Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation. But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle. The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so. For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.
Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs. The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum. The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package.
The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand. It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia. A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat. Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.
Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can. Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’. He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810. Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method. Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London. The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England. It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war.
One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy. Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives. He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea. Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact. Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’
Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere. The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack. But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead.
These three examples illustrate the following among other features. While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging. The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored. And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package.
Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.
What can you expect to learn? In this post, Michael Walkden discusses early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually…the “excrements of the earth?”
-The RP Editors ***** “Excrements of the earth”: Mushrooms in early modern England
From the full English breakfast to the chicken and mushroom pasty, the mushroom is a staple of modern British cuisine. In Shakespeare’s England, however, the edibility of mushrooms was considered by many to be an open question. Writing in the 1630s, the Bath physician Tobias Venner declared that:
“Many phantasticall people doe greatly delight to eat of the earthly excrescences called Mushrums; whereof some are venemous, and the best of them vnwholsome for meat: for they corrupt the humors, and giue to the bodie a phlegmaticke, earthie, and windie nourishment … Wherefore they are conuenient for no season, age, or temperature.”
Venner’s view of mushrooms represented the dietetic standard in early seventeenth-century England. The London doctor Stephen Bradwell likewise observed that “Some have (from strangers) taken up a foolish tricke of eating Mushroms or Toadstooles.” Bradwell’s advice to mushroom-eaters was unequivocal: “let them now be warned to cast them away; for the best Authors hold the best of them at all times in a degree venomous.”
This is not to say that no one in seventeenth-century England cooked or ate mushrooms. Manuscript recipe collections from the second half of the seventeenth century contain numerous recipes for pickling and preserving mushrooms. The printed cookbook of Sir Kenelm Digby, published after the Restoration, contains a recipe for “pickled champignons,” perhaps inspired by his time in Paris during the English Civil War. The recipe collection of Lady Grace Castleton, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, includes a receipt “To dress mushrooms my Lord Digby’s way,” which, since it didn’t appear in the published edition, may have been communicated in person.
But Digby, a Catholic and royalist who had spent years in exile in Paris, was viewed by many English Protestants as a figurehead of foreign decadence and effete continental pretensions. The Anglican clergyman Alexander Ross even described the difference between himself and Digby as analogous to that “between solid wholesome meats, and a dish of frogs or mushrooms made savoury with French sauce.”
One obvious explanation for these hostile attitudes is that fungi can be notoriously treacherous as a source of food. Although most fruiting fungi are considered safe to eat, consuming the wrong kind can cause illness or even death – a fact that Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew all too well. “Who then that is wise,” asked Dr James Hart in 1633, “will venter on a doubtfull dish, when God of his infinite goodnesse hath affoorded us such plentie of profitable and pleasant food?”
The fear of accidental poisoning appears to have cast doubt over the nutritional value of mushrooms in general. The language used around mushrooms was often viscerally hostile, drawing upon images of filth and waste – several writers referred to them as “excrements of the earth.” Much was made of the fact that they grew in dark, moist places, and they were thought to be engendered by decaying vegetable matter: Bradwell viewed them as “a bundle of putrefaction, arising of a cold, moist, viscous matter of the Earth.”
The colour black is the reason why I became an art historian specialising in Netherlandish oil painting. From the backgrounds of 17th-century still-life paintings, to nocturnal representations with strong chiaroscuro and portraits of rulers dressed in fancy velvety clothes, black shades are omnipresent and mesmerizing. I always wonder: How can a colour be so deep, intense, and vibrant?
If painters could represent in painting cloths with black pigments, it means that people in the past could dye their fabrics in such dark tones. Which materials and processes can produce this colour so rare in Nature? The Museum Hof van Besleyden, in Mechelen, tries to answer these questions in the research-driven exhibition “Back to Black”. This exhibition presents some of results reached by the interdisciplinary research project ARTECHNE.
Black as a Time Machine
After walking for a while in the museum, which is dedicated to the history of Mechelen, visitors are welcomed in a small room by old portraits of Flemish dignitaries. Their elegant black clothing and severe glance remind us of the power they once held. A little further, the visitor encounters a contemporary installation consisting of long and irregular pieces of black wool suspended from the ceilings. There is a common thread between these artworks: the flaps’ colour is produced by a similar dying process to the one used five centuries earlier to dye the clothes depicted in the paintings.
This room informs us about the making of black dyes that has been transmitted in French, Dutch, German, and Italian over the centuries through recipes and through masters in artists’ workshops. The choice of Mechelen as a location for this exhibition is perfect: the city was well-known for its production of “Burgundian Black”, or “Noir de Flandres”, in the 16th century.
Artistic Process, Natural Ingredients
Objects and documents illustrate the transhistorical voyage of European knowledge regarding black colour technologies. On one side of the room, a sample book with pieces of silk, wool and linen dyed in black shows the results of (re)enactment of historical techniques learnt and tested during workshops organised as part of the ARTECHNE project. The dyed fabrics are presented together with the list of ingredients and the illustrated recipes providing these shades. The black colour offers a wide variety of nuances depending on the recipes’ components, materials’ reaction while drying, and the fabric.
On the other side of the room, jars with ingredients such as plant-based materials necessary for the experimental reconstructions of black dyes are displayed on shelves. For the 21st-century viewer, who tends to forget how and with which materials the final products sold in stores are manufactured, it is useful to remember that it originally comes from natural elements!
Recording the Making
A short movie shows footage shot during the Burgundian Black Collaboratory in Claudy Jongstra’s atelier in Friesland, where the artist has been experimenting for a long time with dying techniques involving natural ingredients. Dressed in winter clothes, participants are stirring liquids in boiling cauldrons, while other are mixing together strange ingredients. As if it were a secret rally of alchemists, apprentices follow directives of experts, artists, practitioners, and dye specialists, who master old techniques. This video provides visitors with an overview of the different steps to follow in order to obtain the results they have in front of their eyes. Moreover, this recording reminds us that the success of a recipe does not only rely upon one’s ability to understand textual sources, but also on the discussions with knowledgeable and experimented people, as participants described in previous posts.
Touching Black Stuff
The curators offered visitors the thrilling opportunity to touch objects in the museum. On a table, pieces of black fabrics invite them to give their opinion about the final products by manipulating the samples and filling a questionnaire. Viewers can decide which textile looks and feels the most expensive, elegant, or beautiful. This interaction between people and objects in the context of a museum provides an agreeable feeling of playing a role in the research. Alongside, visitors can write down on paper cards some concepts that they associate with ‘black’ to create a contemporary overview of the collective imagination connected to this colour.
Binding Together Academic Research and Public Institutions
For those who find academic research difficult to grasp, bringing the results of interdisciplinary projects into a museum builds bridges between public institutions and academia. Moreover, it highlights the importance of collaborating with different protagonists of the art world, such as art historians, artists, artisans, conservators, curators, and art technologists.
This exhibition is therefore likely to attract a large public to the museum. The black colour remains a favourite colour in the textile industry nowadays and continues to fascinate people. Furthermore, the focus on the technical making allows a large potential of interactive activities.
In brief, I left the museum with a mind full of new sensations and an impression of having participated in something special.
As October draws to a close, we feature yet another exciting article from our ongoing series of cross-postings on the hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. Today, Sharifa Lookman provides another fascinating peek into the inner workings of the project (Joshua Schlachet)
For the pre-modern artist, color was anything but random. As both concept and product, it wore many masks: the bearer of symbolic significance, an agent of trade, and a protagonist in histories of politics, economy, and geography. In material, it was the hard-earned product of natural ingredients and arcane, even alchemical processes. Researchers in the Faculty of Design Sciences and the working group ROOHTS (Research on the Origin of Historical Techniques) at the University of Antwerp have returned to historical recipes to investigate these aspects of color. From July 1-5, in collaboration with the ARTECHNE ERC research group at the University of Utrecht, researchers took up the following question: how did pre-modern colorists perceive, manufacture, and master the color black?
The intensive, five-day summer school, “Burgundian Blacks,” brought together artists, scholars, and scientists of diverse backgrounds to investigate black color technologies of multiple media, working from the production of black textile dyes (the focus of a January workshop, the Burgundian Black Collaboratory) and moving into adjacent practices used to produce black inks and paints in and around the historic region of Burgundy. Each day consisted of a theoretical component and a practical one: classes moved back and forth between the lecture hall, with studies on historical contexts, and the laboratory, where recipes were tested through experimental reconstructions, or (re)enactments.
The setting—a university conservation laboratory—was decidedly ahistorical and acknowledged the inherent limits of reconstruction: small sample sizes and anachronistic instruments, for starters. And yet, when all thirteen of the participants and a handful of instructors were in the lab together, we more or less simulated an active ‘workshop,’ complete with masters and apprentices, back-and-forth shop talk, and bustling bodies (Fig. 1). As a participant, I found that the summer school’s give-and-take between the written word and re-enactment emphasized two fundamental ideas in the study of color technologies: the mutability of language in interpreting recipes and the intellectual merit of touch and sensation in reconstructing them; in other words, the valuable cross-fertilization of both mind and body in materiality studies.[i]
In considering early modern writings on color, twenty-first century scholars must first be acquainted with an author’s vocabulary, biases, and technical ‘know-how.’ This was the case in our workshop reconstruction of “Noir de Flandres” (Black of Flanders), a seventeenth-century French recipe for a madder and woad-based dye. Here the compiler of the recipe added in his own hand, “And you will have a perfect and durable black” (Fig. 2).[ii] What, according to our writer, is a ‘perfect black,’ and how did it relate to other early modern colors? Over the course of our two-day dye session we produced a number of dyed textiles, many in various shades of black and others not black at all (Fig. 3). Were any of them ‘perfect?’ We often struggled with terms to describe this range, using words such as ‘fresh,’ ‘saturated,’ or ‘opaque.’ But are these the terms an early modern colorist would use? Our author does tell us that, in addition to being ‘perfect,’ the Noir de Flandres is also ‘durable,’ implying that, even in the moment of its making, it was important that the color last for posterity.
Knowledge of materials, processes, and techniques was also gleaned from sources that were not written down, namely ‘shop talk,’ a kind of knowledge circulated within and across artist workshops. Though the dye recipes we tested ranged in time period (1350-1670) and geography, they often shared ingredients. By analyzing the presence and absence of certain ingredients in black dye recipes, scholars, such as Natalia Ortega-Saez of the University of Antwerp, have classified these recipes into three main groups.[iii] Based on these, a twenty-first century reader can effectively ‘fill in the gaps’ when information in the original transcription of one particular recipe is missing or unclear. Likely, a contemporary would have done just that, having considered particular instructions to be common knowledge. We might think back to the Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari who, describing fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini’s treatise on painting, wrote, “[Cennini] was anxious to know the peculiarities of colors … and gave much advice which I need not expand upon, since all these matters, which he then considered very great secrets, are now universally known.”[iv] By the sixteenth century certain materials and their properties must have been widely known across Europe, and the disappearance of these procedures in writing suggests that this information was not forgotten, but instead circulated verbally, just as we shared and transmitted knowledge orally in the laboratory.
Where our dye reconstructions were much more ‘experimental,’ some recipes being deciphered and tested for the very first time, our pigment recipes had comparatively fewer unknowns. Instead, we were encouraged to consider the appearance, smell, and feel of our materials as we progressed through the recipes. Simply put, we shifted away from the written and spoken word and towards the sensory experience of color production. We began by roasting our raw ingredients—primarily animal bones and fruit pits—in crucibles in an open flame (Fig. 4). The goal here was to char the materials just until they turned black; too long on the flame risks turning the bones white, the base for another color, ‘bone-white.’
The body took centerstage as we began grinding our pigments. Organic materials, like fruit stones and plant matter, broke down in mere minutes, but sheep and bovine bones were significantly denser and more difficult, some requiring twenty to thirty minutes of continuous grinding. To achieve the kind of fine powder necessary for high-quality pigments, one clearly needed strength and dexterity as well as a cultivated sensitivity to natural materials. Without time specifications in our recipes, we ground our pigments until they felt finely powdered, and mulled them with water until we could no longer feel or hear granules sliding between the glass (Fig. 5). Sensory indicators—touch, smell, and sight—developed into an acquired “skilled vision” and “expert touch” akin to shop talk, one that filled gaps in reasoning.[v]
We considered these ideas even further by applying the pigments to paper: how did the paint feel when applied? What was its texture? Translucency? Facture? Here the term ‘body’ can be dually defined. In addition to referring to the body of the maker, it also suggests the ‘body’ of a color, as Jenny Boulboullé of the University of Utrecht has observed.[vi] The coloristic effects, success, and ‘body’ of our black pigments were not only dependent on its raw material and how we processed it, but also the type of binding medium used; depending on this, a color’s transparency, density, and quality differed considerably (Fig. 6). Because we used only water and gum arabic as binders, I couldn’t help but wonder how, precisely, the choice of binder can modulate the color black. In other words, to quote Ann-Sophie Lehmann, in mixing and applying pigment, what is the “matter of the medium?”[vii]
Re-enactments of historical techniques bring to the surface ideas that are often latent in strictly theoretical approaches to technique and materiality. By investigating recipes for pre-modern black, we engage with color as both technique and concept, as the cross-geographical product of nature and artistic experimentalism, and, above all, as an area of study that has increasingly come to move across disciplines and scholarly domains.
[i] See Sven Dupré’s blog post, “Re-enactment in Teaching Art History (Part 1),” https://artechne.wp.hum.uu.nl/re-enactment-in-teaching-art-history-part-1/
[ii] Original French: “un noir parfaict & durable.” Recipe transcribed and translated by Jenny Boulboullé.
[iii] Natalia Ortega Saez, Ina Vanden Berghe, Olivier Schalm, et al., “Material analysis versus historical dye recipes: ingredients found in black dyed wool from five Belgian archives (1650-1850),” Conservar Património 31 (2019): 1-18.
[iv] Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Agnolo Gaddi,” in Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, nelle redazionidel 1550 e 1568, Vol. 2 , eds. Paola Barocchi and Rosanna Bettarini, 6 vols. (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1966-87), 248-9; for translation see Angela Cerasuolo, Literature and Artistic Practice in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Helen Glanville, ed. Walter S. Melion (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2017), 173.
[v] Cristina Grasseni, Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007).
[vi] Jenny Boulboullé and Maartie Stols-Witlox consider these themes in an essay entitled, “Working (with) the corps: bodies of colours, sands and varnishes in Ms Fr. 640 and MS 2052,” which will be published in the forthcoming Critical Edition of Bnf Ms Fr 640, edited by Pamela Smith & the Making and Knowing Project.
[vii] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The matter of the medium: some tools for an art-theoretical interpretation of materials,” in The Matter of Art: Materials, Practices, Cultural Logics, c. 1250-1750, eds. Christy Anderson, Anne Dunlop and Pamela H. Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 21-41.