Category Archives: Food and Drink

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 1

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

La Varenne’s Ham Omelette

(Recipe #76)

Simply take a dozen eggs, and break them, saving only half the egg whites. Beat them together. Take your ham, and prepare as necessary (chop / dice / etc). Mix it with your eggs. Then, take some lard, melt it, and throw it in your eggs, making sure not to overcook the mixture. Serve.

The omelette lulls the novice cook into complacency. While it only requires a few ingredients, it demands skill, confidence, and timing to pull off with panache. One eggshell in the mix, an overly heated pan, or the unsuccessful flip, and the entire effort falls flat. Cooked to perfection, it represents the quintessence of modern French cuisine. It draws together fresh ingredients, developed for flavor. Simplicity and balance marry creamy texture and delicate, fluffy eggs.

Ever curious archivists, we wondered where the omelette made an early impression. We’ll be honest; we were a little hungry that brainstorming day. While this seemingly humble dish has become a brunch and Tuesday evening staple in our repertoires, the hunt was on to find its initial publication in a historic cookbook. A bit of determined searching later, we found a likely early contender.

Le cuisinier françois… Paris: Chez Pierre David, 1652.

In his 1651 cookbook Le Cuisinier François  (hereafter LCF), François Pierre de la Varenne helped transition France away from an Italian-style of cooking requiring expensive imported spices into its modern form. La Varenne was not solely responsible for altering the state of cooking, but he was the first to put these innovations in writing.

LCF contains over eight-hundred recipes divided by courses, soups and broths, starters, second courses, and small dishes. The first recipe describes “La manière de faire le Böuillon pour la nourriture de tous les pots, soit de potage, entrée, ou entre-mets [the manner of making bouillons for stews, soups, main courses, and small dishes]…” Beginning with the basics—seasoning broth—La Varenne built upon foundations to introduce dishes like bisques and pottages.

Instructing cooks to prepare locally-sourced ingredients in a recognizably “French-style” reinforced a sense of transferable cultural heritage connected to food. While the English and Italian cookbooks of its time offered primarily recipes more akin to potions or subsistence-level fare, this book emphasized the development of flavors in seasonal, taste-based dishes. Instead of tending toward preserves and the extension of foodstuff, La Varenne introduced foundational flavoring methods still in use today. La Varenne printed the earliest instructions for the roux, the béchamel sauce, and notably, the omelette.

LCF presupposed readers understood proportions, could adapt ingredients when necessary, and could interpret directions like “heat” or “boil” to suit their “kitchen” environments. By prioritizing the combination of  ingredients for flavor and texture, alongside instructions for presenting the dish in an appealing fashion, La Varenne established a new format for cookbooks. His legacy thus relies both on its place in the history of cooking in France and its status as printed object.

La Varenne, a commoner, started cooking as an apprentice in a local kitchen, participating in the guild system as a cook and eventually rising to the rank of kitchen clerk for Louis Chalon du Blé, Marquis d’Uxelles (1619-1658). As kitchen clerk for the Marquis’s household, La Varenne was responsible for all food service. His rise to this status was exceptional, as the role of kitchen clerk was traditionally reserved for nobility.

His humble roots and unprecedented success perhaps inspired him to share his passion with the general public, who he addressed so fondly throughout his career. In LCF he includes a letter which reads:

Dear Reader, in recompense all that I would ask of you is that my book be for you as pleasurable as it is useful.

By encouraging utility and enjoyment, La Varenne made cooking more than just a necessity, but a skill that could be elevated to an experience in even a modest household.

Cooking in medieval and early modern France had been largely a profession that relied upon oral transmission of secret knowledge through the guild system. Membership within the trade guild established apprenticeships and monitored job opportunities for individual cooks who worked in the large houses of the French aristocracy.

For two centuries prior to La Varenne’s text, perhaps in part due to the control enforced by the guild system, French cuisine languished, with no new cookbooks coming to market. Both English and Italian cookbooks dominated. In placing acquired knowledge in a sustainable, replicable form in the printed book, LCF circumvented time-honored traditions of gaining information. By presenting professional secrets to an open marketplace, this text suggested cooking was within reach for whomever had the means to purchase the book.

This quite naturally spurred controversy within the cooking community and sparked conversations about how much information should be shared. Despite the controversy—or perhaps because of the controversy—given England’s own rocky political situation in the 1650s, LCF was the first known cookbook translated from French in English in 1653. It remained a bestseller in both forms into the eighteenth century. Within the first 75 years, LCF had gone into 30 editions (Scully 11). Its ground-breaking translation, titled The Frenchy Cook, went into 61 editions before 1754.

While moveable type dated back to Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1440s, the seventeenth century encouraged the spread of print culture as general costs went down. Texts like LCF could be more easily exchanged, copied, and even translated for travel across the channel, especially as cities such as Paris and Amsterdam served as printing hubs.

Polly Russell, curator at the British Library,  explains that La Varenne’s cookbook was marketed to ‘every private family, even to the husband-man or labouring-man, wheresoever the English tongue is, or may be used.’ And the cookbook remained an international bestseller until the French Revolution!

To be continued…

From an English translation of La Varenne: The French Cook (London, 1653), p. 95.

Sources

John Crerar Collection of Rare Books in the History of Science and Medicine

La Varenne, François Pierre de, Le Cuisinier François (1651).

La Varenne, François Pierre de, and Scully, Terence. La Varenne’s Cookery : the French Cook ; the French Pastry Chef ; the French Confectioner. Blackawton, Totnes, U.K., Prospect Books, 2006.


About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.

Oxford Symposium Conference Report

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

The theme of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery for 2017 was “Landscape.” From Friday July 7 to Sunday July 9, 270 chefs, food producers, journalists, scholars, and general foodies gathered to discuss (and taste) the relationship between food and landscape.

Image courtesy of the Oxford Food Symposium. https://www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/
Image courtesy of the Oxford Food Symposium. https://www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/

There were many interpretations of what a landscape is and how humans interact with their landscapes to get certain foods. The thread of nostalgia for lost or disappearing food landscapes emerged early in the conference thanks to plenary talks by writers Catherine Brown and Colin Tudge. Brown recounted sharing meals of tender mutton with aging crofters in desolate regions of northern Scotland in the 1970s and thinking that their recipes and ways of cooking would be lost with their generation. The next generation was drawn away from the land to more lucrative and comfortable urban livelihoods. On Saturday, talks about shepherding in the Lake District (James Rebanks) and the food traditions of Catalonia (Claudia Rodin) pursued the theme of urbanization and the decline of family-run farms from the 1970s to today.

Many of these nostalgic views on food landscape were accompanied with hope that a small farm renaissance is on the horizon. Rebanks (himself a shepherd) and Brown pointed to young people who are turning back to the farms that their parents abandoned to earn less money, but live according to their values.

Joshna Maharaj is a young chef working to return whole foods to institutional settings such as hospitals and universities in the urban landscape of Toronto. Maharaj shared ironical, yet revealing, anecdotes about counterproductive hospital dietary regulations that left her arguing that the stem of a strawberry was not a choking hazard and other such battles for bringing truly healing food to sick people.

Revitalization of food landscapes was also tasted throughout the weekend. First, at the Boyne Valley Banquet on Friday night, which was sponsored by the Irish tourist board and presented a cow carcass twelve ways. This meal highlighted Ireland’s “Ancient East,” a region northeast of Dublin that has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to its branding as a gastronomic destination. During this feast, I had the pleasure of being regaled with stories and jokes by the chef’s brother, Ronan, who had driven the meat and other local delicacies from Ireland with his brother. He shared one story about being waved through the immigration checkpoint when he mentioned that his destination was the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore avoided having to open the doors of a van crammed with raw animal parts.

Ronan’s story brought to mind how political borders influence the mobility of food and made me reflect on how different this drive might be once Brexit takes effect. Brexit was clearly on the minds of other symposiasts as well: Reblack saw that there might be a silver lining in last year’s vote to leave the E.U., as Britons might now take stock of their food policies and enact regulation to support small farmers. Olivia Potts gave a fascinating retrospective on how European Economic Community legislation has affected farming, food pricing, and surpluses. Potts articulated how the E.E.C. legislators responded to outcries from farmers and consumers in adapting and reforming food legislation in the last decades.

The Saturday night dinner poignantly expressed how people could be linked by a shared food landscape even when divided by a political boundary. The meal consisted of food and drinks from the Turkish and Armenian borderlands. Gamze Íneceli screened a short film of the mountainous wine region that included the parts of Armenia and Turkey that supplied our wine for the evening.

While some of the explorations of the theme were poignant, others were more playful, such as the talk about rice paddy art tourism in Japan by Voltaire Chan and the Urban Landscape created for Saturday’s lunch with microgreens growing on the long banqueting tables.

The most startling take on the theme came from Nicola Twilley’s Sunday morning’s plenary in which she introduced the concept of “aerior.” She described her project to harvest the taste of particular atmospheres. Egg foam is reportedly 90% air. This factoid inspired a seemingly light-hearted art piece in which meringues were whipped in a sealed “smog chamber” so that people could literally compare the tastes of the airs of different places. Twilley has been asked by meringue tasters, “is it safe to eat?” To which she responds, “well, is it safe to breathe?”

Although humans are not the only species to shape food landscapes (Joshua Evans brought up the tireless work of microbes), there was an undercurrent at the symposium of our environmental responsibilities as we develop our food cultures. As Colin Tudge emphasized in his talk, “The Nature of the Task,” ever-increasing production is not the goal of enlightened agriculture, rather the goals are kindness and quality.

Engaging MLIS Students with Recipe Transcription: Mariabella Charles’s Book of Cookery Recipes and Medical Cures (ca. 1678)

Philip S. Palmer, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA)

While planning a microgrant project when I was a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) fellow from 2014-16, my colleagues and I were interested combining TEI, special collections, and graduate student pedagogy. I had recently learned about the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and their efforts to transcribe culinary and medicinal recipes in libraries around the world. Knowing that MLIS students do not always receive hands-on experience with rare books and manuscripts, I chose a transcription project for library students. The task? Complete a TEI-encoded transcription of an entire early modern recipe manuscript and make it available to a wider audience online.

I recruited a UCLA MLIS student, Christine Curley, to work on the project. While she had no previous experience with recipe manuscripts or paleography, she proved to be apt for the work, picking up paleographical nuance quickly and doing a remarkable job of capturing the vagaries of early modern orthography. She also took a course on TEI so she could encode her transcription with confidence. Since opportunities to gain such skills in graduate school are typically reserved for Ph.D. students in humanities fields, I thought it was important to expose an MLIS student to the kinds of methods (paleography, textual editing, digital humanities) that scholars use to interpret texts and make them accessible to other researchers, especially since librarians are increasingly collaborating with faculty and students on projects.

The manuscript itself, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678], was primarily compiled by a woman named Mariabella Charles, though there appear to hands other than hers in the text. The book is divided fairly evenly between culinary and medicinal recipes, with a few that, for lack of a better term, we called “hunting recipes.” These include directions “to drive Rats from a house,” “to destroy moles,” and “to take deare,” the last of which is as brief as it must have been effective: “Take Opium and put it in Apples and set them on Sticks.”

Before Christine encoded the manuscript, I created a slightly customized version of the typical TEI schema using the web tool Roma; the schema incorporated tags the EMROC group was already using in their transcriptions (<ingredient>, <ailment>, <administrationMethod>, and <productionMethod>). We also added <utensil> and color-coded each tag in our basic HTML output of the TEI edition. All of these custom tags can be easily transformed into normal TEI using a simple XSLT script. This manuscript was also part of the Clark’s CLIR Digitizing Hidden Collections project to digitize over 300 early modern bound manuscripts. Mariabella Charles’s manuscript is now freely available on Calisphere, in addition to 166 other MSS. We plan to add Christine’s transcription of the manuscript into page-level metadata on Calisphere in the next couple of months.

Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
One interesting aspect of the Charles manuscript lies in its description of the various female knowledge networks through which recipes passed. There are recipe texts attributed to a “Mrs hanway,” “mrs dabe,” “mrs Jean,” “Mrs Harding,” and others. Several physical addresses added to the manuscript’s endleaves provide even more information on female knowledge networks: examples include “Att Mrs Paige in warwick street ouer Against Sr Henry goodrick golden square.” When transcribing and encoding these addresses both Christine and I wondered if this type of evidence might be marshaled in early modern recipe projects. If such addresses are fairly common in recipe manuscripts, could we catalog and map them onto a cartographical representation of London? Would such a visualization of recipe manuscript data reveal anything about early modern foodways and the geography of ingredient collection/preparation? With more and more recipe manuscripts being transcribed today, such questions and methodologies are becoming increasingly feasible for early modernists to answer and implement.

Making librarians partners in these endeavors, and training them appropriately, is crucial. Besides the skills Christine gained transcribing and encoding, she really enjoyed the learning opportunity of working on the edition. In her words,

It was so nice to be able to get to know the authors of the manuscript by deciphering the handwriting of their recipes. The recipes show a high degree of self-sufficiency; most of the ingredients could be hunted and gathered from nature … Something I also noticed from a more technical standpoint was that that the neater, more careful handwriting was actually more difficult to discern, and the handwriting that was more like quick script was actually much closer to modern messy handwriting … This gives me hope that maybe in the far future, if my letters and journals survive the centuries, perhaps my descendants may actually be able to decipher my own sloppy handwriting and make sense of it.

As Christine also notes, “there are many culinary recipes which actually seem quite delicious, such as mutton with lemon, butter, capers, nutmeg, and white wine. There is a recipe for ‘the best cake that ever was eaten,’ which really does sound very good.” Librarians at the Clark are hoping to collaborate with Christine on a future public event involving early modern culinary culture—hopefully with samples of this “best cake” on offer.

“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009

Philip S. Palmer, Ph.D. is Head of Research Services at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA). His work centers on digital approaches to early modern material texts, Renaissance travel writing, and Thomas Coryate. His publications include articles in Renaissance Studies, Huntington Library Quarterly, and The Library, as well as an edition of the booklist of Sir Thomas Roe for Private Libraries in Renaissance England. He is currently Principal Investigator on grants from CLIR and NEH to digitize early modern manuscript material in the Clark’s collections.

A Sampling of Food-Related Panels at the 2017 Berkshire Conference

By Rachel A. Snell

Held at Hoftra University June 1-4, the 17th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities contained a number of panels of interest to food studies scholars. As those who study food are well-acquainted, food and food writing offer a richly rewarding lens for studying the past. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the conference theme, “Difficult Conversations: Thinking and Talking About Women, Genders, and Sexualities Inside and Outside the Academy,” generated several papers and on entire panel devoted to exploring the connections between food and gender.

“Native New Yorker,” Pura Cruz 2006.

My own research interests naturally gravitated me toward a handful of food-related panels at this year’s Big Berks, but this is by no means an exhaustive review. The full conference program can be accessed here.

On Thursday afternoon, two papers exploring home economics lead me to a panel titled, “Bloomers, Domestic Violence, and Home Economics: Print Sources and the Politics of Gender” and chaired by Carol Ruth Berkin. While all four papers were excellent, food scholars, particularly those interested in the home economics movement, will want to note the following two papers:

Food, Empowerment, and Iowa: Exploring Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook

Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884).

Jaycie Vos, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill/Special Collections Coordinator and University Archivist, University of Northern Iowa @jaycie_v

Jaycie Vos’s paper provided a close-reading of Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884). Written by the head of the Domestic Economy Department at Iowa Agricultural College (later Iowa State University), Mary B. Welch, the cookbook was a compilation of recipes used for instruction in the department. Vos argues the cookbook and Welch’s career presented food preparation as a source of empowerment for women.

The Porosity of Public and Private in Ellen Richards’s Home Economics

Serenity Sutherland, University of Rochester @serenitys37

In her examination of the career of Ellen Richards, the pioneering founder of the Home Economics movement and the first female student and instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sutherland contrasted the development of scientific housekeeping with earlier moral domesticity. Her concentration on Richards allowed Sutherland to explore ideas of individuality and the overlap of public and private in the Home Economics movement.

Friday morning’s “Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy” organized by the Recipe Project’s own Amanda Herbert not only explored food as an engagement tool in the study of the past, it was also the opening event for a virtual conference exploring the question, “What is a recipe?” A video of the panel is available on the Recipe Project’s Facebook page, therefore, I will provide brief notes on each speaker.

Public and Professional Dimensions of Creative Food History Programs

Amanda B. Moniz, Smithsonian Institution @AmandaMoniz1 

Moniz discussed her development of historical cooking classes and the accessibility of food history.

Cooking Class: Women, Domestic Science, and Higher Education since the Progressive Era

Tandra Taylor, St. Louis University

Through a focus on Progressive-era domestic science education opportunities for African-American women, Taylor argued that cooking class was actually cooking class (i.e.: status).

A Recipe for Teaching (and Learning) Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

Zara Anishanslin, University of Delaware @ZaraAnishanslin

Anishanslin shared her techniques for bringing food into the classroom, describing this effort as a more uplifting aspect of Atlantic history (creation rather than destruction). Those who teach the early American history survey or Atlantic history courses will be interested in her assignment to select and study a recipe that would not exist without the Columbian Exchange.

Food for the People: How Food History is Changing the Conversation at the National Museum of American History

Paula Johnson, National Museum of American History

Julia Child’s kitchen on display at the Museum of American History – http://americanhistory.si.edu/food/julia-childs-kitchen

Johnson discussed food-related initiatives at the National Museum of American History including exhibits and live cooking demonstrations that combine food and history. Mark your calendars for this year’s Smithsonian Food History Weekend, October 26-28.

Cooking on the Internet: Historical Recipes and Public Scholarships

Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University – Abington College @Nicosia_Marissa 

Nicosia’s joint-project with Alyssa Connell transcribes, contextualizes, and updates early modern recipes for modern kitchens while sharing them on a blog titled, Cooking in the Archives. Nicosia discussed the insights that stemmed from this work and the importance of actually preparing recipes as part of the research process.

My review of food history at the Big Berks concludes with a panel exploring the politics of women’s businesses that included four fascinating and innovative presentations, but it was Maria McGrath’s history of Bloodroot Restaurant that connects with the subject of this post.

Living Feminist: The Liberation and Limits of Separatist Business and Radical Lesbian Ethics at the Bloodroot Restaurant

Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Dining Space, Bloodroot Restaurant – www.bloodroot.com

In this paper, McGrath examined the founding of Bloodroot Restaurant in Bridgeport, CT, a feminist and collective restaurant and bookstore, in 1977. She explored the role of food in the pursuit of feminist and counter-cultural ideologies.

As a first-time Big Berks attendee, I was blown away by the quality and variety of presentations and the uniquely supportive atmosphere. I’m looking forward to more food history at the 2020 meeting!

Note: In the interest of self-promotion, I would be remiss to not mention I also presented, during the Digital Humanities Spotlight, on mapping cookbooks to reveal women’s networks. An early version of that work is available here.