Reflections on Medieval Culture Through A Culinary Lens

Teaching the Medieval Feast

Krista Murchison (Leiden University), @drkmurch

Leiden University’s English Language and Culture BA is aimed at teaching about not just the literature and language of the English-speaking world (broadly defined) but also about its culture. This means that when I design my medieval English literature courses, I encourage students to explore this literature within its beautiful, conflicted and multifaceted cultural environments—and their present-day resonances. 

One of the activities I introduced to my courses most recently was a medieval feast. Students were tasked with translating historical recipes out of their original Middle English—a language that was spoken in England between c. 1100 and 1500, years before Shakespeare was born. Once students had translated their recipes, they tried out some medieval cooking and wrote short and imaginative reflections about how their culinary creations reflected medieval culture. I’ve compiled these recipes and reflections for a ‘digital medieval cookbook’ here.

The activity was structured in a way that would allow students to lead their own learning experiences, since scholarship of teaching and learning tends to suggest that people learn better through activities that emphasize active exploration over passive listening (cf. Messineo et al. 2007). So,  students, working in groups of three or four, selected for themselves which recipes they wanted to focus on out of pre-defined sets, and they decided independently how best to approach the assignment. The resultant projects drew from an impressive range of multimedia formats, from comic strips to vlog-style cooking tutorials, and reflected an insightful understanding of medieval written and culinary culture.

In keeping with the student-driven structure of this learning task, this post will feature reflections from two of the groups who participated in the assignment. These reflections will explore some of the striking differences between modern and medieval cuisine and speak to the fascinating experience of preparing medieval food in a modern kitchen.

Image credit: British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 58r.

For medieval writers, feasting could be political. In a widely-popular medieval legend, a well-timed “wassail” (a drinking toast still in use today) was key to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain (in the 5th century CE). One of the earliest versions of the stories comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), which is best known for containing one of the longest early accounts of King Arthur. In Geoffrey’s account, Vortigern (leader of the Britons) invited Hengist (leader of the Saxons) to Britain from across the North Sea. Hengist brought his daughter Rowena with him. When Rowena met Vortigern at a feast, she approached him with a full cup of mead and, in her own language, toasted him with the words “Lauerd king wacht heil!” (“Lord king, wassail!”). Rowena’s greeting was apparently so pleasant that Vortigern was enchanted by Rowena, let his guard down and drank too much. Ultimately, he married Rowena and, in so doing, enabled the Saxon invasion of England. While undoubtedly an invention, the story illustrates how the feast, in medieval popular imagination, held the potential to influence the succession of kingdoms, the building of dynasties, and the collapse of empires.

A medieval court at the table. British Library, Additional MS 19554, f. 1v.

Despite its importance to medieval writers, food has traditionally been left out of discussions of medieval culture and the value of recipes as historical documents is often overlooked. This neglect of culinary culture is due, in part, to a pervasive sense that it belongs in a domestic sphere separated from the political one, where the “real” history is thought to happen. Yet this distinction between the domestic and the political has been shown, in various domains, to be artificial; and as the Rowena anecdote makes clear, it holds little grounding in medieval culture. By shedding light on medieval culinary culture, this class project participates in a broader movement of recognizing the manifold ways in which food shaped and reflected medieval culture.

Recipes from the Forme of Cury, including “makerel in sawse” and “porpeys in broth”. British Library, Additional MS 5016, f. 7r.

The recipes for the project came from a medieval cookbook known as the Forme of Cury (c. 1390s). It was, according its preface, compiled by “the chef Maister Cokes of kyng Richard the Secunde kyng of Englond” (fol. 1r).  The recipes were taken from Samuel Pegge’s edition; while it has the disadvantage of being rather antiquated, it has the advantage over more modern editions of being out of copyright. I selected recipes that would be feasible to cook and that would be easily transportable, so that students could share their delicious creations with the class.

British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 57v.

Medieval Food in the Modern Kitchen

By Ilse van Oosten (Leiden University)

After receiving a set of recipes, our group of four was responsible for all the stages of our project: translating our recipes, researching medieval food, and (perhaps the most enjoyable part) recreating one of our recipes. It was interesting to see what kind of ingredients and dishes a medieval person would have been familiar with and how food could reflect a person’s social position in the medieval period. Unlike reading literature, which can seem removed from everyday medieval life, reading these recipes felt like peering into a medieval kitchen.

Medieval cooking. From British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 108r.

Funnily enough, many of the recipes we translated were quite similar to some modern-day recipes. One recipe, named “appulmoy,” was a pudding-like version of our contemporary apple sauce. What surprised me is that many of the recipes were either vegetarian or fully vegan. The stereotype of the meat-loving medieval population was certainly called into question by these recipes. Discovering these links between medieval and modern-day cooking—the similar recipes and the mixed diet—was an unexpected and fascinating aspect of this project.

As we learned during the project, medieval recipes are a distinct text type that differs from its modern equivalent. There are, of course, some similarities; both medieval and modern recipes tend to start by giving the name of the dish as the title, and both tend to favour relatively short, practical sentences. Both also rely on some standard, formulaic phrases; many recipes in the Forme of Cury, end “and serue it forth,” which is comparable to the modern phrase “and serve the dish.” Yet medieval recipes tend to be rather sparse compared to their modern counterparts. They lack the kinds of measurement specifications and information about cooking time and temperature that are generally found in modern recipes. Medieval recipes also feature a limited set of cooking terms and are not divided up into separate steps, but are written in continuous sentences. They are much shorter than modern recipes and expect a great deal of prior knowledge from cooks. All this forced us to improvise a bit while trying out the recipes.

Although some medieval recipes did not sound too appetising, such as a “salat” consisting mainly of onions and an odd mixture of fresh herbs, some medieval recipes are really tasty and fun to make. Even though the real experience of a medieval kitchen would have been different, making medieval recipes today offers a glimpse of what went into making medieval food. Among other things, a lack of modern tools like blenders and programmable ovens means that it took much longer to prepare food in the medieval period than it does today. A modern cook trying these recipes for the first time may need to spend some time researching unfamiliar ingredients like “powdour fort” (“strong powder”) and I would recommend preparing the dish as a group, simply because it was the most fun bit of this assignment. Most recipes were not very difficult to make and offer a nice culinary experience for anyone interested in both history and cooking.

Image credit: British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 57v.

 

Medieval Food, Health, and Social Status

By Ellemijn Galjaard, Vita Jansen and Lisanne de Wolff (Leiden University)

Going into this assignment, our view of medieval food was stereotypical to say the least. We expected the medieval diet to be extremely carnivorous, unvaried and bland. However, we were surprised to find quite the opposite. An article by Rosalie Taylor revealed that medieval cooks were perfectly capable of preparing a wide variety of vegetables. In fact, greens were often left out of recipes because cooks were expected to know how to create a balanced dish without this information — not because medieval people didn’t eat vegetables. Unlike today’s cookbooks, medieval cookbooks omit specifics about boiling, blanching or sautéeing vegetables because these were thought of as general knowledge.

Indeed, many of the medieval recipes we read turned out to be far from bland. Two of the key ingredients in the recipe for Appulmoy, for example, were saffron and the aforementioned spice blend known as “powdour fort”. Compared to these powerful spices, the more generic combination of sugar and cinnamon used for Dutch ‘appelmoes’ comes up somewhat short. After tasting our home-made Appulmoy, we knew one thing for sure: the Middle Ages witnessed some great culinary creations. 

Preparing a medieval feast. British Library Additional MS 42130, f. 207v.

To understand the differences between medieval and modern recipes, it is valuable to look at Middle English cooking in general. During the Middle Ages, cookery books were not as commonplace as they are today. The audience for cookery books was generally literate and well-off, because the production of books was rather costly (Mikkelsen Talgø 8). Additionally, the ingredients mentioned in medieval recipes could be quite expensive and thus inaccessible to the lower-income households. This aspect of medieval recipes was evident from an ingredient in one of our recipes: saffron. Even today, saffron is considered exceptionally pricey, and saffron had the same reputation as an exclusive spice in medieval times. Volker Schier describes saffron as “an object of conspicuous consumption reserved for the wealthy” (57).

But it had medical properties: “tonic, mood elevator, antidepressant, and hallucinogenic drug” (57). This means that saffron was not only to enhance the taste and colour of recipes, but served a medical purpose. J. Estes claims that  “[b]y the late Middle Ages, the therapeutic benefits of food had entered into the everyday planning of at least the grand households” (1537). Spices more generally “were regarded as both aids to digestion and evidence of a hosts’ wealth” (1537). From this evidence, we can conclude that spices in the medieval period were thought to promote both one’s health and one’s reputation. This dual purpose of spices is not prominent in modern day cuisine, although there has been an increase in recent years in using spices for their antimicrobial properties in health-conscious diets. 

Medieval baking. British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v.

Three ingredients in our recipe were hard to find, each for a different reason. The first was saffron, which can be hard to include in medieval cooking due to its cost and rarity. Although it can be a rather exclusive spice, it was available in a regular supermarket and we were able to procure some of it for the Appulmoy. But we were not able to obtain almond flour. It is today considered a health product akin to superfoods such as dried cranberries and dairy substitutes such as rice milk, but such products are not widely available. The inclusion of almond flour rather than regular flour in a medieval recipe, albeit one that was probably for the wealthy (judging from the saffron), suggests that in the medieval period almond flour was a more common ingredient than it is today. The third ingredient, “powdour fort” (or “strong powder”), was hard to find because its name was initially a mystery. We now know this refers to a mix of spices, containing pepper and cinnamon or pepper and ginger. We decided to try the cinnamon blend for our Appulmoy.

A few final tips for anyone embarking on a medieval cooking project…

  • When making medieval recipes, proceed with an open mind and an experimental attitude.
  • Do not worry too much about the right amount of pepper or cinnamon, or about the end result.
  • If you want to make sure your food turns out right, you can compare the medieval recipe with similar modern ones in order to get more exact timings and measurements.

However, this might take away from the experience, which is really the most important part: the experience of cooking something special with friends.

Bibliography

Baldassano, Cassandra. “Powder Fort.” Medieval Cuisine, 2012, http://www.medievalcuisine.com/Euriol/recipe-index/powder-fort. Accessed 24 August, 2019. 

Estes, J. “Food as Medicine.” Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1534-53. 

Messineo, Melinda, et l. “Inexperienced Versus Experienced Students’ Expectations for Active Learning in Large Classes.” College Teaching vol. 55, no. 3, 2007, pp. 125-33.

Mikkelsen Talgø, M. An Edition of the Fifteenth-Century Middle English Cookery Recipes in London, British Library’s MS Sloane 442. MA Thesis. University of Stavanger, 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April, 2019. 

Schier, V. “Probing the Mystery of the Use of Saffron in Medieval Nunneries.” The Senses and Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, pp. 57-72.

Taylor, Rosalie. “More Garbage, Anyone? Eating and Cooking Meat in Medieval England.” The English Language(s): Cultural & Linguistic Perspectives, 2005, http://homes. chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/HELEncyclopedia.htm. Accessed 24 August, 2019.

Teaching Recipes as Pattern Recognition

By Rob Wakeman, Mount Saint Mary College

In the throes of research, we often compile so much information we don’t know what to do with it. It’s not our fault, really. Working with recipe books takes us into so many wonderfully strange and intriguing corners of early modern material culture — it’s hard not to want to write about them all. I end up making circuitous spreadsheets of recipes, long meandering catalogs befitting an early modern naturalist. And so, during this summer’s research project, on migratory freshwater fish in seventeenth-century England, it often felt like I was looking at something akin to John Milton’s description of the River Trent, that

Earth-born giant [who] spreads /

His thirty arms along th’indented meads

At a Vacation Exercise, (ll. 93-94).

How do I get my hands around this monster? What do I do with these lists of fish? How does one make sense of this tangle of umber and umbrana, pike and pickerel, roach and loach, turbot and burbot?

Illustration from Mary Boutell, “Picture Natural History”, no. 224 (1869): The Pike-perch – sander. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately, I had help. Mount Saint Mary College provides excellent support for students who want to do research with faculty, offering a stipend and free summer housing. This summer two Mount students, Annalise and Tori, applied to work with me. Both students came in with a good background in early modern paleography. In addition to regularly participating in EMROC Transcribathons, Tori took my History of the English Language course, which features a paleography module as a key component, and Annalise completed an independent study on early modern neonatal medicine with me.

Although both Annalise and Tori have found paleography and the history of medicine useful in their respective museology and clinical psychology internships, I understand that most of my students generally do not find the study of recipes to be a “practical” application of the learning. Paleography and textual editing don’t directly relate to many to postgraduate plans or career goals, which tend to be pretty far afield from the literature and culture of the seventeenth century.

For that reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how the skills we learn through the examination of manuscript recipe books can translate to other fields… The careful patience and attention to detail required in the transcribing and editing of text… The creative problem solving necessary for the deduction of meaning and intent… The agility needed to place individual recipes in a larger cultural context, to connect the part to the whole and see the big picture through the particular example…

Going fishing in the archives… Frontispiece from Richard Brookes, The Art of Angling (1790). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But perhaps most of all, we talk about pattern recognition. What can you see that others might miss? How do the hidden patterns in recipes’ formal arrangement, lists of ingredients, and methods of preparation add up to something significant? Careful attention to the subtle structures of meaning is one of the most important skills we cultivate in the literature classroom, and recipe book culture offers a fertile field for this kind of analysis.

Compared with most of the literary texts we read in my class, the recipe books that we examine don’t come with a robust editorial apparatus that helps make sense of what they’re reading. Without an editor’s footlights to guide them, students have to pare down a massive amount of data into an intelligible pattern on their own. If we spend enough time comparing recipes, we learn how to read them on their own terms – why these ingredients are grouped together, why these sauces go with this meat, why this attribution is significant, and so forth. We did contextualize our research by reading a few articles each week, but ultimately this is an opportunity for students to devise for themselves the stories that can be told about recipe culture in early modern England.

Throughout the summer, the three of us met twice a week for six hours at a time to dig through manuscripts and discuss our findings. We don’t have institutional access to EEBO, ECCO, or Project Muse. And we don’t have any recipe books of our own in rare books collection. But thankfully many research libraries — such as the Folger, Iowa, UCLA, UPenn, the Wellcome —  have digitized many of their manuscript recipe books. Even though our college has limited research resources, online access to these archives gives students the valuable opportunity to work with primary source materials. We are also lucky enough to be a short train ride away from one of the great public libraries in the world. A New York Public Library card not only gives students access to a range of databases free of charge, it also allows them to work with the Whitney Cookery Collection.

Over ten weeks, we ended up examining 101 manuscript recipe books and twenty-eight printed cookbooks that dated from 1380 to 1780. We transcribed and analyzed 584 freshwater fish recipes in total.

Fish pies, image from Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (1660).

Emerging patterns in sturgeon recipes proved to be one of our most interesting findings, as we noticed they became much more common after 1660. Initially, I thought this could be explained by the influence of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), with its parade of thirty-three recipes for sturgeon baked, boiled, braised, fileted, forced, fried, soused, stewed, and stuffed. But while print cookbooks show a remarkable variety of preparations for fresh sturgeon, the manuscript recipes we found were almost exclusively pickles, perhaps a side effect of increased imports of sturgeon in brine barrels from Russia and North American colonies. Doubtlessly at play, as well, is a Restoration nostalgia for the royal feasts of yesteryear.

Sturgeon, in Rev. W. Houghton, British fresh water fishes (illus. A. F. Lydon), 1879. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons and Biodiversity Library.

The late-seventeenth century yearning for sturgeon – an expensive fish uncommon in English waters – can also be seen in a set of recipes for dishes “pickled like sturgeon.” The earliest of the sixteen such recipes that we came across were in the The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669): “to souce turkeys” tied “up in the manner of Sturgeon” and another for an “Excellent Meat of Goose or Turkey” put “into pickle, like Sturgeon-pickle.” Turkey is the most common substitute for sturgeon in these recipes, but salmon, turbot, veal, and calf’s head are also transformed into “artificial sturgeon.”

But these recipes were also met with some trepidation. Annalise hit upon a recipe for “Artificiall Stergon” in the cookery book of Lettis Vesey (Folger MS W.b.456, fols. 140-41). Following instructions to pickle a turbot or turkey, Vesey admits,

I like sturgon very well but I dont know how I should like this.

Recipe collectors clearly gathered together many recipes despite not knowing how many would be useful for their endeavors. In humanities research, we often find ourselves embracing that same spirit, following the interesting and intriguing instead of the obvious as we search for emerging patterns that others have missed.

Around the Table: Media Spotlight

This month on Around the Table, I am chatting with Laura Carlson, producer and host of the podcast The Feast. In other posts this month, we’ll read about many different experiences and methods for teaching with recipes. Here, Laura will tell us about her idea for incorporating food and recipes into her teaching, and how that turned into a popular podcast and unexpected career path.

When you started The Feast, you were also on the faculty in the Department of History at Queen’s University at Kingston. What sparked your interest in podcasting about food while working in Academia? Has teaching influenced your approach to podcasting about food history?

The idea for The Feast was born out of my experience in teaching history and classics at Queen’s University. At the time, I was experimenting with different types of sources in my syllabi as well as new formats for student research projects and presentations. I had also been incorporating food into my medieval history courses; students loved it, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do more within the course I was teaching.

I had been a fan of podcasts for a long time and I was interested in using podcasts as another source type for students to examine how medieval history and food was being used and discussed in the non-academic sphere. Beyond that, I also thought podcasts had incredible potential as a medium to communicate research and spark dialogue, but also to find interesting and immersive ways to talk about history and food. Because podcasts are free, the medium offered a fantastic way of reaching beyond the university community.

Although I listened to several food and history podcasts, none had struck the right tone that balanced research (engaging with sources, current research, experiments in the kitchen, etc.) with what I saw as a natural format for storytelling. That was really my goal in starting The Feast: a podcast focused on food history that I could feel comfortable assigning my students as part of a syllabus, but one general enough that anyone could listen to an episode and enjoy and (hopefully) learn something about a historical topic through the medium of food.

You strike a great balance between academic and popular in your show; it is a comfortable space for listeners with all degrees of training and interest in the topics. You also have something to offer to listeners interested in a wide array of chronological and geographical areas. How do you decide on your topics, and where do you like to go for sources and guest experts?

Thank you! How we figure out what will make a good Feast episode really depends; over the years, we’ve taken so many different approaches to coming up with show ideas and how to research. Many of the early shows came out of areas or topics I was already interested in or already knew there was source material for. For example, one of our earliest shows was about medieval pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. As the Feast developed, story and episode ideas really started to come from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve been able to collaborate on several episodes with other food historians and even some former history students of mine from Queen’s; one former student was even an associate producer on an episode focusing on Swedish cuisine in North America, inspired by her own family history.

A dish prepared on The Feast from an ancient Roman recipe: hypotrimma with honey spelt biscuits.

Inspiration for new episodes will often start with a single source and build out from there (for example, our episode on Alexander Dumas’ food dictionary). We’re also always inspired when we hear about other great food history projects or often when we’re travelling. My family is based in Arizona, for example, so it was always important to me to highlight some Arizona food history in the episodes. The same is also true for Canadian food history (as I now have a home in Toronto).

I know this is a big topic, but would you mind sharing a little about how one starts a podcast? What technology basics should you know before getting started, and what kinds of things can you learn along the way?

It’s one of the most often stated phrases in the podcast industry that “Anyone can have a podcast.” And, to a certain extent, that’s true. In terms of equipment and technical know-how, it can be very simple. Back in 2016, I started The Feast on a Macbook Pro laptop using pre-loaded Garageband software with a Blue Yeti microphone huddled in the closet of my condo. We just started trying things out to see what worked as far as mic technique, writing scripts to be read aloud, and understanding what went into having a show. As we got deeper into making the show and podcasting became a larger part of my life (and now my full-time job!), I wanted to learn more about equipment and technique.

One of the previous setups for recording The Feast.

So many online resources and new equipment have made it very easy for anyone to make a podcast. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of resources devoted to helping you record, edit, and publish your podcast online (like Transom.org, AIR, and NPR).

With so many resources available, I’d tell any potential podcaster not to get discouraged by technology or equipment. What’s more important is a strong concept to a show: why are you starting the show? What is its audience? Length and durability are also important to consider. Can you think of what your first 10 episodes can be about? What about your first 100? Is your idea focused but flexible enough so that you and your audience will still be interested in the subject in a few years?

Also, it’s also very important to set up a reasonable time commitment to your podcast. If you want to have an interview show, you might spend an hour interviewing a guest, but five hours editing the interview, two hours putting up a show page, an hour posting about it on social media. It really adds up. Consider what’s a reasonable amount of time you can devote to your show on a regular basis.

Has working on The Feast influenced your other research interests and recent projects?

100%! It has been a fantastic way of learning about subjects and periods, not to mention research folks are doing all over the world.

Laura Carlson leading a food tour in Toronto.

For example, since I was living in Toronto at the time, I really wanted to do an episode of The Feast that focused on Toronto food history. But it took me quite a while to find the right angle for an episode. We stumbled upon this great obscure piece of history about the two department stores in Toronto that faced each other for over 100 years. Both of them opened these opulent dining rooms at the same time. And both were very proud of their chicken pot pie recipes. I loved doing this episode because it meant I could focus on Toronto history. But it also inspired me to submit to lead a public history walking tour through the city agency, Heritage Toronto, about the history of food and dining in the city.

I have also been able to use a lot of the research that I did for Feast episodes that didn’t make it into the final cut to other articles or even other podcasts. I’ve also used some of our episodes, such as our holiday special on history of egg nog episode, for inspiration for other podcasts, like one about the history of the orange in North America on America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast, Proof

I also now work full-time as a podcast producer, both pitching stories to food podcasts such as Proof but also working with folks like NPR and Bloomberg to edit and produce popular podcasts. I also even teach food media at local colleges in Toronto. I’m also in the middle of writing a book on some of the topics inspired by Feast episodes. I continue to be surprised how many opportunities podcasting opens. What began as a side project to teaching history has become a diverse and rewarding but entirely unexpected career path.

Thanks, Laura, for chatting with me! You can follow Laura and The Feast on Instagram and Twitter @lauramcarlson and @Feast_Podcast, or on Facebook @thefeastpodcast. You can also reach Laura by email. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Tales from the Archives: GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON, HAIRDRESSER

The Recipes Project has over 800 posts in our archives and over 200 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! With so much excellent material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. Tales from the Archive allows us to revisit some of these older posts, reminding us of some of our wonderful past content.

This month we’re sharing a wonderful 2016 post by Zara Anishanslin. It explores the importance of personal grooming and hygiene in George Washington’s army, including the recipes used to maintain soldiers’ appearances. We hope that you enjoy this latest instalment from our Recipes Project archives, and if you have any posts that you’d like for us to revisit, please send in your nominations!

 

By Zara Anishanslin 

General George Washington, stationed with the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, was concerned about his troops. More specifically, he was bothered by their looks. It was August of 1782, and the men had recently followed his orders to spruce up their clothing and hats. But Washington still felt there was still something lacking in their appearance.

The remaining problem, in Washington’s opinion, was the men’s hair. To present the proper “martial and uniform appearance,” the soldiers needed to wear their “hair cut or tied in the same manner.” Doing so, as he put it, “would add much to the beauty” of the army.

To beautify his army, Washington wrote a recipe:

two pounds of flour and one-half pound of rendered tallow per hundred men may be drawn from the contractors for dressing the hair.[1]

By flour, of course, Washington meant the light-colored, edible powder made by grinding a grain like wheat and then used for making dough or bread. Throughout the war, flour was an omnipresent necessity on the Continental Army’s ration lists. Along with flour, beef was also a ubiquitous ration item. Rendered tallow’s base ingredient was beef fat, or suet. Rendered tallow could be used for a variety of purposes, from frying food to making candles and soap.

In this case, the tallow would smooth back the soldiers’ hair, providing a sticky base to hold the flour that would then be shaken or puffed onto it. Once stuck to the men’s hair, the flour’s dry powder would lighten it into a more uniform color while keeping it stiffly in place.

Washington’s recipe for beautifying the Continental Army, in other words, was pulverized grain and congealed animal fat.

Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, acc. no. 24.109.88, Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, acc. no. 24.109.88, Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In ordering supplies for the men to smooth and powder their hair, Washington was also dictating that they mimic his own grooming habits. Unlike some other officers in the British, French, and American armies, Washington did not wear a wig. Instead, as his portraits record, his habit was to wear his own hair tied back and powdered.

Washington, however, did not do his own hair. His enslaved valet William “Billy” Lee (also pictured in the Trumbull portrait), or the servant of one of Washington’s aide-de-camp’s dressed it for him.  After brushing it, applying a pomade, and tying it back, Washington’s hair was powdered, using a tool like this puff.

High quality pomades like that used by Washington were made of rendered tallow and—to counteract smells as it went rancid over time—perfumed with fragrances like bergamot, bay leaf, rosewood, or rosewater. Powder, too, although made of ingredients like flour and dried white clay that were less likely to spoil, was also commonly perfumed, with scents like nutmeg, ambergris, rose, or lavender. Perfume and quality aside, the recipe Washington ordered for dressing his army’s hair was not that different from what he used himself.

Still, there is evidence that not all the troops shared their commander’s enthusiasm for powdered hair. Earlier in the war, Continental Army officer Anthony Wayne

observ’d with a good deal of Pain that some of the Regiments have sent their men to the Parade with unpowder’d Hair, long Beards, dirty shirts, and rusty Arms.       

“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965, acc.no. 65.692.8. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965, acc.no. 65.692.8. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wayne issued soap and even excused troops from duty so they could appear “fresh shav’d, clean, and well powder’d at troop beating.” For his concern over the troops’  grooming, and his fastidiousness about his own hygiene and hair, Wayne earned the disparaging nickname of “Dandy Wayne.” [2] Painstakingly groomed hair for both men and women was an easy satirical target in the late eighteenth century. Military men like Wayne were not exempt from such attacks.

Satirical humor aside, the variety of pragmatic possibilities flour and tallow held beyond hairdressing may explain why some troops might have been inclined to use these rations for things other than their coiffures. A few months after his general orders for powdering the troops’ hair, Washington wrote of his officers’ “Mortification” at not being able to “invite a French Officer” to “a better Repast than stinkg Whiskey (& not always that) & a bit of Beef without Vegitable.”

“Count de Rochambeau, French General of the Land Forces in America Reviewing the French Troops,” Anonymous, British, 18th century, published by E. Hedges (London, 1781), Engraving. Gift of William H. Huntington, 1883, acc. no. 83.2.1039. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Count de Rochambeau, French General of the Land Forces in America Reviewing the French Troops,” Anonymous, British, 18th century, published by E. Hedges (London, 1781), Engraving. Gift of William H. Huntington, 1883, acc. no. 83.2.1039. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

These visiting French officers likely would have worn wigs or powdered their hair to attend such meals, no matter how poor the fare.  American officers like Washington wished to keep up appearances of all sorts when they entertained the French. At the same time, American enlisted men might well have preferred putting edible hairdressing ingredients in their bellies rather than on their heads. Washington was wise to this potential; officers were required to keep a tally of who used these rations, and to vouch on a “certificate of use” that they were, in fact, used to groom hair.

 

[1] General Order of General George Washington, August 12, 1782, Head Quarters at Newburgh, New York, in General Orders of Geo. Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Revolution Issued at Newburgh on the Hudson 1782-1783 (Newburgh, NY: News Company, 1909), 35.

[2] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (Yale University Press, 2009), 178, 168.