The second day of our Virtual Conversation ‘What is a recipe?’ has been very busy indeed, with contributions on Instagram and Twitter. Some clear themes started to emerge, and I take the opportunity of this post to draw them out.
We opened the day by asking people to share photos of their favourite recipe books.
Several of you tweeted pics of treasured family heirlooms: books with pressed flowers, stained recipe cards, well-thumbed volumes. Often these had been passed down the generations, usually from mother to daughter, but we also heard about some father-to-son transmission. There was a sense of nostalgia, but not of sadness, as we recalled past smells, tastes and gestures. Perhaps the written words of the recipe serve as proxy for all those other things that we find so difficult to express? Through short recipes we remember family stories and traditions. Please continue to share your favourites with us over this month!
Perhaps more strictly ‘historical’ was our question about ‘big stories’ in the transmission of recipes. We touched upon issues of class (Mrs Beeton and the rise of the middle classes); nationalism versus internationalism, and the link between recipes and empires; the importance of celebrity culture; and the prevalence of antidotes and panaceas in pharmacological recipe books. Celebrity endorsements, ancient and modern, seemed to strike a particular chord, especially endorsements for cosmetic products (Alfred Curie’s radium cosmetic powder anyone?).
Lisa Smith asked whether the celebrity serves as a guarantor of efficacy or as an ingredient. I need to ponder that question further, but it raises the further question of ‘what counts as an ingredient’? Is skill an ingredient? I mean, without skill and embodied knowledge, a recipe can fall flat like bread without yeast. If so many contributors to the Recipes Project and its Virtual Conversation are able to recreate historical recipes, it is often because they are skilled cooks (and at times gardeners, because they need to grow rare herbs): they can fill in the blanks. And this leads us to the question of secrecy, which fleets in and out of focus in our conversation. What exactly constitutes secrecy in recipe transmission?
We also touched upon literacy and grammar. I have often argued, following the anthropologist Jack Goody, that recipes are intimately linked to literacy and writing. Recipes, to me, are a written genre. Of course, recipes can be read aloud, and oral transmission of knowledge accompanies and complements recipes; but they remain texts. And as texts, they obey to specific grammatical and structural rules. We left the algorithms, knitting patterns, and musical scores a little behind today, but I hope we will get back to them in our future events.
Do join the conversation in the coming weeks. Share photos, reminiscences, and asks questions to our community. You may find someone who knows that treasured recipe book, which you lost in that move years ago, as it happened today to one of our contributors. A lovely moment!
Find out more in the Storify by Tallulah Maait Pepperell
April and May on the US east coast = temperature swings = confusing and sickly weather. This year especially reminds me of the sobering admonition from the ancient Chinese classic of medicine, <The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon>: “when there is damage from cold in winter, one suffers from warm diseases in spring (Dong shang yu han, chun bi bing wen)” (see Marta Hanson’s insightful book on this subject). Seasonality is well known as a central preoccupation in the Chinese medical tradition: the cosmic resonance of the body and the larger world according to the quadruple division of the solar year – the cyclic fluctuation of temperature, directionality of wind, and the loci of corporal vulnerability that furnished essential cues for a master practitioner of medicine.
But if etiology in Chinese medicine is classically understood as seasonal, surely the therapeutics should also follow a seasonal rhythm? To my surprise, a search for pre-modern monographs that contain the keyword “four seasons” (sishi) yielded few results. In addition, they tend to focus on agriculture (which of course also follows a seasonal rhythm) or popular festivities around the year. I decide to take a closer look at the latest text that featured “four seasons” in its title – a title attributed to Qu You (1341-1427), Si shi yi ji (Auspicious and Inauspicious Deeds in Four Seasons). I thought this text might teach me something about how a learned scholar approached the notion of seasonality in the early fifteenth century, and how that might align or depart from the canonical medical model of seasonality.
The book consists of twelve chapters, each describing the dos and don’ts for a specific month. I flipped to the chapter on the fourth month (which corresponded roughly to this present moment in Western calendar). I learned, to my surprise and delight, a ton of practical advice with specific recipes: how to properly dry and insulate book and painting cases before the advent of rainy season; “use eels that have been sun-dried, burn them inside the house to thwart the thirst of mosquitoes” (seems appropriate for New Jersey habitat); “wrap your battle gears along with Sichuanese peppers (huajiao) or powder of Daphne flowers (yuanhua) to prevent worm damage… wrap windshield collars and earmuffs and store them in a vat, tightly seal it up, so as the fur will not fall off.” After the first full moon this month, one “should drink mulberry wine” to prevent “wind heat” illnesses (see Shigehisa Kuriyama’s discussion of wind in classical Chinese and Greek medicines). The recipe goes as follows:
Use Mulberries, get its juice of three dou (1 dou ~ 18 liter). White Honey four ounces (liang); Butter (suyou) one ounce; raw ginger juice two ounces.
Bring mulberry juice to a boil in a pot, and reduce its volume to three sheng (1 sheng = 1/10 dou), and then add honey, butter, and ginger juice. Add three drachm (qian) of salt and keep boiling till the texture is thick.
Store in porcelain utensils. Each time, take a small cup with wine. This effectively cures various wind-induced illnesses.
Not only does this sound completely delicious and doable to me, I also realize how recipes like this are in fact completely grounded in the seasonal rhythm of biological life (I just saw a friend posting the harvest of fresh mulberries in her backyard in China).
In sum, what Qu You did in this book was to cull from a wide range of medical and non-medical sources (a rough count yielded over 60 different titles) for hints and tips on how to live according to the seasons. Some of his references were archaic almanacs that offered divinations on the most auspicious dates to travel, have sex, trim your nails, or remove grey hair, as well as dates one should abstain from such activities. Some were quasi-ethnographic accounts of “customs” (fengsu) in ancient cities that still lend to a viable reading as practical guides to festivities. Still others draw from esoteric Daoist literature on the preservation of vital essence (I have blogged on a related topic here), a decision on Qu You’s part that raised many eyebrows both during his lifetime as well as centuries later.
We must remember that Qu lived through the Ming dynasty’s founder, Hongwu emperor’s reign (1368-1398) – a period known for its austere message of moral purity and simplicity. His fourth son, who usurped the throne shortly after Hongwu’s death to become the Yongle emperor (r. 1404-1424), was not exactly friend of the letters either. Those were not easy times for a literary aficionado with keen interests in morally dubious subjects, and yet Qu You continued to compose and comment on poetry, wrote short stories featuring ghosts and women, and collected esoteric recipes. He even managed to publish those works, prefacing them with loud self-defense of his moral stature. Qu eventually got into trouble, endured decades of exile in the north, and yet again outlived the Yongle emperor, who threw many a undisciplined scholars like him into jail, by three years.
Perhaps the seasonal recipes did work well for him after all?
In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’. Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.
Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.
Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.
Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.
Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’. Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.
While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.
In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.
 Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.
 Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.
 Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.
 Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.
 Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.
In the seventeenth century, life ebbed and flowed with the seasons. In my research into the court household of Berlin, I noted seasonal shifts in livery, lighting, bedtimes, and, of course, recipes. Even with these seasonal adaptations, however, early modern Europeans sought to overcome seasonal growing constraints. One occupation primarily concerned with defying the seasonality of food was that of the court confectioner. It was his (and his wife’s) job to preserve the delicate summer fruits for wealthy Europeans to enjoy even in the depths of winter.
Nicolas de Bonnefons described the rewards of this play with the seasons in his 1654 Les Delices de la campagne, which was translated into English and German and even republished by a Berlin court physician, Johann Sigismund Elsholtz. Bonnefons raptured:
There is nothing which doth more agreeably concern the senses, than in the depth of Winter to behold the fruits so fair, and so good, yea, better than when you first did gather them; and that then, when the trees seem to be dead, and have lost all their Verdure, and the rigour of the cold to have so dispoil’d your garden of all that imbellished it, that it appears rather a desart [sic] than a paradise of delicacies; then it is, I say, that you will taste your fruit with infinite more Gust and contentment, than in the summer it self, when their great abundance and variety rather cloy you than become agreeable. For this reason therefore it is, that we will essay to teach you the most expedite, and certain means how to conserve them all the winter, even so long, as till the new shall incite you to quite the old.
Considering Bonnefons emphatic endorsement of summer fruits in winter, it is perhaps not surprising that confectioners were highly valued in Europe. The moist and cold properties of fresh fruit generally made it a nutritional no-no, according to Galenic principles of diet. However, candied fruits were considered medicinal and the position of court confectioner often fell under the office of the apothecary, not the kitchen. In the Renaissance, it was common to seal the stomach at the end of a rich meal with either fresh or preserved fruits and fruit at a meal was emblematic of the wealth and refinement of the host. By the eighteenth century, the task of the confectioner to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the table was so ingrained that one encyclopedist claimed they belonged to the artist class and prospects had to apprentice themselves to a city confectioner for six years until they had mastered their art.
The importance of the confectioner is apparent at the court at Berlin in the seventeenth century. The household archives contain a frantic exchange from 1647 between the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688) and his counselors about finding a replacement for the deceased confectioner, Johann Schenke, whose wife did not want to carry on the job. It being early summer (Jun 27), the councilors expressed the pressing need to fill the vacancy because “now is the best time for juices and other garden fruits to be preserved.” Friedrich Wilhelm ordered them to install the Prussian confectioner, Johann Tiegel, in the position. He wrote that although they would eventually draw up a contract for him, Tiegel should get started immediately collecting the fruit from the gardens and bringing them to the elector’s tables with the appropriate confections.
When it was finally written, the court confectioner’s employment contract specified the supplies he would receive to carry out his charge: 700 Reichsthaler (in addition to his 80 Reichstaler salary), 960 eggs, as much flour and fruit as needed (from the gardens and from in-kind taxes), 1000 citrons, 1000 bitter oranges, as well as a supply of wood, coal and candles. Occasionally, the confectioner did not get the necessary supplies, which hindered his ability to preserve fruits and was costly for the court. In 1657, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered that Tiegel surely be supplied with apples, cherries, and Black Corinths (Johannisbeere in German) in order to avoid the great expense of having to buy confections from outside of the palace, which had been necessary the previous year.
Cherries were the first ripe fruits of the summer. The sandy soil of Brandenburg was well-suited to growing cherries and in 1656, there were eight varieties of cherries cataloged in the palace garden of Berlin. Dr. Elsholtz wrote that cherries were ripe in June and July and described their consumption: “one eats cherries either fresh or cooked into a soup, or dried, or preserved with sugar. Some make cherry water or a syrup.” Here is a translation of one such cherry recipe reprinted by Elsholtz from Bonnefons:
One makes the cherry syrup from the good, ripe cherry juice, which you press through a hair or linen cloth. For every quart of this juice, add a pound of sugar, boil that to a thick syrup. To clarify this syrup, let it run through a distillation sack.”
Elsholtz’s descriptions also correspond with the menus and food receipts from the Brandenburg-Prussian household archive, which frequently list the ordering or consumption of dried cherries and cherry sauce (Kirschmus), in particular.
In some popular food literature today, there’s nostalgia for a time when humans adhered more closely to the foods nature provided each season. Even prior to industrialization, however, people clearly prized the rarity of a taste of an off-season food. What the archival record reveals, though, is that early modern Europeans of all orders were still hyper aware of what foods were available when and were careful about timing the work of preservation accordingly.
 Ibid, p. 55. There is no mention of the quantity of sugar the confectioner would receive, but an earlier missive from the previous elector ordered the Office of the Domains (Amtskammer) to supply the confectioner with enough sugar for the dried fruits coming in as taxes-in-kind from the administrative districts (Ämter). Ibid, p. 16.
 Marina Heilmeyer, Kirschen für den König, Potsdamer pomologische Geschichten (Potsdam: Vacat, 2001), p. 10. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz’s 1656 plant catalog Horta Berolinensis can be found at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin Ms.boruss.qu. 12.
 Ibid, p. 436-7. I translated Viertal as quart and “Luttersack” as distillation sack. There’s a picture of a 19th-century Luttersack here (item 30). According to Adelung, the Lutter is what came out of the first pass through the fire when making brandy (which required two firings).