Soledad Acosta de Samper: Botany, Food, and Gender in 19th Century South America

Vanesa Miseres

Fig. 1. Daguerreotype of Soledad Acosta (1880).
Cultura Banco de la República de Colombia.

Soledad Acosta de Samper (1833-1913) was one of the most renowned South American writers of the 19th century and critical to the construction of gendered notions of national identity in South America.  She worked as a translator, journalist, and author and spent much of her life traveling between Colombia, Peru, and Europe.  What is most notable about her, however, was her work as scientist, historian and novelist, writing more 45 historical and costumbrista novels.  However, her writings on plants, food, and science have largely been underexplored. 

 

Acosta’s father, the historian, scientist, and patriot of independence Joaquín Acosta, influenced her interests in history and science. The two shared deep curiosity in charting a range of scientific and historical topics related to the natural history of Colombia. While serving in the Colombian army, the senior Acosta conducted a scientific, territorial survey of New Granada. In the 1840s, he explored the western regions from Antioquia to Anserma, writing on a wide range of topics that included topography, natural history, and the native peoples. Acosta and the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt maintained a long-term relationship, largely emanating from their mutual interest in mining in the Choco.

Fig. 2. Note where Humboldt includes Joaquín Acosta as one of his sources to create the “Carte hydrographique de la Province du Chocó […]” (Leitner, no pagination)

 

In Conversaciones y lecturas familiares of 1896, Soledad Acosta demonstrated her passion for and knowledge of botany by detailing the medical and alimentary uses of plants and exploring the native and imported flora of Colombia. As an adaptation of the Victorian educational Self Help genre, Acosta’s text is intended for women and it makes use of fiction to present readings and lessons in a rural setting. It is rooted in Colombia’s countryside. Acosta’s story takes place on a plantation where the landowning family entertains visits from a botanist and a priest who give lessons to the family’s children about science and religion. Some of the apprentices were young women who, under the tutelage of the male expert, engage in direct contact with scientific knowledge. During their walks on Sunday afternoons, they opened books from which they quote, and they repeat lessons from previous days. They also listened to and interact with topics such as the routes of tea from Asia to Europe, the origin of spices like pepper, vanilla, cinnamon or nutmeg, the importance of climate in the Andes for the cultivation of potato and maize, and the life and contributions of Carl Linnaeus and his Systema Naturae. Moreover, their “conversations and readings” feature female scientists in Great Britain and the United States– Mariana North and Febe Lankester, among others–as sources of inspiration for young Colombian women (Briggs 140). Many of these passages were previously published in her journal El domingo de la familia Cristiana as articles under a section titled “Botanical Notions.”  

Fig. 3. Charles Linnè, A General System of Nature. Vol. V. London: Printed for Lackington, Allen & Co., 1806. DeB Eb 1806 L.

 

Fig. 4. Priscilla Wakefield. An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, with Illustrative Engravings. London, Printed by and for Darton and Harvey, 1807. Michigan State University Libraries.

Acosta’s exploration of botany can be seen as a result of a period in the early 19th century when the topic was thought to be a suitable study for young women in the higher social classes.  Across Europe and the United States, botany was taught in schools and it became an amateur avocation. As Ann Shteir has noted: “The simplicity of the Linnaean sexual system for naming and classifying plants” encourage women to collect, draw, study, and teach their children about flowers and vegetables (Shteir 29). British female writers including Elizabeth and Mary Fitton, Maria Elizabeth Jackson, Jane Marcet, and Priscilla Wakefield wrote books to introduce young women to the study of botany (Rudolph 1346). However, unlike Soledad Acosta, few women became professional botanists and institutions, in their attempt to “modernize” botany as a science at the end of the century, started excluding women from the field.

 

Fig. 5. Index of Acosta’s journal El domingo de la familia cristiana (1889) with botany lessons listed. Biblioteca Digital Soledad Acosta de Samper. Many of these passages were previously published in her journal El domingo de la familia Cristiana as articles under a section titled “Botanical Notions.”

Acosta favored women’s connection to science over a more domestic approach to studying foodstuff, unlike her contemporary Argentine writer Juana Manuela Gorriti. In 1890, Gorriti published Cocina ecléctica, a recipe book compiled from contributors—many of them celebrated women writers themselves—across Latin America and overseas. They shared family, regional, and European dishes creating a Pan-American community through food. Although Acosta included recipes in her journal La Familia, her goal was to educate women as housewives beyond the practical understanding of food manipulation, through the principles of science that are not from personal or anecdotal experience. It was, though, a restricted project, since it does not include lower-class women who, in Conversaciones y lecturas, are presented as servants, always preparing ajiaco and other regional plates while the landowners’ daughters immerse in botany.

 

Fig. 6. Soledad Acosta’s Journal La familia’s recipes section.

What is noteworthy is that Acosta’s references to vegetal foods and medicines did not incorporate South American indigenous culinary or healing practices. At a time when the continent was trying to “civilize” itself by following European patterns, her approach to plants through science represented a desired connection with “progress.” Although female cooks and healers were traditionally a mainstay of health in communities around the world, women with such skills, especially healers, were feared and perceived as witches or monsters. Therefore, Acosta’s botanical discourse to refer to natural foodstuff and remedies can be seen as a gendered strategy to write and publish from a safe and acceptable space. Soledad Acosta shows the importance of women’s education in science was a key aspect in the construction of a modern national identity of South American citizens.

Fig. 7. Botany Drawing by Soledad Acosta in El libro de los ensueños de amor, album composed with her husband José María Samper.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Acosta de Samper, Soledad. Complete works available at the recently inaugurated Soledad Acosta de Samper Digital Library (National Library of Colombia and Universidad de los Andes): http://soledadacosta.uniandes.edu.co

Alzate, Carolina. Soledad Acosta de Samper y el discurso letrado de género: 1853-1881. Iberoamericana, 2015.

Austin, Elisabeth. “Reading and Writing Juana Manuela Gorriti’s Cocina ecléctica: Modeling Multiplicity in Nineteenth-Century Domestic Narrative.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, vol. 12, 2008, pp. 31-44.

Briggs, Ronald. The Moral Electricity Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition.

Burke, Janet and Ted Humphrey. “Soledad Acosta de Samper.” Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition. pp. 268-74.

Corpas, Isabel. Me he decidido a escribir todos los días: una biografía de Soledad Acosta de Samper, 1833-1913. Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 2018.

Leitner, Ulrike. “Sobre ríos y canales – Aspectos geográficos y cartográficos en el legado de Humboldt.”

http://www.hin-online.de/index.php/hin/rt/printerFriendly/251/466 Accessed on November 23, 2019.

Rudolph, Emanuel D. “Women in Nineteenth Century American Botany; A Generally Unrecognized Constituency.” American Journal of Botany, vol. 69, no. 8, Sep., 1982, pp. 1346-55.

Shteir, Ann B. “Gender and “Modern” Botany in Victorian England.”
 Osiris, vol. 12, Women, Gender, and Science: New Directions, 1997, pp. 29-38.

 

‘A Curious Book’: The Many Functions of Martha Hodges’ Manuscript Recipe Book

By Kate Owen

On the inside cover of Martha Hodges’ recipe book (17-th-18th century), written in pencil, is a note that calls the manuscript ‘a curious book’. Although there is no further explanation from the author of this note as to why they deemed the book so curious, it may well have something to do with the manuscript’s varied content and the signs that point to its multiple functions within the home. Palaeographical evidence in Martha Hodges’ recipe book suggests that it acted not only as a place to document recipes and their efficacy, but was actually a site where domestic life took place.

Martha Hodges’ recipe book is a perfect example of how diverse the content of early modern manuscript recipe books can be. As well as recipes, the manuscript contains prayers, excerpts from Erasmus, and the first account of the  Pied Piper of Hamelin printed in English. The prevalence of religious content in manuscript recipe books may suggest that they were resources that encompassed moral and spiritual well-being alongside the physical.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f. 1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

As well as its diverse content, Martha Hodges’ manuscript bears signs of multiple uses. The cluttered nature of fol. 1r. reveals at least two uses of the manuscript recipe book. One function of this page seems to be as a place to remember dead relatives. A note reads:

Our Great Grandmother Hodges her receipt book. She was mother to Mrs. Priaulx who was the Grandmother of Mrs Sarah Tilley by Mr Howes marrying her daughter Mrs Mary Priaulx. Her name is written by herself at the other end. She was sister of Dr. Hodges the writer of a large book of receipts.

The note reveals that manuscript recipe books facilitate a relationship between previous and subsequent manuscript owners. The biographical note acts as a family tree and, although this family tree has a focus on the matrilineal, it carefully associates Martha Hodges with the medical expertise of her brother. This suggests that Martha belonged to a household of medical practitioners, a skilled environment which Martha would have learned from and contributed to. This, and the invitation to view Martha Hodges’ name ‘written by herself’, suggests that the note’s author had a great deal of respect for Martha and that the manuscript may have acted as a site of remembrance.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f.1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

Other uses of this page, however, were less respectful of the memory of Martha Hodges. Smaller and less coherent notes suggest the recipe book may also have been used as scrap paper or for pen-trialling. Due to the price of paper and the use of home-made inks, early modern writers often would test their writing supplies on ‘the nearest available paper, which in many cases would have been in a book’.[1] The ink scratch marks on the recipe book’s inside cover would support such an interpretation. Jason Scott-Warren offers a ‘less dismissive’ interpretation of such marks, arguing that they relate to literacy and are ‘a piece with the practice of alphabets that frequently crop up on flyleaves and around the edges of texts’[2]  Martha Hodges’ recipe book contains evidence to support this idea. Underneath the biography of Martha Hodges, ‘hie hec hoc – April 1 1769’ is written as well as the words ‘I read’.  Towards the centre of the page, ‘booksse’ is written confidently and underneath it is copied in a shakier hand. The page is also littered with the letter W. This would suggest that the page has been used as a space for learning and practising with writing materials.  Further in the manuscript, on fol. 154r., there is further evidence of recipe books being used as a space to practice literacy. On this page, the name William has been practised, paying particular attention to the minims.[3] Kristina Kowalchuk argues that both the kitchen and the recipe book act as educational spaces for the women who owned recipe book  and their female domestic servants.[4] The real question, for me at least, is whether these marks of literacy are purposeful or idle. Thus, have these recipe books been used as scrap paper to practise a certain word before immediately writing it in a ‘cleaner’ manuscript book or letter, or have they been used simply as a place to pass the time. Alongside the repeated ‘Williams’ are some drawings: a house, an animal, and some box-like shapes. Doodles and drawings are not uncommon within manuscript recipe books. Some relate to the manuscript’s content, such as the drawing of a woman cooking from a 17/18th century manuscript recipe book (Wellcome MS1796), and others, such as the doodles in Martha Hodges’ recipe book and the woodcocks from the Springatt recipe book (MS4683), are seemingly unrelated to the topic of the manuscript or have a context that has been lost over time.

To conclude, Martha Hodges’ recipe book had multiple functions within the domestic sphere. For Martha it was a space to document recipes, for at least one of her descendants it was a place to remember Martha, and for others it has been a place to doodle, scribble, and practice their handwriting. The Martha Hodges’ recipe book offers insight into the multiple ways manuscript recipe books functioned within the early modern home and how these texts have been valued by different users over time.


Kate Owen has recently completed her MA, Early Modern English Literature: Texts and Transmission, at King’s College London. She is interested in the many ways early modern manuscript recipe books functioned inside and outside the home. She has also has an interest in the medical humanities and currently volunteers for St Bartholomew’s Museum and Archive. 


[1] Jason Scott-Warren, ‘Reading Graffiti in the Early Modern Book’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3 (2010): 368.

[2] Jason Scott-Warren: 368.

[3] Vertical strokes made when writing, Minims are the main strokes in letters such as m, I, n.

[4] Kristina Kowalchuk, Preserving on Paper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 28-34.

 

British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice—Famine Prevention and Common Knowledge in Edo Japan

By Joshua Schlachet

If you’ve browsed The Recipes Project in the past several weeks, you may have raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar black and white squiggles that decorate the top of our page (written, by the way, in a cursive form of premodern Japanese). As my October editorial duties slowly draw to a close, I couldn’t let the month go by without spoiling the mystery of this little recipe collection…of sorts…as economical in its prose as in its outlook.

Consisting of a single broadsheet (what you see above is the whole thing), Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice (Daikenyaku meshi no takiyō), was likely produced around the time of Japan’s Great Tenpō Famine in the 1830s as a no-nonsense guide to help households squeeze a little more out of their staple grains. Rice prices could fluctuate wildly from season to season in time of scarcity, and to the extent that ordinary people could afford to eat (usually brown) rice at all, cutting it with cheaper vegetables and coarse grains became a strategy for survival.

Very Frugal Ways of Cooking Rice. Photo courtesy of the Waseda University Library Digital Collection of Historical Japanese Books.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice was one of many vernacular publications—meant to help regular folks combat famine conditions—that circulated through the vibrant marketplace for commercial print during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). If it wasn’t given away for free, it was available for cheap, meaning a family could likely recoup what little they spent on the pamphlet itself in as little as a single meal. This was no small claim for those in need, and economizing became both a key premise in enduring food shortages and a central feature of every recipe listed here. 

What are the Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice? The guide “instructs” readers on how to prepare rice seasoned and combined with a variety of inexpensive beans, roots, grains, and leaves, similar to the contemporary Japanese dish takikomi gohan. Each recipe indicates the proper proportions (five parts rice to four parts barley, for example) and basic directions for foods like barley, sweet potato, tofu lees, fava beans, millet, daikon radish, carrots, cow peas, red beans, as well as two kinds of “very economical” porridge that could stretch rice even further. Based on which ingredient one mixed in, a household could save a hefty thirty to eighty mon (a common denomination of copper coinage) on ten portions, a significant sum worth as much as $10 to $25 in today’s currency.

Contemporary image of Japanese mixed, seasoned rice (takikomi gohan). Photo courtesy of Ajinomoto Park.

Yet one thing continues to bug me about these very frugal recipes: why go through the trouble to teach people what they already knew? The directions themselves are so simple and intuitive as to border on obvious: cook beans, mix with rice; cut potatoes into chunks, mix with rice; boil leaves, season, mix. What’s more, families likely prepared such dishes in their homes already, making Very Frugal Ways redundant knowledge that didn’t bear repeating. Barring anything earth shattering within the recipes themselves, communicating frugality was itself the point. In a society where rice was not only the staple food but the basic unit of taxation and exchange, where running out signaled destitution, economizing as a lesson was worth reproducing the same old recipes, even if everyone already knew what was on the menu.