Waste Not Want Not: Leftovers – the Afterlives of Early Modern Food

By Amanda E. Herbert

Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

As part of Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a $1.5 million Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’ll be working on a new book, Leftovers: the Afterlives of Early Modern Food. In this book I aim to explore the instability of food in this period.  This was of course literally true, as it was easy for early modern food to go bad.  But early modern food was also intellectually and philosophically unstable.  What food meant, what it tasted like, where it came from, how to put it to its best use, its moral and cultural symbolism: all of these were in constant flux. The book project will consider things like food preservation, food charity, artificial or faux food, the British colonisation of dishes, and the recycling and reuse of food containers, all of which will offer some insights into the ways that early modern women and men treated and thought about their food, and how these reflected the practical as well as the philosophical food insecurities of the past.

Today I’ll offer a glimpse into the project through one evocative example: faux or artificial foods, which enabled early modern people to reimagine what they ate.  Much has been made over early modern food follies at feasts, and for good reason; some of these, whether they existed in the historical record or only in the imaginative one, were remarkable.  My favourite of these is from Robert May’s Accomplish’t Cook, first printed in London in 1660. 

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).

May, a British chef who trained in France and served in elite British households, designed food entertainments for higher-status women and men.  These edible entertainments worked to manipulate diners’ senses of reality and fantasy. One of May’s most well-known food performances instructed cooks to take a whole deer and roast it, cut a hole in it, and fill ‘his body… up with claret wine’. The hole was then to be stoppered with ‘course paste’ [thick dough] and the cook was to place ‘a broad arrow’ into the dough on the roasted deer’s side. During the dinner entertainment, May explained, ‘order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound’.   

This juxtaposition of what was real and unreal – an animal, which likely had been hunted with bows and arrows, was then butchered, cooked, and presented so that diners could imagine themselves back at the site of the kill, but in such a way that they could then immediately eat the (cooked) deer and drink its (wine) blood – would surely have offered early modern women and men a strange sense of slippage.  Were they valued guests, enjoying an elaborate meal in elite society? Or were they vicious, impulsive, and animalistic? Given the opportunity to reimagine themselves, their meal, and their relationship to it as consumers, May assured his readers that they would evoke not horror or confusion, but senses of ‘admiration to the beholders’.[1]

For home cooks, artificial foods could take on different forms of re-imagination.  Many such acts of culinary creativity were undertaken out of necessity, lack of resources, or thrift.  A recipe in an anonymous c. 1720 manuscript cookbook included instructions for how ‘to keep Mushrooms without Pickle for sauce’, which was really a guide to making mushrooms (common all over Britain) taste like truffles (typically imported). Readers were told to ‘take large Mushrooms peel them & take out all the inside, lay them in Water some hours then stew them in their own liquor…with a little Mace & Peper’. This process was to be repeated ’till they are quite dry’. As a result, the author claimed ‘they eat very well thus & look like Troufles’.[2]  A 1740 recipe book created by a Mrs. Knight explained how to make ‘artificial venison’ by beating ‘a rump of veal or a large shoulder of mutton…[with] a rolling pin’ before seasoning it ‘with peper & nutmeg’ and soaking it for ’24 hours in sheeps blood’.[3] This supposedly produced the richness, gaminess, and flavour that early modern people associated with venison (a food intended only for the elite) but utilised ingredients that would have been available to most middling-sort people (veal, mutton, spices, and sheep’s blood).  

Faux foods – whether they were constructed purely for fun, or purely out of need – changed the ways that early modern people perceived what they ate.  It’s certainly possible to see these substitutions as efforts on the part of middling-sort people to mimic the wealthy, or to pretend to eat beyond their means.  But we should not ignore the imaginative resonances produced by these fantasies. When an early modern person ate fake venison, false truffles, or even took in the spectacle of a roasted deer bleeding wine onto a table, did they know that it was not real? Were they merely enjoying the sensation of the forbidden or unavailable food, or were they truly fooled? What was old food, and what was new?

[1] Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1660).

[2] Anon., Cookbook, W.b.653, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[3] Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Knight’s receipt book, W.b.79, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Waste Not Want Not: Molasses in Colonial America – More than a Waste Product?

By Mimi Goodall

Molasses is the dark brown, sweet, sticky goo that is known today for its robust flavour. It gives a depth of taste to gingerbreads, toffees and fruitcakes. It does not have the immediate tongue-numbing sweetness of powder sugar; rather, it has a denser, fruitier mouthfeel. However, sugar and molasses are related foodstuffs. When sugar cane juice is refined to make powder sugar, it is boiled repeatedly and it crystallises as it cools. The more times the juice goes through this process, the whiter the resulting crystals appear. Molasses is the viscous residue that is the ‘waste product’ of refining.[1] Yet it has historically been left out of the story of the rise of sugar consumption across the Atlantic world.

This story is well-known. Sugar begins life as a rare luxury but with the rise of slavery and the slave trade, the increase in production enables prices to fall and consumption to rise, reaching mass levels sometime towards the end of the 18th century. Before this point, it’s thought that ordinary consumers did not have much access to sugar.

However, there was, in fact, a strong base layer of consumer demand much earlier on. This demand served as encouragement for the industry’s take-off and the concomitant exploitation of thousands of human beings. Molasses is at the heart of it. Understanding the consumption of molasses puts agency back into the hands – or rather the mouths – of ordinary consumers. Molasses wasn’t a waste product, it was a driving force in sugar’s rise to ubiquity.

Molasses. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Molasses as Commodity Money:

Molasses wasn’t expensive. It features often in account books documenting the spending habits of non-elites. Looking at these account books reveals that molasses was often used as a form of payment. Colonial America was dramatically short of coinage and therefore outside of the port, exchange was enacted through a system similar to barter, known as commodity money. Records documenting these instances of barter are what enable us to understand more about who was actually consuming molasses.

Take for example the Clarke Family of New Jersey. The Clarkes emigrated from England to New Jersey in the 1680s. Ann Clarke created a recipe book that her husband and son subsequently repurposed as an account book and diary relating to farm practices, which is now in Princeton University Library. It shows that the Clarkes paid their labourers in commodity money. The most detailed accounts range from 1701-1720, during which time we see payments in sugar, molasses and in a variety of what I call ‘sugar products’ – this included beer, cider and rum. All of these alcoholic drinks were brewed using molasses or sugar. To give one example, in 1714 Benjamin Maple was paid for his weaving – work worth 2 pounds 5 shillings in monetary terms – with 2 gallons of molasses, 2 gallons of cider, hogs fat, turnips, and rye. 

There are more account books in the American Antiquarian Association, including that kept by Robert Gibbs in the 1680s. Gibbs was a Boston merchant and grocery store owner, who had longstanding arrangements with the local people who supplied his shop. The most interesting is Goody Gavate, a cake maker. Gibbs gave her molasses, ginger, sugar and flour in exchange for the cakes that she made out of these ingredients. Gibbs then sold these cakes in his shop and thus molasses continued to circulate within the economic system.

Cakes are especially interesting when we think about people’s proclivity for sweet things. Recently, I spoke to New York Times journalist Anahad O’Connor who writes about contemporary sugar consumption. He explained to me that the current scientific consensus is that sugar is not addictive on its own, but that the combination of sugar and fat create feelings of physical dependency. Human beings seem particularly susceptible to this combination. Breast milk, for instance, contains a uniquely high proportion of fat and sugar. When molasses was combined with fats to make cakes, puddings, biscuits, and breads it created an especially palatable end result – one which consumers sought out.


These examples show that molasses was a form of sugar that was readily available to consumers across the socio-economic spectrum. Sugar products weren’t only goods to be aspired to; rather, they were component parts of many consumers’ diets. Ordinary colonial American men and women developed a taste for sweetness and their reliance on the calories found in sugar early on. Molasses encouraged ordinary consumers’ proclivity for sweetness. By the time tea and coffee arrived and white sugar became cheaper, their palate was already a sweet one.

In detailing this, I’m pushing the story of consumption backwards in time. Sugar and molasses were far more widely available far earlier than has been recognised. There was a strong demand for sugar in the 17th century, which would have served as encouragement for the development of the industry and the rise of slavery in the following one.

William Clark, ‘Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane’, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (London, 1823). Plate IV.

[1] Molasses is vital to the production of rum, which took off after 1720 but elsewhere, and for an earlier time period it has been considered to be a waste product.

Waste Not, Want Not: Physics and Fruitcakes

By Simon Werrett

In 1767, the Winchester writer Ann Shackleford gave a recipe for clear fruit cakes in her Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767). A candied fruit juice should be placed ‘upon glass plates, or pieces of glass’ and dried in a stove or oven, ‘or by setting them in a window where the sun comes, keeping the window shut’.  In 1666 Isaac Newton bought a triangular glass prism and after darkening his room, he let in a beam of light through the window shutters and passed it through the prism. This created a spectrum of colours, and when Newton passed one coloured beam through another prism, with no change, he concluded that white light was made up of a series of fundamental colours.

Newton’s scientific experiment. Light dispersing through a triangular prism. Image credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the difference between these two performances? In one sense the answer is quite obvious – one is a cookery recipe, and the other is a famous scientific experiment. One is not very interesting – unless you like fruitcakes – and the other is a profound moment of human discovery. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light’. But there are many similarities. Both happened at home – Shackleford’s recipe would presumably be done in a kitchen and Newton did his experiment at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. Both made use of glass items that were ready to hand (prisms were a toy and Shackleford was probably using pieces of old bottles or glasses). Both used a window to manage light, either in terms of generating a beam of light or to dry out the fruitcakes. Both Newton and Shackleford wrote accounts of these events so that someone else could repeat them.

In fact recent research by historians is revealing how early modern householders might not have viewed these two episodes as differently as we do today. People in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed both Newton and Shackleford’s activities as ‘experiments’. Experimenting was something expected at this time of all good householders. Books of advice on ‘oeconomy’, or household management, encouraged ‘thrift’, which meant not so much saving money as finding a balance between buying new and making good use of the things one already possessed. Thrifty householders should make a point of finding out new uses for things and looking after them to ensure they could be useful for as long as possible. So men and women recorded recipes for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and making medicines which might be carried out by all the family. Contemporaries called this an experimental enterprise, because it involved trying out recipes, testing cleaning methods, trialling medicaments, and figuring out what you could do with old and broken possessions. In 1662, for example, the writer on oeconomy Hannah Woolley published a recipe book called The Ladies Directory, in Choice Experiments & Curiosities of Preserving in Jellies And Candying both Fruit & Flowers. Newton and Shakleford were both householders, and from this perspective of thrifty household management they were both experimenters. They were both finding out new uses for things (prisms, broken glass, light, fruit juice), and they both ‘made use’ of their homes (windows, sunlight) as a kind of experimental apparatus.

Kitchen ‘experiments’. Gerrit Dou, Woman Pouring Water into a Jar (c. 1655). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course we don’t remember Newton and Shackleford today as doing the same thing: far from it! Why is that? It seems that in the seventeenth century, some male householders decided to take these family experiments outside the home to new places like universities and academies where they argued that domestic know-how should count as a form of scientific knowledge. Science already took in things like mathematics and astronomy, but it was controversial to say that mundane everyday knowledge of the kind found in household recipe books should count as science. The seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, for example, explored the optics of eggwhite bubbles and experimented with eggs, coriander seeds, distilled liquors, wine, beer, vegetables, jars of oil, and vinegar. Contemporary wags lampooned him for investigating the phosphorescence seen in rotting fish and meat because this wasn’t the sort of thing normally associated with doing science. Nevertheless, over time, men like Boyle divorced elements of domestic knowledge from their original homely settings and ‘experiment’ came to be seen as an exclusively scientific, and male, enterprise.

While most experiments happened at home in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth this new profession of ‘scientists’ built specialised laboratories and insisted that kitchens, parlours and basements were no longer acceptable as spaces to investigate nature. Today we find it hard to imagine a time when cooking fruitcakes and studying light could be seen as a similar sort of inquiry. But for early moderns, household oeconomy encouraged making use of things to find out what they could do. That could mean exploring light or inventing new recipes for fruitcakes. Recognising this demands a new recipe for the history of science: if we want to understand experimenting, we’ll need to pay more attention to the home as a place where people studied nature, and we’ll need a bit more room for forgotten female writers like Shackleford.

Waste Not, Want Not: An Introduction to Histories of Food Waste, Thrift, and Sustainability.

By Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

As awareness of global climate and humanitarian issues increases, a growing number of us are seeking ways to grow, buy, and eat food more sustainably – by, for example, using food sharing apps to prevent food waste, reducing our plastic packaging consumption, or switching to less meat-centric diets. In the world today, one-third of the food produced for humans is estimated to go to waste, with society throwing away ten million tonnes of food per year in the UK alone. At the same time, food systems contribute to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

But how did societies think about food waste before these concerns earned a regular spot in the headlines? And what might we learn about the past – how people lived day-to-day, their beliefs, and the wider advances in industry – through this focus on food? This month’s thematic series, edited by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley, explores the history of food waste, thrift, and sustainability from the early modern period to the present. The blog posts are based on a series of papers presented at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference at the University of Cambridge (September 2019), which brought together historians, sociologists, and industry experts to address these topical questions.

John Gilroy, We Want Your Kitchen Waste (1939-46). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to the invention of artificial refrigeration, consumers themselves had to come up with thrifty ways to preserve food, which would otherwise quickly spoil or rot. Certain papers demonstrate how these kitchen experiments carried out by ordinary people (often women) might best be understood as scientific advancements. Others look at inventions in the packaging industry, from tin cans to plastic film, which have transformed the way that we eat today. ‘Thrifty’ foodways also demand particular attention in the context of conflict and war, when rulers used propaganda to enforce food rationing and new methods of collective cultivation on entire societies.

Moving from methods of preventing food waste to the food waste itself, several posts in this series explore processes that transformed waste products – like molasses from sugar or the ‘skim’ from milk – into viable and even desirable comestibles. The rise of veganism in recent years has seen similar developments, with companies transforming Aquafaba – the liquid gloop at the bottom of a can of chickpeas – into an egg substitute for baking, for instance. On the other hand, changing food habits have had the opposite effect: national consumption of offal (another ‘waste’ product) has declined dramatically in the past fifty years, from more than 50g per person per week in 1974 to only 5g in 2014.

Addressing themes of waste and sustainability in the history of food, these papers have made us think more about the historical relationship between cookery and scientific innovation, about the central role of food in wider social and political power dynamics, and about the enduring relationship between food and identity.

A particularly successful feature of the conference was the conversation it sparked between historians and present-day policy makers. Pioneering initiatives like History and Policy and Cambridge Sustainable Food can use knowledge of past food practices to better understand the advent of present-day food sustainability issues, to inform the direction of food initiatives in the future, and to engage the public with these consequential topics.

In what follows, some of our speakers reflect on the key themes from their papers.


This conference was hosted by Cambridge Body and Food Histories group, co-convened by Lucy Havard, Philippa Carter, and Kylie Chiu Yee Lu, and gratefully funded by Cambridge AHRC-DTP.  For a full list of our fantastic speakers follow this link!