This year, EMROC is trying something a little different. Rather than focus on one book, there will be a BANQUET OF BOOKS. As Amy Tigner of EMROC explains,
Our goal is to have 10 completed texts this year, that is 10 triple-transcribed and vetted early modern recipe books that can be downloaded in a searchable pdf. We currently have a number of texts that are either partially transcribed or fully transcribed but not completely vetted. So, in working to complete these texts we will be offering a banquet of possibilities for those interested in learning more about early modern recipes and paleography.
The three books on offer are: Margaret Baker, Susannah Packe, and Letitia Cromwell. I have a soft spot for Baker, having worked on her book with my Digital Recipe Books Project module last year. (The class blogged about it here and developed a contextual online exhibition about the book here.) The Baker manuscript has many intriguing elements, such as excerpts from published medical and alchemical treatises and a recipe that calls for elf hoof! But the other books have their delights, as well. Cromwell has a recipe for the proverbial humble pie and a page written in code, while Packe has a great sections with candy, fruit wines, and beer.
For those who like things a little easier, I recommend Baker (almost entirely one hand, fairly clear, throughout) or Packe (one easy and neatly spaced hand, and one slightly harder, messier hand). Cromwell, with its mix of hands will appeal more to those with experience.
EMROC also has helpful guides to doing transcription and how to use the online transcription tool, Dromio. You can also send in your questions to other transcribers on Twitter or by commenting on the EMROC blog posts (https://emroc.hypotheses.org) that day. If you have never used Dromio before, please feel free to take a peek behind the scenes, try it out, and send in your questions. (Instructions here for getting involved and accessing Dromio.)
Interested? Then please mark your calendars for NOVEMBER 7. I’ll be kicking things off in the U.K. from 12:30-4:30 p.m. GMT, both virtually and from the University of Essex Colchester campus. And several American groups will be joining in from 9:00 a.m. EST.
If you’re joining virtually, please keep checking the EMROC blog, Facebook page, Twitter account (@EMRecipesOnline) and Twitter hashtag (#EMROCtranscribes) for updates, or to join in the conversation. We hope that you will let us know about your experience and tell us any interesting find or puzzling conundrum you discover!
Simply take a dozen eggs, and break them, saving only half the egg whites. Beat them together. Take your ham, and prepare as necessary (chop / dice / etc). Mix it with your eggs. Then, take some lard, melt it, and throw it in your eggs, making sure not to overcook the mixture. Serve.
The omelette lulls the novice cook into complacency. While it only requires a few ingredients, it demands skill, confidence, and timing to pull off with panache. One eggshell in the mix, an overly heated pan, or the unsuccessful flip, and the entire effort falls flat. Cooked to perfection, it represents the quintessence of modern French cuisine. It draws together fresh ingredients, developed for flavor. Simplicity and balance marry creamy texture and delicate, fluffy eggs.
Ever curious archivists, we wondered where the omelette made an early impression. We’ll be honest; we were a little hungry that brainstorming day. While this seemingly humble dish has become a brunch and Tuesday evening staple in our repertoires, the hunt was on to find its initial publication in a historic cookbook. A bit of determined searching later, we found a likely early contender.
In his 1651 cookbook Le Cuisinier François (hereafter LCF), François Pierre de la Varenne helped transition France away from an Italian-style of cooking requiring expensive imported spices into its modern form. La Varenne was not solely responsible for altering the state of cooking, but he was the first to put these innovations in writing.
LCF contains over eight-hundred recipes divided by courses, soups and broths, starters, second courses, and small dishes. The first recipe describes “La manière de faire le Böuillon pour la nourriture de tous les pots, soit de potage, entrée, ou entre-mets [the manner of making bouillons for stews, soups, main courses, and small dishes]…” Beginning with the basics—seasoning broth—La Varenne built upon foundations to introduce dishes like bisques and pottages.
Instructing cooks to prepare locally-sourced ingredients in a recognizably “French-style” reinforced a sense of transferable cultural heritage connected to food. While the English and Italian cookbooks of its time offered primarily recipes more akin to potions or subsistence-level fare, this book emphasized the development of flavors in seasonal, taste-based dishes. Instead of tending toward preserves and the extension of foodstuff, La Varenne introduced foundational flavoring methods still in use today. La Varenne printed the earliest instructions for the roux, the béchamel sauce, and notably, the omelette.
LCF presupposed readers understood proportions, could adapt ingredients when necessary, and could interpret directions like “heat” or “boil” to suit their “kitchen” environments. By prioritizing the combination of ingredients for flavor and texture, alongside instructions for presenting the dish in an appealing fashion, La Varenne established a new format for cookbooks. His legacy thus relies both on its place in the history of cooking in France and its status as printed object.
La Varenne, a commoner, started cooking as an apprentice in a local kitchen, participating in the guild system as a cook and eventually rising to the rank of kitchen clerk for Louis Chalon du Blé, Marquis d’Uxelles (1619-1658). As kitchen clerk for the Marquis’s household, La Varenne was responsible for all food service. His rise to this status was exceptional, as the role of kitchen clerk was traditionally reserved for nobility.
His humble roots and unprecedented success perhaps inspired him to share his passion with the general public, who he addressed so fondly throughout his career. In LCF he includes a letter which reads:
Dear Reader, in recompense all that I would ask of you is that my book be for you as pleasurable as it is useful.
By encouraging utility and enjoyment, La Varenne made cooking more than just a necessity, but a skill that could be elevated to an experience in even a modest household.
Cooking in medieval and early modern France had been largely a profession that relied upon oral transmission of secret knowledge through the guild system. Membership within the trade guild established apprenticeships and monitored job opportunities for individual cooks who worked in the large houses of the French aristocracy.
For two centuries prior to La Varenne’s text, perhaps in part due to the control enforced by the guild system, French cuisine languished, with no new cookbooks coming to market. Both English and Italian cookbooks dominated. In placing acquired knowledge in a sustainable, replicable form in the printed book, LCF circumvented time-honored traditions of gaining information. By presenting professional secrets to an open marketplace, this text suggested cooking was within reach for whomever had the means to purchase the book.
This quite naturally spurred controversy within the cooking community and sparked conversations about how much information should be shared. Despite the controversy—or perhaps because of the controversy—given England’s own rocky political situation in the 1650s, LCF was the first known cookbook translated from French in English in 1653. It remained a bestseller in both forms into the eighteenth century. Within the first 75 years, LCF had gone into 30 editions (Scully 11). Its ground-breaking translation, titled The Frenchy Cook, went into 61 editions before 1754.
While moveable type dated back to Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1440s, the seventeenth century encouraged the spread of print culture as general costs went down. Texts like LCF could be more easily exchanged, copied, and even translated for travel across the channel, especially as cities such as Paris and Amsterdam served as printing hubs.
Polly Russell, curator at the British Library, explains that La Varenne’s cookbook was marketed to ‘every private family, even to the husband-man or labouring-man, wheresoever the English tongue is, or may be used.’ And the cookbook remained an international bestseller until the French Revolution!
La Varenne, François Pierre de, and Scully, Terence. La Varenne’s Cookery : the French Cook ; the French Pastry Chef ; the French Confectioner. Blackawton, Totnes, U.K., Prospect Books, 2006.
About the authors
Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.
Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014). Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.
As you may have noticed, we (try to) change the blog banner once a month — sometimes thematically, sometimes just because the editor that month likes the picture.
This month’s choice is inspired by the darkness of autumn, and the coming of Halloween. It is an engraving by Bernard Picart that shows English funeral customs (including sin eating). You can read more about this fascinating eighteenth-century book here, which considered religion origins and traditions comparatively. But if it’s the sin-eating that has captured your interest, this Atlas Obscura article by Natalie Zarelli offers an excellent introduction to an intriguing subject!
In writing Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, (University of Toronto Press, 2017) I found the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between often came to mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
I have long been interested in food and language and the relationship between the two. The most obvious link is, of course, the recipe, but in my own postsecondary education, I always felt somewhat dissatisfied by the scholarship (or lack thereof) I encountered on these.
As a student of science and then of English, I noticed that recipes were either overlooked or disparaged in the courses I took. None of my biology teachers mentioned the role the recipe might have played in the formation of the scientific method (nor did they talk much about the historical context of science at all). And in my English courses, recipes, if considered, were regarded as a non-serious genre that could never be sufficiently contorted to fit literary expectations. Few academics at the time, it seemed, gave recipes much thought and no one seemed to know quite what to do with them. And I kept having this niggling feeling that we were missing something important.
During a graduate research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I accidentally called up a seventeenth-century receipt book. Serendipity! Holding the manuscript in my hands, I felt reverence…and also confusion. I had no paleographical training, so struggled with the recipes themselves, but it was clear there were many different forms of handwriting. Why so many? What explained all the marginal notes and attributions? Who was the author? Weren’t only a few women literate at the time? And what did the manuscripts say about the women themselves?
I ultimately decided to focus on these manuscripts and their relationship to the women who wrote them for my doctoral dissertation (finally, a clear topic!), and I began an archaeological-like digging into the past to try to answer my questions above.
And finally, I stumbled upon the deep and diverse research happening by many scholars on recipes–including the same scholars who contribute to The Recipes Project. I learned how to read seventeenth-century handwriting. I read all kinds of helpful texts on the history of women’s literacy and physical work, on seventeenth-century food and farming, on Galenic understanding of human health and the virtues of plants, on kitchen tools and architecture.
Gradually, I began to piece together a better understanding of the period and of women’s work and writing within it. I completed and defended my dissertation and felt confident about my knowledge in this field of early women’s writing in English.
However, six months after I had successfully defended my dissertation and was teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the book, I was struck by an idea that changed my entire understanding of these manuscripts and of the recipe itself. We were discussing Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and I realized that my own modern assumptions about authorship and subjectivity and “literary” writing had led me, and many others, to miss the point entirely.
Receipt books did not reflect women’s oppression, nor, conversely, did they reflect the rise of modern subjectivity, because women were, until the seventeenth century, already the respected authorities on food and medicine. Furthermore, they were collective keepers of this knowledge, rather than individual authors or owners. It is this culture, so very different than our own, that is preserved in receipt books – meaning they reflect an end of women’s wider authority rather than a beginning.
Patriarchal values of dominion over nature, individualism, and capitalism arose as new, male-dominated professions – chefs, doctors, and apothecaries – assumed individual authority over women’s collective knowledge and dismissed, ridiculed, and persecuted the women who persisted with special knowledge in food and medicine.
This is the history of the modern cultural view, and our inheritance of it today has caused most of us (including Foucault, who saw the “postauthor utopia” as occurring only in the future, not the past) to largely forget what came before, so that we have been complicit in the continued dismissal of, rather than pride in, both women’s traditional work and the not-so-humble recipe as the material form of this authority.
Our modern cultural outlook means we give Francis Bacon credit for creating the scientific method, even though women were cooking and curing at home long before men were performing experiments in labs (and many of us continue to believe that we might be objective observers of nature in the first place).
This culture regards traditional knowledge and household work as less valuable than academic knowledge and professional work. It marginalizes midwives and home care workers and mothers who breastfeed. It rewards celebrity chefs who collect traditional and “country” recipes and sell them in cookbooks under their own name. It subscribes to the cult of the single author. It regards recipes as unimportant. And it sees women’s traditional work as repressive, rather than recognizing its role governing the most critical cultural knowledge.
For this reason, as I say in Preserving on Paper, I see receipt books as “the ultimate feminist texts.”
I also can’t help but see how our cultural amnesia connects to current events related to women’s rights. To understand women’s struggles today, we need to look back and try to understand their origins. It is past time for all of us to deeply consider the particular historical construction of authority in the west, and to recognize that it once looked very different. A recipe for sugar puffs, say, or a remedy for an itch, might at first seem frivolous, but they are in fact windows into a world in which women’s collective authority was assumed.