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."

A Digestive for the Voracious Reader:

Digital Humanities Approaches to a Recipe Book Corpus

By Elisa Tersigni

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably a voracious reader of recipe books. And, if you’re anything like me, you might even be partial to manuscripts. If so, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s holdings—which include the largest collection of early modern English manuscript recipe books in the world—is truly a feast for the mind. But one could spend years digging into this buffet of books, with its indecipherable early modern hands, challenging orthographies, and pages and pages of intriguing discoveries. How then might one quickly consume such a breadth of material? As one solution, I present to you a metaphor to go with this feast—a digestive, if you will. Digital humanities (DH) tools and methods can help an ambitious reader make sense of a lot of text at once—even when that reader has no programming skills—allowing them to detect patterns or isolate the points of interest.

Lucky for us, the Folger has anticipated the needs of the digital recipe book reader. As part of the three-year, Mellon-funded Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project (2018–2021) and its legacy, the library has aimed to photograph, transcribe, and encode the entire collection. All its recipe manuscripts (with the exception of the most recent acquisitions) are photographed, and of these, 50 are also fully transcribed and encoded, with more in the queue. The encoding makes the recipe books available for study not only as manuscripts but also as digital objects, in the form of lightly edited PDFs (“reading copies,” made for ease of reading) and plain text files. It is the latter that we’ll use for our DH analysis.

To learn more about the transcribing and encoding processes, see the blog posts “Code Breakers: the Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Transcriptions” and “Code Makers: the Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Corpus” on the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective’s (EMROC’s) website.

Using the Recipe Book Corpus

There are many ways one might use or peruse the Folger’s corpus of recipe books, but here I’ll illustrate a couple of the easiest using Voyant, a free, browser-based software with many language and visualisation tools (Figure 1). All one must do is upload the plain text files, and Voyant will immediately present them with an interface displaying the results of the default tools.

Fig 1. Screenshot of Folger Recipe Corpus in Voyant Tools

From these default tools, one can dig deeper. Let’s use the “Contexts” tool (bottom right hand) as an example of what kind of analysis is possible. In the search bar, typing a word, such as “digestive” will search across all the uploaded documents for that spelling, listing all the instances and contexts of that term. If one then selects the term, the “Reader” tool (top middle) will display the document in which that spelling appears. Essentially, using these two tools together permits the reader to search across the entire corpus for key terms and immediately read the recipes in which those terms appear. (N.B.: these tools only search spellings, and not words, and so users should expand their search options by trialling different spellings or using wildcard searches for more comprehensive results.) For instance, searching “digestive” found three instances of that spelling across the entire corpus: two in manuscript E.a.5 and one in V.a.260. This search took seconds whereas reading all 50 books might have taken weeks.

Another neat tool is “Cirrus” (top left hand), which creates word clouds of commonly used spellings: the bigger the word, the more common the spelling. Hovering over a word will give the user the number of times that spelling appears in the corpus. To view a word cloud for a specific document, rather than the entire corpus, one can use the “scale” function (found just below the word cloud) and select the manuscript of interest. By comparing resultant word clouds, the user can gain an immediate sense of the focuses of each document. For instance, compare these word clouds from two different manuscripts in the corpus:

Fig. 2. Folger manuscript E.a.1

Fig. 3. Folger manuscript V.a.401

The word cloud in Figure 2 —featuring words like “god,” “grace,” and “lord,”—suggests that the manuscript is more likely a commonplace book or miscellany than a receipt book, whereas the word cloud in Figure 3 —featuring words like “butter,” “sugar,” and “salt”—suggests the manuscript is likely a cookery book. Reading word clouds is one way a reader can quickly identify documents that might be of greater interest.

 While Voyant is a surprisingly effective tool, it’s important to note its limitations and the quirks of uploading a corpus to a tool not strictly designed for it. For instance, if using Voyant’s default settings, the most frequent spellings that will appear in the corpus’s word cloud are “folio”, “recto”, “verso”, and “page,” not because these are common words appearing in the manuscripts, but because they are common artefacts (encoding tags) of the digital documents. Still, Voyant is flexible enough that creative problem solving can expand its possibilities. For example, to get around the issue of encoding tags cluttering the cloud, the user can modify the stop words list (i.e., the words that Voyant automatically filters out of its analyses and visualizations, which include function words like “the” and “a”) to include these tags so that the remnants of the digital artefacts do not appear.  

These examples are but tastes of what is possible with the Folger’s corpus. The simplicity and accessibility of the corpus and DH tools like Voyant make them ideal interdisciplinary teaching resources in addition to effective research tools. There is something for everyone, whether your focus is the big picture or the fine detail. Dig in!

The Barclay Project

By Marissa Nicosia, with Christina Riehman-Murphy and Clara Drummond

Christian Barclay Jaffray (1680-1758) began gathering recipes for cookery, medicine, and dyeing cloth in 1697 when she was seventeen in a book that she titled “A Receipt Book, or, The Fruits of a Young Woman’s Spare Hours” (Manuscript, Scotland, 1697-1723).

This small, fine volume arrived at Penn State Libraries’ Eberly Family Special Collections as part of the “Robert Barclay of Ury family papers and maps” collection. Robert Barclay, Christian’s father, was a prominent Scottish Quaker leader and author of Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678). The Ury family papers include Robert Barclay’s correspondence with William Penn and maps of his proprietary holdings in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as Christian’s receipt book. Although the collection was acquired primarily for the historical and geographical papers connecting the Barclays to William Penn and Pennsylvania history, the daughter’s recipe book is a true gem.

Read the transcription!

Penn State undergraduate students have transcribed the entire manuscript and published it through the library’s digital exhibition platform. Special Collections as well as the Preservation, Digitization, and Conservation team prioritized Christian’s receipt book for digitization and this foundational work facilitated a multi-year transcription project. During the 2021-2022 academic year, Penn State Abington students enrolled in the undergraduate research project “What’s in a Recipe?” undertook a complete first-pass transcription of the manuscript under the supervision of Heather Froehlich, Marissa Nicosia, and Christina Riehman-Murphy. In 2022-2023 Jonah Carver (PSU class of 2023) held a Bednar Internship and worked to edit and prepare the transcription for publication online by comparing the initial transcription created by Abington students with the digital images of the manuscript online and the original manuscript in the Special Collections library.

Bake Barclay!

With a little strategic updating to modify the original seventeenth-century instructions, Christian’s recipes are a delight in the kitchen. Since 2022, we have featured baking recipes from this manuscript in our annual, global, friendly competition between Penn State Libraries and Monash University Libraries: The Great Rare Books Bake Off. We especially recommend her delectable “Sugar Biskets.” Marissa has also updated a few more of Christian’s recipes as part of her ongoing Cooking in the Archives project.

Dye Wool in Sad Purple!

During the summer and fall of 2023, Jonah, Marissa, and Christina joined collaborators at the Center for Virtual Material Studies to recreate a few of Christian’s recipes for dyeing wool in gorgeous colors like the warm mauve “Maiden’s Blush.” While there are not yet published, modernized versions of Christian’s dye recipes, experienced practitioners can try their hands at her recipe for “Sad Purple” (aka dark or deep purple) using the published transcription. The dyed wool that we collectively prepared was displayed alongside the manuscript (and many other fascinating materials) in the Special Collections exhibit Sad Purple and Mauve: A History of Dye-Making (September 2023-January 2024).

For more on these projects see:

Cooking in the

Instagram: @rare_cooking

Threads: @rare_cooking

Twitter/X: @rare_cooking & @Nicosia_Marissa


Facebook: CookingintheArchives

Pasta, Pasta, or Maccheroni? Obstacles in the Digital Culinary History Environment (Part 2 – Ontologies and Structured Databases)

By James Edward Malin and Gary Thompson

This two-part post elaborates on three problems inhibiting the building and connecting of culinary research databases: obstacles to combining historical mediums, differences in data entry structures, and challenges of historical culinary ontologies. It could be said that culinary history’s multidisciplinarity nature makes it difficult to marshal a level of cohesion to tackle such problems. Still, food history’s access to so many methodologies should provide or inspire solutions. Hopefully, in elucidating these challenges, we may begin to discuss and develop the best principles and practices for gastro-historical databases in the future. In the first part of this discussion, we outlined the pitfall of not utilizing existing bibliographic metadata standards and the limitations of relying on unstructured digitized content in culinary history environment.  This second part elaborates on the challenges faced by structured food history databases and historical culinary ontologies.

Unlike those unstructured databases discussed in the previous part, there are a smaller number of culinary history databases that are structured. These include resources like The Sifter, CoReMA, and ckbk. Among this small selection most have used unique approaches to structuring data entry and discovery. A common first step among these projects is to define the structure and components of a recipe. But as any recipe historian knows, this is already a challenge as “some [recipes] are very detailed, some are rather vague.”[1] Historical recipes can include much that doesn’t fit a standard structure, such as associations with feast days, a cook’s personal notes, lists of ingredients, and other procedural cooking instructions. These may also be accompanied by engraved carving diagrams, photographs of the finished dish, or, more recently, video demonstrations. Determining what should or should not be included in recipes is not easy.

Just as the purpose for reading a recipe from a cookbook determines which aspects of the text are relevant for the reader (sometimes to cook the dish, but sometimes for some culinary escapism), several needs may determine a database’s recipe structure. For example, commercial internet search engine providers encourage publishers of online, digital-first recipes to use’s standard Recipe schema. This schema provides a common structure for recipes’ ‘how-to’ aspects, including ordered instructions, preparation times, ingredients, and nutritional data. This schema invites us to consider recipes as independent creative works separate from, but linked to, a cookbook or manuscript. Unfortunately, this schema also homogenizes recipe formats—historical or modern—to benefit search algorithms. And, of course, this comes at the expense of the sometimes crucial but highly variable culinary information found in and around the edges of historical recipe texts.

Figure 4: Fig in Aspic, Recipe with Annotations, GAMS. 562.10.52on CoReMa.
H.W. Klug and J. Eibinger, “Semantic Annotation of W1 – Wien, Österr. Nationalbibl., Cod. 2897,” CoReMA – Cooking Recipes of the Middle Ages. Corpus – Analysis – Visualisation. With the help of A. Böhm, J. Eibinger, and C. Steiner, (2021).

The Sifter and CoReMA project share similar recipe metadata structures that include ingredients, equipment, and cookbook concepts while also taking language and historical variation into context. The Sifter is an open, public, and mediated culinary history website that allows users to enter individual recipes as sections within a cookbook or other culinary work. The Sifter’s database does not contain full-text recipes. Instead, a researcher enters each recipe’s name and page number and then indicates which ingredients, tools, or methods are mentioned within the recipe text. CoReMa adopted an alternative approach of annotating digitized recipe text or images with a culinary semantic model comprising classes such as ‘ingredient’ and ‘instruction.’ Each recipe word or sentence from the source text is annotated and linked to a dictionary of ingredients and tools (figure 4). A standard structure for specifying recipe metadata, such as what defines a recipe or an ingredient, would provide a common language to facilitate description, identification, and content interoperability without constraining technical designs.

Even if digital collections choose common structures for recipe data, having a common vocabulary to populate those structures is still challenging. One remedy for this common problem among academic databases is to use standardized vocabularies and ontologies. In standardized ontology, concepts are predefined in a thesaurus that mediates conceptual classification. CoReMa has used the knowledge graph Wikidata’s open, standardized ontology by integrating it as the project’s vocabulary lookup. For example, all historical recipes that include the ingredient ‘saffron’ are, in turn, linked to the WikiData entry saffron (Q25434). This demonstrates that using shared metadata sources as a taxonomy of common culinary or food concepts can improve interoperability and reduce duplication of metadata creation. In theory, The Sifter database could link the entry for ‘saffron’ from its index of ingredients to saffron (Q25434 ), too, thus interlinking the databases together.

The ‘farm to fork’ food ontology, FoodOn, with its focus on food production and agriculture, describes a ‘pasta food product’ (FOODON_00001211) as ‘A food made from an unleavened dough of wheat or buckwheat flour and water, sometimes with other ingredients such as eggs and vegetable extracts.’ It also includes categories for pasta, such as canned, dried, fresh, frozen, or wet-packed cereal grain products, as well as 92 processed pastas, 40 of which are macaroni food products (figure 5). This differs from Wikidata which describes pasta (Q178) as an “Italian food made from flour, eggs, and water and shaped in different forms, usually cooked and served with a sauce” and is simultaneously a type of shelf-stable food, a kind of groat, pasta and legume, and a sort of dish or specific food preparation.

However, even these ontologies may not immediately suit culinary historical purposes. If for no other reason than the determinedly contemporary nature of these ontologies, work would be required to historicize their definitions and classifications. Furthermore, in addition to the same type of crosswalking issues that database structures share, there is also a conceptual problem within many food ontologies—that food concepts can be both different and the same. For example, while “pasta” has a different meaning when it’s an ingredient in a recipe versus when it’s a recipe in itself, at the same time, it also means the same thing…pasta. This is a crucial idea for culinary history, as a pasta historian would likely wish to find results about both. Unfortunately, most ontologies do not account for such linkages. However, FoodOn and WikiData get close in their semantic web-style focus on relationships between concepts.

These posts outline challenges and opportunities when considering common standards for sharing recipes and culinary data between food history researchers. Preexisting bibliographic structures of organization and discovery could allow food history databases to focus on food history instead of media classification. A taxonomy of subjects could be leveraged to standardize concepts. Ideally, this would be done by an open data source such as WikiData to make good use of community collaboration and existing infrastructure. The crux of the problem is that no existing ontology properly considers food historically, nor the complex cognitive connection and disconnection of food concepts.

As we have examined existing projects and culinary history corpora, we have repeatedly asked if data would be better off structured, unstructured, or just linked. Our view is that by primarily focusing on the relationships between and among concepts, whether structured or unstructured, any historical textual format could remain undisturbed while its metadata interlinked and vice versa. It’s time for digital culinary history to come into its own—it has all of the beginnings of a data-rich, analytical study. We feel that with just a little communication, coordination, and standard-setting, it could really cook.

  1. Craig Fox, “On Making Sense of Recipes,” HUMANA.MENTE Journal of Philosophical Studies Volume 13, issue 38 (2020): 229–54.