Theobroma cacao is a coveted tree known as the source of the globally celebrated chocolate, initially known as xocolatl in Nahuatl. The fruits of cacao are a variety of berry known as drupes. Drupes grow from pollinated flowers on the tree’s trunks and lower branches, each containing between 20 and 40 pulp-covered seeds, colloquially known as beans. The beans were considered a valuable resource and commodity in precolonial times and hold a similar status today.
Originally domesticated in the tropical lowlands of South America, cacao quickly spread to Mesoamerica where it gained salient cultural status as far back as the Formative Period. This world-renowned plant also tells a story of shifting strategies of interaction and knowledge production during the early modern period. This era of imperial expansion saw a variety of European entities seeking to benefit from the economic goods and networks native to the Americas. Cacao was one of the most important of these networks, specifically the production, distribution, and consumption of its seeds.
The cacao tree is a delicate plant that needs specific conditions to grow and ultimately fruit. Knowledge of these conditions forms a body of deep cultural understanding of cacao’s cultivation, reflected in Indigenous ideologies and practices. European expansionism not only led to the distribution of cacao across the globe but also to the appropriation of the knowledge of Indigenous people. Primary sources from the early modern period document such dynamics between Native human and wild-grown plant populations of the Americas and the colonizers who sought to control them.
Initial imperial strategies in the so-called New World allowed for the documentation of Native perspectives by Native individuals. The earliest representations of cacao from the early modern period come from a Mexica herbal known as the Badianus manuscript, a collection of elaborately watercolor-painted plants with their associated names in Nahuatl and recipes for treating various ailments written in Latin. This herbal was completed in the 1550s by at least two Nahua men, Martín de la Cruz, an Indigenous nobleman and physician, and Juan Badiano, an instructor of Latin, at the Franciscan school of the Colegio Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. Now held by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, the manuscript has been reproduced in a number of ways since its original creation. Through its original and reproductions, the historically deep and broader Indigenous ideologies surrounding Theobroma cacao are captured.
The herbal’s watercolors illustrate anatomically accurate plant structures situated within particular stages of the reproductive life cycle of cacao. These details indicate that the Mexica had an intimate understanding of cacao’s biology, a level of knowledge not found in contemporaneous herbals authored by non-Natives. Consequently, the knowledge of cacao within the Badianus has a broader spatio-temporal history, developing across Mesoamerica well before the arrival of Europeans and the formation of the school in which de la Cruz and Badiano created the herbal.
The association of cacao with curing particular ailments in Mexica recipes echoes what was known about the plant by Mesoamericans for thousands of years. In their cosmologies, the cacao plant is connected to maize, a staple crop throughout and beyond Mesoamerica that was highly mythologized. This connection of maize and cacao, typically conceptualized as a life cycle, is also exemplified by a broader ideology regarding a cycle of subsistence. The cycle includes a sequence of alternating a forest garden, where cacao is grown, with milpa, where maize is grown. This milpa/forest garden cycle is a subsistence strategy that was, and still is, central to providing sustenance to millions of neotropical inhabitants.
Recipes, as the tagline of this project suggests, feature in many facets of daily life, from food to science, magic to medicine. At the basis of many (if not most) of these recipes are plants: we’ve learned here how chiles were used to treat malaria in early modern China, that cucumber juice contributed to a 17th-century Russian hangover remedy, and why coffee was understood as a potential cure for the Plague in Turkey.
Much of history focuses on decidedly human stories, where plants are relegated to the background. As historian Londa Schiebinger writes, “Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life in proportion to their importance to humans.”
We at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC have spent the past four years working to rectify this by placing plants at the center of human stories as part of our Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative. By bringing history together with botany, archaeology, art history, and other disciplines, we aim to highlight how plants have shaped the course of human history, and how humans have shaped plants in turn. The fruit of our exploration has been a digital humanities lab that puts narrative history side-by-side with primary sources, mapping tools, herbal specimens, and more in order to demonstrate the complexity of plants, as well as their importance in the current climate crisis.
Our lab now features over 15 original narratives on plants, with more coming in the near future. These plant-centered narratives are written by historians of science, art historians, paleoethnobotanists, geographers, and comparative literary scholars (among others). One narrative highlights how early modern women used herbs like dittany as a means to exert agency over their own health and fertility— a particularly critical topic given the vociferous debates about abortion occurring in the United States and elsewhere today. Another narrative on turmeric demonstrated how plants were not simply drivers of imperial expansion, but also tools through which understandings of the British Empire were spread.
Over the next month, we will be publishing excerpts from some narratives on The Recipes Project site. We will see how European conquistadors drew on Indigenous Mesoamerican recipes when transporting cacao to Europe. We will learn how peony, often imagined today as an ornamental flower, was used as a medicinal herb in both Chinese and Western medical traditions, where it was used to treat epilepsy, sciatica, and convulsions. And we will see how our modern-day fascination with cassava, frequently lauded as a “climate survivor crop,” would not be possible if not for the knowledge, expertise, and processing techniques developed by Mesoamerican and South American women, which allowed for poisonous cassava to be made edible.
Together, these stories highlight the primacy of plants in the history—and future— of human society. We hope you enjoy your trip around the world through these narratives, and stay tuned for opportunities to get involved with our initiative.
Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes), originally published in 1782, is often considered the first cookbook that only focuses on one ingredient and the beginning of the Hyakuchin-mono (百珍物, One Hundred Recipes of Delightful Tastes) series. Harada Nobuo, Eric Rath, and other historians of Japan have argued that cookbooks published during the Edo period were tools for vicarious consumption of cuisines that the reader could not physically obtain. However, when we carefully analyze the contents of cookbooks written in the Edo period (1603-1868), we are surprised that they are filled with the practical knowledge, the latest cooking techniques, ingredients, and utensils of that time. It was also during the Edo period, in which society formed the basis of Japanese cuisine that is still visible in the present day. The role of cookbooks like the Tofu Hyakuchin, not only as symbols of townspeople (chonin, 町人) culture and the culture of play (Asobi, 遊び) but also as a form of collective knowledge of the people who supported culinary culture during this time, cannot be underestimated.
This piece challenges the generalizing discourse surrounding cookbooks during the Edo period by first examining the popularity and accessibility of tofu as food from primary sources aimed for everyday people. Then it analyzes key aspects of Tofu Hyankuchin that separate this text from other cookbooks during this time, such as utensils, specific cut sizes, and measurements of ingredients to highlight the components that could be seen as “practical knowledge” rather than “vicarious consumption.”
Many believe that tofu was not consumed among ordinary people in the first half of the Edo period. In 1500, Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase (七十一番職人歌合, Matching Songs of Seventy-one Craftsmen) was published. Tofu seller (豆腐売り) is mentioned as the 37th job . In the accompanying illustration, a lady in a black kimono and white headband sits cross-legged on a low platform on a street selling large and small pieces of cut tofu. The author of the painting is believed to be Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). A total of 71 sections and 142 craftsman figures are displayed. In addition to the traditional craftsmen involved in the construction of temples and shrines, more low-ranking people such as female craftsmen, saleswoman, entertainers, and prostitutes who are not directly involved in material or agricultural production, are also included. Through the Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase, it can be assumed that tofu seller was one of the recognized occupations and tofu was available in the later Muromachi Period (1336-1573).
In the Kansei period (1789-1801) or the early 1800s, ranking tables (banzuke) became popular in Edo. Tofu cooking is mentioned in the Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke (日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Daily Frugal Cooking Method Competitive Ranking Table) which is in the same format as a sumo tournament flier. According to the table, there are two sides: Vegetable and Fish. The highest rank is Ozeki (大関). Under the Vegetable side, the Happai Tofu (八杯豆腐, Eight Cups Tofu) is ranked to Ozeki. Yaki Tofu (焼豆腐, Grilled Tofu) is ranked in the fourth rank of Sekiwake (関脇). Kinome Dengaku (木芽田楽, Baked Tofu with Sansho Tree-Sprout Miso Coating) is ranked in the fifth rank of Maegashira (前頭) in the spring section. Tofu related cuisines appeared a total of 15 times on the table.
Besides popular culture mentions of tofu, we can also see the prevalence of soy itself through Edo period edicts. Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Keian Ofuregaki (慶安御触書, Keian Edict) in 1649 for the control of farmers. The edict consists of 32 articles, which warn of luxury life by peasants, such as alcohol, tobacco, and rice. The edict also demands people to devote themselves to agriculture. In the fourth edict, soybean planting is mentioned in the form of so-called aze-mame (畔豆, ridge beans), in which soybeans are planted in the ridges of rice paddy fields. It states that peasants must plant soybeans and azuki beans between their rice fields and farms. It is interesting to note the contemporary understanding of legumes’ ability to reincorporate nitrogen back into the soil. Although the people of Edo knew no such knowledge, legume planting may have helped farmers overall crop yield and efficient use of land. As the 4th edict decreed:
“Focus on cultivation, and planting to rice fields and vegetable fields, and at the same time, focus on production and prevent weeds from growing. If you take care of weeds and always cultivate the land with a hoe, you can get good crops and a lot of harvest. Then, plant soybeans and azuki beans on the bank in the fields to increase the crop as much as possible” (Keian Ofuregaki).
In the 11th edict, it stated that after experiencing famine, peasants must eat soybean leaves, which was also mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari [料理物語, Tale of Cooking], perhaps the most prominent early cookbook in Edo Japan. From the context of the 11th edict, the peasants had rice in the autumn, but in the later months, they had millet. The Tale of Cooking is written to support the peasant’s menu:
“The peasants are not thinking well, and they have no idea about the future. In the autumn, they feed rice to their wives and children without thinking about the harvested rice. Always in January, February, and March, they take care of rice and eat millet, wheat, Awa millet, Hie millet, vegetables, radishes, and make more millets, and do not eat a lot of rice. Immediately after experiencing a famine, do not waste time throwing away soybean leaves, azuki leaves, cowpea leaves, deciduous leaves of potatoes, etc.” (Tales of Cooking).
Around 1695, tofu was sold by vendors sitting by the road. We do not know for sure when tofu was first sold by walking street vendors, but after a big fire in Edo in 1698, sellers of dengaku (skewered grilled tofu with a sweet miso topping) started to appear.
In 1634, the Tale of Cooking was published. This was during the early part of Edo and is often considered the first Japanese cookbook written mostly in plain, syllabic Japanese. Although the author is unknown, the epilogue states that “This one volume of this cooking book does not require knife skills. This is for ordinary people and there are no cooking rules. This teaching is from our ancestors. Since I wrote the story of people to date, it is called the tale of cooking.” As for tofu related recipes, there are only two mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari in section 12 on boiled foods: Ise Tofu (伊勢豆腐) and Ryori Tofu (料理豆腐):
“Ise tofu: First grate yam. Cut the sea bream and grate it. Add one-third of grated yam. Add the egg white into tofu and grate it. Grate them well together. Spread a cloth on a cedar box and wrap it. Put it in hot water, press it, and then cut it. Spread cloth on the cedar box. Put it into boiled water, hold, and cut. Serve with arrowroot and soy sauce. It is also very good to sprinkle with chicken miso or wasabi miso. Also, it is good to serve only the tofu. I sincerely report the above recipe” (Tales of Cooking, 183).
If we take a closer look at the recipes, we see that there is little to no information about measurements, sizes, or utensils that are required to actually prepare these dishes.
A distinct feature of the Tofu Hyakuchin that shows that the book was not strictly for the purpose of play are the detailed cut sizes, measurements, and cooking utensils, potentially allowing readers to follow and recreate the dish. For instructions of cutting Tofu in the 72nd recipe, it instructs readers to “remove the coarse cloth texture from the surface of a whole tofu and cut off the four corners of the tofu, then cut the newly formed corners to make an octagon. Cut that into five or six smaller pieces. Season using sake, salt, and soy sauce” (Tofu Hyakuchin, 28). Another example is in the 96th recipe, readers are asked to “cut tofu in 2.4cm x 2.4cm x1.2-1.5cm cubes. On one skewer, place three pieces. Follow recipe number two (Kiji-yaki dengaku), grill until golden brown. Once it is grilled, remove them from the skewer. Place them in a Raku-ware teapot with a lid. Pour on hot pepper-vinegar-miso and sprinkle poppy seeds on top” (35).
Other detailed measurements are also explained in the 56th recipe, for example, “mix grilled tofu and Fukusa miso in a 7:3 ratio. Pound the mixture with a kitchen knife until it is one solid piece. Make into desired size, and lightly fry them. Season to desired choice”(24). In the 81st recipe, furthermore, “use silken tofu. Boil six parts water to one-part sake. Once it is boiling add one-part soy sauce and let it reach a boil again. Place tofu into the mixture. The length of simmering is the same as number 92 of Yu-yakko. Remove the tofu right before it starts to float. Serve with grated daikon radish” (31). The recipes in Tofu Hyakuchin are in simple, syllabic writing and basic characters, with detailed measurements, and are easy for the reader to understand the method of cooking. In addition, it is easy to visualize the dish just by reading the instructions.
Introducing New Cooking Utensils
In one Tofu Hyakuchin recipe, it shows a new innovation: a charcoal stove specifically for making Kinome-Dengaku in the first tofu recipe. To proliferate varieties of cooking, it is essential to develop and invent new cooking tools. In the book, a new baking charcoal stove is introduced made of ceramic, which allowed for portability and better heat transfer than previous grills, as well as accessibility to a wider audience than traditional metal or steel grills. “Recently,” the book notes, “a new product was released for grilling miso dengaku (skewered tofu with miso sauce). About 60 cm in length; The width is about 8 cm; About 6 cm deep. This is made of pottery and has a hole in the bottom. There are many 1.8 cm holes (12).
There are also many cooking utensils made of metal introduced in the Tofu Haykuchin. We can assume that hardware stores were popular in the Edo period and selling metal products allowed more access for people to cook food at a higher temperature. For example, in the 40th recipe, a wire mesh (金の籠, Kane no amikago) is introduced:
“Simmer light-soy sauce with sake and salt. In a separate pan, bring a large amount of oil to a boil. Cut tofu into flat cubes and place them on a wire mesh. Fry the tofu by shaking it 2-3 times inside the oil. Once fried, immediately place the fried tofu in the pot of simmering soy sauce”(21).
The 54th recipe also uses a sieve made of metal: “To make the mashed potato, boil mountain yam very well. Remove excess water and sift through a metal sieve (銅飾, Kanasuhinou)” (24). Moreover, in the 57th recipe, a metal spoon (金匕, Kanesaji) is used to “simmer whole tofu in a pot with no liquid over small heat. Remove the liquid that comes out of the tofu with a metal ladle”(25).
The recipe book also mentions a specially shaped long wooden box (つきだし, tsukidashi) in the 100th tofu recipe, which has about the same cross section as that of a block of tofu, with a handle on one end, a screen over the opposite exit end, and a wooden pusher, which is used to push a block of tofu into the box and through the screen, thereby creating tofu noodles.
“To cut the tofu, use the tube used to make tokoroten [gelatin jelly strips]. Use silk string to make grids on the end of the tube. Point the tube directly into lukewarm water. Push the tofu through the tube to make a noodle-like shape. Let the tofu submerge in water as you push it through. Even when serving 100 people, it is important to cut the tofu immediately before serving”(37-38).
Examining the contents of the Tofu Hyakuchin, this cookbook was not just a hobby of a cultured person, but all recipes are easy to make, delicious, and still seen today. It introduced detailed cut size and specific measurements of ingredients. It also introduced cooking methods such as frying, steaming, and boiling that could be easily done with the new invention of high-heat cooking utensils. From the other popular culture materials and Tokugawa edicts regarding the development of soybean production, we can see the possible accessibility of tofu. This paper is not to discredit previous scholars on this subject, whom I greatly respect, but to complicate our understanding and analysis of Edo period cookbooks.
2 Recently, the Kenan Ofuregaki is considered forged document issued by the Edo Shogunate in 1649. It is believed that first issued in the territory of the Kofu domain in Kai Province in 1697, with the addition of a tradition that it is a curtain law of the Keian era. See, Yamamoto Eiji. Kenan no Furegagi wa dasaretaka (慶安の触書はだされたか). Tokyo: Yamakawa-shuppan, 2002.
We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.
Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.
Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’. Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments. Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9), ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).
Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.
However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.
We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5). The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.
Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.