Category Archives: Early Modern

Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500 – c. 2000: conference report

By Rachel Rich

Katrina Mosley and Eleanor Barnett, who run the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group, hosted a conference on ‘Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500 – c. 2000’ on June 29th, 2018. These kinds of conferences, where everyone is in the same room so that conversations can build and grow as we move through the sessions, are my favourite, and this was no exception.

The day was organized around big ideas—Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Religion—an acknowledgement, in large part, of Barnett and Mosley’s own research interests—but food history being what it is, in each panel issues came up with spoke directly to the themes in other panels. For instance, I was excited when both speakers on the ethnicity panel spoke about how white women in American were assumed by food marketers to see cooking as drudgery, since in my own paper, which contrasted Georgiana Hill’s publications with those of Mrs Beeton, I was exploring the idea that some Victorian housewives in England may have enjoyed food and eating, in spite of their cookbooks telling them food preparation was a chore to be endured for the benefit of others.

Interdisciplinarity was high on the agenda here, with speakers coming from history, sociology, literature, and anthropology, as well as one contribution on a forthcoming exhibition at the V&A, by May Rosenthal Sloan, whose talk allowed us to think about the important ways in which artists understanding of the place of food products in our history have played on, and helped to shape, our attitudes towards race, class, and gender.

Andrew Warnes’s talk on supermarkets and race in mid-twentieth century America started with an image by US photographer Thomas O’Halloran, whose series ‘Shopping in Supermarkets’ from 1957 captured some of the hidden labour carried out by suburban housewives pushing shopping trolleys along laden aisles of pre-packaged food. Warnes argued that this image, which captured a housewife stooping to pick a box of cereal off a shelf, ably illustrated the concept of prosumption. Aunt Jemima’s face beaming from rows of packages on the same shelf could remind us of how spokeservants were useful for constructing ‘leisured’ white housewives and subservient of black ‘servants’.

In the gender panel, this elision of women with food was pursued by Julie Parsons, who has collected narratives from women and men about their food memories. Parsons chose ‘epicurean’ as the word to characterize men’s relationship to food, contrasting this to the way women positioned themselves as the providers of food for others. Though she and I had not planned it, this male/female divide unified our panel, as I was discussing the way that Georgiana Hill (on whom I have posted before) disguised her gender in her first publication by using the pseudonym ‘Old Epicure’, a masculine sounding epithet to her Victorian readers.

Images of Judensau like this were part of German anti-semitic pig imagery discussed in Christopher Krissane’s paper. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wittenberg_Judensau_Grafik.jpg)

These kinds of stereotypes were also part of the way the speakers on the Religion panel organized their analysis. For Beat Kümin, for example, there was the idea of holding your drink as a necessary signifier of masculine honour in early modern communities, or the image of genteel women sipping tea to denote civilization, which Kümin contrasted with clear evidence of continued widespread excess. Pigs featured in all three of the Religion talks; as a particularly vile way for Christians to stereotype of Jews in Early Modern Europe, according to Christopher Kissane, as Martin Luther’s animal of choice to illustrate the dangers of excess according to Kümin, and as a taboo shared by Chinese Muslims and fellow practitioners of their religion in all sorts of different cultural contexts.

The final panel of the day considered food and class inequalities. Here, again, the speakers were quick to point out that class is not studied in isolation, but together with other markers, such as gender and ethnicity. So in Ben Highmore’s talk on Terence Conran and the important ways that the Habitat chain captured the appetite for Medditeranean diet in 1964, Highmore also talked about Len Deighton, and the new masculinity that allowed him to build to branch out from spy thrillers to writing books of ‘manly’ recipes. The day ended with Alan Ward talking about his research on dining out habits in England. A new survey, replicating the original findings of his 1995 survey of eating habits in England, published as Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption and Pleasure is looking at how things changed—or more interestingly did not change—in the intervening two decades. There are so many questions raised by the study that shows how people think about their relationship with food, and like Parsons earlier in the day, Ward shared some of his evidence of the way people speak about food and reveal some of the important ways in which they link their identities not only to what they eat, but to where they eat it, how much it costs, and what they feel this shows about their own position in relation to concepts such as adventurousness or caution.

The title of Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook illustrated some of Ben Highmore’s points about the ways in which new ideas about class and gender were coming together to created a new lifestyle in the mid 1960s. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Len_Deighton%27s_Action_Cook_Book#/media/File:Len_Deighton%27s_Action_Cook_Book.jpg)

Books of Secrets

By Mandy Aftel

From Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel

Alession Piemontese Frontispiece

In the early sixteenth century, a new kind of book appeared in Europe: Books of Secrets were popular compendiums that professed to divulge to the reader the secrets of nature, culled from ancient sources of knowledge and wisdom. The most famous was The Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont, the pseudonym of an Italian physician and alchemist. More than seventy editions were published in at least seven languages, including my personal copy of the 1595 English edition. A third of the book was taken up with formulas that were not culinary but medicinal, remedies for common ailments. There was a chapter of recipes for perfumes and other scented ingredients—lotions, soaps, and body powders. And it wasn’t only the culinary and perfume recipes that called for spices and natural essences. There was a mouthwash of benzoin, cinnamon, rosemary, and myrrh, for example.[i]

These books’ closest descendant in the modern world is the cookbook. But the very idea of a cookbook is a recent one. To the pre-modern mind, there was no clear distinction between food and medicine and craft, the domestic and healing and creative arts. Substances derived from plants and animals and minerals were “simples”—building blocks that could be combined to form different compounds. “Pharmacists had to know how to grind up mixtures of simples according to medical instructions or their own ingenuity,” writes Paul Freedman in Out of the East. “Pounding and grinding together these aromatic products was a tedious task and became a symbol of the art and labor of the medical or culinary expert in spices, the cook and the pharmacist.”

When I discovered the Books of Secrets, I was smitten not only by their wealth of useful knowledge but by their charm. Their primordial scrambling of appetites and arts mirrored the synesthetic nature of the senses. Here home remedies mingled with folk wisdom, traditional knowledge with family lore. They combined the seemingly contradictory strands of the practical and the mystical in a way that reminded me of perfume, which—for all the formulas generated in all the labs in all the fragrance houses—can never be reduced to a science. Indeed, herbs, flowers, and spices played a great role in the arts they covered, and so the books focused on the same ingredients that are used to create natural perfumes.

I’d reveled in the same promiscuous muddling of material in my library of antique perfume books, in which fragrance recipes rubbed shoulders with alchemy, folk remedies, and precursor versions of aromatherapy. But when I tried to use the recipes in a straightforward way—as if from a cookbook, I discovered something interesting.

I’d always thought, in the back of my mind, that if I ran out of ideas for new perfumes, I could use the recipes in these books to replicate the perfumes that used to be made—though I had not quite figured out how I would find, or afford, the copious amounts of musk and ambergris so many of the recipes called for. One day I decided to put that idea to the test and start making the perfumes in some of my old recipe books.

Handwritten Formula Book from 1838

Many of the formulas were for what were known as soliflors, the attempt to replicate the aroma of a delicate flower that couldn’t be scent-harvested, like lily of the valley or violet; they seemed to rely heavily on bitter almond, which smells like cherries, to convey the nuance of flowers. When I made a couple of the perfumes, however, they struck me as decidedly “old lady” and uninteresting. Moreover, as I combed through the books, giving the recipes a closer look, I realized that the recipes had frequently been copied from one book to another. Over time, presumably by being carelessly recopied by scribes who didn’t understand the processes behind the words they were transcribing, many of the recipes had become garbled in places, or completely unintelligible. None of this stopped me from regarding these antique books as important links to a remote and rich past, initiating me into the mysteries of antiquity. In fact, I realized that their true genius lay not in their formulas but in the world they conveyed, a lost world of eccentric personalities consumed with the passion for travel to uncharted places, in search of undiscovered treasures and exotic substances. And the most important “secret” they contained was an alternate way of looking at the world—an aura of romance, sensuality, adventure and creativity.

Perfumers Notebook 1876

As for the recipes, they taught me something too—not how to replicate the perfumes of the past, but how to regard the process of making things and passing on knowledge about that process. The recipes in these books had the patina of having been forged in a crucible of trial and error by real-life practitioners who were passing on their hard-won knowledge to like-minded artisans. But recipes, even faithfully copied, cannot convey the deeply personal, idiosyncratic processes out of which they were distilled. “Recipes collapse lived experience into a series of mechanical acts that, once parsed, anyone can follow,” Eamon observes. “While a ‘secret’ is someone’s private property or the property of a group, a recipe doesn’t belong to anyone. Once it is published, someone else appropriates it, uses it, varies it, and then passes it on. At each stop it gains something or loses something, is improved upon or degraded, and is changed to fit new needs and circumstances. Recipes are built upon the belief that somewhere at the beginning of the chain there is someone who does not use them.”[ii]

Inherent in the Books of Secrets were attitudes and beliefs that grew out of the medieval imagination and resonated deeply with my work as an artisan perfumer. They reflected a belief in “Maker’s knowledge” (verum factum), which means that to know something means knowing how to make it. Such expertise cannot be acquired from someone else’s experience, but must be accrued by handling, experimenting with, and learning from the materials themselves. The search for how to do something was an essential part of the process, and it even had a name: venatio, “the hunt,” which referred to the hunt after the secrets of nature. Venatio was exactly what I experienced when I was searching for the lost knowledge of natural perfumery.


Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.

Beauty and Global Trade in Margaret Baker’s Book

This is the second part of a two-part post by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history.  Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls in history. Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was completed for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.


By Karen Bowman

 

The unlovely looking ambergris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In my last post, I examined themes of alchemy and beauty in Margaret Baker’s early modern recipe book.  Today I want to consider what her beauty recipes can tell us about England’s growing global connections in the late seventeenth century.  At first glance, the  list of ingredients in Baker’s recipes appear domestic. But those seemingly-simple household recipes had extensive connections to trade and empire. For those who could afford them, there were an increasing number of luxury ingredients available from around the world.

Through her beauty recipes, Baker was buying into the expansion of the luxury market. With a growing foothold in India via the East India Company, traders imported silks and spices. In turn, they sold these commodities onto grocers and apothecaries from whom Baker was able to purchase ingredients to make her perfumes.

I was alerted to her participation with empire through her use of luxury ingredients in her culinary recipes, such as wines and quantities of sugar in order to make “sugar cakes” (f.88). In her perfume, she included civet (musky smelling substance from anal glands from civets) and ambergris (waxy substance secreted from the intestines of sperm whales).

Civet and ambergris were regularly used in perfume manufacture. In the seventeenth century, the aromas of musk and spice most effectively covered body odour.  It would not be until the eighteenth century that alternative base notes would be used, allowing some perfumes to become increasingly more fragrant in conjunction with improvements in basic hygiene. Both ingredients continue to be used today, even with our vast range of scent choices.

We can see the use of civet in Baker’s recipe for perfumed gloves, as well (f.98). Spanish and Italian glovers settling in England in the sixteenth century had established the practice to sweeten the smell of leather, as the tanning process could leave an unpleasant scent. The most common fragrances were cinnamon or cloves, but the more expensive gloves were infused with musk, civet, ambergris and spirit of roses.

Seventeenth-century embroidered gloves. Credit: Metropolitan Museum.

The fact that Baker was perfuming her gloves is a significant social comment. By indicating in the first line of her recipe that damask rose water should used could signify to readers that her gloves were expensive, hinting at a level of wealth. Of course, it is equally plausible that her gloves were only made of linen. In that case, we can see an earlier connection to the Lady Croon’s pomatum that I discussed last week. In both cases their inclusion may point to Baker as a woman with social aspirations.

Baker’s instructions for perfuming gloves are similar to those found in seventeenth-century manuals, such as Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights For Ladies, which were considered part of a woman’s ‘secret knowledge’ (Rankin and Leong, 172). Plat provided instructions for perfuming up to eight pairs of kid-skin gloves at a time, proof that women knew how to redress the leather at home (Dugan, 150).

In a manuscript recipe book from 1685, Mary Doggett included instructions for perfuming gloves in the ‘spanish manner’. The gloves should be anointed until they ‘swim with amber [ambergris] and ‘drink up the ointment’–emphasizing the Spanish ingredients: ambergris, civit, and musk. Again echoing Baker’s recipe, Doggett suggested that the gloves should then be ‘Rowled up in fair paper very close so they do not lose their smell’ and next ‘layed 3 nights under the first bed quilt of the bed you lie on’ (Dugan,150).

Baker’s links with global trade rest with the transference of geographical, specialist, and domestic knowledge, as well as a household’s connections with foreign markets. The sourcing of ingredients resulted in the smells of luxury infusing the early modern kitchen (Dugan, 151).

It also gives us a social link to Baker via her gloves. Was she wealthy enough to afford expensive gloves that she would have wanted to keep scented? Or, was she simply buying into the early modern expansion of empire and perfuming cheaper gloves to give an impression of status? Whether the recipe was aspirational or reveling, Baker’s scented gloves were not just ornamental. The ingredients used in their perfuming highlight the ways in which recipes, global trade, and social status were tightly entwined.

Breaking News…

Recipe enthusiasts, please mark your calendar for September 18! The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective will be hosting its annual transcribathon and you can join in virtually.

Interested in learning how to read early modern handwriting? Just want to take a peek at a fun old recipe book? Want to be part of a world-wide team for the day? Then this is the event for you!

EMROC is still keeping the choice of manuscript secret, but we’ll fill you in once we know more.

In the meantime, you can read about EMROC’s previous transcribathons here, with posts written by participants.

And if you have any questions, you can send me an email or tweet to @EMRecipesOnline.