I have held a long fascination with how textures are represented in recipes. As we all know, then as now, producing medicines and food often involves a multi-step process, and careful observation of changes in textures is often the key to success.
Take, for example, the classic white sauce.
It all seems simple enough – we mix and heat together butter and flour and then
add milk (hot or cold, depending on where you stand on this issue), simmer and
whisk away and, voilà, we should have a silky-smooth sauce, ready for some posh
mac and cheese, or baked endive, and much more. Now readers, I know what you’re
thinking. It sounds so easy on paper but, if we were honest, we all have
stories of failed batches of béchamel. The sauce can taste raw (classic mistake
of not cooking the flour enough) or be lumpy (the blender trick never works for
me) or end up too thin or thick.
A few years ago, I finally found the
perfect recipe for me from Annie Bell’s In my Kitchen. However, though Annie
provides the perfect ingredient proportions for my family’s taste of white
sauce, for the crucial step – cooking the butter and flour together – I rely on
Schulman’s description. The mixture needs to be heat for around 5 minutes until
it looks like ‘wet sand.’ The monitoring and observing of textures,
particularly any changes, is key to making the perfect white sauce and many
other dishes besides.
The early modern recipe archive is also
filled with similar sets of instructions where changes in texture were used as
markers for the completion of a particular step in production. In my recent
book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge,
I discuss some of these examples in a chapter on “Recipes Trials.” Due to the
generosity of friends and colleagues and the enthusiasm of groups such as the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective
(EMROC) and Before
Farm to Table, new examples emerge all the time. Today, I wanted to share a
particularly intriguing recipe, which came to light at the EMROC transcribathon last fall.
The recipe is for making lemon wafers and
is part of the recipe collection of a seventeenth-century
English gentlewoman named Jane Dawson. The instructions are brief but detailed.
We are told to dry, sift and beat
double-refined sugar and mix with the juice of a lemon until it becomes the consistency of honey.
Then, scooping some of the mixture in a spoon, we should heat the spoon over a
chafing dish of hot coals until the surface of the mixture touching the spoon
is “crisp” – that is (according to
the OED) rippling, folding or wrinkling. Taking care that the mixture does not
boil, we should then spread the melted mixture onto a square piece of paper,
pinning the two corners of the paper together in order to curl or bend the
wafer and let it dry in this configuration. When we are ready to eat or serve
the lemon wafer, we should wet the “wrong” side of the paper with water to
release the candy.
As with making béchamel, key to this recipe
are the practices of observing and interpreting changes in texture. Two points
are of particular importance here – ensuring that the sugar and lemon juice mix
achieves the ‘consistency of honey’ and that the mixture heats until it crisps
or ripples on the hot spoon.
After the transcribathon, some EMROC members were
so intrigued by this recipe that they tried their hands at re-creating it.
Lisa Smith, Maggie Simon, and their various assistants spent afternoons mixing
and tasting lemony sugar syrup and heating it using a variety of methods from
plate warmers to electric hobs. I’ll leave you to read about their adventures here
and here, but it is
telling that both ended their posts with a reflection about the assumed knowledge
required for this recipe. One particular texture was picked up for comment –
the consistency of honey. Both Lisa and Maggie were stymied by the instructions
to mix fine sugar and lemon juice to the “right” consistency of honey. After
all, as a natural product, honey can come in many guises. Our intrepid makers
tried to reproduce the thickness of raw honey, runny honey, and crystalized
honey and each resulted in a different product with varying degrees of success.
Observing textures or changes in textures is clearly
a key part of following recipes. Yet, it turns out that it is hard to convey hands-on
experiential knowledge on paper, particularly across time and space. Often
times, descriptions of textures are made using analogies (e.g. consistency of
honey) or metaphors (e.g. wet sand) requiring the recipe writer and reader to
work within a similar frame of reference. Further focus on reading or
interpreting representations of “textures” in past and present thus seems a
fruitful way to shed light on histories of observation, sensorial and
Leiden University’s English Language and Culture BA is aimed at teaching about not just the literature and language of the English-speaking world (broadly defined) but also about its culture. This means that when I design my medieval English literature courses, I encourage students to explore this literature within its beautiful, conflicted and multifaceted cultural environments—and their present-day resonances.
One of the activities I introduced to my courses most recently was a medieval feast. Students were tasked with translating historical recipes out of their original Middle English—a language that was spoken in England between c. 1100 and 1500, years before Shakespeare was born. Once students had translated their recipes, they tried out some medieval cooking and wrote short and imaginative reflections about how their culinary creations reflected medieval culture. I’ve compiled these recipes and reflections for a ‘digital medieval cookbook’ here.
The activity was structured in a way that would allow students to lead their own learning experiences, since scholarship of teaching and learning tends to suggest that people learn better through activities that emphasize active exploration over passive listening (cf. Messineo et al. 2007). So, students, working in groups of three or four, selected for themselves which recipes they wanted to focus on out of pre-defined sets, and they decided independently how best to approach the assignment. The resultant projects drew from an impressive range of multimedia formats, from comic strips to vlog-style cooking tutorials, and reflected an insightful understanding of medieval written and culinary culture.
In keeping with the student-driven structure of this learning task, this post will feature reflections from two of the groups who participated in the assignment. These reflections will explore some of the striking differences between modern and medieval cuisine and speak to the fascinating experience of preparing medieval food in a modern kitchen.
For medieval writers, feasting could be political. In a widely-popular medieval legend, a well-timed “wassail” (a drinking toast still in use today) was key to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain (in the 5th century CE). One of the earliest versions of the stories comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), which is best known for containing one of the longest early accounts of King Arthur. In Geoffrey’s account, Vortigern (leader of the Britons) invited Hengist (leader of the Saxons) to Britain from across the North Sea. Hengist brought his daughter Rowena with him. When Rowena met Vortigern at a feast, she approached him with a full cup of mead and, in her own language, toasted him with the words “Lauerd king wacht heil!” (“Lord king, wassail!”). Rowena’s greeting was apparently so pleasant that Vortigern was enchanted by Rowena, let his guard down and drank too much. Ultimately, he married Rowena and, in so doing, enabled the Saxon invasion of England. While undoubtedly an invention, the story illustrates how the feast, in medieval popular imagination, held the potential to influence the succession of kingdoms, the building of dynasties, and the collapse of empires.
Despite its importance to medieval writers, food has traditionally been left out of discussions of medieval culture and the value of recipes as historical documents is often overlooked. This neglect of culinary culture is due, in part, to a pervasive sense that it belongs in a domestic sphere separated from the political one, where the “real” history is thought to happen. Yet this distinction between the domestic and the political has been shown, in various domains, to be artificial; and as the Rowena anecdote makes clear, it holds little grounding in medieval culture. By shedding light on medieval culinary culture, this class project participates in a broader movement of recognizing the manifold ways in which food shaped and reflected medieval culture.
The recipes for the project came from a medieval cookbook known as the Forme of Cury(c. 1390s). It was, according its preface, compiled by “the chef Maister Cokes of kyng Richard the Secunde kyng of Englond” (fol. 1r). The recipes were taken from Samuel Pegge’s edition; while it has the disadvantage of being rather antiquated, it has the advantage over more modern editions of being out of copyright. I selected recipes that would be feasible to cook and that would be easily transportable, so that students could share their delicious creations with the class.
Medieval Food in the Modern Kitchen
By Ilse van Oosten (Leiden University)
After receiving a set of recipes, our group of four was responsible for all the stages of our project: translating our recipes, researching medieval food, and (perhaps the most enjoyable part) recreating one of our recipes. It was interesting to see what kind of ingredients and dishes a medieval person would have been familiar with and how food could reflect a person’s social position in the medieval period. Unlike reading literature, which can seem removed from everyday medieval life, reading these recipes felt like peering into a medieval kitchen.
Funnily enough, many of the recipes we translated were quite similar to some modern-day recipes. One recipe, named “appulmoy,” was a pudding-like version of our contemporary apple sauce. What surprised me is that many of the recipes were either vegetarian or fully vegan. The stereotype of the meat-loving medieval population was certainly called into question by these recipes. Discovering these links between medieval and modern-day cooking—the similar recipes and the mixed diet—was an unexpected and fascinating aspect of this project.
As we learned during the project, medieval recipes are a distinct text type that differs from its modern equivalent. There are, of course, some similarities; both medieval and modern recipes tend to start by giving the name of the dish as the title, and both tend to favour relatively short, practical sentences. Both also rely on some standard, formulaic phrases; many recipes in the Forme of Cury, end “and serue it forth,” which is comparable to the modern phrase “and serve the dish.” Yet medieval recipes tend to be rather sparse compared to their modern counterparts. They lack the kinds of measurement specifications and information about cooking time and temperature that are generally found in modern recipes. Medieval recipes also feature a limited set of cooking terms and are not divided up into separate steps, but are written in continuous sentences. They are much shorter than modern recipes and expect a great deal of prior knowledge from cooks. All this forced us to improvise a bit while trying out the recipes.
Although some medieval recipes did not sound too appetising, such as a “salat” consisting mainly of onions and an odd mixture of fresh herbs, some medieval recipes are really tasty and fun to make. Even though the real experience of a medieval kitchen would have been different, making medieval recipes today offers a glimpse of what went into making medieval food. Among other things, a lack of modern tools like blenders and programmable ovens means that it took much longer to prepare food in the medieval period than it does today. A modern cook trying these recipes for the first time may need to spend some time researching unfamiliar ingredients like “powdour fort” (“strong powder”) and I would recommend preparing the dish as a group, simply because it was the most fun bit of this assignment. Most recipes were not very difficult to make and offer a nice culinary experience for anyone interested in both history and cooking.
Medieval Food, Health, and Social Status
By Ellemijn Galjaard, Vita Jansen and Lisanne de Wolff (Leiden University)
Going into this assignment, our view of medieval food was stereotypical to say the least. We expected the medieval diet to be extremely carnivorous, unvaried and bland. However, we were surprised to find quite the opposite. An article by Rosalie Taylor revealed that medieval cooks were perfectly capable of preparing a wide variety of vegetables. In fact, greens were often left out of recipes because cooks were expected to know how to create a balanced dish without this information — not because medieval people didn’t eat vegetables. Unlike today’s cookbooks, medieval cookbooks omit specifics about boiling, blanching or sautéeing vegetables because these were thought of as general knowledge.
Indeed, many of the medieval recipes we read turned out to be far from bland. Two of the key ingredients in the recipe for Appulmoy, for example, were saffron and the aforementioned spice blend known as “powdour fort”. Compared to these powerful spices, the more generic combination of sugar and cinnamon used for Dutch ‘appelmoes’ comes up somewhat short. After tasting our home-made Appulmoy, we knew one thing for sure: the Middle Ages witnessed some great culinary creations.
To understand the differences between medieval and modern recipes, it is valuable to look at Middle English cooking in general. During the Middle Ages, cookery books were not as commonplace as they are today. The audience for cookery books was generally literate and well-off, because the production of books was rather costly (Mikkelsen Talgø 8). Additionally, the ingredients mentioned in medieval recipes could be quite expensive and thus inaccessible to the lower-income households. This aspect of medieval recipes was evident from an ingredient in one of our recipes: saffron. Even today, saffron is considered exceptionally pricey, and saffron had the same reputation as an exclusive spice in medieval times. Volker Schier describes saffron as “an object of conspicuous consumption reserved for the wealthy” (57).
But it had medical properties: “tonic, mood elevator, antidepressant, and hallucinogenic drug” (57). This means that saffron was not only to enhance the taste and colour of recipes, but served a medical purpose. J. Estes claims that “[b]y the late Middle Ages, the therapeutic benefits of food had entered into the everyday planning of at least the grand households” (1537). Spices more generally “were regarded as both aids to digestion and evidence of a hosts’ wealth” (1537). From this evidence, we can conclude that spices in the medieval period were thought to promote both one’s health and one’s reputation. This dual purpose of spices is not prominent in modern day cuisine, although there has been an increase in recent years in using spices for their antimicrobial properties in health-conscious diets.
Three ingredients in our recipe were hard to find, each for a different reason. The first was saffron, which can be hard to include in medieval cooking due to its cost and rarity. Although it can be a rather exclusive spice, it was available in a regular supermarket and we were able to procure some of it for the Appulmoy. But we were not able to obtain almond flour. It is today considered a health product akin to superfoods such as dried cranberries and dairy substitutes such as rice milk, but such products are not widely available. The inclusion of almond flour rather than regular flour in a medieval recipe, albeit one that was probably for the wealthy (judging from the saffron), suggests that in the medieval period almond flour was a more common ingredient than it is today. The third ingredient, “powdour fort” (or “strong powder”), was hard to find because its name was initially a mystery. We now know this refers to a mix of spices, containing pepper and cinnamon or pepper and ginger. We decided to try the cinnamon blend for our Appulmoy.
A few final tips for anyone embarking on a medieval cooking project…
When making medieval recipes, proceed with an open mind and an experimental attitude.
Do not worry too much about the right amount of pepper or cinnamon, or about the end result.
If you want to make sure your food turns out right, you can compare the medieval recipe with similar modern ones in order to get more exact timings and measurements.
However, this might take away from the experience, which is really the most important part: the experience of cooking something special with friends.
Estes, J. “Food as Medicine.” Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1534-53.
Messineo, Melinda, et l. “Inexperienced Versus Experienced Students’ Expectations for Active Learning in Large Classes.” College Teaching vol. 55, no. 3, 2007, pp. 125-33.
Mikkelsen Talgø, M. An Edition of the Fifteenth-Century Middle English Cookery Recipes in London, British Library’s MS Sloane 442. MA Thesis. University of Stavanger, 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April, 2019.
In the throes of research, we often compile so much information we don’t know what to do with it. It’s not our fault, really. Working with recipe books takes us into so many wonderfully strange and intriguing corners of early modern material culture — it’s hard not to want to write about them all. I end up making circuitous spreadsheets of recipes, long meandering catalogs befitting an early modern naturalist. And so, during this summer’s research project, on migratory freshwater fish in seventeenth-century England, it often felt like I was looking at something akin to John Milton’s description of the River Trent, that
Earth-born giant [who] spreads /
His thirty arms along th’indented meads
At a Vacation Exercise, (ll. 93-94).
How do I get my hands around this monster? What do I do with these lists of fish? How does one make sense of this tangle of umber and umbrana, pike and pickerel, roach and loach, turbot and burbot?
Fortunately, I had help. Mount Saint Mary College provides excellent support for students who want to do research with faculty, offering a stipend and free summer housing. This summer two Mount students, Annalise and Tori, applied to work with me. Both students came in with a good background in early modern paleography. In addition to regularly participating in EMROC Transcribathons, Tori took my History of the English Language course, which features a paleography module as a key component, and Annalise completed an independent study on early modern neonatal medicine with me.
Although both Annalise and Tori have found paleography and the history of medicine useful in their respective museology and clinical psychology internships, I understand that most of my students generally do not find the study of recipes to be a “practical” application of the learning. Paleography and textual editing don’t directly relate to many to postgraduate plans or career goals, which tend to be pretty far afield from the literature and culture of the seventeenth century.
For that reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how the skills we learn through the examination of manuscript recipe books can translate to other fields… The careful patience and attention to detail required in the transcribing and editing of text… The creative problem solving necessary for the deduction of meaning and intent… The agility needed to place individual recipes in a larger cultural context, to connect the part to the whole and see the big picture through the particular example…
But perhaps most of all, we talk about pattern recognition. What can you see that others might miss? How do the hidden patterns in recipes’ formal arrangement, lists of ingredients, and methods of preparation add up to something significant? Careful attention to the subtle structures of meaning is one of the most important skills we cultivate in the literature classroom, and recipe book culture offers a fertile field for this kind of analysis.
Compared with most of the literary texts we read in my class, the recipe books that we examine don’t come with a robust editorial apparatus that helps make sense of what they’re reading. Without an editor’s footlights to guide them, students have to pare down a massive amount of data into an intelligible pattern on their own. If we spend enough time comparing recipes, we learn how to read them on their own terms – why these ingredients are grouped together, why these sauces go with this meat, why this attribution is significant, and so forth. We did contextualize our research by reading a few articles each week, but ultimately this is an opportunity for students to devise for themselves the stories that can be told about recipe culture in early modern England.
Throughout the summer, the three of us met twice a week for six hours at a time to dig through manuscripts and discuss our findings. We don’t have institutional access to EEBO, ECCO, or Project Muse. And we don’t have any recipe books of our own in rare books collection. But thankfully many research libraries — such as the Folger, Iowa, UCLA, UPenn, the Wellcome — have digitized many of their manuscript recipe books. Even though our college has limited research resources, online access to these archives gives students the valuable opportunity to work with primary source materials. We are also lucky enough to be a short train ride away from one of the great public libraries in the world. A New York Public Library card not only gives students access to a range of databases free of charge, it also allows them to work with the Whitney Cookery Collection.
Over ten weeks, we ended up examining 101 manuscript recipe books and twenty-eight printed cookbooks that dated from 1380 to 1780. We transcribed and analyzed 584 freshwater fish recipes in total.
Emerging patterns in sturgeon recipes proved to be one of our most interesting findings, as we noticed they became much more common after 1660. Initially, I thought this could be explained by the influence of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), with its parade of thirty-three recipes for sturgeon baked, boiled, braised, fileted, forced, fried, soused, stewed, and stuffed. But while print cookbooks show a remarkable variety of preparations for fresh sturgeon, the manuscript recipes we found were almost exclusively pickles, perhaps a side effect of increased imports of sturgeon in brine barrels from Russia and North American colonies. Doubtlessly at play, as well, is a Restoration nostalgia for the royal feasts of yesteryear.
The late-seventeenth century yearning for sturgeon – an expensive fish uncommon in English waters – can also be seen in a set of recipes for dishes “pickled like sturgeon.” The earliest of the sixteen such recipes that we came across were in the The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669): “to souce turkeys” tied “up in the manner of Sturgeon” and another for an “Excellent Meat of Goose or Turkey” put “into pickle, like Sturgeon-pickle.” Turkey is the most common substitute for sturgeon in these recipes, but salmon, turbot, veal, and calf’s head are also transformed into “artificial sturgeon.”
But these recipes were also met with some trepidation. Annalise hit upon a recipe for “Artificiall Stergon” in the cookery book of Lettis Vesey (Folger MS W.b.456, fols. 140-41). Following instructions to pickle a turbot or turkey, Vesey admits,
I like sturgon very well but I dont know how I should like this.
Recipe collectors clearly gathered together many recipes despite not knowing how many would be useful for their endeavors. In humanities research, we often find ourselves embracing that same spirit, following the interesting and intriguing instead of the obvious as we search for emerging patterns that others have missed.
The abundance of fantastic historical writing—from insightful social media and blog posts to traditional academic monographs to op eds—means that most of us aren’t lacking interesting things to read. At times, though, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on important pieces, new books, or forgetting about germinal texts. This month, I decided to check in with some of the Editors here at the Recipes Project to find out what everyone’s reading in the coming weeks. Here are just a few of their suggestions, from their bookshelves and browsers to you.
In this classic study, Cowan charts the industrialization of housekeeping through a variety of new technologies designed to improve the experience of female homemakers: “washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton.” However, as she masterfully argues, these technologies actually served to replace the labour of other figures, like men and children, rather than lessen the amount of time devoted by women to maintaining the home.
Davis unpacks the ongoing fascination with the Voynich Manuscript, an early fifteenth-century codex housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Written in an “unknown collection of symbols” and featuring illustrations of “realistic plants, circular zodiacal and astronomical diagrams,” the Manuscript has been subject to multiple attempts to decipher its mysterious code. However, “[b]y beginning with their own preconceptions of what they want the Voynich to be,” argues Davis, many would-be interpreters’ “conclusions take them further from the truth.”
This is a bit of a cheat since the book isn’t out until November, but many RP readers are no doubt looking forward to contributor Rachel Herrmann’s new book on the role of food in Revolutionary America. Focusing on “hunger creation and prevention” as “tools of diplomacy and warfare,” this text will be a must-read for historians of food, recipes, conceptions of dearth and plenty, and the foundations of early America.
Award-winning author, chef, and historical interpreter Michael W. Twitty responds to negative online reviews of southern plantations, which criticize interpreters’ attention to slavery and its legacies. Writing of his own experiences as a historical educator, Twitty emphasizes that, in doing this work, he’s “performing an act of devotion to my Ancestors. This is not about your comfort, it’s about honoring their story on it’s own terms in context.”
Walkden analyzes seventeenth-century English attitudes towards the eating of mushrooms, pointing to the ways fungi could, at various points, signify danger and treachery, continental excess, or filth and debasement. Pointing out their distinctiveness as a food type, he suggests that “[t]he hostility that many writers expressed towards mushrooms is perhaps reflective of the threat they posed to the order of things.”
What are you reading this Fall? We want to hear from you! Let us know here what sites, texts, and projects we should be featuring here at the Recipes Project.