The Measure of Ingredients in Early Modern Recipes

By Juliet Claxton

Modern cookery books list recipe ingredients that are carefully weighed out using standardized units of measurement. It is precise calibration that allows for a recipe to be replicated with accuracy, even by a novice cook. Early modern recipe collections, however, are often frustratingly reticent about the exact quantities involved – so observation and experience must have been an important part of practical cookery. The expanding demand for texts of culinary and medicinal recipes from the early seventeenth century onwards, however, reveals that measurements, cooking times, and instructions had to become increasingly precise. Cooks and housewives needed the information to reproduce a recipe without prior experience. Knowing the measure of ingredients was a key aptitude, but contemporary inventories show that owning kitchen scales, while recommended, was not habitual until the mid-eighteenth century.[i] How were ingredients measured when the most frequently given instructions were to use ‘a handful’ or ‘a pretty quantity’?

The evidence from one of the earliest volumes of medicinal recipes, A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon, dated 1606 and attributed to the countess of Arundel (Wellcome: MS 213), reveals that ingredients were measured using a combination of weight, volume, and sight. To assist and guide in this procedure the recipes turned to both bodily parts and quotidian, domestic objects that were familiar to the early modern householder.

Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Fig. 1. Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Naturally a cook’s hands and fingers were the primary gauges.  The recipe for ‘A Medicine for those that have a moist Stomake’ calls for ‘a toste of white Breade of a reasonable thickness and of the breadth of your two fingers’ (MS 213/60). A ‘handful’ or ‘half a handful’ are the volume’s most often cited units of measurement, but hand sizes varied. As Nicholas Culpeper scornfully noted: ‘An Handful is as much as you can gripe in one Hand; and a Pugil as much as you can take up with your Thumb and two Fingers; and how much that is who can tell?'[ii] A need to refine this measurement was often necessary, and the recipe for ‘A Salue to cure every olde Sorre’ calls for ‘3 slyces of yeollowe rustye Bacon the slyces so long and brode as a large hand’ (MS 213/144). In a later printed volume, Natura Extentratealso attributed to the countess of Arundel, the term ‘handful’ was further defined.  Instructions for herbs were marked with the letter ‘M’ indicating a good or large handful, while directions for flowers had the letter ‘P’ to indicate a small handful.[iii] 

Other recipes in A Booke of diuers Medecines turn to kitchen paraphernalia to ascertain accurate quantities. Ladles and spoons appear, but so do objects from the natural world, particularly beans and nuts, which are usually consistent in size. For example, ‘A cure to take away the pynn and webb in the eye’ itemizes ‘fyne white sugar as much as a walnut and a piece of Sanguis Draconis as bigg as a Beane’ (MS 213/12). Sometimes this measurement was even further refined: ‘A Salue for any Soore’ instructs the cook to putt into this salve ‘so much Pitche as a greate wallnut’ (MS 213/144), while another recipe for an ‘olde Sore’ uses ‘a piece of white Copperesse of the quantitye of an Hassell [hazel] Nutt’ (MS 213/151). Even living creatures such as shellfish or birds are regarded as a useful comparable unit. For example, a water for ‘any newe or olde Soores’ uses ‘as much Allome as a crabb’  (MS 213/146), and an ‘Oyntement called Pampilion’ needed ‘a great lappfull’ of Popler leaves ‘before they be opened any bigger than a young cockes combes’ (MS 213/155).

Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection.CC BY
Fig. 2. Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Standard units of pounds and ounces appear less frequently in the manuscript and are often used for ingredients that were purchased commercially and weighed in store – unlike domestic kitchens, apothecaries usually owned a set of scales. The most expensive ingredients, however, were often cited in pecuniary terms. ‘A Medecine food for those that are apte often to caste through weakeness of the Stomacke’ uses ‘two penny worthe of Saffron’ (MS 213/62).  ‘A Medicine for the Collick and the Stone’ uses ‘a pennyworth of cloves and mace an halfepennye worth of longe pepper, and two pennyworth of Turmarick’ (MS 213/68/70), while another has ‘the weight of eyghte pence in Parmacetye, two pennyworthe of cloues’ and ‘half a crowne of the powder of Mastick’ (MS 213/76).

Many elite women of this period were responsible for large households and often relied upon senior servants, both male and female, to produce food, brew beer, and distil medicines. Providing careful notes that allowed for various units of measurement meant that recipes could prepared despite the absence of the householder.


[i] Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 98.

[ii] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory, (London: 1653).

[iii] Elizabeth Spiller, Seventeenth-century English Recipe Books, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), xxxvi.

The Pressure Cooker was Not an Instant Success

Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin's "Digester of Bones," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin’s “Digester of Bones,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jennifer Egloff

“What’s in your Pot tonight?”

This question is often asked on Facebook pages dedicated to the Instant Pot and other electronic pressure cookers.  While many people know that the pressure cooker existed prior to becoming trendy during the past few years, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was invented in the 1670s by a man named Denis Papin.  Although Papin is not a household name or textbook staple like his colleagues Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, or Isaac Newton, he was a noteworthy member of the European knowledge community during the second half of the seventeenth century. (For more on Pepin and his connections to early modern scientists, technicians, machine-makers, natural scientists, and philosophers, see Thony Christie’s super post at The Renaissance Mathematicus!)

Born in Blois, France in 1647 he studied medicine and utilized patronage connections with Marie Charron, the wife of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in order to receive a position assisting the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens with physical and chemical experiments at the Louvre in 1673.  In 1675, Papin relocated to London—equipped with a letter of introduction from Huygens—where he soon began assisting Boyle with his air pump experiments.  While doing so, Papin designed his pressure cooker, which was a sealed container, in which water could be heated to create internal pressure that was many times greater than that of the earth’s atmosphere.  By experimenting on food, Papin was applying the principles of temperature, pressure, and volume to practical problems, while simultaneously formulating additional theoretical principles from his observations. 

After having demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, Papin published an account called A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681.  His text contained a description of the experiments he did with his Digester, and how it radically decreased the time required to cook meat, soften bones, ferment wine, prepare confections, dyes, and chemicals, and even incubate eggs.  He also included an account of the cost to build his engine, and provided some cost-benefit analysis, highlighting the potential for large profits. 

Papin especially highlighted how valuable his device would be at sea, both logistically—because one could cook with sea water in it—and with regards to nutrition.  Scurvy, which has the symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems, was a habitual problem for early modern English mariners.  While medical professionals now understand that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, also referred to as vitamin C, during the seventeenth century there were many competing theories about the causes.

Calling upon his medical training, Papin claimed that mariners’ high instances of developing scurvy was related to overconsumption of salted meat, which was a staple of mariners’ diets.  Papin considered his Digester’s ability to quickly and easily turn bones—which might have otherwise been discarded—into nutritious and flavorful jellies to be one of its most significant applications.  He claimed, “that Gellies being made of volatile parts, and easie to be digested, would be apt to correct that defect of the salt meat.”[1]  Papin thought that jellies would be nutritious for people on land as well, and he focused on jellies when making his financial arguments about the profitability of his Digester.

Although some of his contemporaries, including the diarist John Evelyn, enjoyed his jellies, Papin made it clear in his 1687 text, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, in which he detailed additional experiments that he had done, that “very few People have been willing to make use of it.”[2]  Throughout Continuation, Papin made efforts to promote his device to a wide variety of people.  He even performed a weekly live demonstration of his device—kind of the seventeenth-century equivalent of an infomercial.  However, his stipulation that anyone who attended needed “to bring along with them a Recommendation from any Members of the Royal Society” may have been working against his objective of trying to get more quotidian people interested in utilizing his Digester for practical purposes.[3]

There are many reasons why the pressure cooker may not have been immediately successful, including the temporal and monetary investment required to build the device, the fact that they did occasionally explode, and that preparing food was traditionally a female task, whereas Papin advertised his new technology toward men.  Nevertheless, Papin serves as an illustrative example of a member of the seventeenth century European knowledge community.  Similarly to many of his counterparts, Papin’s intellectual interests spanned many disciplines.  He studied medicine, performed physical and chemical experiments, taught mathematics, and knew multiple languages. 

The fact that Papin, and many of his counterparts, sought to apply theoretical principles to practical problems, such as food preservation and nutrition, while in turn utilizing their observations of these quotidian problems to further develop and refine their physical and chemical theories, can help us to understand that the equations written on the pages of our textbooks, and the quotidian events of our daily lives—such as preparing our daily bread—are not as disparate as we may have been lead to believe.

Resources and Further Reading

Papin, Denis.  A continuation of the new digester of bones its improvements, and new uses it hath been applyed to, both for sea and land : together with some improvements and new uses of the air-pump, tryed both in England and Italy. London: Printed by Joseph Streater, 1687.

Papin, Denis.  A new digester or engine for softning bones containing the description of its make and use in these particulars : viz. cookery, voyages at sea, confectionary, making of drinks, chymistry, and dying : with an account of the price a good big engine will cost, and of the profit it will afford. London: Printed by J.M. for Henry Bonwicke, 1681.

Shapin, Steven. “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist 77, no. 6 (1989): 554-63.

Shapin, Steven.  A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016.

[1] Papin, A New Digester, 21.

[2] Papin, Continuation, A3-A3v.

[3] Papin, Continuation, A3v.

Jennifer Egloff earned her PhD in History from New York University in 2015.  Combining her undergraduate training in Mathematics with her graduate training in History, Egloff’s dissertation “The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” incorporates elements of Atlantic History and the History of Science to explore the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals utilized numerical methods and mathematical techniques to attempt the face the challenges brought on by the opening of the Atlantic to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information.  A strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, Egloff recently held a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, and she will be joining the History Department of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in August 2019.

Vegetable Soup: A Friendship Revealed by a Recipe

Nikki Yutuc

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.

This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime. 

Margaret Chase Smith and Liz Hart at the Senator’s Skowhegan home c. 1980s. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

Margaret Chase Smith’s recipe collection includes a recipe for Vegetable Soup credited to “Liz Hart.” Research reveals the recipe contributor was accomplished sculptor and artist from Dallas, Texas, Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Hart. Her obituary credits Hart with the creation of statues designed for the Boy Scouts Headquarters, the rotunda of A. Webb Roberts University, and figures for Sea World Texas. Her most well-known piece is a bust of Margaret Chase Smith in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Her recipe in Smith’s collection preserves their relationship. More than just artist and subject, Liz Hart and Margaret Chase Smith were good friends.

The two women exchanged letters throughout the time that they worked together. The letters, kept in the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine, discuss the progress of the bust and details about their personal lives. Because Hart lived in Dallas, Texas, she was unable to see her subject regularly but managed to create a piece that truly captured the essence of Margaret Chase Smith. In a letter that Hart wrote to Smith, she said that “portrait sculptors throughout the ages have had different philosophies concerning their work. Mine lies somewhere in-between the Romans who pursued with fierce honesty the naturalistic notation of personal character, ‘warts and all’, and Michelangelo who observed, with respect to his idealized figure of Guiliano de Medici carved for the Medici Chapel in Florence, that likeness was unimportant in commemorating an individual, since a thousand years in the future, who would value the resemblance?” Her rendering of Smith captures her philosophy.  

Smith and the bust by sculptor Liz Hart. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

The bust has her signature curly hair and wrinkles that show her age at the time. It accurately resembles Margaret Chase Smith, but its position is the most powerful. Her bust looks upwards as if she is looking forward to the possibilities. She is a powerful woman, and the bust represents her well. Liz Hart was aware of Smith’s strong personality, and the bust needed to symbolize her achievements. Hart described the image of Smith that she wanted to create in a letter to Smith saying, “I have been trying to capture your personality as I see it, alert, brilliant, self-assured, determined, yet very, very feminine….. I have not, nor will I show every wrinkle, hair, etc.” Smith was aware of her appearance, and Hart did her best to create an image of Smith that pleased the subject. Smith was impressed by the sculpture because of its resemblance and Hart’s expertise.

A copy of the bust from the collections of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

During the presentation of the bust, Smith said, “The subject for a work of art is seldom pleased with what she sees, thus, my reluctance from the beginning to be the subject; but with the patience and expertise of Liz Hart, and her love and admiration for me, I did my best and was rewarded by what I believe to be a true likeness of me. Not a detail was missed; and after hearing so many oohs and aahs by friends and strangers and on close examination myself, I have come to believe that it is a true work of art.” Images of Smith standing next to her bust showcase Hart’s talent and attention to detail. Hart captured all of Smith’s prominent features and simultaneously replicated her determined personality. The original bust’s home in the Smithsonian, “is a testament to her importance. She inspired generations of women, especially in the mid-twentieth century when many women were expected to only serve in domestic roles, and her dedication to the public will forever be remembered through Liz Hart’s bronze bust of her” (Portraits of Women in the Western World).

Liz Hart’s recipe for vegetable soup in Margaret Chase Smith’s recipe collection.
Liz Hart’s recipe for vegetable soup continued.

The relationship between Hart and Smith was more than professional. The two had become good friends, and Hart gave Smith a recipe, Vegetable Soup, to keep in her collection. According to Angie Stockwell, a collection specialist at the Margaret Chase Smith Library, Senator Smith never made the recipe. Mrs. Stockwell speculates, “I suspect she might have had her housekeeper make it for her, as by the time Senator Smith met Liz, she would have been older and perhaps not too inclined to cook.” With many ingredients and an enormous yield, the recipe seems poorly suited to Smith’s lifestyle during her final years. However, for Liz Hart, as an artist with a family who worked from home, the long-simmering soup may have ideally suited her work and family’s needs. The recipe may have served as a reminder of a dear friend rather than practical instructions in Smith’s collection.

Nikki Yutuc is a fourth-year Finance and Management double-major and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine. 

  1. “Elizabeth Hart Sight and Sound Sculpture.” 20c Design
  2. “Elizabeth Hart Wall Sculpture – Entendons Nous.” At
  3. “Margaret Chase Smith.” Smithsonian
  4. Halliday, Robin Rominger. “View Mary Hart’s Obituary on and Share Memories.” Mary Hart Obituary – Dallas, TX | Dallas Morning News
  5. “Portraits of Women in the Western World.” 24,
  6. Stockwell, A. (2019). Email. Margaret Chase Smith Library

Exploring Class and Social Ties in Chocolate Crunch Cookies

Caitlin Hillery

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.

This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel A. Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime. 

“Chocolate Crunch Cookies” is the last recipe in the “Cookies” section of Margaret Chase Smith’s personal recipe box. Though entirely handwritten, it is absent from any sign of a contributor’s name or the date added. On the back of the recipe card is the first half of another handwritten recipe, this one for hermits—scratched-out, upside-down, but still legible. The contributor has added several personal comments after the customary instructions: “very good and something different,” she writes, and laments over the rising costs of semi-sweet chocolate—farmore preferable, she confides, to the cheaper but less satisfactory “sweet chocolate.” 

Smith’s personal recipe collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library in Skowhegan, Maine. Photography by Rachel Snell.

After a first glance, this recipe clearly relies on staple ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, shortening, baking soda, vanilla. The most expensive ingredients are the nuts and the chocolate (and these, of course, are entirely up to the individual baker’s discretion). Easy-to-find ingredients, yes, but not universally affordable. Upon initial analysis of this recipe, its apparent similarity to a chocolate chip cookie was immediately noticeable, and the original Toll House cookie recipe seemed to be a rational jumping-off point for research. “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies,” as they originally appeared in the 1938 edition of Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes, are, in fact, almost identical to the “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” in Smith’scollection. Theonly differences between the two recipes lie in the type of fat, the amount of chocolate, and theoven temperature. While the Smith recipe providesfar more detailed descriptions for how tocombine the ingredients, the similarities in the type and quantity of ingredients speak volumes.[1]

Smith’s recipe for Chocolate Crunch Cookies. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

The similarities between the two recipes suggests “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” made its way into Smith’s collection somewhere between 1938—when the pivotal edition of Ruth Wakefield’s cookbook was published—and 1940—when Nestlé began producing “chocolate morsels.” On March 20, 1939, Ruth Wakefield sold her aforementioned recipe to Nestlé for $1 and, reportedly, a lifetime supply of chocolate, immediately making “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” available to a much wider audience. Nestlé introduced “chocolate morsels” in 1940 for greater ease of making the cookies, though the contributor of the Smith recipe still specifies chopping a chocolate bar into pea-sized pieces—an indication that the “morsels” were, perhaps, a luxury item, too expensive, impractical, or even not yet invented at the date of contribution.[2]

Comparison of Smith’s Chocolate Crunch Cookie Recipe with Wakefield’s original recipe.

Expense, in particular, is a notable focus in the analysis of this recipe due to several factors that suggest the possibility of the contributor’s low socioeconomic status. She substitutes the butter in the original Toll House recipe for shortening, a less expensive and more shelf-stable fat; the scribbled-out recipe for hermits on the back of the cookie recipe suggests that she recycled recipe cards to avoid waste; much of her commentary surrounds the price of chocolate and her disappointment at not being able to afford to make this particular recipe anymore; and she cites substituting a cheaper chocolate, sweet rather than semi-sweet, in an endeavor to prepare the cookies nonetheless before dismissing that “it isn’t quite the same.”

Having grown up in a working-class family herself, living in Skowhegan and working her own job by the age of 12, Margaret Chase Smith probably cut a less intimidating figure to the women with whom she associated—indeed, itis even likely that women of lower economic status would have felt more comfortable sharing their recipes with her, even on previously used cards. The question still stands: who may have contributed this recipe to Smith’s collection? Assuming, for now, that the 1938-1940 hypothesis is correct for the submission of the recipe; it would make the most sense that Sen.Smith received this recipe from someone in the Congressional Club, the only women’s club in which she was active during those years. The scratched-out hermit recipe challenges this interpretation. Hermits are a uniquely regional food, containing northeastern/Canadian traditional elements such as raisins, molasses, and brown sugar. Would the same politically connected wife have submitted two such commonplace, simple recipes, on reused recipe cards, nonetheless?[3]

Photograph of Margaret Madeline Chase in 1927 while she was President of the Maine Business and Professional Women’s Club. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

The other most likely possibility as to the recipe’s contributor is a member of either Maine’s Sorosis Club or Business and Professional Women’s Club (PBW), the two women’s organizations in which MCS was notably active throughout her life. Such an origin would explain the hints of regional tradition, the congenial tone observed in the commentary, the indications of a lower-class contributor, and—perhaps mostnotably—the shareable nature of both recipes. The BPW, in particular, had a “downtown clubhouse” that members who worked in the city would use as an area to eat lunch—a prime excuse to have quick, easily distributed treats on hand.[4]

Smith’s Chocolate Crunch Cookies, adapted and prepared by the author.

It’s not surprising that this recipe retained its spot in MCS’ recipe box; as her personal secretary Angie Stockwell recalled, the senator “always liked to have some sort of crunch cookie on hand.”  Her former housekeeper remembered how, on her weekly shopping trips, she was always instructed to buy Pepperidge Farm cookies, which, apparently, “disappeared somewhere!”  Did she ever make these cookies?  We may never know—but if she tried them even once, I’d bet that they remained a favorite.[5]

Caitlin Hillery is a third-year Food Science and Human Nutrition major with a concentration in Food Science and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine.

[1]Carolyn Wyman, The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book: Scrumptious Recipes & Fabled History From Toll House to Cookie Cake Pie(New York: Countryman Press, 2013). 

[2]Wyman,The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book; Jon Michaud, “Sweet Morsels: A History of the Chocolate-Chip Cookie.”The New Yorker, 19 June 2017. 

[3]Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001). 

[4]Jeannette W. Cockroft, “The Transformative Power of Work: The Early Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith,” Maine History47:2 (July 2013); Diane Tye, Baking as Biography: a Life Story in Recipes(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010).

[5]Email correspondence with Angie Stockwell, Archivist, Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.