How far can someone go in the name of research? In my case quite a long way. For a month, I loosely taped tiny plates of metal to my hands and woke up every morning with green stains on them. I was investigating craft recipes employed in the far East since the fourteenth Century to create coloured metal and alloys used for beautiful small artefacts. Whereas Western taste preferred the natural colour and the polished lustre of metals, the Eastern preference was to use the process of chemical patination, where different chemicals react with the surface of copper and copper alloys to form new coloured compounds.
The Japanese created a whole class of coloured alloys, called irogane. They added small amounts of different elements to the copper and simmered it in a solution containing copper salts, alum, vinegar and other ingredients, to form coloured patinas on the surface. The most beautiful patina, shakudo, was made with copper and gold and achieved a deep blue-black colour. Combining a variety of alloy compositions and solution ingredients, they were able to create hues ranging from pale brown to black. Inlaying different irogane, gold, silver, and lacquers, they were able to create small artefacts and swords fittings with complex and visually impressive designs and patterns.
Later on, Chinese craftspeople imported the technique from Japan, possibly through travellers or trying to copy the Japanese artefacts, and, from the Ming period (1368-1644), they used it to colour ink or tobacco boxes. In contrast to the Japanese irogane, the Chinese would patinate a gold-silver alloy only, which resulted in a dark colour similar to that of shakudo, which they called gu-tong. In both cases, the precious metal content was 1-3%, a larger amount would not affect the final patina colour.
There’s not a lot known about the two different recipes the Chinese craftsmen employed to produce their patinas. However, we do know that one process they utilised was similar to that used by the Japanese to produce the irogane,butwe have no precise recipes for the solutions. Another involved handling the metal until the perspiration from their hands corroded the surface.
Creating and play with metal colours has always fascinated me. Why using gold and silver to achieve that dark colour, instead of cheaper alternatives? What was the role of the different ingredients used in the recipes? Could sweat really be used as a patinating solution? Why did Japanese recipes tell not add precious metals to bronze (copper alloyed with tin) but only to pure copper? Could it be confirmed through scientific analysis that the technology was really transmitted from the Japanese to the Chinese culture? To find answers, I needed to conduct a systematic experimental research which could explain the reasons behind the technological choices of Japanese and Chinese craftsmen.
I reproduced a series of alloys with tin, gold and silver, which I then patinated, following the recipes for shakudo and gu-tong from available texts. These are not numerous, as the recipes were mainly kept as secret and passed from father to son. We have city records, information sheets given by dealers and, in Japan, technical texts on metal working. I analysed the resulting patinas with techniques borrowed from modern material science, and used the experimental data as reference for the interpretation of historical patinated artefacts in museum collections.
I found that, for both the Japanese and Chinese recipes, the presence of gold in the alloy did, in fact, change the colour of the final patinas, which resulted in a better, more uniform and darker hue. I also noted how parameters such as the fine grade of surface polishing prior to the patination, the use of tin-free alloys, the selection of copper acetate as a main ingredient and the addition of vinegar are all processes and actions that led to a reduced patina growth. And as it turned out, sweat was indeed an effective patinating solution in the Chinese patination (as it can be noticed by the green corrosion products left on the hands), but the presence of gold in the alloy composition is nonetheless essential to obtain a dark hue, not achieved in gold-free alloys. Sweat is a slightly acidic solution, similar to that of used by Japanese craftsmen, essential to create a coloured copper oxide on the surface in just 48 hours of handling. Similarly, in both technologies cleaning of the alloy before or after the procedure suggested in Japanese texts and the abrasive action of the hands in the Chinese method are both similar and crucial steps in the patination process. I concluded from these findings that a dark patina was not the only feature that the craftsmen of both cultures had been striving for. They also seemed to be after a shiny appearance, given by the metallic lustre coming from the alloy.
In combining experimental and historical observations I gained an understanding of the intentions behind the technological choices made by the Japanese and Chinese artisans. My analysis confirmed the deliberate nature of these choices made to achieve dark and shiny blue-black colours otherwise impossible. This confirmed the importance of colour as a driver of these artisanal processes, and supports the idea that the knowledge was transmitted between the two cultures.
Was it worth in the end – the green hands and other discomforts suffered in the name of research? It was the first study to provide a scientific basis to our knowledge of the methods and choices made by those people, the ingredients they employed in making dark patinated artefacts, and contributed to our pool of knowledge of the artisanal methods and practices described in historical sources. So yes, it definitely was, and I would definitively do it again.
This month on Around the Table, we have a very special treat. Many of our contributors have been a part of the Making and Knowing Project and we have enjoyed occasional updates on the project throughout the years. Here, we have an update and reflection provided by previous Recipes Project contributor Tillmann Taape, in coordination with his former Making and Knowing team.
In 2014, Pamela Smith founded the Making and Knowing Project, an initiative in pedagogy and research to investigate the intersection of “craft” and “science” in the Renaissance. Combining experimental laboratory work with more traditional ways of doing history, the Project has explored a unique manuscript source, BnF Ms. Fr. 640, a collection of notes and recipes on craft practices from 1580s Toulouse (see Pamela Smith’s introduction to the Project in a previous post on the Recipes Blog). Over the past six years, the Making and Knowing Team and students of Columbia University’s “Craft and Science” seminar have accumulated insights into early modern materials, making processes, and the relationship between nature and human artifice. Some of these previously featured on this blog, in posts on making powder for hourglasses and the role of sensory perception in artisanal expertise. The sum total of our work has recently been published in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France: A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, containing intensively marked-up versions of the manuscript text (diplomatic and normalised transcriptions plus an English translation), over a hundred essays by collaborating scholars, “expert makers,” and students, as well as other resources such as a glossary of over 13,000 technical terms in Middle French.  Looking back over the past years, our intense experimental, historical, and digital engagement with this fascinating text has changed the way we think about recipes and how to read them as historians.
Recipes, instructions, observations: texts of action
Ms. Fr. 640 consists of around one thousand semantic units of text, usually with a heading in a distinct italic script, followed by anything from a few lines of text to several pages of densely-written observations, corrections, and marginal annotations (see Fig. 1). Are these recipes? We started out calling them that, and to be sure, many of them have the structure and elements one would expect of a recipe: a statement of the end product(s), often in the header, enumerations of ingredients, with or without indication of the amount, and instructions for what to do with them, in more or less the intended sequence – sometimes the “author-practitioner,” as we call him, gets halfway through a sentence of instructions and only just saves himself with a “…having first done x.”  There is even a group of entries/text units on making varnishes and colouring wood that fits the definition of a recipe like a glove: the great majority start with the imperative prens or prenes (“take!”), the French equivalent of the Latin imperative recipe that gives us the English word for recipe. Four of these are explicitly labelled as a “recipe” (recepte), as in “Another recipe for making varnish” (fol. 73v).
But there are also pages filled with magic tricks, pranks, silly puns, and early modern equivalents of the dad-joke (How do you fix a candlestick to the wall without making a hole? – Have a servant hold it). Other passages break out of the recipe form through their sheer meandering length. Once the author-practitioner gets going on his favourite topic – different types of sand for making casting molds – he often does not stop for at least a few pages. What starts as a note on “experimented sands,” for example, promptly grows into a lengthy discussion of diverse sands and their merits, including the author-practitioner’s own observations and speculations about future improvements, more closely resembling detailed field notes than a mere recipe (fol. 85v–87v). Given this variety, we eventually decided to call these units of text “entries” – a more neutral and capacious term that takes its cue from the overall structure of the text more than the content.
It is clear, however, that the vast majority of entries – “recipes” or not – have one thing in common: they are texts of action. Whether walking potential readers through metalworking techniques or observing how different artisans (from day labourers to goldsmiths) do their jobs, these entries encode sequences of gestures and material processes. The challenge for historians is that writing encodes action imperfectly. However detailed the recipe, there is always much that remains unsaid, and perhaps cannot be said, but only known and experienced by the body performing the action. This is true of modern recipes, of course, but add a few hundred years, and a recipe becomes like a fossilised, flattened husk of a once-dynamic process unfolding in real time. Much of the Making and Knowing Project’s work has focused on how to re-hydrate this instant noodle of practical expertise to the extent where it makes a certain amount of sense to modern historians. Reading alone, it turns out, doesn’t get us very far. With their sparse prose and minimal structure, often only amounting to a list of ingredients and a handful of imperatives (chop, mix, heat, etc.), recipes deflect the kinds of analytic tools that historians are used to unleash on their sources. In a sense, the Project was founded around the idea that recipes and other texts of action become more fully accessible when we place them back in a context of action, reading them with our hands rather than just with our eyes.
Performative reading and emergent knowledge
Thus the Making and Knowing Laboratory was born. Housed in a 1940s chemistry lab at Columbia University, it has been home to cohorts of students’ hands-on reconstructions of objects and techniques described in Ms. Fr. 640. In its drawers and shelves, a peculiar material microcosm has accumulated, from tiny vials of pigments to counterfeit jasper made from buffalo horn to preternaturally preserved plants and animals.
While it seemed obvious from the outset that reconstructing or “acting out” recipes would tell us more than simply reading them, precisely what the payoff would be was not at all clear. In that sense, the Project was itself a true experiment. In a recent article that forms part of a special issue on “Rethinking Performative Methods in the History of Science,” the Making and Knowing Team had occasion to reflect on what we have gained from our reading-by-doing approach to recipes, for both pedagogy and research.
One of the key outcomes of hands-on work is that it recalibrates our eyes and hands in a way that allows us to appreciate the material literacy artisans of the past must have possessed. Early on in their research on lifecasting, a technique whereby a real animal or plant is molded in plaster and then cast in metal, Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes noted hitherto unexplained knob-like protrusions on the feet of lifecast lizards (Fig. 2). Their reconstruction of lifecasting instructions in Ms. Fr. 640 revealed that these protrusions were caused by metal pins used to fix the dead lizard on its clay base before molding. This performative research produced a more informed reading not only of the text, but also of surviving lifecast objects whose subtle traces of the making process now revealed themselves to the attuned eye.
Starting out as a way of answering pre-formulated questions, reconstruction also turned out to be a powerful way of raising new questions that do not arise from reading alone. The work of making hourglass sand according to a recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (introduced in a previous post by Stephanie Pope on this blog) involved mixing salt with molten lead. Having got this far, our students balked at the instructions to wash this mixture in water. Would this dissolve the salt and thus undo their work? As it turns out, it does not, but their question sparked further research into the interaction of hourglass sand and water, turning up a fascinating story: until the middle of the eighteenth century, it was impossible to blow an hourglass in one piece, and since there was always a danger of moisture entering through an improperly sealed joint between the two halves, it was imperative that hourglass sand be non-hygroscopic, i.e. non-reactive with water. Thus the hands-on reading of the recipe led to detailed questions about materials, production, and calibration – questions that would not have been raised by a “dry” reading of the recipe.
Other entries encode cultural and spiritual meanings that emerge fully in doing rather than reading. A recipe for burn salve, for example, includes instructions to wash with holy water for specific intervals, measured by the time it takes to recite the paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer in Latin). The connections to religion and timekeeping practices are obvious at first read, but the full extent of their relationship with the process and the final product only emerge when we immerse ourselves in the making process. As we add holy water while reciting prayers, we can witness the dramatic transformation of the transparent yellowish mixture of wax and linseed oil into a thick, fluffy substance of an opaque white – a vivid material instantiation of the spiritual purification implicit in the use of prayers and holy water (Vid. 1).
Vid. 1.Burn salve made according to the recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (fol. 103r). Note the transformation of the transparent yellow mixture of melted wax and linseed oil into a thick white salve (beginning at around 04:15). (c) The Making and Knowing Project (CC BY-NC-SA).
Such insights from our own experience into the mental and cultural worlds of people in the past are powerful and evocative, but they need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Historians have shown that early modern people had diverse and completely different ways of understanding and experiencing their bodies compared to us moderns. For a start, few of us trained our bodies to specific manual tasks and expertise through years of apprenticeship. And that is before we get into problems of historical authenticity surrounding the use of pure modern ingredients and reading the paternoster off a laptop screen rather than reciting it by heart from lifelong habit. Properly considered, however, these limitations of reconstruction can be turned into a virtue, especially in a pedagogic context. They force students to think carefully about the historicity of materials and embodied experience, and thus help them problematise terms such as “body,” “craft,” and “nature” – categories that historians take for granted at their peril. Future researchers leave the laboratory with a greater critical awareness of what it means to understand material processes and to know by doing rather than through text, both in the present and the past.
All of this underscores a key point about recipes as texts: they are texts of action, and to fully read them, we have to get our hands dirty, however imperfect our modern ingredients and bodies may be for the job. The knowledge encoded in recipes is practical and, to use Pamela Smith’s term, emergent: it unfolds not in the reading, but in the doing. At best, reconstruction allows us glimpses into past worlds of materials and expertise; at worst, it shows us the gaps in the recipe that most early modern artisans or householders would have easily filled in, and the gaping holes in our own mastery of the requisite materials, gestures, and ideas.
The Making and Knowing Project is committed to sharing its own “recipe” for the kind of historical, practical, and digital work that we have been doing. In addition to the Digital Critical Edition, we are preparing a “Research and Teaching Companion” – a scalable template for hands-on teaching and online editions that teachers and researchers can adapt to their own needs. It will be ready in about a year’s time, and we look forward to bringing it to the “Around the Table” series.
Thanks, Tillmann, for the update on Making and Knowing! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.
 Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020), https://edition640.makingandknowing.org.
 Francisco Alonso-Almeida, “Genre conventions in English recipes, 1600–1800,” in Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550–1800, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 68–90.
 Taape, Tillmann, Pamela H. Smith, and Tianna Helena Uchacz, “Schooling the Eye and Hand: Performative Methods of Research and Pedagogy in the Making and Knowing Project,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 43, no. 3 (2020): 323–40.
 Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2010): 128–79.
The eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment signaled an era of standardization for the visual and textual colonial taxonomies of resources in the Americas. These illustrations were intended for export to European elites, many of whom would never touch foot in the Western hemisphere. In his late eighteenth century illustration of the species zamia, for example, José Jernónimo Triana showcased the rows of fleshy seeds hidden below leaves on the cusp of unraveling from the core (Fig. 1). Created for José Celestino Mutis’s Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), this image and others like it (Figs. 2-3) appears at once orderly and geometric, a generalization of the species, with only minor imperfections providing specificity.
These Enlightenment era illustrations, intended to train the European eye to “assess, possess, and order” the natural world of the Americas (Bleichmar 2009, 449), quietly espouse the slippery power of “visuality” (Mirzoeff 2011), in which the gaze is harnessed as a vehicle to control historical and social imaginaries. By demonstrating what we “know,” these illustrations also promote an amnesia of that which the Spanish empire does not want to remember. What at first glance appears to be an objective rendering of an indigenous cycad is instead a subjective, highly editorialized image that conflates stages of floral maturation and form (Bleichmar 2017, 146). Further, by extracting the species from its ecological context and setting it upon a bare, white background, Triana depicts the flora as nomadic, readily removed from its natural landscape and ripe for intellectual export to Spanish imperial stewardship. I suggest that the manner in which these imperial spectacles supplanted the realities of colonized lands and peoples have again today resurged in the zeitgeist by way of the scientific and objective knowledges that underscore global Modernist Cuisine.
From the colonial era onward, Mexican cuisine has held a privileged place in the global and national imagination as a material signifier of the nation’s layered cultural past. In 2010, the nation’s foodways were declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Simultaneously, the new gastronomic guard of Modernist Cuisine took hold over restaurants across Mexico City. Most notably, chef Enrique Olvera’s modernist Mexican restaurant, Pujol, has been a consistent occupant on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants since its opening in 2000 and has launched Olvera into global fame as the ambassador of Mexican cuisine to the Western gastronomic consumer.
This modernist attention to the innovation and intellectualization of cuisine has led the popular media to ask, “Is food art?” This question signals a curiosity about the chef-artist as facilitator of emotive and intellectual experiences rather than, or in addition to, gustatory ones. We see Olvera couched within this discourse in television shows like Chef’s Table (Netflix 2016), which depicts Olvera crafting dishes to the tune of classical music, like a sculptor modeling a Neoclassical figure. This grappling with the “genius” of the chef, however, masks complex relationships between the plated dishes and the cuisine’s perceived value. Much like colonial botany, modern gastronomy is not only about the pleasures of the palate, but also about the production of cultural knowledge rooted in extraction and re-contextualization.
As defined by Nathan Myhrvold, Modernist Cuisine emerged out of the striving toward innovation, discovery, and revelation of the original modernist restaurant, elBulli, in Catalonia, Spain, where chef Ferran Adriá became known for translating cookery into “concepts” (Myhrvold 2011, 39). Myhrvold invokes the term “Modernist” to equate this cuisine with the avant-garde artists of 19th century Europe. This is an approach to foodways that purports to be about newness and “discovery.” Yet, these notions are as old and fraught as “modernity” itself and the violent power structures upon which today’s globalized world was built (see Mignolo 2011).
Although Pujol resides in Polanco, the most exclusive neighborhood in all of Mexico City, the chef roots his gastronomic narrative in the impoverished economy of means out of which Mexican cuisine evolved. In short, the visual program that underscores Olvera’s modernist culinary empire has been built on the idea, the imaginary, of Mexico City’s working class—a community and landscape to which Olvera purports to be our guide. In his 2015 cookbook Mexico from the Inside Out, Olvera juxtaposes photographs of his dishes with portrayals of Mexican street vendors and outdoor markets. The viewer oscillates between elegant, closely cropped views of Olvera’s compositions and vibrant scenes of Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods. These photographs offer up Olvera’s dishes as specimens for study, much like those of Spanish scientific expeditions three hundred years earlier.
The Green Salsa Salad shows the plate from above, such that the composition appears to be an ecology, a world unto itself (Fig. 4). The individual ingredients that comprise the dish, such as cilantro, fried scallions, and purslane sprouts, make themselves known, but the internal cohesion among the items also exhibits careful, deliberate composure. Nothing appears too heavily manipulated—even the small dices of serrano chiles and onions can see be discerned cube by cube, and individual flakes of kosher salt sparkle atop the white plate—such that the viewer can recognize the dish as an amalgam of its discrete parts, parts that harken back to the foodstuffs sold at the informal, open-air markets sporadically pictured throughout the cookbook. Likewise, the Bass al Pastor (Fig. 5) as well as the Fried Pork Belly (Fig. 6) showcase a taxonomy of ingredients that, rather than being wholly new, actually draw upon the artifice of colonial order seen in the Royal Botanical Expedition’s illustrations with blank backgrounds, overhead vantage points, and recognizable parts that comprise the whole.
There is a frankness to Olvera’s dishes and the illustrations alike that render them self-evident, as though the images have been presented to us at their most honest, most vulnerable, and therefore most knowable state. We feel a connection to the “discovery” of these specimens as the triumph of human mastery over nature. Thus, societal values and morals reside at the very heart of these seemingly scientific renderings, a testament to the oft-overlooked reality that if food is indeed art, then it, too, is equally as capable of shaping the “visuality” of our socio-historical gaze.
The colour black is the reason why I became an art historian specialising in Netherlandish oil painting. From the backgrounds of 17th-century still-life paintings, to nocturnal representations with strong chiaroscuro and portraits of rulers dressed in fancy velvety clothes, black shades are omnipresent and mesmerizing. I always wonder: How can a colour be so deep, intense, and vibrant?
If painters could represent in painting cloths with black pigments, it means that people in the past could dye their fabrics in such dark tones. Which materials and processes can produce this colour so rare in Nature? The Museum Hof van Besleyden, in Mechelen, tries to answer these questions in the research-driven exhibition “Back to Black”. This exhibition presents some of results reached by the interdisciplinary research project ARTECHNE.
Black as a Time Machine
After walking for a while in the museum, which is dedicated to the history of Mechelen, visitors are welcomed in a small room by old portraits of Flemish dignitaries. Their elegant black clothing and severe glance remind us of the power they once held. A little further, the visitor encounters a contemporary installation consisting of long and irregular pieces of black wool suspended from the ceilings. There is a common thread between these artworks: the flaps’ colour is produced by a similar dying process to the one used five centuries earlier to dye the clothes depicted in the paintings.
This room informs us about the making of black dyes that has been transmitted in French, Dutch, German, and Italian over the centuries through recipes and through masters in artists’ workshops. The choice of Mechelen as a location for this exhibition is perfect: the city was well-known for its production of “Burgundian Black”, or “Noir de Flandres”, in the 16th century.
Artistic Process, Natural Ingredients
Objects and documents illustrate the transhistorical voyage of European knowledge regarding black colour technologies. On one side of the room, a sample book with pieces of silk, wool and linen dyed in black shows the results of (re)enactment of historical techniques learnt and tested during workshops organised as part of the ARTECHNE project. The dyed fabrics are presented together with the list of ingredients and the illustrated recipes providing these shades. The black colour offers a wide variety of nuances depending on the recipes’ components, materials’ reaction while drying, and the fabric.
On the other side of the room, jars with ingredients such as plant-based materials necessary for the experimental reconstructions of black dyes are displayed on shelves. For the 21st-century viewer, who tends to forget how and with which materials the final products sold in stores are manufactured, it is useful to remember that it originally comes from natural elements!
Recording the Making
A short movie shows footage shot during the Burgundian Black Collaboratory in Claudy Jongstra’s atelier in Friesland, where the artist has been experimenting for a long time with dying techniques involving natural ingredients. Dressed in winter clothes, participants are stirring liquids in boiling cauldrons, while other are mixing together strange ingredients. As if it were a secret rally of alchemists, apprentices follow directives of experts, artists, practitioners, and dye specialists, who master old techniques. This video provides visitors with an overview of the different steps to follow in order to obtain the results they have in front of their eyes. Moreover, this recording reminds us that the success of a recipe does not only rely upon one’s ability to understand textual sources, but also on the discussions with knowledgeable and experimented people, as participants described in previous posts.
Touching Black Stuff
The curators offered visitors the thrilling opportunity to touch objects in the museum. On a table, pieces of black fabrics invite them to give their opinion about the final products by manipulating the samples and filling a questionnaire. Viewers can decide which textile looks and feels the most expensive, elegant, or beautiful. This interaction between people and objects in the context of a museum provides an agreeable feeling of playing a role in the research. Alongside, visitors can write down on paper cards some concepts that they associate with ‘black’ to create a contemporary overview of the collective imagination connected to this colour.
Binding Together Academic Research and Public Institutions
For those who find academic research difficult to grasp, bringing the results of interdisciplinary projects into a museum builds bridges between public institutions and academia. Moreover, it highlights the importance of collaborating with different protagonists of the art world, such as art historians, artists, artisans, conservators, curators, and art technologists.
This exhibition is therefore likely to attract a large public to the museum. The black colour remains a favourite colour in the textile industry nowadays and continues to fascinate people. Furthermore, the focus on the technical making allows a large potential of interactive activities.
In brief, I left the museum with a mind full of new sensations and an impression of having participated in something special.