All posts by RA Kashanipour

R.A. Kashanipour is a historian and librarian. His work examines popular medicine and magic in the early modern Atlantic world and is currently completing a book on the circulation of remedies among Mayas, Africans, and Spaniards in eighteenth century Mexico called "A World of Cures." He is also writing a book on early modern scientific fables titled "The Morality of the Moon."

“Astonishable composed posset”: Comestible, Curative, and Poison

By Bethan Davies

We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.

A receipt ‘Mrs Fanshaw of Jenkins, her receipt to make a sack posset. the best that is,’ from the receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707). Image © Wellcome Library, London, MS.7113, p.320.

Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.

Posset pot, with a spout for drinking the syrupy liquid (c.1650-1655). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’.  Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments.  Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9),[1] ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).

Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.

However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.

We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5).  The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.

Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.


Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán

By R.A. Kashanipour

I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing.

“The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives… they opened bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little things… little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel .”

Diego de Landa, ca. 1570

The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794,
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794,

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

File:Goddess O Ixchel.jpg
Ix Chel with her Rabbit
In this image from a Classic period earthenware polychome vase, a seated Ix Chel appears with her rabbit, which is often identified as one of her animal spirit companions. She appears as a young woman, dressed in the regalia of a noble, complete with headdress. The original object is housed at Museum of Fine Arts Boston and available digitally here.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices, such as the invocation of Ix Chel. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

From the Archives: Springtime in Recipe Books

As spring is on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, this post from our archives presents a wonderful reminder of the ways that seasonality figured into early modern remedies and recipes. This piece originally appeared on March 17, 2016. Just as spring was thought to be an industrious time in 18th century England, let us all hope for vernal productivity in 2022! – R.A. Kashanipour

By: Katherine Allen

Spring has sprung and I can’t help but ponder the significance of spring for recipe collectors in the late 17th and 18th century. Citations of spring in recipes highlight the importance of changing seasons and new growth, in terms of both health and productivity in the household. As Melissa Schultheis recently explored, temporality was closely connected to understanding the body. Here I consider two aspects of springtime: the prominence of spring and changes in climate for humoral-based regimens, and spring as the season for gathering (or purchasing) medical ingredients.

In recipe collections, we often find information on what time of year and for how long a person should take a remedy, and the two seasons most often cited are spring and fall. In 18th-century recipe books, remedies for the king’s evil, scurvy, rickets, dropsy, and gout were often recommended with this temporal remit. Springtime regimens were used to treat and prevent ailments arising from shifts in temperature and climate, changes in activities, and diet modifications with seasonal food availability (and potentially allergens).

Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64: Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).
Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).

Galenic medicine, and with it the concept of balancing the four humors, remained fundamental in medical practice into the 18th century. Spring was a warm and moist time of year, meaning that its favoured constitutions were more sanguine and less melancholic. It was a time of rejuvenation, longer daylight, and individuals were encouraged to avoid napping and to exercise in the morning. Bleeding and purging in spring were also believed to be preventative measures for avoiding ailments like fevers.

Sister Arscott’s ‘Collick Drops’ remedy was said to cure the ‘Morbus Galicus’ (syphilis), among other ailments, when taking in two ounce doses three days a week in spring and fall.[1] Sometimes recipes indicate specific months. The Trumbull family’s collection has a remedy for a rupture approved by an Aunt Barker, which included wearing a plaster and a truss while anointing it with amber oil twice a day, ‘especially [in] ye monthes of February March & April’.[2]

Even commercial medicines specified spring as an ideal time to purchase and take a remedy. For treating scurvy, the well-known patent cure ‘Vegetable Syrup’ advertisement noted that a T. Huckings felt it was necessary to take ‘a quantity every spring and autumn’. Huckings claimed that he intended to begin a course ‘on the first of March next’.[3] This testimony served as a marketing technique for promoting the remedy’s repeated use.

Spring was also an important season for making medicine. Previous posts on gathering ingredients have discussed the significance of gathering herbal ingredients in spring or early summer when they are available, and also while they are young and have stronger medicinal properties.

Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe ‘to make Green oyntment’ for conditions like burns used pilewort which, ‘in A forward Spring’ you can ‘get it ye end of April wn ye Green leafe is Something like A Scurvy Grass leaf & bares A yallow flower like A Crasie’.[4] The Tyrrell family’s collection similarly has a wound drink listing 23 herbs to be ‘gathered in May to keep all the year’. The herbs were ‘not good after they are a yeare old, & after two yeares stark nought’.[5] One eye remedy even went as far as specifying that the ‘briony [bryony] must be taken up ye 10th of march’.[6]

Animals too were collected in spring. This is likely because animals were more active in spring, and juveniles (with their stronger medicinal properties) were also available. To make worm powder for treating colic and convulsions 14-15 worms were to be collected, and April and May were ‘the best time for making this’.[7] Another remedy for convulsions was a powder made of moles, ‘to be made only in March & September’.[8] Indicating that ‘a dead Mole is good for nothing, you must cut the throat alive’, suggests that this remedy was best prepared in the months when the moles were most active and also medicinally efficacious.

Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).
Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).

Spring was an industrious time in 18th century English households. It was a time to be pro-active in preventing illness through regimens of medicine, exercise and diet, particularly as the social and agricultural seasons approached. The environment’s influence on the body was a feature of 18th century healthcare, and remedies both made and purchased were tied to the centrality of self-management in changing seasons. Forward planning was also clearly necessary to source plant and animal-based ingredients and to create medicines. Recipe books hence usefully document spring as a productive time for household and health management.

[1] MS.981, f. 138. Wellcome Library, London.
[2] Add.72619, f. 114. British Library.
[3] MS.2363, f. 64. Wellcome Library, London.
[4] MS.3029, f. 50. Wellcome Library, London.
[5] MS.7822, f. 11r.-11v. Wellcome Library, London.
[6] MS.27466, f. 85. British Library.
[7] Add.72619, f. 115v. British Library.
[8] D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.

Around the Table: The Art of Food

By R.A. Kashanipour

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Olivia Miller, curator of the Art of the Food exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.  Olivia has been at Curator of Exhibitions at the museum for nearly a decade and this exhibit is features more than 100 works from the renowned collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation.  The exhibition uses a variety of mediums to examine food in a variety of non-alimentary contexts, from satire to social commentary. With prominent artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Damien Hirst, Hung Liu, Analia Saban, and Andy Warhol, the collection shows the ways that food is our communities, relationships, cultures and languages.

R.A. Kashanipour on behalf of the Recipes Project: Thank you so much for taking to the time to talk about this wonderful exhibit! What was the inspiration, particularly the focus on food? How did you select this collection of works? 

Olivia Miller: I first visited the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation in Portland in 2019 to look at the collection. My intention at that early stage was just to gather information and to see what types of works were in the collection. Being part of a university art museum, I strive to curate exhibitions that are interdisciplinary with various entry points for engagement. We want as many students as possible to visit our exhibitions, so it’s important to have shows that connect to contemporary issues.

As I was going through the artworks, the topic of food kept standing out to me. I can’t explain exactly why—it just made sense because Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, there are many faculty and researchers on campus vast knowledge of food, and it’s a broad topic that would allow me some flexibility in the curation. It seemed like the perfect topic to explore.

Selecting the artwork was challenging. For one thing, food is a huge subject to tackle, so I had to figure out what themes to focus on and which artworks illustrated those themes best. The Schnitzer Collection is quite large so I had to make tough decisions on artworks to exclude from the show. Eventually, I narrowed down the checklist to 109 works after selecting the themes for the show: community, control, dissociation, food for thought, elixirs and libations, eye candy, and still life. Through those themes I made sure to include a mixture of well-known and lesser-known artists and a variety of mediums.

RP: The collection is impressive, particularly the variety of works. What kinds of media are included in the exhibition?

OM: There are many different types of media in the show including: paintings, sculpture, glass, ceramics, screen-prints, ready-mades, and lithographs. However, there are some artworks that take a traditional medium to a new level. For example, Red Groom’s Deli is a three-dimensional lithograph that extends off the wall and into the viewer’s space. Some works, such as Malia Jensen’s salt-lick sculpture, or Ed Ruscha’s prints News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues use food itself as the medium!

RP: What messages and insights about food do you see this incredible collection of artists communicating ?

OM: Some artists, such as Ellsworth Kelly in his plant lithographs, are focused on the aesthetics of food. Others, like Abraham Cruzvillegas’s Ichárhuta, speaks to environmental concerns and the accompanying social impact. Damien Hirst’s Last Supper series speaks to the over-reliance on prescription medications and making a parallel to the artificiality of processed foods. The incredible part of learning through art, is that although the artist may be communicating a specific message, contemporary events and people’s personal experiences add additional layers of meaning to the artwork. This is also part of the art of curation. By framing certain artworks in this exhibition, I’m adding a new interpretive lens to the work. In this way, the meaning of all of these artworks is ever-changing.

Damien Hirst, “The Last Supper” (1999)

RP: How does The Art of Food contribute to ongoing conversations about food and spark new ones?

OM: The Art of Food is certainly intended to contribute to ongoing conversations about food, but hopefully in a way that inspires more people to join in on these conversations. As a curator on a university campus, it is very important for me to remember that I work in a unique place with incredible access to current topics. While a particular subject might seem old-hat or common knowledge to me, the museum is often the place where young students or community members are introduced to these conversations for the first time.

In this light, I hope that people leave the exhibition with a heightened awareness and a broader perspective about food. I hope they leave with a level of critical thought about where their food is sourced from, how food is integral to maintaining community, and who has agency over their food choices. Naturally I hope that people also understand the integral role that art plays in communicating ideas about food, telling food histories, and inspiring a call to action.  

RP: Which works have garnered the most attention?  Are there any issues or conversations that have developed that have surprised you? 

Chris Antemann, “Covet” (2013)

OM: The porcelain sculptures by Oregon-based artist Chris Antemann have been very popular. She worked with the Meissen porcelain factory to produce them. They have the aesthetics of the Rococo style, so in addition to being genuinely beautiful works, they are also quite amusing. There are also two small, early watercolors by Andy Warhol, painted when he was only 19 years old. Those have really surprised people because they are not used to since they are more familiar with his Pop Art aesthetic than his earlier expressive works. The Roy Lichtenstein Bull Profile series has also been very moving to people. It is a series of six screen-prints that begins with an image of a cow that gets gradually broken down into an almost-unidentifiable geometric abstraction. It really speaks to the disconnect people have between their consumption of meat and the individual living being it comes from. People have also been very drawn to the glass sculpture by Emily Brock. It is called Diner Story, and it shows a woman sitting at a diner counter wiping up her spilled coffee as bacon and eggs cook on the stove behind the counter. People are fascinated by the fact that she made this miniature scene out of glass, but there is also a melancholic mood about the piece that is captivating.

RP: What other events and collaborations are a part of the Art of Food?  

OM: Chelsea Farrar, Curator of Community Engagement and Willa Ahlschwede, Assistant Curator of Education and Public Programs have done an incredible job planning various events and collaborations in conjunction with the exhibition. Two complementary exhibitions in our community gallery have focused on food. The first was a collaboration with ArtWorks, an on-campus arts program for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They worked with a class in the School of Art to create an exhibition centered around food and memory. We currently have an exhibition with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and photographer Kathleen Dreier that highlights the personal food stories of Tucsonans. One of the most important collaborations was with the Campus Food Pantry. For the first month of the exhibition we collected donations that went directly to students on the University of Arizona campus. It was really important for us to call attention to the food insecurity that exists here, right on our campus. We have also had a number of public events including a Community Day, community garden tours, artist talks, scholarly talks, and even a food-themed art trivia.

Community Food Stories in The Art of the Food

RP: How can we continue to talk about food and art at the University of Arizona?

OM: Well for one, we should continue to exhibit artwork about food that speaks to its evolving significance. This exhibition has only scratched the surface and there are many more artists and issues to discuss around food. The subject will continue to evolve in our daily lives and artists will continue to respond to those changes. It is important to remember that there are incredible similarities between food and art. They are both cultural manifestations and are made in similar ways—a chef’s kitchen can be likened to an artist’s studio. Food preparation and art making involve a knowledge of the past, changing technologies, creativity, and innovation. Consuming food and consuming art are both multi-sensory experiences that can inspire different ways of learning. They both nourish the soul. Because of this, I think it is important for faculty to incorporate food and arts experiences into their curriculum whenever possible.

RP: Thank you! We will be sending students to the exhibit, especially those from my Food Studies and Latin American Studies courses.

Roy Lichtenstein, Bull Profile (1973)