Category Archives: Food and Drink

Mistranslating Macaroni and Cheese

Amanda E. Herbert

Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mac and cheese is a well-loved, popular, time-tested dish, one that’s woven into the histories and cultures and memories of people around the world.  In America it’s an essential soul food dish.  In Canada, Kraft Dinner – mac and cheese with pieces of hot dogs and a squirt of ketchup – is a comfort food staple.  Western Europeans claim macaroni and cheese too, tracing its origins to the Swiss Alps, where Älplermagronen was made by French-speaking Swiss people, who believed it was the ideal snack for shepherds.

Macaroni and cheese appears in Anglo-American cookbooks as early as the fourteenth century – its antecedents include a sort of lasagna-like food called “Macrows” in the 1390 Forme of Cury – and by the long eighteenth century, the cheesy noodles were an established dish, garnering frequent mentions in both print and manuscript.  Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell chose an eighteenth-century “Maccarony Cheese” for their very first post on Cooking in the Archive, and it was a hit, helping to launch their incredibly successful blog and garnering a host of re-posts, comments, and suggestions.  In most Anglo-American recipes for mac and cheese, eighteenth-century authors called for the noodles to be boiled until tender and then mixed with ingredients like butter, eggs, and cheese.  The noodles were then either baked or put under a salamander – which in the period was a piece of iron that was heated and passed over a dish – that was supposed to give it a nice brown crust.  It’s a wonderful dish to suggest to folks who like to re-create early modern recipes, because most early examples of macaroni and cheese contain familiar, easy-to-obtain ingredients and clear, straightforward instructions.

But there are always exceptions to the rule.  Recently I found a recipe for macaroni and cheese in an eighteenth-century letter, and the account was confusing, if not downright disgusting.  Philip Thicknesse (1719-1792), an eighteenth-century artist, traveler, and writer, included a recipe for mac and cheese in a letter written to a man named John Cook.  Thicknesse spent a lot of time in France and took pride in his knowledge of French cuisine.  He wrote to his friend Cook on January 14, 1770 that he had recently “recv’d a very small present from France,” which included foods such as “Olives, a few Anchovies, [and] a pint of Vinegar.”  But the crowning glory of this gourmet stash was “some Maccerone.”  Thicknesse shared a portion of his dried French noodles with John Cook, bragging that macaroni and cheese was “no bad dish” and including instructions for preparing the food.  And this is where things seemed to go wrong.

Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
A pleasant and confident Thicknesse.  Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Thicknesse told Cook to take the packet of noodles and “boil it in water til it is quite tender, on[e] hour and a half at least, then the remaining water is poured off, and some butter and scraped cheese is put to it til both are well melted & dis[s]olved.” [My emphasis.] When I read this in the Huntington’s reading room I had to rub my eyes and take another look.  Boiling modern-day macaroni noodles for an hour and a half (at least!) would render them into an unappetizing slush, so far beyond al dente that they’d surely constitute a crime against pasta.  Was Thickness a bad cook?  Why was his advice so terrible?  At first I thought that this was a classic example of mistranslation in the period: the introduction of new foods into Western European diets via the so-called “Consumer Revolution” wasn’t a straightforward or guaranteed process, and British experiments with foods sourced from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean worlds could go wrong as frequently as they went right.  Thicknesse didn’t understand how pasta was supposed to be cooked, and as a result he offered bad culinary advice to his friend.

Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

But the more I thought about Thicknesse and his overcooked macaroni, the more I began to wonder if there wasn’t an entirely different process of mistranslation at work: one that was my own, rather than my historical subject’s.  What did Thicknesse’s pasta look like?  How long would it have taken to cook?  It turns out that, in the long eighteenth century, Western European people ate two very different kinds of pasta: soft noodles, made out of a paste of water and dough that was boiled quickly and lightly (akin to “fresh” pasta today) and hard noodles, where the dough was extruded through a machine before being dried (a bit like the crunchy, shelf-stable pastas you can find at modern grocery stores).  Soft noodles, like the “Macrows” featured in the Forme of Cury, called for cooks to roll out “a thynne foyle of dowh and kerve it on peces, and cast them on boillying water & see[th] it wele.”   Quick-cooking and easy to make, soft noodles were popular in a lot of eighteenth-century dishes.

The pasta Thicknesse was describing, however, would surely have been dried, as it had been transported to Britain from France.  Early modern dried pasta was durable and was considered easy to transport, even under very difficult conditions.  And it was massive: the earliest surviving example of an eighteenth-century pasta extruder made bigoli (a huge type of spaghetti) which was just over a foot long and 3 inches wide.  Even one of these enormous, snake-like pieces of pasta could have constituted a meal.  Hugh Plat (c.1552-1608), an English inventor and writer, created a different kind of pasta machine in the late sixteenth century, which produced oval-shaped, wafer-like pieces of pasta.  Plat included a diagram of this pasta machine in his Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594); while it’s notoriously difficult to get a sense of scale in early modern schemas such as these, comparing the size of the hand-crank on the right side of the machine with the pieces of pasta coming off of the wheel suggests that each wafer would have been three or four inches across – much larger than a modern orecchiette or conchiglie.

Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75. Image courtesy of the author and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75.

Everything I learned about eighteenth-century dried pasta suggested that it would have taken ages to cook until tender.  And although the resulting pasta might well have differed from the way that I expect modern pasta to look and taste, Thicknesse’s estimate of an hour and a half in cooking time perhaps wasn’t so far off after all, and the confusion was on my part rather than his.  Historical food recipes are fun and engaging, offering us almost instantaneous senses of familiarity and closeness with the past: food is a great universal.  But as we analyze old recipes and work to understand them, we have to fight our assumptions and presuppositions – perhaps especially about ingredients which are the most familiar to us – in order to make sure that we’re translating accurately.

Primary Sources:

The Forme of Cury, c. 1390. This book exists in manuscript in many different copies. I’ve consulted the first print version, compiled in 1780 and reproduced via Project Gutenberg.  Accessed April 23, 2018.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8102/pg8102-images.html

Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Philip Thicknesse Letters, c. 1770-c. 1785, MSS TH 1, Huntington Library.

Secondary Sources:

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davison ed. (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 580-584.

Sidney Lee, “Plat [Platt], Sir Hugh (bap. 1552, d. 1608), writer on agriculture and inventor,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed April 23, 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22357.

Malcolm Thick, “Sir Hugh Plat’s Promotion of Pasta as a Victual for Seamen,” Petits Propos Culinaires Vol. 40 (1992).

Roman Recipes and the Senses

By Erica Rowan

We do not have many recipes from the ancient world and certainly none presented in the user-friendly format found in today’s cookbooks with precise measurements, cooking times and images of the finished product. Some ancient recipes are found at the end of agrarian handbooks, like those produced by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) (for more see Catherine Draycott’s post https://recipes.hypotheses.org/5005), while others are described as part of a philosophical dinner party (Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae). The most famous recipe book, and the one which most reconstructed Roman recipes are based, is Apicius’ De re coquinaria or On the subject of cooking. Compiled sometime during the 4th century AD and named after an infamous 1st century AD cook, it contains recipes for vegetables, pulses, meat, seafood and game. Ingredients are listed in the text along with rough instructions for the preparation and cooking of the dish (think instructions for the technical challenge in The Great British Bake Off). The lack of ingredient quantities suggests that it functioned as part coffee table book and part chef’s manual, whereby the cook already had a good understanding of ingredient combinations and quantities. In other words, it was not for the beginner home cook.

Despite a lack of precision and clarity in these surviving recipes, it is possible to gain a detailed understanding of the sensory experience involved in the preparation and consumption of these dishes. This is due to the survival of several pieces of Roman kitchen equipment and at times, the food remains themselves. At sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum (Italy), which were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, we not only have cooking pots, plates and serving dishes, but also the remains of the kitchens and dining rooms where the food was prepared and eaten.

So what was it like to make and eat Roman food? Let’s look at one of Apicius’ recipes in detail.

Lentils with mussels: take a clean pan, (put the lentils in and cook them). Put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, pennyroyal, and pound them. Pour on vinegar, add honey, liquamen, and defrutum, flavour with vinegar. Empty the mortar into the pan. Pound cooked mussels, put them in and bring to heat; when it is simmering well, thicken. Pour green oil over it in the serving dish.

[Apicius, On the subject of cooking, 5.2.1, from Grocock and Grainger 2006: 209]

The first thing you may notice about this dish is the vast number of flavours and seasonings involved. In addition to the various herbs, the recipe also calls for liquamen, a fermented fish sauce similar to the Thai fish sauce Nam Pla, and defrutum, concentrated grape syrup made from boiled down grape juice. Roman dishes are notorious for their seemingly strange and startling mix of flavours. However, before we get to the taste, let’s start with sensory experience of preparing this dish.

Firstly, let’s assume that this dish is being prepared for a dinner party in a wealthy Roman household. If you were the one making the food you would have been a slave, working in a hot, small, smoky kitchen. Roman kitchens are readily identifiable by their large ceramic hearths. Cooking took place on the hearth; the space beneath is just for the storage of fuel, usually charcoal or wood. The lack of chimneys in Roman kitchens means that there was poor ventilation and the smell of the cooking food would have been quite strong. The small size of most kitchens, even in larger houses, meant that the room would have been hot, even in the winter.

At least two pieces of cooking equipment are required to make this recipe, a pan and a mortar. The mortar would have been a mortarium (image), a large shallow ceramic bowl with stone inclusions in the bottom to provide a rough grating surface. All the seasonings would have been ground by hand using a mortarium and wooden pestle. The pan (perhaps made of bronze) would have been placed on a metal or ceramic tripod with charcoal underneath. The varying materials of the mortarium, pestle and pan would have made the tactile experience quite dynamic. Once the dish was finished, depending upon the wealth of your owners, you would have poured the finished product onto a ceramic, bronze or silver platter. You’d then promptly move on to preparing another dish as Roman dinners usually consisted of several courses.

Now let’s shift gears and say you’re a guest at the dinner party and you have the opportunity to taste and smell this dish. The combination of flavours in this recipe, and particularly the mixture of the liquamen, defrutum, honey and vinegar would have given it a sweet and salty taste. In my experience, having made several Roman dishes, the flavour combination is strange but not jarring or unpleasant. Roman food tasted much more like modern Thai or Chinese cuisine than modern Italian with its frequent combination of sweet, sour, and salty. The black pepper in the dish, imported from India, would have provided a hint of wealth and exoticism as it was by far one of the most expensive and foreign seasonings you could use at this time. If you had grown up consuming a Roman diet then this dish would have smelled and tasted very normal to you. The herbs, in addition to appearing in numerous other Apician recipes, are also frequently mentioned by other ancient authors, suggesting that they formed an important part of the Roman diet. This importance is confirmed by the recovery of many of the herbs, and in particular coriander, at sites throughout the Roman Empire.

The military and merchants carried and imported these herbs to all the corners of the Empire, perhaps to evoke a taste of home. Some individuals native to the northern provinces, such as Gaul and Britain, adopted these seasonings into their local cuisines. In addition to probably enjoying the taste, they used them to display their wealth or allegiance to Rome.

In sum, there is much sensory information that can be gleaned from Roman recipes and the archaeological remains of food preparation and consumption. What is perhaps most striking is the vastly different interactions and experiences of those in the kitchen compared to those in the dining room!

Select bibliography

Grocock, C. W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text Apicius. Totnes: Prospect.

Livarda, A. 2011. ‘Spicing up life in northwestern Europe: exotic food plant imports in the Roman and medieval world.’ Veg Hist Archaeobot, 20(2): 143-164.

Livarda, A., 2018. Tastes in the Roman provinces: an archaeobotanical approach to socio-cultural change. In: K.C. Rudolph, ed. Taste and the Ancient Senses. London: Routledge. pp. 179-196.

Rowan, E., 2017. Bioarchaeological preservation and non-elite diet in the Bay of Naples: An analysis of the food remains from the Cardo V sewer at the Roman site of Herculaneum. Environmental Archaeology, 22(3), pp.318-336.

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Erica Rowan is a lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Royal Holloway, University of London. As a Roman archaeologist with a specialization in archaeobotany, her research focuses on Roman diet and consumption practices. She uses literary, archaeological, and archaeobotanical evidence to explore the way cultural tensions within Roman society were expressed, embedded, and resolved through the prevailing food culture.

 

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).

 

Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

Recipes and the Senses: An Introduction

By Hannah Newton

Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630). Wikimedia.

 

Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.

Approaches

There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.

Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell.  One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.

A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.

Challenges

One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’

To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.

Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.