Milk Punch: A Drink that Keeps ‘Years by Sea or Land’

Milk Punch. Image courtesy of the authors.

Milk punch is further clarified when it is run through a fine-weave cloth.

We used a flour sack dish towel here, but several layers of cheesecloth would also be fine. 

By Emily Beck and Nicole LaBouff

From the summer of 2018 through the early spring of 2019, we were collaborators on a project that aimed to explore the 18th-century Atlantic world through the lens of alcohol: Alcohol’s Empire: Distilled Spirits in the 1700s Atlantic World.  We were first inspired by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’s (Mia) period rooms, and then by recipes found mostly in the collection of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine. Later, we invited Jon Kreidler, Dan Oskey, and Bentley Gillman of Tattersall Distilling to join us on the project, and they enthusiastically collaborated with us in researching and recreating a wide variety of distilled and mixed spirits from the long-18th century. From plague water and saffron bitters to “cherrie water” and two early versions of aquavitae, we spent several months exploring the mostly medicinal antecedents of modern cocktail culture. 

The first straining can be done with a wire mesh strainer and removes the larger curds along with the strips of lemon and orange zest, which were removed from the fruit using a vegetable peeler to limit the amount of bitter pith (the white inner rind) in the punch. Image courtesy of the authors.

Although the 18th century was not the era of mixed drinks or “cocktails” (those come out in force in the late 19th to early 20th centuries), one important exception was punch. This popular and convivial beverage swept the globe in the 1600s. Punch combined five basic components: citrus juice, sugar, botanicals, water, and distilled spirits – usually rum, brandy, or arrack, a beverage made from either rice, palm juice, or coconut flower sap, common throughout South and Southeast Asia. 

Some clues about punch’s origins point to India, and others to the practical needs and available resources of European sailors. The title of the recipe we decided to recreate points to this origin on ship board: “To make Milk Punch that will keep Years by Sea or Land.” As part of their victuals, sailors had increased access to distilled alcohols during the 17th century. Some European ships had citrus on hand to combat scurvy, long before such fruits were formally dolled out as rations and scientifically understood as antiscorbutics. Sugar and spices were also often part of the cargo. If punch did begin life aboard long-haul voyages, it quickly jumped ship, making its way into well-to-do homes, where people could afford costly ingredients (one citrus fruit in 18th-century Europe cost the modern equivalent of roughly $8). 

To make Milk Punch that will keep Years by Sea or Land. 

Steep the Peel of twenty Lemons, and four Seville Oranges, in six Quarts of Brandy or Rum, for twenty-four Hours; and then add two Quarts of Lemon and Orange Juice (almost three Parts of Seville Orange Juice) five Quarts of Water, four large Nutmegs grated, and two Pounds and a Half of double-refined Sugar. When these have stood twenty-four Hours, add three Quarts and a Pint of boiling Milk; then let the whole stand about twelve Hours; after which run it through a Jelly-Bag, till the Liquor becomes quite clear. This will keep good to either of the Indies

With its heavy dose of lime or lemon juice, punch was highly acidic; one way to counteract its zing was to add sugar. Another way to cut the sourness of the citrus juice was discovered somewhere in the late 1600s, and is used here: add milk! By the mid-18th century, milk punch was extremely popular and enjoyed its ride into late 19th century (and is currently seeing a bit of a resurgence in modern cocktail culture). The recipe we used in Alcohol’s Empire was published in Ireland by Mary Johnson in 1770.

The final product is an opaque lemon-yellow punch that is light, refreshing, and perfect for summer. Drink it straight like an 18th-century sailor, or top with soda like we like to do! Image courtesy of the authors.

Making Johnson’s 18th-century milk punch is an experience in textures quite unlike our modern experiences with cocktails and punches. Rather than relying on sweet juices or sodas, whey from curdled milk is what smooths the bite of the rum and citrus juice and makes this a pleasant summer beverage. When boiling milk is added to the punch in the third step, it immediately curdles (see video) in a process that is essentially the same as making paneer, ricotta, or other soft cheeses. When it meets milk at a high temperature, lemon juice causes the separation of milk solids from the whey. When the milk punch is strained a few times and the curds are removed alongside the citrus peel, the whey remains to give the drink a much smoother mouthfeel, and a taste that, at least to us, is slightly tangy and yogurty. Being able to remove the milk solids from the punch also has the benefit of ensuring that the punch is shelf stable, which is why Johnson could assert that her punch would keep during the voyage to “either of the Indies,” meaning either the Americas or Asia.

This video shows what happens when boiling milk is added to the punch in the third step.

The milk immediately curdles, with milk solids hanging down from the top as the punch steams from the milk’s heat.

Emily Beck is the assistant curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. She received her PhD from the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses broadly on histories of medicine, pharmacy, and making in early modern Europe.

Nicole LaBouff is associate curator of textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and worked previously in the Department of Costume and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She received her PhD in history from the University of California, Irvine. Her research deals with the intersection of art, science, and women’s domestic work in early modern Europe, with interests spanning needlework, botany, and distilling. 

Stockfish and the Texture of Trust in the Early Modern Period

Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By Jack B. Bouchard

Stockvisch muss man bleüwen – One must beat stockfish” declared Balthasar Staindl in the first line of a lengthy entry on cooking cod in his 1544 Kochbuch.[1] Wielding a blunt instrument, the sixteenth century cook was meant to hammer away at the flesh of a desiccated, full-length codfish until it was soft enough to soak in water. For this reason many markets sold purpose-made stockfish hammers, which regularly appear in early modern household inventories and ship cargo manifests. Hammering away at the dried flesh of what was once a living, deep-sea fish broke it down the fibers and made it easier for them to absorb water. So common was the practice that in Venice imported, dried stockfish was popularly known as battuto, “beaten,” derived from the word battere, ‘to beat.’[2] Here was a food which made you grapple with texture in a direct way: to eat it you had to beat it.

Though today it is overshadowed by its salt-cured cousin bacalao, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a kind of preserved fish called “stockfish,” literally a fish like a stock of wood, was amongst the most widely consumed proteins in northern Europe. In the widespread consumption of stockfish we can see that texture was not merely an ancillary consideration, a factor of taste, for early modern diners. Texture itself carried information about nutrition and was valued on its own terms. The dryness of stockfish conveyed that it was a manmade, preserved kind of meat, one which could be relied upon to stay edible for a long time. You could trust your battuto precisely because of its hard, unyielding texture.

Cod, which lives in the far north Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland, was important to households and military contractors alike because its oil-free flesh was easy to dry for preservation. Stockfish was a kind of codfish which could only be made at very northern latitudes, such as Norway and Iceland, where the cold winters and windy coasts made air-drying possible. Whole fish were headed, gutted and split open before being left outside on racks. The cold winds, alternating with sunlight, effectively freeze-dried the fish. The result was a board-like fish mummy, rock-hard and tough, earning the popular nickname “buckhorne” in England for its resemblance to animal horn. Today in Nigeria stockfish is even sold as “okporoko,” so named for the sound the hard pieces of fish make as they clang against a metal pot. Freeze-dried cod were sold whole in the market, stacked like logs or hung on walls, and were instantly recognizable to early modern consumers thanks to their long, thin shape. A seventeenth-century Dutch painting shows stockfish being wielded like a club by a group of monks – like a stick of wood, it could be used as a weapon.

To sixteenth-century consumers, it was the texture of stockfish which mattered more than its taste. Stockfish meat was thought too bland to be nutritious by many experts, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, but this was compensated for by its unusual physical nature. It was from its hard, dry consistency that the food derived its most important quality, that of durability. Cod which had been transformed into stockfish resisted decay in a manner that was unusual, even unnatural, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English sources sometimes called it pessoun dure (poisson dur, hard fish), or even winterfish, so-called for its ability to last throughout the cold months when other food had spoiled.[3] Without water it could not rot, mold or putrefy. Where most fish would rot in a matter of days, stockfish could be trusted to last not merely months but years before going bad, and it could be shipped over vast distances. Though coming from Norway and Iceland it was popular as far as Budapest, Rome and Seville. In an age of food insecurity and uncertainty these qualities were much-prized and sought out by consumers, creating a pan-European culture of stockfish cookery by the early sixteenth century.

But that trust came at a cost, for processed cod like stockfish could not be consumed directly, but rather underwent a texture-reversing treatment which could border on the violent – it had to be made battuto before it was ready to be eaten. Cooks learned that beating, soaking and burning the freeze-dried cod produced a softer, moist fish which could be boiled, roasted, mashed or fried. The hard texture had to be forcibly altered through hammering and soaking. In English, the process was described as ‘weakening’ the fish, and partially soaked stockfish was known as wokedfish (i.e. weakened-fish) in fifteenth century London.[4] To speed up soaking, the German cookbook of Sabina Welseren called for adding caustic lye to the water, and in the sixteenth century Hanse merchants sold lye-soaked cod dressed with mustard on the wharves of London.[5] Too much lye could even create something entirely different from dry or soaked fish, a gelatinous and translucent lutfisk which was popular around the Baltic. But if its rigidity could be weakened, the artificial texture could not be entirely eliminated. Resuscitated stockfish would never quite be like fresh fish, and always remained firmer, more fibrous and denser than the real thing. Each bite was an inescapable reminder of a food which had been processed and remade by humans.

[1] Baltasar Staindl. Ain künstlichs und nützlichs Kochbuch. (Germany: 1547). 22.

[2] This is known from a reference made by the Venetian merchant Alessandro Magno while visiting London in 1561, “un certo pesco seco che viene dalle Indie, e chiamano stofis, che vien a dire in nostra lengua battuto, et altramente si chiamano Bacalari.”  Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a. 259. “Account of Alessandro Magno’s journeys to Cyrpus, Egypt, Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Brescia, 1557-1565.” fol. 176.

[3] Examples can be found throughout: C.M. Woolgar. Household Accounts from Medieval England. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] Laura Wright. Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). 102-105.

[5] A transcription of Sabina Welserin’s book, dated to 1555, can be found at: http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/sawe.htm. For the description of Hanse merchant, see: Thomas Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation. (London : Thomas Newcomb, 1655). 262.

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018, and currently contributes to the Before Farm to Table team’s ongoing efforts to explore, through publicly-oriented research and programming, evolving food cultures and thought in early modern Europe. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve fish consumption and maritime food production in early modern Europe, as well as the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic.

The Pressure Cooker was Not an Instant Success

Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin's "Digester of Bones," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin’s “Digester of Bones,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jennifer Egloff

“What’s in your Pot tonight?”

This question is often asked on Facebook pages dedicated to the Instant Pot and other electronic pressure cookers.  While many people know that the pressure cooker existed prior to becoming trendy during the past few years, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was invented in the 1670s by a man named Denis Papin.  Although Papin is not a household name or textbook staple like his colleagues Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, or Isaac Newton, he was a noteworthy member of the European knowledge community during the second half of the seventeenth century. (For more on Pepin and his connections to early modern scientists, technicians, machine-makers, natural scientists, and philosophers, see Thony Christie’s super post at The Renaissance Mathematicus!)

Born in Blois, France in 1647 he studied medicine and utilized patronage connections with Marie Charron, the wife of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in order to receive a position assisting the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens with physical and chemical experiments at the Louvre in 1673.  In 1675, Papin relocated to London—equipped with a letter of introduction from Huygens—where he soon began assisting Boyle with his air pump experiments.  While doing so, Papin designed his pressure cooker, which was a sealed container, in which water could be heated to create internal pressure that was many times greater than that of the earth’s atmosphere.  By experimenting on food, Papin was applying the principles of temperature, pressure, and volume to practical problems, while simultaneously formulating additional theoretical principles from his observations. 

After having demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, Papin published an account called A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681.  His text contained a description of the experiments he did with his Digester, and how it radically decreased the time required to cook meat, soften bones, ferment wine, prepare confections, dyes, and chemicals, and even incubate eggs.  He also included an account of the cost to build his engine, and provided some cost-benefit analysis, highlighting the potential for large profits. 

Papin especially highlighted how valuable his device would be at sea, both logistically—because one could cook with sea water in it—and with regards to nutrition.  Scurvy, which has the symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems, was a habitual problem for early modern English mariners.  While medical professionals now understand that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, also referred to as vitamin C, during the seventeenth century there were many competing theories about the causes.

Calling upon his medical training, Papin claimed that mariners’ high instances of developing scurvy was related to overconsumption of salted meat, which was a staple of mariners’ diets.  Papin considered his Digester’s ability to quickly and easily turn bones—which might have otherwise been discarded—into nutritious and flavorful jellies to be one of its most significant applications.  He claimed, “that Gellies being made of volatile parts, and easie to be digested, would be apt to correct that defect of the salt meat.”[1]  Papin thought that jellies would be nutritious for people on land as well, and he focused on jellies when making his financial arguments about the profitability of his Digester.

Although some of his contemporaries, including the diarist John Evelyn, enjoyed his jellies, Papin made it clear in his 1687 text, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, in which he detailed additional experiments that he had done, that “very few People have been willing to make use of it.”[2]  Throughout Continuation, Papin made efforts to promote his device to a wide variety of people.  He even performed a weekly live demonstration of his device—kind of the seventeenth-century equivalent of an infomercial.  However, his stipulation that anyone who attended needed “to bring along with them a Recommendation from any Members of the Royal Society” may have been working against his objective of trying to get more quotidian people interested in utilizing his Digester for practical purposes.[3]

There are many reasons why the pressure cooker may not have been immediately successful, including the temporal and monetary investment required to build the device, the fact that they did occasionally explode, and that preparing food was traditionally a female task, whereas Papin advertised his new technology toward men.  Nevertheless, Papin serves as an illustrative example of a member of the seventeenth century European knowledge community.  Similarly to many of his counterparts, Papin’s intellectual interests spanned many disciplines.  He studied medicine, performed physical and chemical experiments, taught mathematics, and knew multiple languages. 

The fact that Papin, and many of his counterparts, sought to apply theoretical principles to practical problems, such as food preservation and nutrition, while in turn utilizing their observations of these quotidian problems to further develop and refine their physical and chemical theories, can help us to understand that the equations written on the pages of our textbooks, and the quotidian events of our daily lives—such as preparing our daily bread—are not as disparate as we may have been lead to believe.

Resources and Further Reading

Papin, Denis.  A continuation of the new digester of bones its improvements, and new uses it hath been applyed to, both for sea and land : together with some improvements and new uses of the air-pump, tryed both in England and Italy. London: Printed by Joseph Streater, 1687.

Papin, Denis.  A new digester or engine for softning bones containing the description of its make and use in these particulars : viz. cookery, voyages at sea, confectionary, making of drinks, chymistry, and dying : with an account of the price a good big engine will cost, and of the profit it will afford. London: Printed by J.M. for Henry Bonwicke, 1681.

Shapin, Steven. “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist 77, no. 6 (1989): 554-63. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.nyu.edu/stable/27856006.

Shapin, Steven.  A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016.

[1] Papin, A New Digester, 21.

[2] Papin, Continuation, A3-A3v.

[3] Papin, Continuation, A3v.

Jennifer Egloff earned her PhD in History from New York University in 2015.  Combining her undergraduate training in Mathematics with her graduate training in History, Egloff’s dissertation “The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” incorporates elements of Atlantic History and the History of Science to explore the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals utilized numerical methods and mathematical techniques to attempt the face the challenges brought on by the opening of the Atlantic to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information.  A strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, Egloff recently held a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, and she will be joining the History Department of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in August 2019.

Thomas Tryon’s Harmless Cocoe-Nut Water

By Andrea Crow

Mouthfeel was only the beginning for the early modern vegetarian author Thomas Tryon. Tryon’s prolific literary output of tracts and guidebooks (complete with hundreds of recipes) advocating meat-free living treats texture as one of the most important properties of food for the thoughtful consumer to consider.

Not just a matter of taste, food texture mattered, according to Tryon, throughout the entire digestive process. Sounding more or less like a twenty-first century juice cleanser, Tryon obsesses over what he calls the “furring” of the body’s “passageways.”[1] His vegetarianism, though in part ethically-motivated, also arose from his revulsion at the image of internal organs coated by “the Fat of Flesh or Fish” in sticky “oyly bodies,” such that they become hairy with strands of partly digested matter that, in turn, coalesce into “crudities” (incompletely-digested lumps of food) and other “obstructions.”[2] He devoted his life to popularizing a diet designed to promote wellness by textually transforming the internal surfaces of the organs, making them smooth, sleek, and uniform of consistency, thereby bringing the body into a state of peace and harmony from the inside out.

The fantasy that consuming certain foods will purify the finicky, smelly mass of cavities and tubes that make up the human digestive system is persistent in dietary literature from the ancient world to the present day. Plutarch urged his readers to “eat cautiously of such food as is solid and most nourishing” in favor of “those things which are thin and light,” being particularly sparing in the consumption of flesh which “very much clogs us and leaves ill relics behind it.”[3] The Yogi-brand “Roasted Dandelion Spice DeTox” tea I’m drinking as I write this promises to cleanse my liver and make my skin even and smooth. For Tryon, this dream of textureless organs was becoming more possible than ever thanks to an influx of the early modern equivalent of superfoods: the fruits, vegetables, and roots of the Caribbean.

Tryon’s eager account of these new imports, “A Brief Treatise of the Principal Fruits and Herbs that Grow in Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other Plantations in the West-Indies”—the first portion of his three-volume collection Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies (1684)—is an interesting case study in the history of thought on food texture because of how significant this factor was to the arguments Tryon made for consuming this new fare. The most beneficial textural properties of Caribbean produce, he argued, could be found at the microscopic level. The “delicate cooling Breezes and refreshing Gales of Wind,” combined with the “Sun’s more near and direct Beams,” infused the vegetation with an invisible motion that  “digest[ed] their Rawness.”[4] While the bulk of Tryon’s writing encouraged his readers to subsist primarily on a relatively flavorless diet of plain gruel and bread, he was ecstatic about tropical fruits and vegetables because of his belief that climate conditions had pre-digested them into an internal state of refined homogeneity.

The pineapple’s visible “delicacy” and “curious Shape” is, according to Tryon’s treatise, complemented by its ability, when consumed, to “moderate, cool, comfort and refresh the Spirits, cleanse the Passages, remove Obstructions that fur the Pipes, and also purge away and help to digest all slimy and sharp Juices that offend Nature.”[5] Plaintains’ inner “brisk spiritous parts”  will “gently open obstructions”;[6] the “Cocoe-Nut’s” “think or milky Substance” contains “pure fine brisk Spirits” that “breeds good Blood”;[7] underneath the seemingly forbidding appearance of “pinpillow-pears” (apparently a type of prickly pear) with their “Martial Weapons or Prickles” run “Juices quick and penetrating” that “cut Phlegm … and help Concoction.”[8] In short, the foods of the West Indies promise dramatic advances in the study of the fluid mechanics of the body that so interests Tryon.

The motivations shaping Tryon’s particular vision of an idealized digestive system—clean, free of conflict, and so smooth that nothing offensive can stick to it—though theoretically a simple matter of health, becomes more sociopolitically complex when considered in the context of the subsequent two sections that follow the “Brief Treatise” in the Friendly Advice to the Gentleman-Planters volume. The subsequent texts, “The Complaints of the Negro-Slaves against the Hard Usages and Barbarous Cruelties Inflicted Upon Them” and “A Discourse in Way of Dialogue, between an Ethiopean or Negro-Slave, and a Christian that was his Master in America,” delineate the cruel, dehumanizing conditions and racist atrocities that bring the very health foods Tryon promotes to English tables.[9] Like Whole Foods’s infamous 2014 campaign featuring posters of a smiling child that read “Grow Up Strong and Harmless,” or the bizarrely-titled beverage “Harmless Harvest Coconut Water,” Tryon’s desire for a textureless and therefore harmonious and virtuous inner state reads like a case of protesting too much: displacing anxiety over one’s involvement in violent and destructive global food infrastructures by becoming a metaphorical embodiment of harmlessness through achieving conflict-free digestion.

[1] Thomas Tryon, Monthly Observations for the Preserving of Health with a Long and Comfortable Life, in this our Pilgrimage on Earth, but more particularly for the spring and summer seasons (London, 1688), 14.

[2] Ibid, 14-15.

[3] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, Vol. 1, ed. William W. Goodwin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1871), 268.

[4] Tryon, A Brief Treatise of the Principal Fruits and Herbs that Grow in Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other Plantations in the West-Indies (1684), 2-3.

[5] Ibid, 4-7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 13.

[8] Ibid, 37.

[9] Kim F. Hall offers a trenchant analysis of these treatises in the context of the xenophobia expressed in Tryon’s writings in‘Extravagant Viciousness’: Slavery and Gluttony in the Works of Thomas Tryon,” in Writing Race across the Atlantic World: Medieval to Modern, eds. Phillip Beidler and Gary Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 93-111.

Andrea Crow is an assistant professor in the English department at Boston College where she specializes in early modern poetry and drama. She is currently completing a monograph exploring the relationship between poetics and food scarcity in seventeenth-century Anglophone literature. Her work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Christianity and Literature, and Early Modern Women.