Category Archives: Food and Drink

Counter-Revolution in a Bowl

 By Christopher Hodson

Domingos Sequeira, "Sopa dos Pobres em Arroios" (1813).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Domingos Sequeira, “Sopa dos Pobres em Arroios” (1813). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To be sure, it’s just a soup recipe.

In 1813 or 1814, somewhere in Hertfordshire, England, an anonymous local wrote out “Count Rumford’s receipt for making a cheap soup as much as will feed sixteen or twenty people,” adding his own tips on proper preparation and service. Its base consisted of four pounds of potatoes and one pound of either barley meal, peas, or rice, simmered long and low and flavored with a little boiled bacon, salt pork, or herring. Doubtless protesting too much, the writer assured readers that the soup would be “perfectly savoury” if ladled over a few wheaten bread bits fried in salt butter or beef drippings. In any case, the final product’s defining trait was not flavor but heft; when chilled, the copyist explained, the soup would resemble a “very strong jelly…weighing near twenty pounds.” Cooking so much at once was key, he concluded, as doing so kept fuel expenses down to a mere ten pence per batch.

Since coming across this recipe in the Hertfordshire Archives last year, I’ve thought  many times about making it, only to be halted by a mind-flash of David Foster Wallace’s indelible description of cruise-ship caviar: “blucky.” And yet, blucky though it may have been, this particular soup was ubiquitous. Indeed, during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, long before Starbucks, McDonalds, or the pre-packaged, mass-produced bounty of the Kroger canned goods aisle, a person could get a bowl of it in London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Munich, several cities in the United States, and many places in between. There was only one catch: you had to be too poor to pay for it.

Our man in Hertfordshire had, he freely admitted, cribbed the recipe from Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire. Among the best known social reformers of his age, the count was in fact Benjamin Thompson, a Massachusetts-born loyalist who, while splitting time between England and Germany, managed to become one of the best-known scientists and social reformers of his day. Backed by the elector of Bavaria (who, in gratitude for his services, gave Thompson his noble title) and based in a disused Munich manufactory, Rumford experimented with and wrote about food throughout the 1790s. For him, soup was the technical solution to the vexing problem of feeding the poor – it was, he argued, a kind of nutritional battery that stored energy from fuel and transferred it to human beings more economically and efficiently than any other form of food.

Thompson, Count von Rumford," stipple engraving by J. P. P. Rauschmayr (1797) Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count von Rumford,” stipple engraving by J. P. P. Rauschmayr (1797) Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

People far and wide read, and agreed. In 1804, the Real Sociedad Matritense de Amigos del Pais opened five “soup houses” in Madrid’s poorest neighborhoods, with more in the works: in 1812, Napoléon Bonaparte himself ordered a free, daily distribution of two million servings of “so-called Rumford soup” to French citizens suffering through a severe economic downturn. Even Rumford’s old countrymen took note. “The economic soups are well-known, and the name of Count Rumford is immortal,” blared the Salem Register to its Massachusetts readers in 1803.

In an important sense, then, the recipe I saw in Hertfordshire was but one part of a trans-Atlantic conversation about the great, pressing problem of the early nineteenth century: how to ensure order in an age of participatory politics, social upheaval, and harvest-disrupting warfare.  The economics of producing and consuming food loomed large as revolutionaries and post-revolutionaries – from Toussaint Louverture to Gracchus Babeuf to Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Malthus – proposed solutions which involved re-envisioning the distribution and disposition of land or curbing consumption and reproduction to foster stable new régimes.

Long before Marx, however, Rumford advanced soup as the opiate of the masses; or, taking a wider view of his work on heat, he put the “therm” in “Every revolution has its Thermidor.”  That is, as he straddled the American and French revolutions, Rumford tried to forestall further revolutions by training his Atlantic Enlightenment on the humble soup kitchen – a maneuver that resonated with a generation puzzling over the problem of order.  So, while it is just a soup recipe (and possibly a blucky one at that), Rumford’s particular soup can, I think, serve as a point of entry to another origin story.  Indeed, the results of his research, including not just soup but the drip coffee pot, the stove-top range, and the much-celebrated Rumford fireplace, hint at the beginnings of the great, enduring bargain of post-revolutionary modernity that continues to inform our politics – order in exchange for cheap foods and consumer goods that provide nourishment, comfort, and distraction.

Christopher Hodson is associate professor in the Department of History at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.  He is the author of The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History (Oxford, 2012) and is completing, along with his co-author Brett Rushforth, a history of France and the Atlantic World from the Crusades to the Age of Revolution.  He hopes to begin work on a cultural biography of Benjamin Thompson (better known as Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire) in short order.  He is, for the record, pro-soup.

Tales from the archives: Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

Kitchen form the 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book, with clock clearly on display

By Rachel Rich

After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)

Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.

The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)

For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.

(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.


Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Cookery, Ancient and Modern

By Henry Power

This post is about two sort-of-recipe-books published in the first decade of the eighteenth century. When I say sort-of-recipe-books, I mean that although both of them are full of culinary precepts, neither is likely to have been used in the kitchen. But taken together, the two books give an insight into the cultural tensions of the early eighteenth century.

Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In 1705, Martin Lister published an edition of the recipes of the Roman cook Apicius. Subscribers to the volume included Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane, Christopher Wren, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; this was a work destined for the shelves of the great and the good. Lister was, as the title page makes clear, a medical man – chief physician to Queen Anne. Apicius on the other hand was, on the other hand, largely associated with gluttony and intemperance. In his lengthy Latin introduction, Lister tries to rescue Apicius from the charge of gluttony—and indeed to stress the health-giving properties of his recipes. Generations of moralizing historians had argued that the fall of Rome was at least partly down to excessive gourmandising. Lister takes the opposite view: the barbarian sack of Rome halted the Romans’ development of healthy, nourishing seasonings and sauces.

Lister was, in the parlance of the time, a ‘Modern’. That is to say, he believed in the continuing progress of human learning since antiquity. He also believed in the application of modern scholarly techniques to ancient texts, and in studying a broader range of texts and topics than the fairly narrow classical canon than had traditionally been taught in schools and universities. His edition of Apicius is thoroughly informed by these principles: it presents one of the most neglected and marginal classical texts with all the apparatus of modern scholarship, and it also builds on the knowledge of that text – bringing Lister’s scientific knowledge to bear on Apicius’ recipes.

One contemporary reader found such an expenditure of scholarly labour ridiculous: the application of considerable intellectual resources to a book about anchovy sauce and stuffed dormice. William King, a fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, was firmly an ‘Ancient’. He frequently bemoaned the fact that the Moderns were disregarding and denigrating the staples of the canon: above all, the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Lister’s Apicius was evidence of the skewed priorities of the Moderns, and King hit upon the perfect way of satirizing it.

In 1708, King published a book-length poem called The Art of Cookery. Though the short title indicates a conventional recipe book, the long subtitle points to a more literary origin. The book is, we are told, written ‘in imitation of Horace’s Art of Poetry: with some letters to Dr. Lister, and others: occasion’d principally by the title of a book publish’d by the doctor, being the works of Apicius Coelius, concerning the soups and sauces of the antients.’ One of the strangest works of eighteenth-century satire, King’s Art of Cookery is a rewriting of Horace’s Art of Poetry (the most famous work of classical literary criticism) in which gastronomic instructions take the place of poetic ones at every opportunity.

To give one example, Horace’s insistence that poetry should be charming (or ‘sweet’) as well as beautiful is applied to pastry:

Unless some Sweetness at the Bottom lye,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the Pye? (p. 71)

One of the poem’s satiric targets is the importance attached by people like Lister to material that was previously considered trivial. Horace wrote his poem so that future writers could emulate the great epics of Homer and Virgil; these hallowed precepts were now being applied to mere cookery. In one of the prefatory letters addressed to Lister, King ironically bemoans the fact that gastronomy is not properly taught in schools:

For what hopes can there be of any Progress in Learning, whilst our Gentlemen suffer their Sons at Westminster, Eaton, and Winchester, to eat nothing but Salt with their Mutton, and Vinegar with their Roast Beef upon Holidays? What      Extensiveness can there be in their Souls? … and as to Sauces, they are in profound ignorance. (pp. 3-4)

King has another target in his sights. The Art of Cookery records, in its odd way, the huge expansion of English diet at the turn of the eighteenth century. Sometimes, King confronts head-on the increasing diversity of food served in England, as in this passage (which corresponds to Horace’s advice about the use of recently-coined words in poems):

Be cautious how you change old Bills of Fare,
Such alterations should at least be Rare
Fresh Dainties are by Britain’s Traffick known,
And now by constant Use familiar grown;
What Lord of old wou’d bid his Cook prepare,
Mangoes, Potargo, Champignons, Cavare? (p. 61)

Just as a scholarly turn to marginal authors like Apicius is threatening the status of canonical authors such as Homer and Virgil, so the general enthusiasm for such-newfangled delicacies as mushrooms and mangoes is threatening plain, traditional English cookery, as exemplified by roast beef and mutton. That anxiety is frequently encountered in eighteenth-century England; what is interesting about King is that he associates this perceived alteration in diet with a Modernizing tendency to value novelty above all else.

And for King it is the ‘soups and sauces of the Antients’, as encountered in Lister’s edition of Apicius, which are the ultimate symbol of modernity.

Henry Power is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is currently editing (with Nicholas McDowell) The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1640-1714, to which he is contributing two essays: one on ‘Learned Wit and Mock Scholarship’, and the other on ‘Recipe Books.’