Around the Table: The Making and Knowing Project

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. [1] 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

Fig. 1. A page from BnF Ms. Fr. 640 showing headers and text units. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Source: gallica.bnf.fr.

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.” [2] 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.[3]

Fig. 2. Foot of a life-cast lizard showing traces of the pin used to fix the animal in place during moulding (detail). Wenzel Jamnitzer, Writing box, c. 1560, silver, 22.7 x 10.2 cm x 6 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer, 1155 bis KK 1164. Photograph by Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes.

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.[4] 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.

 

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Recipes for Mud Pies

By Lisa Smith

Beginning a mud pie.

By the end of February, I had set up nearly all of this month’s posts to publish. But not this one. It’s been less than a month, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, I was preoccupied with the community that came from the UK strike. Since then, though, a pandemic has been declared — and it’s increasingly clear that virtual community is  more important than ever.

Today’s post had not yet been set, as I was planning to cross-publish something.  But things had gotten on top of me before I could do it… like (virtually) coming back from strike to move all of my teaching for the last week online because our university had more-or-less closed.  

I’ve been working from home all week, with a tiny co-worker keeping me company. Being at home with her has meant enforced time out in my day to play and to breathe fresh air. On today’s menu: making mud pies.

My mud pie.

Throughout our playtime, the child narrated how to make a mud pie.

Take some dirt from this pile, then add leaves, twigs, and plant scraps. Tap it into your pail. Turn it upside down for serving.

Another variation included the fancy pies (see below) that could be served in their dishes.

What the child didn’t say, though, is that making mud pies is a fundamentally sociable activity. What is the point of making them if you don’t have someone to share them with?

The Recipes Project  had already been taking stock of our future direction by looking at our blog stats and audience. We had been wondering what they could tell us about our wider community and what you might like to see from us. Over the past week, we’ve also been thinking a lot about the sudden changes in our (and our contributors’) work and personal lives. And virtual communities have become even more important than ever! 

As ever, we’re delighted to hear from you and would love it if you let us know in the comments what you would like to see from us in the future, whether content, community building, or events…  Please join us in making mud pies — or, thinking about what we want to see from our wonderful community of readers and contributors.

A fancy mud pie offering.

A Snapshot of the Food Studies Community

By Christian Reynolds

From October to December 2019, the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network ran a community survey asking what (and how) food scholars are currently using analogue and digital material. We were also interested how the community thought US and UK libraries and archives could better support food researchers through digitisation and activities. (See previous blog post.)

We were overwhelmed by the response to the community survey with 200 respondents from the global food research community — despite there being multiple ‘disruption events’ including an eight day university strike for many UK research institutions, as well as the Thanksgiving Holiday period. We’re really excited to have the voices of so many food researchers help us shape what is needed by the community. 

In the next few months, we are writing up the results of the community survey. But in the meantime, we want to share with you the headline descriptive results of the survey: who are we, what we want, and how we communicate. 

Who? and Where?

Though the community survey nominally focused on respondents from the United States of America (41%), and the United Kingdom (28%), there were additional respondents from multiple other countries (31%). The largest other populations of these were Canada (9%), and Australia (5%). Participants responded from twenty-one countries in total. 

There was a wide spread of ages, with the majority of respondents(44%) being between 31-50 years of age. 

Age of respondents

Over 70% of participants were academics. This included Professors (16%), Early Career researchers (14%), and Students (17%). There was a wide range of other professionals (n=55) including independent scholars, cooks and chefs, writers and journalists, book sellers, and heritage professionals. The range of respondents certainly represents the diversity of jobs and roles within the wider the food research community! But also owing to such a breath of roles and ages of respondents, there was a lot of variation in the familiarity/comfort with digital and analogue research tools.

Type of Researcher

The geographic scope of food studies is truly broad, with most researchers interested in more than one geographic area. 125 (or 62.5%) respondents were interested in the UK region, while 133 (or 66.5%) were interested in the US region. Another 66 respondents were interested in Canada, 97 in the wider colonial areas, and 99 interested in multiple other places globally.

This geographic interest is also shown by the broad range of locations holding primary research material. 112 respondents mentioned UK archives and 118 mentioned US archives. Even so, Canadian, Australian, and European archives featured heavily — and many other global institutions were mentioned.

Results suggest that there is overlap in user-base between global (UK, US, etc.) archives, but we need to do more research to understand how the community fits into the wider food research community. By this, I’m thinking of where a researcher is based versus where their archives are based. 

Percentage of respondents who use these cultural institutions

There were another ninety-four institutions were mentioned by name in the “other” text box. Multiple mentions include places like Yale University Library, Winterthur Museum, University of Toronto, New York Public Library, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Library Australia, archive.org — and so many more.

What does the community want?

The most asked for service at 92% was… digitization of materials! The community also wants finding aids and catalogues (each 64%). These views were further expressed in the free text “other” category.

Priorities for content and services provision

What people wanted digitised most (184 respondents) was Printed Material (Books, Magazines, Advertising, Ephemera, etc.). In other words, researchers thought digitisation of these items would help their research the most.  Printed Materials had a mean “importance” score of 85 (out of 100).

However, researchers also wanted to see more OCR text functionality (n=179) and digitised manuscripts (n=178); these had mean importance scores between 74 and 80. Additional analysis needs to be carried out to understand how particular types/themes of food research (and users of specific archives) can be prioritised. 

Mean importance score for increased digitisation and access of materials to help individual research activities

How do we communicate?

Email remains the most common method for communication between researchers and cultural institutions (n=178), with in person communication being the second most popular (n=115). A smaller community of respondents interacted with cultural institutions via social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram . We have yet to “cut” this with age based variables. Interestingly blogs and website messaging/chat, and WhatsApp services were mentioned in the “Other” free text response. 

This, of course, is just a snapshot of our community of food researchers. There is still so much to explore in the survey results! Please do contact me (c.reynolds@sheffield.ac.uk)  for if you would like to give additional feedback or thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.

And to complement the wealth of information from the community survey, we are now conducting a follow up 2020 Archive Survey — directed at curators and digitisation teams in cultural institutions. Please promote this Archive survey to any curators and digitisation teams in your own networks. We’d love to know more from cultural institutions about the scope of their food-related collections, any barriers to digitization, and future ambitions. The Archives survey closes on 14 March 2020.

Editorial Note: Christian Reynolds is the principal investigator of the the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network  (@AHRCfoodnetwork on Twitter). The Recipes Project is a partner organisation in the network.

Around the Table: Events

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Two weeks ago the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) hosted their fifth annual Transcribathon. I want to share my Transcribathon experience at the site hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago, as I learned this event can be a successful community-building exercise in addition to a valuable day for teaching and learning about early modern recipes, manuscript culture, paleography, and digital humanities.

Participants listening to a presentation. Photo by Katie Dyson.

Despite being an avid reader of the EMROC blog and regular transcriber and researcher of recipe books, I had not participated in the Transcribathon prior to this year. Something always seemed to come up on the day, and I was admittedly nervous about using the transcription platform, Dromio (which, as I soon realized, was ridiculous! Dromio is quite user-friendly and intuitive, so don’t be afraid to try it!). This year, however, I was determined to participate in some way.

I figured that tying the Transcribathon into a course was a good first step to get involved, so I incorporated it into a class I was teaching on early modern English cookbooks in the Newberry’s Seminars Program. I also approached the Newberry to propose that they host a site. The Newberry was thrilled to host the Transcribathon, and staff from several centers and departments quickly coalesced to help organize the event including Public Engagement, Digital Initiatives, and the Center for Renaissance Studies.

The Newberry was open as a transcription site for four hours. Approximately sixty participants transcribed and many more people at the library wandered in and out throughout that time. Some participants worked for only thirty minutes, many more for one to two hours, and still others transcribed for over three hours! The library hosted a few speakers: I spoke about early modern English recipe books, Megan Heffernan provided a primer on early modern English manuscript culture and paleography, Jen Wolfe (a former Library Chat guest) highlighted the Newberry’s digital humanities initiatives, and Lia Markey talked about the new Italian Paleography site, a digital project of the Center for Renaissance Studies.

Transcribing and monitoring the Twitter feeds. Photo by Katie Dyson.

I am still overwhelmed by the incredible response to the Newberry’s Transcribathon. The participants had a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Instructors brought their classes, including one from Arrupe College. Several DePaul University undergraduates were also present, per their instructor’s suggestion. Many Chicago residents simply interested in recipes decided to try their hands at transcribing. I loved answering questions from many of these individuals; they wanted to know everything about paleography, ingredients, and coding! Scholars and graduate students were also on hand; they made exciting observations in the recipes, like shifting from English to French when describing reproductive unmentionables and a panoply of odd ingredients. In many instances, participants with diverse backgrounds shared tables while working, and I couldn’t help but notice a lot of conversation about their transcription experiences.

Participants and visitors seemed particularly conversational about one aspect of the event: the refreshments table. To celebrate English culinary recipes from the period, I baked seven different cake and biscuit recipes prepared from early modern recipes.

Early modern recipes prepared by Sarah Kernan. Photo by Megan Heffernan.

Most people who sampled the food wanted to talk about it, either with me or one another. The flavors (like rosewater, orange, and caraway) seemed to make early modern England a little more interesting for the students in attendance, while other participants were far more interested in the recipe sources. Suzanne Karr Schmidt, the George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry, even made a surprising connection between the Italian Crusts and a seventeenth-century sonnet series, Enigmes Joyeuses pour les Bons Esprits. It turns out that historic foods can sustain transcribers, create conversation, and forge some curious ties.

After experiencing such a great event and intellectual exercise, I want to encourage other readers to try organizing similar Transcribathon sites at your local libraries and schools in the future. I can’t emphasize enough how exciting it was to meet others who wanted to engage with early modern recipes and begin building that community in Chicago. Additionally, the event was clearly a useful teaching tool for instructors in several disciplines. On the institutional side, I am hopeful the Transcribathon inspired some participants to get involved in other initiatives (digital and otherwise) at the Newberry; several people were eager to learn more about projects specific to the library.

So, readers, I hope to see you at next year’s Transcribathon, whether you are participating from the comfort of your own home or organizing a site for your local recipes community!

Thanks to everyone at the Newberry Library who was a part of the Transcribathon planning, especially Katie Dyson, Lia Markey, Karen Christianson, Alex Teller, Jen Wolfe, Rebecca Fall, Christopher Fletcher, and Elisa Jones! You can follow the Newberry on Twitter @NewberryLibrary and Facebook @NewberryLibrary. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.