All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

Alchemical Recipes in the AlchemEast Project

By Matteo Martelli

What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.

The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.

This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.

Cinnabar (from the Monte Amiata mine, Tuscany) and metallic mercury

But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.

In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle.[1] The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).

Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction).[2] With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.

Pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder in a ceramic mortar

After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.

Mercury “floating” on a blackish layer of residues

The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar.[3] Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.

Mercury-tin amalgam

We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body:  did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?

This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.  This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.


[1] David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
[2] Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
[3] Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.


The Golden Ladle and the White Mammy Figure in Post-War America

By Jennifer Cognard-Black

During the early 1940s when American women were asked to help the war effort by driving ambulances or working in the nation’s shipyards, cookbooks and magazine articles underscored how these same women could serve their country by planting victory gardens, cooking healthy meals with rationed foods, and, in the words of Tekla Barclay writing for American Home in 1943, by becoming the “Pinch-Penny Privates of Uncle Sam’s Army.” Indeed, as literary historian Sherrie Inness points out in her study of periodicals from this era, Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture, “[s]ome cooking literature suggested feeding family members as though they were soldiers…[,and] women’s cooking responsibilities were, at least rhetorically, raised to the level of military endeavors.”

The Golden Ladle by Dorothea “Zack” Hanle and Martin Herz, published in 1945
by the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, with illustrations by Jan Balet.  Author’s Collection.

However, once the war was over and it was time for women to return fully to the home, Rosie the Riveter transformed into June Cleaver, that apotheosis of the happy housewife historian Joanne Meyerowitz has called the quintessential white, middle-class woman “who stayed at home to rear children, clean house, and bake cookies.” Within this historical context, Dorothea “Zack” Hanle and Martin Herz’s children’s book from 1945, The Golden Ladle, becomes a potent example of how the culinary discourse of the postwar period circulated images of white, middle-class womanhood as both idealized and sophisticated home cooks rather than members of the kitchen infantry.

Even more, though, Hanle and Herz’s book demonstrates how dominant culture appropriated the image of the enslaved mammy to invest middle-class white women with the same “magical” powers attributed to black cooks from the antebellum period onwards. In this way, The Golden Ladle remakes household cookery into a new kind of empowerment: not the double-duty of domestic and industrial work done on behalf of Uncle Sam but, rather, the work of a professional-amateur cook who combines the homespun wisdom of the mammy with a burgeoning culinary cosmopolitanism—one that presages Julia Child and the Americanization of continental cuisine in the early 1960s. And the fact that this white, middle-class woman’s empowerment narrative comes out of a written text is what intellectualizes and professionalizes the new white mammy, thereby distinguishing her from her black female predecessor, who was of either the enslaved or working classes and mostly educated through oral traditions.

“Jo-Anne Meets Mrs. Pinafore,” from The Golden Ladle,
the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1945. Author’s Collection

The main characters of The Golden Ladle are Jo-Anne, a little girl with “long, beautiful curls,” and Mrs. Pinafore, a “plump, pink-cheeked” apparition who materializes in Jo-Anne’s bedroom the night before her birthday party. The book’s premise is simple: Jo-Anne would like to bake something for her party, but she doesn’t know how. As the narrator explains, “How happy she would be if she could say, as her mother often said to her friends, ‘Oh, it’s really nothing at all. I just whipped it up in my spare time!’” As Jo-Anne lies in bed, wishing this wish and unable to sleep, Mrs. Pinafore arrives on a soft, pink cloud of light, wielding a giant golden spoon and introducing herself as “THE MISTRESS OF ALL KITCHENS IN THE WORLD.”

The remainder of Hanle and Herz’s book shows Mrs. Pinafore teaching Jo-Anne how to make “dozens of pretty things” for her party, either by whisking her across the Atlantic to visit little European girls cooking up delicacies in their own kitchens or by conjuring the ingredients for easy recipes while the two of them float above the clouds—Mrs. Pinafore’s preferred method of travel. And while such a plot may seem like nothing more than a fluffy mix of food and fairytale, in fact the cultural work that’s being performed in The Golden Ladle is profound, especially in terms of constructions of femininity, class, and whiteness in postwar America.

“No Other Cook Could Get that Same Flavor in Pancakes.”
The Ladies’ Home Journal, October, 1923: 71. Author’s Collection.

Numerous scholars have discussed the problematic popularity of the mammy figure in American culture, beginning before the Civil War and extending to the present moment. To offer one example, the mammy is still used to sell Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, a product and a persona created in 1893 by the R. T. Davis Company for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As Toni Timpton-Martin explains in her wide-ranging study of African-American cookbooks, The Jemima Code, this trademarked mammy provides “a shorthand translation for a subtle message that went something like this…: ‘Buy this flour and you’ll cook with the same black magic that Jemima put into her pancakes.’” As represented in this advertisement from 1923, the mammy’s perpetual happiness and culinary intuition—the codes of her mythology—are appropriated by white women who wish to harness her abilities for their own domestic proficiency.

In body and behavior, Mrs. Pinafore is just such an appropriator—even though she doesn’t keep a mammy on a box in her cupboard. Rather, Mrs. Pinafore is a new kind of mammy. Wearing a self-referential pinafore and waving her magic ladle, she’s described as the “roundest, fattest lady” Jo-Anne has ever seen, with “twinkling” eyes and a big laugh. Her cooking is innovative, charming, and foolproof. And while her magical powers are intuitive—seemingly innate, beyond explanation—Mrs. Pinafore is also a writer, which professionalizes her wondrous abilities.

“Fruit Candies in the Land of Good Cooks,” from The Golden Ladle,
the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1945. Author’s Collection.

Moreover, by broadening Jo-Anne’s palate and cooking skills in taking her to allied countries—they visit England to make a Tiffin of crumpets and marmalade, Holland to learn Dutch Cheese Snacks, France to create Fruit Candies, and neutral Switzerland to cook Apple Delight—Mrs. Pinafore both demonstrates her own cultivated tastes and also instills them in Jo-Anne. In this postwar environment, Mrs. Pinafore is a worldly woman, which strengthens her bid as a kind of amateur-professional: exactly the ethos that Julia Child would adopt fifteen years later in Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Because The Golden Ladle is intended for young girls and includes a recipe in every chapter, this narrative is didactic as well as empowering, meant to raise up white, cosmopolitan mammies for a new generation. In fact, it’s clear that Jo-Anne is a white-mammy-in-training.  When she overeats Apple Delight, she says to her new Swiss friend named Clara, “Oh, my…, I have been a little pig. But it was so good. I hope you can excuse me.” And, of course, she is excused by both Clara and Mrs. Pinafore. Being “piggy”—having enough heft to throw her weight around—is vital to Jo-Anne’s training.

In the end, Mrs. Pinafore’s legacy as a white mammy is handed down by the book itself, so that Jo-Anne—as well as the flesh-and-blood girls reading along—can “grow,” both literally and figuratively, cooking and (over)eating these stylish dainties. Thus, although the white, American female cook of the 1940s does not have the masculine autonomy of her predecessor, Rosie the Riveter, she can still lay claim to a domestic literacy largely withheld from the black mammy—and, thus, to the dual authority of kitchen prowess and culinary authorship as proof of her expertise.



References

Barclay, Tekla. “Pinch-Penny Privates.” American Home (June 1943): 68. 

Deck, Alice A. “‘Now Then—Who Said Biscuits?’ The Black Woman Cook as Fetish in American Advertising, 1905-1953.” Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, edited by Sherrie Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001: 69–93.

Hanle, Zack and Martin Herz.  The Golden Ladle: How to Be a Cook Without Using Fire.  Chicago and New York: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1945.

Inness, Sherrie.  Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001. 

Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Introduction: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960.” Not June Cleaver, edited by Joanne Meyerowitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994: 1–16. 

Tipton-Martin, Toni. The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

Walden, Sarah. “Marketing the Mammy: Revisions of Labor and Middle-Class Identity in Southern Cookbooks, 1880-1930.” Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways, edited by David A. Davis and Tara Powell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014: 50-68.

The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes

By Lisa Smith

At first I thought it was a joke when I read a recipe for “The Puppy Water” in a recipe collection compiled by one Mary Doggett in 1682. “Take one Young fatt puppy and put him into a flatt Still Quartered Gutts and all ye Skin upon him”, then distill it along with buttermilk, white wine, pared lemons, herbs, camphire, venus turpentine, red rosewater, fasting spittle, and eighteen pippins.

Mary Doggett, Book of Receipts, British Library MS Add 27466, f. 24r.

Although Mary Doggett’s recipe does not specify purpose, puppy water was a facial treatment – as immortalized by Jonathan Swift in his poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732):

There Night-gloves made of Tripsy’s Hide,
Bequeath’d by Tripsy when she dy’d,
With Puppy Water, Beauty’s Help
Distill’d from Tripsy‘s darling Whelp.

Swift also, however, refers to another canine usage: gloves made from dog’s hide. As noted in Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1718), “little puppy dogs” (and various other animals, such as hedge-hogs, snails, foxes, moles, frogs, or earthworms) “may be made beneficial to your sick bodies”. Robert James’s entry for “Canis” in his Medicinal Dictionary (1743-5) explained that Europeans “generally abstain from Dogs Flesh, till Necessity… obliges them to use it.” But use it they did: the flesh, fat, skin and excrement could all be incorporated into medicines recommended even by renowned medical practitioners.

These remedies ranged from the foul: Culpeper’s Oleum Catellorum (Oil of Whelps) “to bath the Limbs and Muscles that have been weakened by wounds or bruises” or George Bate’s gargle for mouth ulcers and thrush that included a white dog turd (Pharmacopoeia Bateana, 1706). To the cruel: Philip Woodman suggested cutting a live puppy lengthwise through the middle and applying it hot to the head to treat a frenzy (Medicus Novissimus, 1712). To the comforting: for iliac passion (intestinal obstruction), Thomas Sydenham instructed that a live puppy should be laid to the patient’s naked belly for two or three days (Praxis Medica, 1707).

Etched image of a dog nursing three pups.
Nursing dog. Etching by C. Lewis after E. H. Landseer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

James’ dictionary entry explained the rationale for these treatments. For example, keeping a warm puppy next to one’s colicky belly or gouty leg provided “kindly and cherishing Heat”, but it also worked sympathetically by transferring the disease into the animal instead.[1] Having a dog lick one’s wounds and ulcers could cure them more quickly. The fat of the dog was thought to be better externally than any other animal fat, owing to its penetrating quality, and the drippings could be eaten to treat lung problems or epilepsy. Turned into gloves, the skin of the dog would reflect summer sun; as a piece of leather, it could protect gouty or arthritic legs from cold. Dog dung, being hot and acrid, might treat internal bleeding or toothache.

James did not mention “The Puppy Water” itself. However, for that we might look to the ancient Greeks whom he did discuss. According to Hippocrates, “the Flesh of Dogs is of a heating, drying, and corroborating Nature… whereas that of whelps is of a moistening, lubricating Quality.” The other ingredients in the recipe point to a similar use as the puppy: pippins were moistening and good against inflammation; fumitory and agrimony treated diseases of Saturn (such as old age) and were strengthening and cleansing; plantain firmed the sinews and helped skin problems. Just the thing for a face wash!


[1] The evidence for this is dubious. James recounted the case of a patient in 1742 being salivated (by mercury). When a visitor arrived, the patient put aside his basin filled with his saliva, which his dog proceeded to drink. Within ten hours, the dog suffered from convulsions and died.

This post first appeared at the now-defunct, but much missed, Wonders and Marvels blog in May 2012.

Review: La donna che amava i colori

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

“They [the Italians] seem to commence everything with spirit to get tired of it before it is finished.”[1] Mary Marrifield’s letters from Italy to her husband are full of charming–and if you are Italian sometimes engaging–reflections. The importance of the publication of Mary P. Merrifield’s (1804-1899) letters for the history of recipes will not pass unnoticed to the reader of this blog as well as to those interested in the transmission of the art techniques. Merrifield published the first English translation of Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte (1844),and a few years later, following her journey in Italy, The Art of Fresco Painting (1846), and the Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849), works that have made the history of modern artistic techniques.

Recently found in Brighton by Zahira Véliz Bomford, Merrifield’s letters have never been published in English. Sent by the English Royal Fine Arts Commission, Merrifield travelled in Italy for several months between 1845 and 1846 to collect as many historical manuscripts on painting techniques as possible. The objective of the search was to enhance the English arts, which were called to glorify the British Empire at its acme. The letters are a refreshing, revealing, and entertaining look of northern Italy in the years before the political turmoil of 1848, as well as a dive into Merrifield’s world and vision. Giovanni Mazzaferro now publishes the full text of the correspondence in an enjoyable Italian translation, La donna che amava i colori: Lettere dall’Italia 1845-1846 (Milano: Officina Libraria, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-88-99765-70-5).

An independent scholar at his second publication –the first being  Le Belle Arti a Venezia nei manoscritti di Pietro e Giovanni Edwards (2015)–Giovanni Mazzaferro keeps a renowned blog, Letteratura Artistica, which started around his rich collection of published sources for art history. Mazzaferro thorough apparatus of footnotes will be of use to the growing number of scholars interested in Merrifield as it spans from the identification of manuscripts and paintings, to individuating the people Merrifield met during her quest, and to secondary literature. In the substantial introduction, Mazzaferro insists that studying Merrifield under a single perspective, such as the artistic or the scientific one, deprives us of a full understanding of the complexity of her character. Merrifield was a multifaceted intellectual, almost the nineteenth-century woman version of a Renaissance virtuoso. A swift but careful overview of her life and works shows this vast breath: she published in the field of artistic techniques and colors, of maritime biology, and, toward the end of her life, for the advancement of women in society.

Merrifield’s familial practices predate her written commitments to the advancement of women. During the journey in Italy, Merrifield travelled accompanied by her son Charles, while her husband stayed in Brighton with their other four children. Husband and sons were all working for Mary, as they were involved in the transcription, translation, and writing of Mary’s books. Such odd family arrangement, at least for the time, presents us with an unconventional nineteenth-century woman. Overall, Merrifield does stand as a complex figure whose progressive private arrangements are parallel to her deep patriotism, her commitments to the English empire, and her Victorian style. Her figure reminds us that intellectual and private identities cannot be easily defined: a progressive stand on the role of women does not necessarily conflict with an imperial vision, the interest in old manuscripts, and color techniques can go hand in hand with a passion for algae.


[1] Mary Merrifield to John Merrifield, November 2, 1845.