Category Archives: Digital History

A recipe for a community — 5 Years On

By Marieke Hendriksen 

My first contribution to The Recipes Project appeared in June 2013: a post on mercurial drugs, the topic of my then postdoctoral project at Groningen University. Elaine Leong had read my own research blog, The Medicine Chest, and invited me to contribute. Seventeen posts and over four years later, I still write for The Recipes Project a couple of times a year, even though the focus of my research has now shifted from the history of alchemy and medicine to the intersections of (technical) art history and the history of medicine.

For the five-year anniversary, Elaine asked me if I would like to write a blog about what The Recipes Project means to me, and of course I am happy to do so.

From one of my first posts: Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

The beauty of The Recipes Project to me is that it facilitates and encourages a broad interdisciplinary approach. For me, it is a place to test new ideas, to announce new projects, to let my peers know what I am working on and to keep track of what they are doing. It has helped me to see that my seemingly diverse research interests are inextricably connected, and to find others who share them. Over the years I have been asked by a few people if it isn’t dangerous to put your ideas out at an early stage, and why the ‘regular’ academic channels of conferences and peer-reviewed printed publications aren’t enough to keep in touch with the field.

Nothing too strange for The Recipes Project: from my post on human taxidermy. Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

The first time someone suggested it could be ‘dangerous’ to blog about work in progress I really thought I had misheard them. When I asked them why it would be dangerous, they suggested someone else could run off with my ideas, and that I would look ridiculous if I had to change my mind about something I wrote in an early stage of a research project.

My rebuttal to this is that I see only benefits from discussing my research with my peers as it evolves. I am not worried about someone ‘stealing’ my ideas – as a matter of fact, a blog could even serve as proof that I was working on something first, but that is not something I was ever really worried about.

As for the idea that I would make a fool of myself if I change my mind about something over the course of researching it… I expect my ideas to change, and I do not mind sharing that process with the world. What would be ridiculous to me is a researcher who never changes their mind.

To me, blogging on a collaborative platform like The Recipes Project is a valuable addition to sharing ideas at conferences and in printed publications. The main reasons for this are speed and accessibility. A blog is a fast way to test and spread your ideas. Writing it forces you to develop your thinking and express your initial thoughts and questions in a concise manner, and the responses it elicits can help you develop your work further.

A blog can be published within a matter of days–a pace that is unheard of in traditional academic publishing, where research often isn’t published until after a project is finished. In terms of accessibility, a blog is a very democratic way of sharing your research: it is not hidden behind a pay wall, and readers do not have to have the financial means to attend an international conference. Although both print publishing and conferences have an important function, I think academic blogging is a valuable addition.

Last but not least, what makes The Recipes Project such a constant factor for me is that it is an online community of peers, a repository of work in progress. Over the years, it has not only enabled me to share my ideas and learn about other people’s work, it also helped me find panel members for conferences, collaborators for grant applications, to be found by others, and lowered the bar for approaching people via email, at conferences and during visiting fellowships abroad.

When I finally first met Elaine in person in Berlin in the fall of 2014, thanks to The Recipes Project, it felt as if we already knew each other. More than anything, The Recipes Project has proved to be the perfect recipe for building a community.

Engaging MLIS Students with Recipe Transcription: Mariabella Charles’s Book of Cookery Recipes and Medical Cures (ca. 1678)

Philip S. Palmer, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA)

While planning a microgrant project when I was a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) fellow from 2014-16, my colleagues and I were interested combining TEI, special collections, and graduate student pedagogy. I had recently learned about the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and their efforts to transcribe culinary and medicinal recipes in libraries around the world. Knowing that MLIS students do not always receive hands-on experience with rare books and manuscripts, I chose a transcription project for library students. The task? Complete a TEI-encoded transcription of an entire early modern recipe manuscript and make it available to a wider audience online.

I recruited a UCLA MLIS student, Christine Curley, to work on the project. While she had no previous experience with recipe manuscripts or paleography, she proved to be apt for the work, picking up paleographical nuance quickly and doing a remarkable job of capturing the vagaries of early modern orthography. She also took a course on TEI so she could encode her transcription with confidence. Since opportunities to gain such skills in graduate school are typically reserved for Ph.D. students in humanities fields, I thought it was important to expose an MLIS student to the kinds of methods (paleography, textual editing, digital humanities) that scholars use to interpret texts and make them accessible to other researchers, especially since librarians are increasingly collaborating with faculty and students on projects.

The manuscript itself, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678], was primarily compiled by a woman named Mariabella Charles, though there appear to hands other than hers in the text. The book is divided fairly evenly between culinary and medicinal recipes, with a few that, for lack of a better term, we called “hunting recipes.” These include directions “to drive Rats from a house,” “to destroy moles,” and “to take deare,” the last of which is as brief as it must have been effective: “Take Opium and put it in Apples and set them on Sticks.”

Before Christine encoded the manuscript, I created a slightly customized version of the typical TEI schema using the web tool Roma; the schema incorporated tags the EMROC group was already using in their transcriptions (<ingredient>, <ailment>, <administrationMethod>, and <productionMethod>). We also added <utensil> and color-coded each tag in our basic HTML output of the TEI edition. All of these custom tags can be easily transformed into normal TEI using a simple XSLT script. This manuscript was also part of the Clark’s CLIR Digitizing Hidden Collections project to digitize over 300 early modern bound manuscripts. Mariabella Charles’s manuscript is now freely available on Calisphere, in addition to 166 other MSS. We plan to add Christine’s transcription of the manuscript into page-level metadata on Calisphere in the next couple of months.

Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
One interesting aspect of the Charles manuscript lies in its description of the various female knowledge networks through which recipes passed. There are recipe texts attributed to a “Mrs hanway,” “mrs dabe,” “mrs Jean,” “Mrs Harding,” and others. Several physical addresses added to the manuscript’s endleaves provide even more information on female knowledge networks: examples include “Att Mrs Paige in warwick street ouer Against Sr Henry goodrick golden square.” When transcribing and encoding these addresses both Christine and I wondered if this type of evidence might be marshaled in early modern recipe projects. If such addresses are fairly common in recipe manuscripts, could we catalog and map them onto a cartographical representation of London? Would such a visualization of recipe manuscript data reveal anything about early modern foodways and the geography of ingredient collection/preparation? With more and more recipe manuscripts being transcribed today, such questions and methodologies are becoming increasingly feasible for early modernists to answer and implement.

Making librarians partners in these endeavors, and training them appropriately, is crucial. Besides the skills Christine gained transcribing and encoding, she really enjoyed the learning opportunity of working on the edition. In her words,

It was so nice to be able to get to know the authors of the manuscript by deciphering the handwriting of their recipes. The recipes show a high degree of self-sufficiency; most of the ingredients could be hunted and gathered from nature … Something I also noticed from a more technical standpoint was that that the neater, more careful handwriting was actually more difficult to discern, and the handwriting that was more like quick script was actually much closer to modern messy handwriting … This gives me hope that maybe in the far future, if my letters and journals survive the centuries, perhaps my descendants may actually be able to decipher my own sloppy handwriting and make sense of it.

As Christine also notes, “there are many culinary recipes which actually seem quite delicious, such as mutton with lemon, butter, capers, nutmeg, and white wine. There is a recipe for ‘the best cake that ever was eaten,’ which really does sound very good.” Librarians at the Clark are hoping to collaborate with Christine on a future public event involving early modern culinary culture—hopefully with samples of this “best cake” on offer.

“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009

Philip S. Palmer, Ph.D. is Head of Research Services at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA). His work centers on digital approaches to early modern material texts, Renaissance travel writing, and Thomas Coryate. His publications include articles in Renaissance Studies, Huntington Library Quarterly, and The Library, as well as an edition of the booklist of Sir Thomas Roe for Private Libraries in Renaissance England. He is currently Principal Investigator on grants from CLIR and NEH to digitize early modern manuscript material in the Clark’s collections.

Sweet Endings

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Pastern.

The Recipes Project team would like to thank everyone who participated in our month-long Virtual Conversation on ‘What is a Recipe?’ It was a wonderful month in which had a chance to explore a question near and dear to our hearts, as well as to meet (virtually) people working on recipes in a wide-range of ways.

On 10 July 2017, we hosted a two-part discussion on Facebook Live, in which the RP editors (Amanda Herbert, Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Laurence Totelin) joined Elma Brenner at the Wellcome Library, London. The first part is available here, or on Facebook.

In this section, we chatted about some of our favourite recipe books at the Wellcome Library, as well as four themes that came up during the conference: recipe-like things, reconstruction, celebrity, and stories.

Laurence also put together a great Pinterest board on Cleopatra as a celebrity endorsement of products.

In part 2, we opened with a discussion about how different archives–the Wellcome Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library–have collected recipe books, followed by an examination of two sources that Laurence brought in from her own collection: an early twentieth-century advertisement for Allenbury’s food (infant formula) and a 1960s Australian edition of Mrs. Beeton. These sources led us to a conversation on empire, race, and recipes.

We then took questions from our Facebook audience. Unfortunately, Facebook has lost our video! Some questions were quite general (e.g. how can you start researching recipes), while others were much more specific (e.g. why do we assume recipes only mean food today?).

For those of you interested in researching recipes, please take a look through our blog, which is a snapshot of recipes scholarship. Our First Monday Library Chat series also offers a glimpse into various recipe collections around the world. We also have a Zotero bibliography in which several recipe scholars have shared details of  useful primary and secondary sources. And, eventually, we will have an exhibition site of our entire virtual conversation — so please stay tuned!

As to why we think of recipes being food… We considered, in particular, the ways in which the term ‘recipes’ is used in a lot of ways, even today — such as IFTTT ‘recipes’ or recipes for paint. It’s just that these occur within more niche groups. And when it comes to science and medicine, the search for precision has led to the use of the term ‘formula’ rather than ‘recipe’.

A fine place to conclude our many discussions on ‘what is a recipe?’… We still can’t pin down the term, as flexible boundaries are useful when looking at the subject. But the distinction between formula and recipe also links back to our earliest discussions on recipes being alive and in the wild. We can’t detach experience, embodiment, and constant change from the concept of ‘recipe’. Whatever a recipe is, it is NOT precision.

And that is what makes them so much fun.

Thank you once again for your presentations, your chats, and your interest that have made our virtual conversation such a success! Regular blogging resumes next Tuesday. Please don’t be a stranger.

Boundaries: Reflections on Day 5

By Lisa Smith, with Rosie Redstone

I found myself thinking of the importance of limts and boundaries throughout the day:

  • What is the importance of place and time for a recipe?
  • How does the way in which we record a recipe shape our experience of it?
  • What is the significance of constraint, either in terms of ingredients or method?

The theme of place came up in several presentations. Dorothy Cashman discussed the specific Irish and familial context for Mrs. Baker’s book; it served as a family memorial in her widowhood and served as a microcosm of early nineteenth-century Dublin society. In an interview for the Endless Knot podcast, Laura Carlson (of The Feast podcast) considered the meaning of specific foods (and chickens) along the Camino de Santiago and the ways in which medieval recipes reflected Mediterranean trade. Over at H-Nutrition, several of the posts in their recipe series this week have looked at ethnicity: the Americanization of pasta in a 1920s cookbook, the ideal Central European meal, and a recipe that revealed the privations of the poor in Soviet Ukraine.

Recipes were, of course, on the move — between people and between regions. But sometimes a recipe’s significance remains fixed in its original place. Mrs. Baker’s book can be read alongside the family’s archives, and emphasises just how connected the collection was to time and city, even if we encounter similar recipes elsewhere. But a recipe occasionally becomes something ‘other’, as Anastasia Lakhtikova found.  She realised how privileged her family was when she discovered another family’s treasured, and quite horrible, recipe for ‘Wonder Sand’. This recipe cannot be detached from the context of Soviet privation.

The way in which recipes are recorded can also shape our experience of them: are they in print, manuscript or digital? are they on recipe cards or scraps, or in a book? In an article in The Observer last weekend, Bee Wilson looked at the rise of digital recipes and whether more recipes mean better cooking. (Spoiler: no! But you should read the whole thing.) Digital recipes, she suggests, lack life and context, even if they are convenient. Although there are some super recipes in circulation, there is also far more dross than ever before. This is all very true, though perhaps it’s not all bad — I’ve often been struck by the sense of community in the comment sections, where users assess the recipe, discuss any adaptations they made, and even connect it to their own family’s life.

The physical object is often important to us, as well. The messier side of manuscript recipes is appealing, drawing us into a sense of intimacy, as with the crossings-out in a recipe that Sietske Fransen shared (above). The importance of presentation is something that came out in Wilson’s article, too. Her son, she noted, trusted the shiny recipe cards of Hello Fresh as being authoritative, even though recipe cards and their exchange has fallen out of use in the past decade.

For their exhibition on food history, the Provincial Archives of Alberta is displaying old recipes in recipe card format. Recipe cards are pleasingly organised; no wonder they might be seen as authoritative.

As in the case of Wonder Sand, recipes sometimes reveal constraints. Ingredients are frequently substituted, whether because of seasonality, regionality, or cost. But are there other ways in which constraint might shape recipes? Format is one way. For example, recipe cards limit the writer to two small sides and enforcing brevity, while digital readers are notoriously fickle and tending to skim-read, which forces short statements and clearly marked ingredient amounts.

This month, the Cooking with Anger Project is available at The Recipes Project. It’s an intriguing story-telling game in which you’re given a list of ‘ingredients’ that must be mentioned in a (very) short story. I found the strictness difficult, and flicked through several baskets over several days before settling on one to try. (My attempt is in the comments, along with several much better ones.) But as good poetry shows, working within a tight framework can encourage creativity to flourish.

Siobhan Carlson’s potato experiment continues. When I started writing this post, I was prepared to suggest that the boundary  between experiments and recipes might not be very permeable; after all, the purpose of a modern experiment is replicability–and she has been very careful with her timing and measurements this week. But perhaps even here, there is some scope for creativity, as she found last week when confronted with the problem of unclear instructions with regards to the size of potato cuttings.

An interesting day all around. You can check out the full day in Rosie Redstone’s Storify of Day 5. It’s worth it for the summer drinks and crocodile alone, even before getting to our interesting presentations!