All posts by Joshua Schlachet

Introducing Our Co-Editor: Ryan Kashanipour

Interview by Lisa Smith

As April draws to a close and the temperature is already pushing one hundred degrees here in the desert of Southern Arizona, it is my great pleasure to introduce my fellow co-editor here at the Recipes Project (not to mention fellow Tucson local) Ryan Kashanipour. Ryan is an ethnohistorian of medicine and science, specializing in Latin American history and the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Lisa Smith recently caught up with Ryan for an interview on his research and his new role here at the Recipes Project:

Welcome to your new role as co-editor of the Recipes Project, Ryan!  What interests you most about recipes?

I love recipes of all sorts: cookery, medicinal, magical, and the like. I see recipes as a unique genre of records, which can simultaneously be deeply personal accounts that can create family connections, local identities, and a sense of belonging, while also being grand references on everything from metaphysics to the environment to the nation. As everyday records, they can offer rare glimpses at personal and family traditions, along with gendered relations that cut across generations.  Because many of them deal with food and health, they are often intimate accounts of emotions and the body.  All the while, recipes can be regimented and formalized works that are state-level programs that aim to carry nationalist agendas and campaigns.  I have to admit that my life is already filled with recipes. In my home, I have a growing collection of modern and historical print cookbooks.  My six-year-old daughter, in fact, has been writing and leaving recipes all around our kitchen:

We know that you work on medicine and science in colonial Mexico. How do recipes feature in your research?

My work operates at the intersection of magic and medicine in colonial Latin America.  In particular, I look at manuscript books of medicine written by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the works that I deal with are written in the local language, Yucatec Maya, which is what first attracted me to them as an historical anthropologist. The records deal with everything from common skin ailments to epidemic diseases to afflictions caused by curses and sorcery. There are cures for broken legs and broken hearts. The remedies themselves often appear in recipe format, that is to say, as a fairly orderly set of instructions on how to make or perform the cure.  However, because these sorts of practice fell outside of the sanctioned practices of Spanish colonial society, these records were highly protected and secretive. The representatives of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, along with the organization that certified physicians and healers, regularly prosecuted those deemed to be malicious or false healers. Nevertheless, one of the interesting things that I have found is that these recipes circulated among different ethnic and social groups.  There was a constant lack of medical professionals within the colonies and, as a result, people developed their own systems of healing that reflected the social make up of local communities.  In the case of the Yucatán, this meant that natives, African peoples, and Europeans exchanged ideas and practices. As such, I treat these remedies as democratic records that show everyday exchanges and encounters.

We’re excited about new developments here at the Recipes Project. What kinds of posts are you hoping to commission for the RP

As a longtime collaborator (and fan) of the Recipes Project, I am very excited by this role. Having written for and occasionally edited for the site in the past, I am really thrilled to have the opportunity to actively shape its future directions.  As a Latin Americanist interested in everything from ancient practices to modern traditions, I hope to continue to highlight the breadth and depth of work being done on the Spanish and Portuguese worlds.  My aim, at some core level, is to bring together scholars regardless of the geographic divisions that are often ingrained in our professional and academic training. For me, the Recipes Project is a venue to create connections and foster collaborations about scholarship and teaching through the hybrid of traditional and digital mediums.  I have to say, though, that I am really just excited to try to bring people together from diverse backgrounds and approaches.

From Pest to Prescription

By Cadance Butler

It is possible to find all sorts of fascinating treatments and remedies in the veterinary texts of late antiquity. While plants are the most common components of pharmacological remedies, minerals and animals were also incorporated with some frequency. Many of these cures appear to have been relatively painless; however, others can quite easily be counted within the category of uncomfortable remedies, either for the animal being treated, the animal being used as part of the treatment, or, in some especially unfortunate cases, for both parties.  

When considering the use of animals as ingredients, it is important to evaluate the source of each zoological component. While some animal parts and byproducts are made available to veterinary care providers secondhand (i.e. after a pig has been slaughtered for sacrifice or human consumption, some of its fat is used in an ointment), other animals are used either in their entirety or are killed primarily for their veterinary properties. Whereas the former could be seen as a way of making practical use of what would otherwise be waste, the latter indicates a greater allocation of resources to the healing of animals.

A head louse (Pediculus humanus). Coloured drawing by A.J.E. Terzi. Credit: Wellcome Collection

In a treatment for stomach pain, the 4th century CE veterinary writer Pelagonius recommends the following:

Place three human lice in the right ear of the horse in such a way that they are not named but are removed immediately from any little article of clothing. (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 122)

As can be seen in Dr. Totelin’s post earlier this month, Greek and Roman medical authors were not only well aware of the problem posed by lice, but also recommended a variety of treatments for their removal. The desire to prevent lice infestations also extended to livestock, as is made clear in ancient agricultural treatises, especially with regards to poultry. For instance, Varro (116-27 BCE) suggests manually removing lice from the birds which are already infected (Varro, On Agriculture 3.14), whereas Columella (4-70 CE) recommends removing all of the feathers from the head and from under the wings as a preventative measure (Columella On Agriculture 8.7.2)

Because of these efforts to prevent lice from infesting livestock, it seems somewhat counterproductive to intentionally introduce the parasites to a new host, assuming that the horse was free from lice in the first place. While human lice (Pediculus humanus) and equine lice (Haematopinus asini and Damalinia equi) are different species which cannot survive on the other’s host, it is unclear whether or not that was known in antiquity, as the agricultural and veterinary writers refer to all lice as pedes or pediculi. The requirement for human lice here, alongside the specific directions for collecting the lice, likely indicates a magical element to the treatment, rather than an acknowledgement of different lice species. Regardless of the louse’s inability to survive in its new home, horses have highly sensitive skin in their ears, and I cannot imagine that having lice placed inside them would have been a particularly pleasant experience.

The larva and fly of a house fly (Musca domestica). Coloured drawing by A.J.E. Terzi. Credit: Wellcome Collection

As disagreeable as the lice might have been, however, Columella’s remedy for a horse with difficulty urinating sounds exponentially more unpleasant. He states:

If [the horse] does not produce urine, the remedies are almost the same. For oil mixed with wine is poured over the flanks and hindquarters, and if this has not been sufficiently beneficial, insert a small suppository of reduced honey and salt into the hole through which urine flows, or a live fly, or a grain of frankincense, or a suppository of bitumen is inserted into the natural places. (Columella, On Agriculture 6.30.4)

Much like lice, flies were widely recognized as pests in antiquity. Besides tormenting animals with their general presence (Varro, On Agriculture 2.5.14), flies are capable of both exacerbating existing wounds and causing serious new ones. According to Columella, for instance, preexisting wounds should be anointed with a mixture of pitch, oil, and aged axel-grease in order to prevent a fly, and subsequent larva, infestation (Columella, On Agriculture 6.16.3). Furthermore, he then claims that flies can cause so many sores in dogs’ ears during the summer that their ears are damaged beyond repair (Columella, On Agriculture 7.13.1).

The logistics of depositing a live fly within a horse’s urinary tract aside, the process would have been challenging, likely painful for the horse, and almost certainly would have resulted in the fly’s eventual death. As much as the plight of the poor fly makes me shudder, however, the treatment was held in high enough regard, or was enough of an oddity, that Pelagonius included it in his own veterinary treatise approximately three centuries later (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 162). As in the case of the lice, it is unclear why a creature typically considered to be harmful to the health of livestock suddenly becomes the means by which a suffering animal is healed. In both of the remedies discussed above, animals typically considered pests are employed as healing agents. Occasionally, harmful creatures, such as the shrew, are used to treat injuries that they themselves have inflicted (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 279); however, the use of live pests to treat an unrelated illness is something else again. Ultimately, heedless of the horse’s real discomfort, the lice and (somewhat incredibly) the fly are sacrificed for the perceived greater good.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

“Daily Recipes for Home Cooking” (1924)

By Nathan Hopson

This is the second in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

Imagine a national cookbook. What would that look like? What would it say about the values and ideology of the society in which it was produced and the individuals and governmental organizations involved? Well, Japan gave us at least one answer to this almost a century ago, in 1924.

The first post in this series examined the “Nutrition Song,” a 1922 Japanese song with lyrics by the founding director of Japan’s Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). This song was part of an extensive and diverse media strategy that included early adoption of radio as a medium; IGIN-approved recipes were broadcast daily beginning in 1926 and printed the following day in the major newspapers. More remarkable as a manifesto than as a musical achievement, this song articulated a program for a rational, economical, modern diet. The lyrics encapsulate the IGIN’s advocacy of nutrition science as a win-win tool to improve individual quality of life and national strength.

In fact, the Institute began publishing daily “cheap, delicious recipes” on May 29, 1922 (figure 1), calling for a “kitchen revolution” to realize “an economical life and increased health for the Japanese.” Radio was a tantalizingly novel, fashionable, quintessentially modern medium rapidly adopted in urban Japan. Along with popular programs like radio calisthenics, the IGIN’s menus du jour, which carried the imprimatur of a premier government science laboratory and its celebrity chief, “modernized and ‘rationalized’ conceptions of the body, health, physical fitness, and exercise.” The appeal of both calisthenics and the Institute’s meal plans was both positive and negative, personal and patriotic. On the one hand, there was the possibility of personal betterment. On the other, many Japanese were plagued by “a nagging sense of physical inferiority vis-à-vis” the Western imperial powers.[1]

Figure 1 The IGIN’s first daily recipes published in a major newspaper. From Asahi Shinbun, May 29, 1922.

But even before its foray into radio, in 1924 the IGIN compiled a year’s worth of recipes originally published in newspapers into a cookbook called Daily Recipes for Home Cooking. A few columns explaining basic facts about nutrition, hygiene, etc., are sprinkled throughout, but otherwise Daily Recipes is a straightforward day-by-day guide to preparing “nutritious, delicious, and economical” breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a middle-class family of three.

When I picked up a copy of this book, I was delighted to find that the May 29 menu is in fact the same as that for the Institute’s memorable 1922 newspaper debut: shellfish simmered in soy sauce and mirin (tsukudani) and miso soup with cabbage for breakfast, fried bamboo shoots and salted salmon sashimi for lunch, and a pork and vegetable curry accompanied by spicy pickled bamboo shoots and wakame for dinner.

There are two marked differences between the 1922 Asahi article and the Daily Recipes version. First, the former explicitly lists rice as the main course, while the latter does not. (Conversely, the cookbook includes seasonings like soy sauce and sugar, not listed in the 1922 version.) The inclusion of rice is significant because, despite the IGIN’s open antagonism to white rice as wasteful and even a threat to national security (teaser!), the Institute expected a family of three to consume almost two liters of cooked rice daily. Second, the newspaper itemizes nutritional information, while the cookbook does not. This speaks to a difference in context. Cookbook buyers were likely to be converts to the IGIN’s ideology of “economical nutrition” and believers in the Institute’s bona fides and its scientized menu based on the principles of quantification and substitution. If the newspaper recipes were proselytization for the New Nutrition-style IGIN diet, the cookbook was more “preaching to the choir.”

Table 1 Nutrition information for IGIN’s May 29, 1922/1924 daily recipes (serves 3)

Ingredients Amount (g) Protein (g) Calories Price (sen)
Rice 1.9 (liters) 100.4 4814.4 54
Cabbage 75 2.2 35.2 2
Miso 112.5 13.8 177.9 3
Shellfish 75 13.6 57 10
Salted salmon 225 58.7 306 9
Daikon 150 1.1 27 2
Bamboo shoots 300 7.8 90 1
Sesame oil 56 0 506.3 4.5
Wheat flour 75 8.8 274.2 2
Beef 187.5 28.7 598.1 15
Carrot 56 0.7 21.9 2
Potato 112.5 1.7 96.8 2
Wakame 19 2.2 38.4 2
Suet 45 0.2 411.7 3.5
Total 240 7455 112
Total/person 80 2485 37.3

*Amounts approximate; calculated from Japanese Imperial units
**Sen = ¥1/100

To return to my original question, as exemplified by this daily menu plan from Daily Recipes, the IGIN relentlessly backed a national dietary reform program couched in the Fordist/Taylorist logic of quantification and substitution. In doing so, the Institute appealed to the self-interest of the new professionalizing housewife, who was increasingly expected to mobilize modern science to improve the efficiency and quality of life of her family—and by extension, the nation.


[1] Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018), 120.

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.