Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).

Exhibition Review: “Food: Bigger than the Plate”

By Catherine Price

Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.

The Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from May until October 2019. The exhibition takes you on a journey through the four zones of Composting; Farming; Trading; and Eating. Here, I highlight what I feel are the most thought-provoking exhibits.

The aim in the “Composting” zone is to encourage you to reimagine waste. Instead of considering waste as disposable and to be forgotten about, either in landfill or oceans, the aim is to think about waste as valuable and beautiful. By doing this, humans become reconnected to ecosystems.

Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Used coffee grounds from the Victoria and Albert Museum café are used in a bed to grow oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used as ingredients in the café, reducing waste and illustrating how food can be grown in the city.

Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The exhibit also showcases composting efforts from around the world, beyond the walls of the V&A. For example, Mexico has over sixty varieties of native corn. The show exhibits Totomoxtle, a veneer material created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. It was designed in response to the loss of native varieties of corn following the implementation of industrialized agriculture in the country. This supports the villagers of Tonahuixtla who are replanting heirloom corn varieties by providing them with a second income.

Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The next section of the exhibition concerns “Farming.” Hedge H.U.G.  (Horticultural Urban Growth) encourages you to reimagine a city that is concentrated around the edges of farmland. Instead of having hedges separating fields, buildings are built in their place. People living in cities are fed directly from the land.

Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

 

Human-animal relationships are explored in the exhibit of ‘This Little Piggy.’ Elaine Tin Nyo followed the life of a piglet named Zelai from birth to death, including the final production into ham. She filmed his journey, and this video is actually very difficult to watch. Zelai’s hams will age two years, which is twice his actual lifespan. The rest of his flesh is preserved in 182 cans, which are on display and contain sausages, meat, and pâté.

Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The “Trading” zone encourages you to consider how food is transported, traded, and packaged. Uli Westphal created three landscapes designed to be both perfect and unsettling. They are intended to show how food marketing is designed to appeal to our desires to purchase food that is healthy and wholesome. As people are now so detached from agriculture and food production, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the food industry.

Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Björn Steinar Blumenstein and Johanna Seeleman’s ‘Banana Story’ is an exhibit which tells the story of a banana on its journey from a tree branch in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland. The banana was given a passport and an extended label to show its amazing journey. It travelled 8,800km, crossed multiple national borders, and passed through 33 pairs of hands. The accompanying video illustrates how important global shipping has become and how deeply we rely on it for the food we eat.

Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

“Eating” is the final zone in the food story journey. It features three photos of women eating items that make them feel good, as part of a series taken by Sana Badri. They are an act of defiance against a food press that can be elitist, judgmental, and fat phobic, encouraging agency over pleasurable food choices.

Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.

This section also features the 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This book was aimed at the rapidly expanding Victorian middle classes, and includes recipes, advice on childcare, etiquette, entertaining, and how to manage household servants. Curators included it in the exhibition to demonstrate both household management and curating food for a reading public. The curators describe how ‘instructions on how to boil a cabbage rub shoulders with plans for seating guests at the dinner table. The positioning of the book in the exhibition is also interesting as it sits alongside cookbooks which are collections of handwritten or newspaper clippings of recipes accumulated over time.

Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Juxtaposed with the historical are images from the contemporary in the form of Instagram posts. Instagram enables us to see into the culinary lives of others, as well as celebrating everyday creativity for cooking for loved ones. It also provides businesses with the opportunity to sell food products by posting mouth-watering photos.

The table laid out at the end of the exhibition is designed to provoke deeper engagement and thought about our food, our bodies, and each other. New tableware and food products can prompt us to interact with each other as we eat, sharing food, conversation, and ideas. A plate from Paul Scott‘s project Cumbrian Blues depicts the bleak realities faced by farmers in one of the worse affected areas following the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Six million cattle and sheep were culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The highlights I describe provide just a snapshot of the exhibition. These are all designed to encourage us to question what we eat and to ask ourselves if we could eat differently. Eating is not just about health, diet, traditions, and cultures, but also land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems, and human and animal welfare. We have to determine the value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced.

Stockfish and the Texture of Trust in the Early Modern Period

Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By Jack B. Bouchard

Stockvisch muss man bleüwen – One must beat stockfish” declared Balthasar Staindl in the first line of a lengthy entry on cooking cod in his 1544 Kochbuch.[1] Wielding a blunt instrument, the sixteenth century cook was meant to hammer away at the flesh of a desiccated, full-length codfish until it was soft enough to soak in water. For this reason many markets sold purpose-made stockfish hammers, which regularly appear in early modern household inventories and ship cargo manifests. Hammering away at the dried flesh of what was once a living, deep-sea fish broke it down the fibers and made it easier for them to absorb water. So common was the practice that in Venice imported, dried stockfish was popularly known as battuto, “beaten,” derived from the word battere, ‘to beat.’[2] Here was a food which made you grapple with texture in a direct way: to eat it you had to beat it.

Though today it is overshadowed by its salt-cured cousin bacalao, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a kind of preserved fish called “stockfish,” literally a fish like a stock of wood, was amongst the most widely consumed proteins in northern Europe. In the widespread consumption of stockfish we can see that texture was not merely an ancillary consideration, a factor of taste, for early modern diners. Texture itself carried information about nutrition and was valued on its own terms. The dryness of stockfish conveyed that it was a manmade, preserved kind of meat, one which could be relied upon to stay edible for a long time. You could trust your battuto precisely because of its hard, unyielding texture.

Cod, which lives in the far north Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland, was important to households and military contractors alike because its oil-free flesh was easy to dry for preservation. Stockfish was a kind of codfish which could only be made at very northern latitudes, such as Norway and Iceland, where the cold winters and windy coasts made air-drying possible. Whole fish were headed, gutted and split open before being left outside on racks. The cold winds, alternating with sunlight, effectively freeze-dried the fish. The result was a board-like fish mummy, rock-hard and tough, earning the popular nickname “buckhorne” in England for its resemblance to animal horn. Today in Nigeria stockfish is even sold as “okporoko,” so named for the sound the hard pieces of fish make as they clang against a metal pot. Freeze-dried cod were sold whole in the market, stacked like logs or hung on walls, and were instantly recognizable to early modern consumers thanks to their long, thin shape. A seventeenth-century Dutch painting shows stockfish being wielded like a club by a group of monks – like a stick of wood, it could be used as a weapon.

To sixteenth-century consumers, it was the texture of stockfish which mattered more than its taste. Stockfish meat was thought too bland to be nutritious by many experts, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, but this was compensated for by its unusual physical nature. It was from its hard, dry consistency that the food derived its most important quality, that of durability. Cod which had been transformed into stockfish resisted decay in a manner that was unusual, even unnatural, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English sources sometimes called it pessoun dure (poisson dur, hard fish), or even winterfish, so-called for its ability to last throughout the cold months when other food had spoiled.[3] Without water it could not rot, mold or putrefy. Where most fish would rot in a matter of days, stockfish could be trusted to last not merely months but years before going bad, and it could be shipped over vast distances. Though coming from Norway and Iceland it was popular as far as Budapest, Rome and Seville. In an age of food insecurity and uncertainty these qualities were much-prized and sought out by consumers, creating a pan-European culture of stockfish cookery by the early sixteenth century.

But that trust came at a cost, for processed cod like stockfish could not be consumed directly, but rather underwent a texture-reversing treatment which could border on the violent – it had to be made battuto before it was ready to be eaten. Cooks learned that beating, soaking and burning the freeze-dried cod produced a softer, moist fish which could be boiled, roasted, mashed or fried. The hard texture had to be forcibly altered through hammering and soaking. In English, the process was described as ‘weakening’ the fish, and partially soaked stockfish was known as wokedfish (i.e. weakened-fish) in fifteenth century London.[4] To speed up soaking, the German cookbook of Sabina Welseren called for adding caustic lye to the water, and in the sixteenth century Hanse merchants sold lye-soaked cod dressed with mustard on the wharves of London.[5] Too much lye could even create something entirely different from dry or soaked fish, a gelatinous and translucent lutfisk which was popular around the Baltic. But if its rigidity could be weakened, the artificial texture could not be entirely eliminated. Resuscitated stockfish would never quite be like fresh fish, and always remained firmer, more fibrous and denser than the real thing. Each bite was an inescapable reminder of a food which had been processed and remade by humans.

[1] Baltasar Staindl. Ain künstlichs und nützlichs Kochbuch. (Germany: 1547). 22.

[2] This is known from a reference made by the Venetian merchant Alessandro Magno while visiting London in 1561, “un certo pesco seco che viene dalle Indie, e chiamano stofis, che vien a dire in nostra lengua battuto, et altramente si chiamano Bacalari.”  Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a. 259. “Account of Alessandro Magno’s journeys to Cyrpus, Egypt, Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Brescia, 1557-1565.” fol. 176.

[3] Examples can be found throughout: C.M. Woolgar. Household Accounts from Medieval England. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] Laura Wright. Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). 102-105.

[5] A transcription of Sabina Welserin’s book, dated to 1555, can be found at: http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/sawe.htm. For the description of Hanse merchant, see: Thomas Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation. (London : Thomas Newcomb, 1655). 262.

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018, and currently contributes to the Before Farm to Table team’s ongoing efforts to explore, through publicly-oriented research and programming, evolving food cultures and thought in early modern Europe. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve fish consumption and maritime food production in early modern Europe, as well as the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic.

Making Musk Julep: Sugar Coating a Bitter Medicine

The Thibetian [Tibetan] Musk, Native of Asia. Sir William Jardine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Thibetian [Tibetan] Musk, Native of Asia. Sir William Jardine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Susan Brandt

Popular eighteenth-century pharmacopoeias often included animal-based substances such as musk, which might seem nauseating to the modern palate. In The New Dispensatory Containing the Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753), William Lewis describes musk or moschus as “a grumus substance like clotted blood, found in a little bag in the umbilical region” of the Asian musk deer, “an animal met with in China, Tartary, and the East Indies” (162). To harvest the musk gland, male deer were trapped and killed in large numbers, leading to musk deer’s current endangered status. According to Lewis, the “musk pod” was “the size of a pigeon’s egg, covered with short brown hairs” and it exuded a scent that attracted female deer (162). Although musk was an expensive product, in minute quantities it formed the basis for perfumes, as well as for pharmaceuticals and culinary recipes. Based on Lewis’ description, eighteenth-century users were likely ambivalent about the idea of ingesting the pungent-smelling contents of an animal’s gland with the texture of coagulated blood. However, users were torn between their potential aversion and their desire for a substance with aphrodisiac and medical potential.  

Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Unpleasant medicines, such as musk, were often mixed with sugar or sweet tasting substances to form a more palatable “julep.” The New Dispensatory’s author admitted that although the musk ingredient was often dried into a powder, musk julep still had a feral-smelling “strong perfume.” Nonetheless, for those who could bear the repugnant taste, it “proves of great service in lowness, fainting, &c.,” as well as for convulsions and “the bite of a mad dog.”  In humoral medicine, musk julep’s “bitterish sub-acrid taste” might even convince reluctant sufferers of its efficacy in expelling maladaptive humours from the body. (162, 434).

William Lewis, The New Dispensatory Containing The Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753). Source: Archive.org
William Lewis, The New Dispensatory Containing The Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753). Source: Archive.org
 

Despite musk julep’s loathsome savor, the remedy appears in eighteenth-century English and North American pharmacopoeias, popular medical manuals, and women healers’ recipe books, which demonstrates the overlap between the prescribing practices of doctors and non-physician practitioners. To make “Julepum e Moscho or Musk Julep,” William Lewis advised the reader to “Take of Damask rose water, six ounces by measure; Musk, twelve grains; Double-refined sugar, one dram. Grind the sugar and the musk together, and gradually add to the rose water” (433). Due to its expense and pungency, musk was measured in grains or 6.5% of a gram. Nonetheless, in his popular self-help manual, Domestic Medicine, William Buchan gave directions for a larger batch of musk julep by increasing the amount of musk in his recipe to half a drachm (30 grains) and adding eight times as much sugar. He substituted cinnamon and peppermint water for the rose water. Like Lewis, he recommended musk julep for convulsions, “nervous fevers,” and “spasmodic affections.” Although the medicinal uses of musk had its origins in ancient Asian medical practice, it came into increasingly popular use in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies.

During the American Revolution, the widowed Quaker healer, Margaret Hill Morris prescribed musk julep in her Burlington, New Jersey medical and apothecary practice. Creating medicines such as musk julep required hands-on skills in chemistry and botany, and it allowed women to produce novel scientific knowledge and products. Morris likely obtained the musk julep recipe from her personal copy of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine. Women’s home-production of medicines was particularly important in the face of shortages of imported pharmaceuticals due to the Royal Navy’s blockades of American port cities during the war. However, while Morris was compounding musk julep one afternoon, her fetid concoction spilled onto a letter that she was writing to her sister. The sugary liquid pooled and stained the fabric-like texture of the cotton and linen paper. Morris apologized and explained, “Son John [and I] had been making musk julep for [Neighbor] Carey, on the Counter where my paper laid and scented it.” Although Morris had apprenticed her son to her physician brother-in-law, she relished his visits home, where “the business of an Apothecary be still carried on by a diligent apprentice, & watchful Mother.”[i] Morris’s kitchen was a site of medical education as well as odiferous medicinal production.

As new Western European theories of the nervous and vascular systems influenced humoral medicine in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, doctors and non-physician healers became interested in the stimulating power of musk. The expense, exotic origins, pungent taste, and gelatinous consistency of the fur-encrusted musk gland added to the medicine’s mystique. The intermixture of cinnamon, peppermint or rose water, along with sugar, added complexity and sweetness, making musk julep’s earthy taste more appetizing. Musk julep recipes highlight how the unique flavors and textures of a global trade in pharmaceuticals enlivened eighteenth-century medical prescriptions and practices.


[i] Margaret Hill Morris to Hannah Hill Moore, ca. 1780, G. M. Howland MS Coll. 1000, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford, PA; Susan Hanket Brandt, “‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution,” Early American Studies 4, no. 4 (2015): 774-807.

Susan Brandt teaches history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Her dissertation, “Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners:  Gender and Healing Authority in the Delaware Valley, 1740-1830,” was awarded the 2016 Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. Women’s History by the Organization of American Historians. Brandt has published an article in Early American Studies and a chapter in Barbara Oberg, ed., Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World. She is under contract with Penn Press to publish a book based on her dissertation. Prior to pursuing a career in history, Brandt worked as a nurse practitioner.