Category Archives: Food and Drink

Recipe Organization: It’s not as easy as A, B, C.

By Elaine Leong

In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of a flexible search engine and information management technologies in the ‘favourites’ recipe box of the Epicurious iPhone app.  While still declaring my adoration for the app, I would like to talk a little more about issues of categorization in alphabetical information organization.

Now some of you might wonder, is she seriously offering a post about information categorization and alphabetization? Well, yes I am! And I bet this will even spark debate around your dinner table tonight!

Why don’t I start by sharing with you some of the recipes in the ‘B’ section of my Epicurious app recipe box: Baked pork chops with a parmesan sage crust, Baltimore crab cakes, Barbecue turkey burgers, Bass with herbed rice, Beef stroganoff and Blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

Of course, this is a historical recipes blog and so why don’t we pair this with a look a few of the recipes under ‘B’ in Johanna St John’s alphabetically organized mid-seventeenth century recipe book: for a kanker in a woman’s Brest, Dr Mathias for the whites and the weaknes in the Back, for a Bone ach excellent,[1] for Bleeding at the nose, For a Blast or the poison of the Toad,[2] for any knob or hardnes in the Brest or milk quard,[3] For the Bitting of a mad dog never failing and Mr Boyles Balsame of Sulphire.[4]

As you can see, inadvertently, the electronic search engines of the Epicurious iPhone app used several different knowledge categories to create the list of my favourite recipes beginning with ‘B’.  Here we have cooking method (baked, barbecue), locality (Baltimore) and ingredient (bass, beef and blueberry).  Johanna St. John, too, uses several different categories: parts of the body (breast, back, bone), action (bleeding), type of medicament (balsame), and external actions on the body (blast, dog bites).

Alphabetization and categorization is not as simple as A, B, C. While it is obvious that the Epicurious app merely assumed that the first word of each recipe title represented the key word, Johanna St. John’s parameters for categorization are not so clearly laid out. In fact, it appears that she herself was unsure about particular groupings and, in a later reading of the books, re-categorized a number of recipes.  Take a look at this folio, from the ‘W’ section, below:

Wellcome Western MS 4338, fols. 210v-211r.

 Many of the recipes on this page are to be used during childbirth. Some ease the experience of the mother-to-be, while others address potential complications.  In my mind, these recipes were first collected in the ‘W’ section as St. John saw them as a cohesive body of knowledge dealing with Women’s health concerns. However, if you look closely, you can also see a number of letters written to the right of the recipe titles.  Thus, a ‘D’ is written next to ‘To hasten delivery’, a ‘R’ next to ‘For an immoderate flux of the Redds’ and a ‘G’ next to ‘A Glister to be given in labor’ and so on…

Initially, these letters baffled me but after a bit of pondering, I realized that they are records of St. John’s second attempt to categorize her book of medical knowledge. Evidently, the second time round, she decided that a remedy to haste Delivery should be filed under ‘D’ rather than ‘W’, and that the ‘Redds’ and ‘Glister’ are the keywords in the other two recipes. St. John’s first pass at categorization suggests that, for her at least, there is a defined body of knowledge dealing with women’s health issues. In her second pass, this knowledge was folded into the rest of her collection.

So, where recipes are concerned at least, our methods of categorization are revealing of how we imagine and view bodies of knowledge. They also, as we now know, play a crucial role on whether we can ever find the required recipe again.  After all, I don’t immediately look under ‘B’ for pork chops or crab cakes, do you?

[1] Wellcome Library, Western MS 4338, fol. 14r.  For emphasis, I have capitalized and put in bold what I think are the relevant ‘B’s in these recipe titles.

[2] Ibid., fol. 14v.

[3] Ibid., fol. 16r.

[4] Ibid., fols. 17r and 18r.

Roman remedy books?

By Helen King

If you know anything about food history, you’ll know about the ancient Roman writer, Apicius. His recipe book was reprinted in 2006 and is even available in an English translation; and you can get a pdf of the full text of 64 of the recipes at

Elaine Leong’s recent post,, reminded me about another sort of Roman book: the remedy books. Of course, as anyone on this blog knows, there is not much of a line between recipe and remedy…  Alun Withey’s post, about ‘what is a recipe collection?’ then made me think about this some more. So, here are some thoughts concerning collections in the ancient world.

Traditional Roman medicine is still something of a mystery. It seems to have been overshadowed by the medicine of the Greeks – despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC. In this case, and in contrast to modern colonial history, it was the medicine of the conquered people that won the battle of the body; as the Roman poet Horace wrote, in many cultural fields Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, ‘Captured Greece took captive her savage conqueror’.

So what was Roman medicine like before Greek medicine took over? We know that in around 160 BC, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor, 234-149 BC), wrote a book for the farmer and head of the household to use, called De agri cultura (On agriculture,  literally On the cultivation of the fields). The text survives. It includes recipes – for pudding, for porridge, for purges. In his Life of Cato, the Greek historian Plutarch later referred to a book written by Cato that does not survive: a recipe collection. Plutarch writes, ‘[Cato] himself had compiled a notebook (hypomnema) of recipes and used them for the diet or treatment of any members of his household who fell ill’. So, other than what we have in De agri cultura, what was in this book and how did it come into being? Perhaps, like early modern remedy collections, it was a ‘commonplace book’ of remedies Cato had picked up based on books he had read, or suggestions made by friends and family. Plutarch also tells us that Cato ‘never made his patients fast, but allowed them to eat herbs and morsels of duck, pigeon, or hare’ (Life of Cato 23). Sounds good so far!

We have a second source for this recipe/remedy collection. Here, in the Roman writer Pliny, it is called a commentarius, a word meaning treatise, notebook or memo. We find that it was kept by the head of household: Cato used it to treat ‘his son, servants, and household’. While Plutarch says Cato ‘himself’ compiled it, Pliny simply says that Cato ‘had’ such a book. Cato was rapidly anti-Greek. He warned against the dangers of Greek doctors, although in fact he uses enough Greek technical terms to make it clear that he had read Greek medicine for himself. So were some of the remedies in his collection taken from Greek books? And did other Roman heads of household own, or compile, collections like this one? And how did they organise them?

For that last question, we have one tantalising hint. The reason why Pliny tells us about the collection is that he says it is the origin of the recipes he gives in his Natural History. That collection of knowledge is organised in a very complicated way – it is nothing like a modern encyclopedia with an A-Z structure. Pliny implies that he has taken apart Cato’s notebook and put the recipes wherever they best fit for his purposes. So does that mean that they were arranged in some sort of structure by Cato? Cato would most likely have been writing on papyrus scrolls, so he may have just written down recipes as he acquired them, or he may have had a reorganised copy made. Perhaps, picking up an idea Elaine Leong explored, he wrote an index? The ancient world raises so many questions – and has so few answers!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University; her interests range from ancient to early modern, and focus on gynaecology and obstetrics

On Pliny: Aude Doody, ‘Pliny’s Natural History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009):

Cato the Elder:

Chicken Soup for…

By Sally Osborn

Chicken soup is one of our modern panaceas for all ills, but it was also used as medicine in the eighteenth century. However, while nowadays it is associated with treating colds and flu (and has actually been proved to have anti-inflammatory properties), then it appears to have been considered as a stomach remedy. Take this rather graphic recipe from a collection of recipes by an unknown hand (British Library, Add 29,435):

An exelent chicken broath, from Mrs Finch

Take a lean chicken, skin it & draw it put one ounce of fine
manna in the body of it, & secure it at both ends to keep the
manna in, put it in one quart of water & let it boyl gently
till it comes to one pint, then strain it off, & drink a coffe
cup full at a time till it hath answered the purpose of giving
a stool.

Tis so very innocent a woman in child bed may take it
at any time or an infant. It is perticularly good to procure
a stool in the piles, or for any great heat in the body or
complaint in the stomach when such a medison is proper
as it also comforts the stomach & bowels at the same time it
works off & often proves effectual when all medisons have failed.

The manna in question wasn’t the wonder food of the Israelites, but the dried sap of the ash tree, which has laxative properties…

Mind you, I think I might prefer an alternative (and not so innocent) remedy for the ‘looseness’ or diarrhoea, from another anonymous collection (Wellcome Library, MS.1321)– although it does sound more like a hangover cure:

Take 6 spoonfulls of the best brandy & beat the yolk of an egge very
well & mix with it & grate in a whole nuttmegg & put in a little sugar
& brew it well together & drink it next your heart in a morning.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog Travels and Travails in 18th-Century England (14 January 2011).

To Preserve Quinces, White or Red?

By Rebecca Laroche

Wellcome Library, Manuscript 1340, Digital Image 0087

Through a current collaboration with Thomas Ward (United States Naval Academy), I have found something of interest in early modern quince preserves.[i] Across the Wellcome Library Digitised Collection, examples of recipes “To preserve quinces” evenly divide between two (or three types), “To preserve quinces red” and “To preserve quinces white” (the third category being some mixture or in-between of the two).[ii] Regularly, a white quince recipe will be on the same page as a red one, which presents an immediate choice to the preserver. In close reading, I have come to realize that this choice is about something more than color.

Setting a red recipe next to a white one, we can begin to suss out the issues, but three late seventeenth/early eighteenth century recipes provide both the red and white options within one entry and thus make the differences most apparent.  Generally, red quinces are  boiled at a “leisurely” pace (one recipe, MS 3341/009, records a four hour process,), covered, and with lower grade of sweetener (not necessarily refined sugar, even using fruit juices instead, which also added a gelling component).  White quinces are often boiled rapidly in the syrup made with double refined sugar, sometimes cooked before being added to the syrup, and, at some point determined by fruit tenderness, color change, and/or syrup thickness, the quinces are removed from the syrup to cool while the syrup continues to thicken, and then they are added again later in the process.  Much of the time making red quinces is uninterrupted, allowing for “multi-tasking,” either in or out of the kitchen.

Not necessarily so in preserving white quinces.  Not only are you often told to boil the quinces “as fast as you can uncouered” (see MSs 7818/52, 7999/10, 3341/10), which would present the danger of boiling over and burning, the added step of taking them up before they turn red requires extreme care.  One recipe even calls for “shifting” the quinces into “water ready to boil,” not once or twice, but “into seuerall such waters till they be tender (MS 2330/5).

Clearly white quinces are more difficult to make as they require extra care and a larger proportion of time spent watching the pots. Because much of this care is about anticipating the moment of color change, the implication is that the more a person makes the white quince recipe, the more aware she or he would be of signs of the oncoming change. That is, the more experienced preserver would be more prepared and his or her quinces would thus be whiter.

It follows, then, that the choice between red and white quinces has meaning beyond a color preference or even taste. Whether or not white quinces taste better than red ones is almost beside the point. If you present white quinces at the table, you signified an occasion deserving of the more “high maintenance” preserve, whereas red quinces, made at a more leisurely pace and with cheaper ingredients, are likely to be your “everyday” variety. At least the experienced cooks among your guests would appreciate the difference.

[i] I have also noted this variation with pippen preserves.

[ii] All parenthetical citations refer to the manuscript and image number accessed through the Wellcome Digitised Collection page: