
Why don’t I start by sharing with you some of the recipes in the ‘B’ section of my Epicurious app recipe box: Baked pork chops with a parmesan sage crust, Baltimore crab cakes, Barbecue turkey burgers, Bass with herbed rice, Beef stroganoff and Blueberry buttermilk pancakes.
Of course, this is a historical recipes blog and so why don’t we pair this with a look a few of the recipes under ‘B’ in Johanna St John’s alphabetically organized mid-seventeenth century recipe book: for a kanker in a woman’s Brest, Dr Mathias for the whites and the weaknes in the Back, for a Bone ach excellent, for Bleeding at the nose, For a Blast or the poison of the Toad, for any knob or hardnes in the Brest or milk quard, For the Bitting of a mad dog never failing and Mr Boyles Balsame of Sulphire.
As you can see, inadvertently, the electronic search engines of the Epicurious iPhone app used several different knowledge categories to create the list of my favourite recipes beginning with ‘B’. Here we have cooking method (baked, barbecue), locality (Baltimore) and ingredient (bass, beef and blueberry). Johanna St. John, too, uses several different categories: parts of the body (breast, back, bone), action (bleeding), type of medicament (balsame), and external actions on the body (blast, dog bites).
Alphabetization and categorization is not as simple as A, B, C. While it is obvious that the Epicurious app merely assumed that the first word of each recipe title represented the key word, Johanna St. John’s parameters for categorization are not so clearly laid out. In fact, it appears that she herself was unsure about particular groupings and, in a later reading of the books, re-categorized a number of recipes. Take a look at this folio, from the ‘W’ section, below:
Wellcome Western MS 4338, fols. 210v-211r.
Many of the recipes on this page are to be used during childbirth. Some ease the experience of the mother-to-be, while others address potential complications. In my mind, these recipes were first collected in the ‘W’ section as St. John saw them as a cohesive body of knowledge dealing with Women’s health concerns. However, if you look closely, you can also see a number of letters written to the right of the recipe titles. Thus, a ‘D’ is written next to ‘To hasten delivery’, a ‘R’ next to ‘For an immoderate flux of the Redds’ and a ‘G’ next to ‘A Glister to be given in labor’ and so on…
Initially, these letters baffled me but after a bit of pondering, I realized that they are records of St. John’s second attempt to categorize her book of medical knowledge. Evidently, the second time round, she decided that a remedy to haste Delivery should be filed under ‘D’ rather than ‘W’, and that the ‘Redds’ and ‘Glister’ are the keywords in the other two recipes. St. John’s first pass at categorization suggests that, for her at least, there is a defined body of knowledge dealing with women’s health issues. In her second pass, this knowledge was folded into the rest of her collection.
So, where recipes are concerned at least, our methods of categorization are revealing of how we imagine and view bodies of knowledge. They also, as we now know, play a crucial role on whether we can ever find the required recipe again. After all, I don’t immediately look under ‘B’ for pork chops or crab cakes, do you?
 Wellcome Library, Western MS 4338, fol. 14r. For emphasis, I have capitalized and put in bold what I think are the relevant ‘B’s in these recipe titles.
I am a big fan of Epicurious and especially their ever-useful iPhone app. I have spent many happy hours browsing whilst waiting for various trains, buses and planes. As those of you familiar with these sorts of recipe sites know, the Epicurious site and app have a ‘favorites’ feature where you can your selected recipe in a virtual recipe box with the click of a button.
Recently, I have started to commute to work on the train and have accumulated a large number of ‘favourites’. One thing I did not realize while happily click-click-clicking away, is that while the site/app allows flexible searching (ingredient, cuisine, meal, season, occasion and more), you can only organize your virtual recipe box alphabetically or by date of entry. As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of frustration to the working-mother looking for a recipe on the fly in the supermarket at 6 p.m. That got me thinking: perhaps this is the reason that we find so many different methods of information management (as Ann Blair calls it) in our early modern recipe books. Easy information retrieval and instant access to practical knowledge would have driven early modern recipe compilers to adopt and adapt available paper technologies.
Paper technologies were employed to manage recipes in a variety of ways. While some compilers were content to mix together different kinds of practical knowledge–so recipes to make cakes could be next to cough remedies–others were keen to create distinct repositories for medical, culinary and preserving know-how. Some compilers such as Lady Johanna St. John (1631-1705) of Battersea Park, London and Lydiard Park, Swindon, simply used separate notebooks for medical and culinary information. But St. John was not the only one who invested in multiple notebooks. For example, Lady Francis Catchmay instructed her eldest son William to ensure that other members of the Catchmay family have access to her multiple books of recipes. Mother and daughter, Margaret Boscawen and Bridget Boscawen Fortescue also used several different notebooks to organize and sort their medical and natural knowledge. 
Of course, as we all know, paper was not cheap in the early modern period and so not all recipe compilers had the luxury of owning multiple books. Other compilers took to what Jonathan Gibson terms the ‘reverse casting-off of blanks’. That is, the manuscript creator first enters recipes in the front of a bound notebook, turns the book upside down and then enters other recipes in what was the ‘back’ of the volume. Interestingly, as Gibson tells us, this was a strategy widely adopted by manuscript creators to organize all sorts of miscellaneous information from literary material to household accounts. Within the realm of household recipe books, one particularly pretty example of this practice is Lady Ayscough’s book, one of the first manuscripts collected by Henry Wellcome.
These strategies allowed users to compartmentalize different kinds of knowledge. If we return to my pre-dinner panics in the local supermarket, it is interesting to ask how early modern compilers ensured speedy information retrieval. After all, many recipe compilers tended to write down their recipes as the information presented itself, i.e. organization by date-of-entry. In these cases, the ever-handy table of contents or an alphabetically organized index does the job. As those familiar with early modern household books well know, many of these information retrieval strategies are written in a different hand to the main body of the text, suggesting that they were added to the volumes part-way through the compilation process. Perhaps, like me, our early modern compilers also got frustrated with a chronological listing of recipes.
Of course, these adopted information retrieval strategies also need not be permanent. After all, there is nothing to stop you from rewriting your table of contents. Scattered throughout the recipe archive are families who made multiple attempts to create useful finding aids. The Arcana Fairfaxiana, for example, preserves two versions of Henry Fairfax’s meticulous table of contents. Not satisfied with his first attempt, Henry happily crossed it out and started again. As I fiddle with my phone and toggle through all the myriad of recipes on my Epicurious app just to locate the right ‘thing’ for dinner tonight, I wish that rewriting the search function for my Epicurious app could be just as easy as rewriting the table of contents á la Henry Fairfax.
Finally, the archive also presents us with more elaborate uses of paper technologies. For example, some compilers such as Philip Stanhope, the first Earl of Chesterfield and the Lady Johanna St. John, sectionalized their notebooks into alphabetical units. Recipes are then entered into the relevant sections as they arrive in the hands of the compilers. While this method sounds meticulous and organized, as I’ll explore in another post, alphabetization brings with it a whole load of other issues…
 Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
 Anke te Heessen, ‘The Notebook: A Paper-Technology’, in Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. B. Latour and P. Weibel (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press), 582-589.
 St. John mentions the two separate recipe books in her will of 1704 (PRO PROB 11/480/426). Her medically orientated ‘great receipt book’ is now in the Wellcome Library (MS 4338).
 Like St. John, only one of Catchmay’s multiple books have survived and it is in the Wellcome Library (MS 184a). A tantalizing note on the front flyleaf of the manuscript refers to ‘This Booke with the others of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye’ alluding to Catchmay’s other receipt books.
 Anne Stobart, ‘The Making of Domestic Medicine: Gender, Self-Help and Therapeutic Determination in Household Healthcare in South-West England in the Late Seventeenth Century’ (Middlesex University, Unpublished PhD thesis, 2008), 43.
 Jonathan Gibson, ‘Casting off Blanks: Hidden Structures in Early Modern Paper Books’ in James Daybell and Peter Hinds (eds.), Material Readings of Early Modern Culture. Texts and Social Practices 1580-1730 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 208-228 (209).
 Frances Larson, An Infinity of Things. How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37. The manuscript is now Wellcome Library MS 1026.
 George Weddell (ed.), Arcana Fairfaxiana Manuscripta. A Manuscript Volume of Apothecaries’ Lore and Housewifery nearly Three Centuries Old, Used and Partly Written by the Fairfax Family (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Mawson, Swan and Morgan 1890).