Category Archives: Food and Drink

Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

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):


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).