Category Archives: Food and Drink

Food History Panel Recordings from the Cookbook Conference

By Lisa Smith

In February, I attended the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York. It was a fun conference, with a mix of academics and non-academics. A particular highlight, though, was realising that cookbook authors often bring samples of their food to panels! A delight in the case of cookies, though I’m sure the puppy water I discussed wouldn’t have gone down nearly so well.

The panels, for you recipe and cookbook afficionados, were all recorded and can be found at the conference home page. The panels below were the ones I found most interesting and, not surprisingly, primarily historical…

1. “Filling Our Hearts with Food and Gladness”: Christian Celebration and Food Traditions”

This insightful panel, which focused on medieval food and modern foods with religious origins, included Ken Albala (University of the Pacific), Anne Mendelson, Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University) and Willam Woys Weaver.

2. “Wartime Cookbooks: Artifacts of Home Front Culture, Tools of Social Engineering, Narratives of Survival”

This was an exciting mix of junior and senior scholars, all of whom provided accounts of the complicated relationships between food, ideology, nationalism, and practice. The speakers included Kyri W. Claflin (Boston University), Barbara Rotger (Boston University), Diana Garvin (Cornell University, Ithaca NY), Ian Mosby (University of Guelph) and Amy Bentley (New York University).

3. “From Disgust to Delight: The Civilizing Influence of Recipes”

The main theme of the panel was how people in the West might be persuaded to incorporate insects into our diet. The panel began with the distribution of chocolate-covered insects, which I could not bring myself to eat despite the best will in the world. This thought-provoking panel raised more questions than it answered. e.g. is covering insects in chocolate really helpful in persuading people to eat insects as a staple food?

Tory Higgins was the final speaker and his argument ultimately failed to convince me. He focused on marketing and referred to successful government endeavours during World War Two–something that had been revealed as problematic during the “Wartime Cookbooks” panel. Speakers included Renee Marton (Institute of Culinary Education, New York), Tory Higgins (Columbia University),Kian Lam Kho, and Margaret Happel Perry.

I ended up speaking on two panels. The longer presentation was for “Personal Manuscript Cookbooks: What Do They Tell Us That Printed Cookbooks Do Not?”  Steve Schmidt provided an introduction, described his project The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey and gave an overview of what manuscript recipe books can tell us. Peter Rose’s talk, which begins at 23 minutes, discussed early modern Dutch recipes in New York.  Sandy Oliver (starts at 42 minutes) considered what she has learned from a number of manuscript recipe books. My own talk (1:02-1:19) was about why researchers should not overlook the medicinal recipes in collections.

In addition, I spoke for five minutes (from 25:20) during a “Digital Show and Tell”. I introduced the Textual Communities platform for teaching manuscript recipe transcription and the crowd-sourcing plans of Early Modern Recipes Online Collective. (See also my previous post for further details.) There are some other really interesting digital projects out there! One that caught my imagination was described by Jill Adams (Ph.D. student, CQ University Australia) about 20 minutes in: “The Cookbook in a Day Project“.

There were an intriguing selection of panels at the conference, allowing researchers and cookbook authors to think historically, culturally and practically about food. As an added bonus, the conference was also a great excuse to spend a few days in New York…

Pilau, eighteenth-century style

To follow Katherine Allen’s post on tobacco: some thoughts on a different colonial import. Researching in recipe books often presents tempting diversions, and this recipe for ‘Pilau after the East Indian manner’ looks pretty tasty.

Sarah Tully [and others], Book of receipts for Cookery and Pastry, eighteenth century. Wellcome Library MS 8687. Image credit: Wellcome Library (author’s own photo).
Boil half a pound of Butter to a pound of Rice & when the Butter is turn’d to Oil put in some Mace Cloves whole pepper & cinnamon together with the Rice and stir it about & let it fry till the Butter is almost dryd & soak’d away, Let a Fowl at the same time be boiling in Mutton Broth till it be enough & then pour as much Broth upon the Rice as will cover it about three Inches & let that boil away without stirring, only raising it now & then from the bottom for fear of its being burnt, then add by degrees a little & little more Broth until the Rice is boiled           th[r]ough and quite Dry, then Dish it, putting the Fowl in the Dish first & pouring the Rice over it with some Salt according to your Taste.

The recipe comes from Sarah Tully’s recipe book which she probably began when she married Sir Richard Hoare, heir to Hoare’s bank and, by 1745, Lord Mayor of London. A portrait of Sarah Tully in the National Trust collection depicts her amid rural scenery, dressed as a shepherdess. Unfortunately, Sarah died only four years after her marriage. She left one son, and other anonymous hands continued her recipe collection.

We have seen in recent posts about chocolate and gingerbread that spices such as cinnamon and cloves were common ingredients in the early modern household, but the Hoare household seemed to have been uncommonly fond of foreign flavours for their time. Recipes include ‘A Loyn of Mutton Kebob’d’, ‘currie powder’ and ‘Indian pickle’, in addition to cosmopolitan European recipes for ‘Parmason cheese’ and ‘Fromage Fondu’. Hoare’s Bank held investments in the South Sea Company, Royal African Company and East India Company. While other investors including Isaac Newton lost a great deal of money when the South Sea bubble burst in 1720, perhaps the fact that Hoare’s Bank made a substantial profit from ‘riding the bubble’, contributed to their culinary as well as financial enthusiasm for the exotic.

Several printed books from the late seventeenth century mention pilau (other spellings include pellow and peelaw). In the 1690s, Simon de La Loubere’s  A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam explained that ‘the Levantines, or Eastern People, do sometimes boil Rice with Flesh and Pepper, and then put some Saffron thereunto, and this Dish they call Pilau’ while Antoine Galland described ‘a great Dish of pilau’, made of rice, and dressed with butter, fat or gravy.

Other writers were less than complimentary; according to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s Collections of travels through Turky into Persia (1684) the Turks’ use of three pounds of butter to six of rice (the same ratio as in Sarah Tully’s recipe), made the dish ‘so extraordinary fat, that it disgusts, and is nauseous to those who are not accustom’d thereto, and accordingly would rather have the Rice itself simply boyl’d with Water and Salt’. In 1709, William King dismissed Peter Heylin’s suggestion that the inspiration for European silver forks had originally come from China, scoffing that ‘These sticks are of no use but for their sort of meat, which being Pilau, is all boil’d to Rags’.

It is likely that the pilau recipe in Sarah Tully’s book dates from the middle of the eighteenth century; Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contained what seems to have been the first published curry recipe in England as well as a very similar recipe to Tully’s for ‘a pellow the Indian way’–though in Glasse’s recipe the fowl is also accompanied by bacon, half a dozen hard eggs and a dozen onions ‘fried whole and very brown’. By the nineteenth century, ‘curry’ was commonplace in English households – even if the pre-mixed powder commonly used bore little relation to its ‘authentic’ Indian roots.

Dating recipes is one thing, but understanding their meaning in households is another. In Nabobs (2010), Tillman W. Nechtman argues that hookah pipes, turbans and curry powder exposed Britain as ‘an irretrievably imperial nation’, but, as Troy Bickham has commented, it is difficult to find evidence of how items such as recipes were used in practice. This early pilau recipe copied into a private book suggests that recipe collections might be a good source for understanding the changing ways in which the empire was incorporated into the daily routines of British homes.

I’ll admit, I’m still tempted to make this pilau, though maybe I will leave out some of the butter.

The Origins of Haggis: A Burns Day Post

Chris Hilton

Recent historical work casts doubt on the provenance of Scotland’s national dish, as reported on the BBC website on Monday 3rd August 2009. Historian Catherine Brown has located a reference to haggis in Gervase Markham’s 1615 work The English Hus-Wife, which predates Burns’ celebration of the dish by more than a century and a half (and is, of course, held in the Wellcome Library).

The hunt is on, then, for more seventeenth-century references to haggis, to prove or disprove its Scots origins. The Wellcome Library’s launch of a digitisation programme makes available the contents of seventy recipe books from this period, indexed down to individual recipes and available for remote study via the internet. Already one haggis recipe is visible to the public, in an early seventeenth-century volume held as MS.635. In a faded but perfectly legible hand, the author instructs one in the art of making a haggis:

Take a calves chaldron [entrails] and parboyle it; when it is cold mince it fine with a pound of beefe suet & penny loafe grated, some Rosemary, tyme, Winter Savory & Penny royall of all a small handful, a little cloves, mace, nutmeg, & Cinamon, a quarter of a pound of currants, a little suger, a little salt, a little Rosewater all these mixt together well with 6 yolkes of Eggs boyle it in a sheepes paunch and so boyle it.

Does this help to settle the argument? Not quite: the snag is that we do not know who wrote MS.635 or where. This sounds like sitting on the fence, or maybe on Hadrian’s Wall: but all we can do is invite readers in to the Library or onto our website, to view the manuscript, try to work out its origins, and join in the argument.

This post was originally published on the wonderful Wellcome Library blog in 2009. Thank you to Chris Hilton who has very kindly allowed us to edit (slightly) and post this for Robert Burns Day!

Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.


[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.