All posts by jenshermanroberts

I hold a Ph.D. in Early Modern (Renaissance) literature and spent a fair amount of time studying the history of science and medicine. I’m now writing a novel loosely based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, and poet. I am also the mother of two daughters, partner of a family practice doctor, writing teacher, board member of a nonprofit library, and caretaker of one very freaky greyhound dog.

The CIA’s “Secret” Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Twitter is a funny, messy place where topics and tropes wantonly mingle and merge. Memes about Tide pods follow presidential proclamations. Rankings of Very Good Dogs scroll alongside obituaries.

And sometimes you can go to Twitter for updates on twenty-first-century American politics and find modern-day illustrations of your-seventeenth-century English research interests. Or at least I did when following a tweet thread from Benjamin Wittes (Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed Lawfare blog): between intergovernmental document requests, I found the kind of cultural exchange of recipes that fascinates me.

In the Lawfare blog post, Wittes explains he had heard rumors that a 2017 holiday message from CIA director Mike Pompeo was divisive, “inappropriately political and exclusionary.” He filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see the message and wrote a post about it (as he does with all FOIA requests he makes).

A month later, before he could hear back about his FOIA request, Wittes received a letter from Pompeo himself. Enclosed was a copy of the holiday message to the CIA and a letter from Pompeo with this closing:

We both agree that our country is facing some of the most complex national security challenges in history and that we all benefit if we work jointly to promote American national security, even if we disagree on the best way forward. It is unfortunate, indeed sad, that you chose to publicly cast doubt on our team without so much as the courtesy of a simple phone call that could well have answered your ‘question.’ You should have been better than that, Ben.

And then, incongruently (as least to me):

I hope, too, that you will try the fudge recipe that I also included in the workforce message. It is my mother’s recipe and she loved that others enjoyed it during the holiday season.

As you can see in the document embedded in the post, the recipe itself is a little ho-hum (apologies to Dorothy Pompeo)—it is almost identical recipe to one found on the back of jars of marshmallow fluff.

Good Housekeeping, December 1962 – Vol. 155 No. 6 Photo:

This is not to say, however, that the recipe is presented as generic—it is printed on holiday paper, highlights pictures of the Pompeo family (including the dog) attempting the recipe, and adds a little history of Pompeo’s mother, Dorothy.

Despite its lackluster provenance, the recipe’s title trumpets this recipe as “secret,” a now clichéd way of lending a recipe authenticity and value. The recipe is framed as not just a postscript, but a valuable gift.

Many scholars, notably Amanda Herbert, have pointed out the use of recipes to create alliances and cement bonds of friendship. Herbert discusses women’s social networks in the seventeenth-century, but similar kinds of dynamics seem to be at play in this exchange between twenty-first-century men: the written recipe as means of cultural exchange and the reliance on ethos of the recipe’s author (Mike’s mother, presumably invoking tradition and welcome).

As Amy Tigner and Allison Carruth note in their examination of a recipe by Lady Ann Fanshawe for drinking chocolate and its colonial legacy, “this fundamentally literary act points first to collective memory, and then, to the act of exchange. The receipt/recipe is a medium of transmission that represents a sense of community networked in ever-widening circles.”

Is this recipe for fudge, then, a gift, an olive branch of sorts from Pompeo to Wittes? An attempt to create an alliance across political difference in a fractured and contentious American moment?

Or is this gift of a mother’s fudge recipe a performance, a sort of folksy, downhome counterstrike meant to evoke human exchange over legal maneuvering?

Wittes himself is noncommittal. He grants that the holiday message “contains nothing objectionable,” but says,

As to Pompeo’s accusation about me, I post all of my FOIA requests and will continue to do so. I will also always post all responses I get to them—whether they support, or, as in this case, refute the premises that led me to submit them.

I look forward to trying his mother’s fudge recipe.

Before he could get around to it, however, an associate of his, Shannon Togawa Mercer, managing editor of Lawfare blog, tried the recipe with happy results.

In this one unexpected exchange run many themes familiar to those who study recipes:

  • Recipes as gift exchange
  • Recipes that establish bonds and forge connections
  • Claims of “secret” recipes
  • Documenting the recreation of recipes
  • Recipes as historical/familial archive.

This window into government and intelligence-communities also shows that recipes retain enormous cultural capital and can both convey meaning and actively form bonds.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Apparently, politics also makes strange kitchen-mates.

“Stone Soup”: Reflections on Community Conversations

Editorial: This is the final of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Recipes form communities.

Readers of The Recipes Project know this to be true. Scholars from diverse backgrounds meet in this forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, insights, experiments, and discoveries, brought together by a shared fascination with this amorphous form of record-keeping, receipt-making, and instruction.

Contributing to The Recipes Project has provided me with a rare chance to explore connections between historical recipes, to chart and analyze—and frequently delight in—what to modern eyes might seem bizarre and outlandish (pigeon blood eye wash, anyone?).

But the examination of the recipe’s central role in our lives and histories can also be expanded and enriched beyond the academic through public history and storytelling. There’s a special magic in talking about recipes, a visceral emotional reaction and an almost immediate connection to the past, to personal heritage and individual history.

It’s that sort of alchemy that I wanted to explore further when I applied to be a conversation project facilitator with Oregon Humanities, proposing a topic called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nurture Community.” 

Recipes gathered for the Oregon Humanities conversation project “Stone Soup” at the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon (author’s photo)

Since the fall of 2016, I have facilitated conversations all over the state, in venues ranging from quiet libraries to bustling restaurants, from coastal towns to urban centers. And while the people and the recipes and the insights are always different (intriguingly and marvelously so), there are a few consistent threads.


Before the event, participants are invited to bring recipes from their past—from a beloved family member, friend, or neighbor—and a story to accompany them. (My favorite: the woman in Grants Pass who brought a recipe for the cake her mother had burnt to a crisp–her husband had written “I love you” in the soot left on the walls.)

Often, the recipe is on a tattered index card, spattered and stained by years of use. Sometimes it’s in a small binder or book held together with rubber bands. Always it’s presented with memories.

(There’s a look people get when they talk about these recipes and stories, a faraway gleam, a small smile.

I love those moments.)

Often these recipes will spark conversation between participants as one memory is ignited by another, one culture compared with another, one history explained by another.

“What is a recipe?”

To begin the conversation, I ask participants to spend a minute or two thinking of the words they associate with recipes. Evocative words like “memories,” “grandma,” and “holidays” often make an appearance. We consider the figurative language surrounding recipes, a genre so unique the word itself has become a central metaphor (“recipe for disaster,” for example).

I then ask the participants to partner with one or two others to discuss the genre of the recipe: how is it different from a shopping list, or a narrative, or even a poem? We talk about ingredients and measurements, instructions and oven temperatures. We think about ways a recipe is like a chemical experiment–scientific and reproducible.

I’ll often use that distinction as a springboard to talk about some historical recipes and ways the form changes or stays the same. We look at a copy of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe “Against the biting of a Mad Dogge taught by Sir Kenelm Digby.”

Lady Ann Fanshawe, 1625-1680, Wellcome Library, MS 7113

People often notice that recipe books from the 16th and 17th centuries are visually compact and uniform, and that the basic elements of the recipe—ingredients, instructions, measurements—are familiar. One difference we have made note of, however, is the occasional focus on seasons in the harvesting of ingredients, as can be seen in Lady Fanshawe’s direction that crabapple flowers should be picked in June or July.  For those of us used to ingredients available at all times (even if shrunk-wrapped or frozen), this can be a revelation.

This discussion also led to one of my favorite stories from these conversations, shared by a woman in Beaverton who said her grandfather always knew to plant his corn “when the leaves of the white oak tree were the size of a grey squirrel’s ears.”

Recipes and community

We then, together, read aloud a short version of the folk tale that serves as the springboard for the project, “Stone Soup,” and talk about the story itself as a kind of recipe and about the metaphorical underpinning of community. We focus on the end of the story, where in some versions the villagers not only share the soup but dance and sing together, opening their homes and offering their beds with the strangers in their midst.

At this point, I introduce the participants to three examples of people who used recipes to create community and preserve history: Freda DeKnight, Mina Pachter, and (closer to home for Oregonians) Ing “Doc” Hay.

This particular version of public history, these conversations that evoke memories and elicit stories, have been a wonderful way for me to explore the more human, face-to-face side of recipe exchange that can sometimes get lost in manuscripts and archives.

“Stone Soup” participants at conversation project sponsored by Washington County Museum (author’s photo)



Mucus Cure-Alls: Snail Waters and Spa Treatments

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

L0030155 R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Snail. A philosophical account of the works of nature as founded on a plan of the late Mr. Addision. Richard Bradley Published: 1721 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature…
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In a world view that relied on correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, and in a humoral medical system that utilized similarities between bodily functions and features of the natural world, one can imagine no more fitting emblem than the cold, mucousy snail. This slimy and gooey creature would seem the perfect treatment for an excess (or lack) of slimy, gooey phlegm.

Many household recipe books had recipes for snail water. These recipes generally called for shelling the snails and cleaning and boiling them in a mixture of milk and white wine or ale. This recipe from Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst’s recipe book (early 18th century with some contemporary additions) is fairly typical, though it includes and additional ingredient: slimy, gooey earthworms.

Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst her book. Credit: Wellcome Collection
Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst her book. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS2840


Mrs. DeLawns Snail Watter

Take 6 scor snails gathered in a garden wash them and crack ye shells and pick them off then gitt a pint of great earthworms cut them in pieces and wash them and put them and ye snails in to a gallon of new milk and boile it for half an hour then put in in yr still and add to it coltsfoot cowslips harts tongue and alehoof of each a little handful spearmint a handful an half and distill it with a hot fire this quantity will yeld 2 quarts and to each bottle put in 2 ounces of whit suger candy finely beaten and let it drop on it now and then open ye stile and stir it to prevent burning or creaming atop a grown person may drinck half a pint twice or 3 times a day.

While Mrs. Hirst’s recipe gives yield and dosage, it doesn’t indicate what the water was intended to treat, possibly because snail water was so widely known to help with consumption and other treatments involving coughing and phlegm. In this anonymous recipe collection, the writer advises “Let the party Take of this Twice a day  Eight spoonfuls at a time morning & Evening” before declaring “this is the only receipt in the world for a consumption.” Further down, in another hand, somebody has also attested to its efficacy: “This is very good to make.”

English Recipe Book. Wellcome Collection MS8575
English Recipe Book. Wellcome Collection MS8575

Snail water was also known (counterintuitively to this writer’s tastes) to whet the appetite. In  this recipe for snail water in the collection of the New York Academy of Medicine, snail water is fortified with ale: “Let the Ale this water is made of, be the strongest that can be Brewed, this exceeding good to cause an Appetite.”

Snail water as a cure may seem strange to modern sensibilities, but as Alun Withey points out, oral testimonies taken in rural Wales as late as the 1970s reveal evidence of the medical usage of snails, “including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!”

One could argue, in fact, that vestiges of humoral thinking remain to this day, particularly in the beauty industry. In the last couple of years, snail mucus has been marketed as a wonder treatment for wrinkles, acne, and skin texture. For example, through a company called Holy Snails, you can buy a hydrating serum that contains snail mucen extract. And even the big-box store Target has joined the trend, offering the “Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Skin Treatment” containing 30% snail slime extract.

If you’d rather have a more direct route from snail to skin, you can also opt for treatments in which technician prod specially raised, organically fed snails to ooze all over your face.

Regardless of efficacy, however, one can see in these skin lotions and spa treatments some vestiges of early thinking about correspondences and humoral theory–and of the very human urge to look to nature for answers, signs, and cures.

Stone Soup: A new project about recipes and community

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a beautiful moment in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4” in which travelers from all over the world come together—despite differences in language, experience, and culture–to commune over apple juice and cookies after helping a fellow passenger:

She had pulled a sack of homemade 


cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with

          dates and

nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the


To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like

          a  sacrament.

This poem was a central focus of a structured conversation program I attended about power and place, specifically about diversity and assimilation. Participants in the conversation wondered how they could replicate that kind of scene in their own lives and workplaces, what they could offer that would bring people together in a similar way. As shorthand for this complicated question, people asked, “What is the ‘cookie’?”–i.e., what commonality could bring people from disparate backgrounds and ideologies together in community?

And I thought to myself, “Well, a lot of times ‘the cookie’ is, you know, a cookie.”

I’m a firm believer that foodstuffs and recipes bring us together in a singular way, providing a means of exploring the stories that make us who we are while connecting us to a larger community. Recipes are freighted with meaning, bearing stories and emotions, memories and hopes, community and connection.

And that’s why when our statewide humanities program, Oregon Humanities (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities) put out a call for topics for a “Conversation Project” program, I immediately thought of recipes and their power to help us connect and commune.

The Oregon Humanities Conversation Project is somewhat unique in the United States. While many humanities councils have speakers and lectures, Oregon Humanities has invested instead in sending trained facilitators all over the state to lead conversations, to (in the words of the mission statement) “[bring] Oregonians together to talk—across differences, beliefs, and backgrounds—about important issues and ideas.”

With that goal in mind, my conversation project (“Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nourish Community”) offers this:

Sometimes the most overlooked objects can offer the most perceptive insights about ourselves and others. In this conversation, writer and independent scholar Jennifer Roberts introduces historical and current recipes and asks, How do recipes work? Why do we collect them? Who do we write them for? By sharing our own assumptions and memories, we will examine how recipes can help us connect and create communities across time, distance, and culture.

(A brief video introduction can be found here. Please ignore the still that makes me look like a braying donkey.)

For this program, I invite participants to bring treasured recipes to share with others (and I in turn share my Grandma Sherman’s recipe for toffee, which calls for, in part, “5 cents worth of Woolworth’s chocolate” and instructions that, in lieu of butter, “the hoi polloi may substitute 1/2 cup margarine”).

Grandma Marian’s toffee recipe

To date, I’ve conducted three conversation projects, all with a similar structure. We open by talking a bit about ideas people associate with recipes. Almost always words like “family,” “nourish,” and “tradition” come up. Then we talk about what makes a recipe a recipe (as opposed to, say, a grocery list or a poem) and quite often people talk about things like measurements, math, and instructions. We discuss the gap between these two ways of thinking about recipes: the evocative, emotional words used to describe recipes and the precise, scientific ways they are presented.

After a short discussion, I show the group some examples of historical medical recipes from the Wellcome’s extensive collection and we talk about how “receipts” have changed over time.  We read the story Stone Soup together and analyze its themes of community, sharing, and belonging.

After some more discussion, I show the group examples of recipe collections that have served or reflected their communities: Freda DeKnight’s A Date With A Dish; a collection of recipes from the women of the German concentration camp Terezín; and the medical recipes of Ing (Doc) Hay, who emigrated from China to John Day, Oregon in 1887 and became a popular medical practitioner for many decades (there is an excellent documentary here).

But while I enjoy sharing these examples, I am far more eager to get the participants talking to each other and sharing their own recipes and histories. In fact, I’m a bit greedy for them, as my long-term plan is to collect enough recipes and stories to offer a free, statewide recipe collection.

Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA
Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA

The editors of The Recipes Project have kindly agreed to let [editorial correction: were wildly enthusiastic to have] me share some of the insights and stories that arise from this conversation project in future posts. I look forward to reporting back on the results of this exciting project in the coming  year!