This series has shown us the power and the pitfalls of remembering. The work of art that has been featured on our site over these two months is by Florence Winterflood, and it’s called Alzheimer’s Disease. Held by the Wellcome Collection, Winterflood’s oil and ink painting was “created shortly after ‘Mama’, the artist’s grandmother, moved to a nursing home after her Alzheimer’s disease progressed to a stage where could no longer look after herself. ‘She lost a lot of weight, and a broad, strong, matriarch became a feeble, bird-like woman. Yet however small her frame became, her hands remained large and strong and capable.’ The hand, here a strong tangible image, represents the way the body can settle and remain hardy, even when the mind has become chaotic. The maps breaking up the lines of the hand further represent fragmentation of character, particularly in the way Alzheimer’s interrupts neurological pathways in the brain, disrupting and even tearing up, knowledge, thoughts and memories.”
Strength and chaos, breadth and fragmentation, capability and disruption are all represented in the way that recipes are recalled and remembered. As we share them, ingredients can be forgotten, instructions lost, temperatures reset. But it is a recipe’s very capacity for and easy adaptation to communication, generosity, swapping, and donation which gives it such longevity, allowing it to transcend people, time, and space.
How do recipes make memories, and how do we remember the methods, ingredients, and techniques that go into making a dish, a piece of technology, a work of art, a scientific method? Memory is a powerful force, capable of sustaining a story, instructions, or guidelines over generations. It’s also unpredictable, malleable, incomplete, manufactured.
For the next two months, February and March 2021, we will be exploring recipes and memory at The Recipes Project. In this series we’re delighted to feature and amplify many writers who are new to the RP, and who are bringing their own work on recipes and memory to us in a rich variety of formats and media. Some contributors ask us to absorb, learn, and listen: Ozoz Sokoh will share her work on memory and foods of the West African diaspora; Stephanie Shiflett will explore starvation in sixteenth-century France; Simon Newman will write of recipes created during the Holocaust. And some contributors ask us to join and participate: Heather Ariyeh will invite readers to share their own memories of beans and rice via a memory of twentieth-century Guatemala.
Describing his childhood in Zambia, poet Kayo Chingonyihas said that he “uses the writing as a way of reconstructing that place from memory.” For Chingonyi, sharing memory – whether in writing, like his poetry, or in visual art, or sound, or taste – is generative. “Something new,” he says, “is created by the experience of sharing.”
Inspired by Chingonyi’s own ideas about memory, art, and community, I’m proud to be co-editing “Recipes and Memory” with my mother, Annette Herbert. To launch the series, here is our own post about our family’s history with a sugar factory in Northern California. Like sugar, this recipe and its memory are sweet: they tell a story about resilience, love, devotion. And like sugar, this recipe and its memory hold the potential for erasure, elision, and, if you’re not careful, rot.
Our family migrated to California as part of a gold rush. We weren’t drawn in 1849 by precious metals, but arrived fifty years later, pulled into the new state by sticky, golden sugar. We have a family recipe that proves it.
My name is Amanda Elise Herbert. I remember this story this way. My mother, Annette Brown Herbert, told it to me; my grandmother, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, told it to me. Two brothers, both in their teens, were born in Prussia. They were pacifists and didn’t want to be conscripted into the Kaiser’s army. They signed up to work on a cargo ship and traveled halfway around the world. When the boat docked in Crockett California, the smell of burned sugar filled the air, for Crockett was home to the famous California and Hawaii (C&H) Sugar Company. Fearing that violence would meet them if they returned to Prussia, they escaped from the ship, hid until it steamed away, and found jobs at C&H. Two years later they’d saved enough money to bring their baby sister and their parents to California. The family settled and grew. They soaked in the sunshine. They hiked in the Sierras. And the baby sister created a recipe to commemorate their new life: California Date Bars, packed with golden brown C&H sugar.
My name is Annette Brown Herbert. I remember this story this way. My mother, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, told it to me; my aunt, Dorothy Ahlgrim Young, told it to me. Anna Schuetz immigrated from Danzig with her parents when she was twenty. They left a married sister, named Clara, behind. Clara wanted to come, but she was married and her husband was unkind to her. Anna’s older brothers had left East Prussia to avoid conscription into the Kaiser’s army. They arrived in San Francisco, jumped ship, and then made their way to Crockett, where they worked at the C&H Sugar factory. They eventually sent for their parents and sister. When they weren’t working at the factory, the two brothers would go fishing down the hill, on the piers at the Bay’s waterfront, and when it was time to come home, their mother would wave a dish towel at them from the front door.
My name is Dorothy Ahlgrim Young. I remember the story this way. My twin sister, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, learned it with me. Our grandmother Anna Schuetz immigrated from Danzig around 1888. She traveled with her parents to Crockett, California, where her brothers had settled in order to avoid conscription into the Kaiser’s army. Upon arrival she began working as a seamstress and upstairs maid for the Hooper Family, owners of the Hooper Candy Company. Her talented fingers made trousseaus for each Hooper daughter. Anna married a man named Charles Drewicke, who worked at C&H Sugar. While in Crockett, Anna and Charles had three children: Irwin, Doris, and Arnold. Anna was not a good cook. She would bake pfefferkuchen at Christmastime, cut in diamond shapes with a piece of candied citrine or a sliver of almond on top. But she often burned them, passing this off by saying “they’re just a little brown.” Anna’s daughter, our mother Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim, was an excellent cook. She would make California Date Bars for us and our friends when we went hiking in the summer.
The historical record – itself manufactured, smoothed out, cut and pasted – tells a different story. Census data, voter registration records, and death certificates show that a woman named Annie Schuetz and her parents arrived in California in 1892. None of them could read or write or speak English. Their names were misreported by an impatient census-taker in 1900, who labeled Annie’s mother “Wilhemina Wilhelm” when he couldn’t understand her German speech. Members of the family did not work at C&H; that company didn’t begin operations until 1921. Instead they were described as laborers: factory laborers, warehouse laborers. Annie’s father was still working full-time at the age of sixty-nine. Illness, death, and financial mismanagement saw a widowed Annie Schuetz Drewicke and her children living in a rented house in San Francisco by 1920, where all of the members of the family were “working for wages or on own account, not salaried.”
Our knowledge of the past, recovered with care and hard work and difficulty by scholars of modern history, offers further nuance. The sugarcane that fed C&H’s refinery was grown on land stolen from the Kanaka ʻŌiwi; the refinery itself stood on the land of the Karkin and Muwekma. Working conditions in sugarcane fields in Hawaii, on cargo ships across the Pacific, and in factories in California, were dangerous and dehumanizing. Annie Schuetz Drewicke and her daughter Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim had only just earned the right to vote when the census-taker visited their lodging house in 1920 to take account of them.
Thousands of miles apart, in our kitchens in California and Maryland, we make the California Date Bars. We miss each other. The pandemic has meant that this is the longest we’ve ever been apart. We read the recipe off of screens. It’s been carefully and lovingly scanned and sent to us by Auntie Dorothy. It’s in Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim’s hand. The directions are sparse, and we talk about implied and implicit knowledge. We make guesses. We talk about memory. The recipe looks good, but it also seems cloyingly sweet. We add more salt.
As part of Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a $1.5 million Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’ll be working on a new book, Leftovers: the Afterlives of Early Modern Food. In this book I aim to explore the instability of food in this period. This was of course literally true, as it was easy for early modern food to go bad. But early modern food was also intellectually and philosophically unstable. What food meant, what it tasted like, where it came from, how to put it to its best use, its moral and cultural symbolism: all of these were in constant flux. The book project will consider things like food preservation, food charity, artificial or faux food, the British colonisation of dishes, and the recycling and reuse of food containers, all of which will offer some insights into the ways that early modern women and men treated and thought about their food, and how these reflected the practical as well as the philosophical food insecurities of the past.
Today I’ll offer a glimpse into the project through one evocative example: faux or artificial foods, which enabled early modern people to reimagine what they ate. Much has been made over early modern food follies at feasts, and for good reason; some of these, whether they existed in the historical record or only in the imaginative one, were remarkable. My favourite of these is from Robert May’s Accomplish’t Cook, first printed in London in 1660.
May, a British chef who trained in France and served in elite British households, designed food entertainments for higher-status women and men. These edible entertainments worked to manipulate diners’ senses of reality and fantasy. One of May’s most well-known food performances instructed cooks to take a whole deer and roast it, cut a hole in it, and fill ‘his body… up with claret wine’. The hole was then to be stoppered with ‘course paste’ [thick dough] and the cook was to place ‘a broad arrow’ into the dough on the roasted deer’s side. During the dinner entertainment, May explained, ‘order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound’.
This juxtaposition of what was real and unreal – an animal, which likely had been hunted with bows and arrows, was then butchered, cooked, and presented so that diners could imagine themselves back at the site of the kill, but in such a way that they could then immediately eat the (cooked) deer and drink its (wine) blood – would surely have offered early modern women and men a strange sense of slippage. Were they valued guests, enjoying an elaborate meal in elite society? Or were they vicious, impulsive, and animalistic? Given the opportunity to reimagine themselves, their meal, and their relationship to it as consumers, May assured his readers that they would evoke not horror or confusion, but senses of ‘admiration to the beholders’.
For home cooks, artificial foods could take on different forms of re-imagination. Many such acts of culinary creativity were undertaken out of necessity, lack of resources, or thrift. A recipe in an anonymous c. 1720 manuscript cookbook included instructions for how ‘to keep Mushrooms without Pickle for sauce’, which was really a guide to making mushrooms (common all over Britain) taste like truffles (typically imported). Readers were told to ‘take large Mushrooms peel them & take out all the inside, lay them in Water some hours then stew them in their own liquor…with a little Mace & Peper’. This process was to be repeated ’till they are quite dry’. As a result, the author claimed ‘they eat very well thus & look like Troufles’. A 1740 recipe book created by a Mrs. Knight explained how to make ‘artificial venison’ by beating ‘a rump of veal or a large shoulder of mutton…[with] a rolling pin’ before seasoning it ‘with peper & nutmeg’ and soaking it for ’24 hours in sheeps blood’. This supposedly produced the richness, gaminess, and flavour that early modern people associated with venison (a food intended only for the elite) but utilised ingredients that would have been available to most middling-sort people (veal, mutton, spices, and sheep’s blood).
Faux foods – whether they were constructed purely for fun, or purely out of need – changed the ways that early modern people perceived what they ate. It’s certainly possible to see these substitutions as efforts on the part of middling-sort people to mimic the wealthy, or to pretend to eat beyond their means. But we should not ignore the imaginative resonances produced by these fantasies. When an early modern person ate fake venison, false truffles, or even took in the spectacle of a roasted deer bleeding wine onto a table, did they know that it was not real? Were they merely enjoying the sensation of the forbidden or unavailable food, or were they truly fooled? What was old food, and what was new?
 Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1660).
In a casual conversation about hippocras recipes over a year ago, we realized we had a shared interest in the many ways that texture was represented in recipes, and we wanted to explore this interest in a Recipes Project series. Hippocras, a spiced wine that was popular in Europe and the Americas c. 1400-1800, offers an excellent example of the ways that textures were and can be expressed and experienced in recipes. Making hippocras seems straightforward, if strange. After infusing wine with spices and sweetening it with sugar, hippocras recipes then often call for adding cream or milk. The dairy curdles for over an hour, with creamy lumps slowly coagulating within the wine. The milk solids are then strained out using cheesecloth, sieves, or “jelly bags.” The straining process clarifies the beverage, leaving the dairy’s sweetness behind. But for both of us, the intervening minutes when our precious infused wine was swimming with undesirable curdled matter was absolutely abject. (And we weren’t the only ones who found this process to be fascinating and unsettling: later this month, you’ll see how Emily Brandt undertook a similar project in her piece on “Milk Punch.”)
For us, the curdled dairy in the hippocras was off-putting: clumpy, soft, squishy, the curds sent us messages about rottenness, wrongness. But for early modern Euro-American eaters and drinkers, these curdles would have sent very different, desirable messages. Curdles were essential elements of many premodern dishes. In possets, such as this “London Possett” (excerpted above, see the full image here): eggs, cream, alcohol, and seasonings are combined and heated for the express purpose of forming a curdled layer.
And of course, curdled dairy is a central component of many modern dishes made around the world: Dulce de Leche Cortada, featuring milk curdled with lime and then mixed with egg, cinnamon, and sugar; paneer or chhena, essential to dishes in east Asia.
People who work on recipes from the past are used to thinking about taste as subjective, malleable, and changeable in the ways it signifies. We should remind ourselves that texture works this way, too. It informs what we believe to be edible or inedible, whether that assessment is based on logic, experience, or cultural norms. We experience texture through other senses: touch, taste, and sight. And recipes reveal how texture was considered both in the process and in the product of medicinal and culinary preparations.
In this series, we approach texture from the perspectives of food and medicine, materials and sensations. Over the course of this month at The Recipes Project, we will learn about textures from many different times, spaces, and cultures. Jack Bouchard will discuss methods of preservation and preparation that transform ingredients in his post on stockfish. Susan Brandt will teach us about the textures of medical preparations and their application to the body in her post on “musk julep.” Jennie Egloff and Andrea Crow will write about pleasurable and abject mouth-feel in their posts on a premodern vegetarian diet, and on an early pressure cooker: the “digester of bones.” We’ll learn about encounters with new spices and foods through trade in Emily’s Brandt’s post on “Alcohol’s Empire,” and Elaine Leong will discuss the meaning and feeling of sweetness in her post on honey. A Tales from the Archive Post by He Bian will allow us to consider human milk – warmed by the body, like and yet unlike other animal milks in its consistency, color, and taste – as medicine in Imperial China. And RP Community Editor Sarah Kernan will bring us an Around the Table post from Helen Davies and Alex Zawacki of The Lazarus Project. Sarah, Helen, and Alex will discuss the “texture” of recipes via the materiality of texts, as they talk about their work with multispectral imaging and manuscripts
A sticky substance on a kitchen floor, the jammy center of a hardboiled egg, the weave of a luxe brocade, the slipperiness of a rice noodle, the smooth surface of a metal spoon: the world of recipes is replete with texture, and this month, we’re delighted to explore all of these things with you.