Victorian Recipes and Public History: My Visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

By: Michelle DiMeo

As an active academic scholar who recently started working for a cultural institution, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the sources I use for professional historical research can be recast for a wider public audience. Recipe books tend to be an easy genre for public history and outreach: off hand, I can think of more public books than scholarly books about historical recipes. That said, not all of these are done well, and I particularly appreciate public histories that include thoughtful reflection on the original historical context, and those which can integrate museum and library collections to provide a more complete look at how the texts were actually used.

An event I recently attended at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – a 17-room Victorian mansion in Philadelphia –  offered a creative, interactive way for guests to learn about historical recipes. Upstairs Downstairs Celebration was the opening event for the Mansion’s new interpretive tour focusing on the challenges and enjoyments of Victorian women across all socio-economic levels. Recipes were not the focus of the event, but were instead integrated into a much larger program. Guests entered the Mansion and were taken into an elaborate dining room, where we were invited to choose a pin featuring a Victorian woman’s portrait. Everyone from suffragists to recipe book writers, and from prostitutes to medical doctors, were represented. (As a medical humanist, it seemed appropriate that I chose Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, though I did seriously consider Philadelphian Eliza Leslie, who wrote nine cookbooks between 1827 and 1857!) Connected to the dining room was the well-preserved nineteenth-century kitchen, where the imposing black iron stove and over-sized kitchen utensils caught my eye before spotting the free champagne and Victorian finger-foods on the table. Guests wandered between the kitchen and dining room, exploring historical artifacts and textual reproductions that served as good conversation-starters.

Victorian Stove, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion
Victorian Stove – Image courtesy of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, was available to answer questions and share interesting facts about the objects the guests viewed. In the kitchen, we could smell the rosewater and fresh nutmeg that Diamond used in the jumbles she baked, which we would later be given as a parting gift (along with her modernized version of the Victorian recipe, adapted from Mrs. Goodfellow’s original). Diamond has recently begun experimenting with the recipes she studies, and she was able to explain the changes in oven temperature, egg size, and available resources today versus the late-nineteenth century. The dining room also contained engaging reproductions of Victorian household guidance books. Who can resist smiling at Mrs. Henderson’s suggestions for a 7-course breakfast party (which, she argued,  were “very fashionable, being less expensive than dinners, and just as satisfactory to guests”) or Mrs. Beeton’s  suggested Bill of Fare for a picnic of 40 people? Of course, reading prescriptive texts in isolation does not give us a completely accurate account of what many Victorian women were actually doing or how they were adapting the guidelines. As such, I appreciated seeing that the Executive Director of the Mansion, Diane Richardson, provided some critical commentary and supplementary images, including an 1881 invitation to a lunch party that Philadelphia socialite Minnie Campbell Wilson (neé Harris) saved in her scrapbook, and a photo of a smaller dinner picnic that was held in the woods of New Jersey in 1888.

Victorian Picnic
Dinner Picnic in New Jersey woods, 1888.  The Library Company of Philadelphia

As I began this post by saying, the event was not explicitly about recipes, and I think this is what I liked most about it. Guests were lured in by a range of other activities broadly related to the history of Victorian women, including the opportunity to do a self-guided tour of the Mansion. We then gathered in the parlor to hear Cordelia Frances Biddle offer an overview of the social and political challenges faced by nineteenth-century American women and to watch actress Megan Edelman read Susan B. Anthony’s Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States (which Anthony read on July 4, 1876 on the front steps of Independence Hall , Philadelphia). This kick-off event, and the guided tours that will continue on the first Friday evening of every month, will primarily appeal to those with an interest in women’s history and the history of Philadelphia, but it would also interest history-lovers more broadly.

Victorian lunch party invitation
Lunch party invitation, 1881. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Most people will not attend the Upstairs Downstairs tour to learn specifically about American culinary history, but they will walk away knowing a bit more about it. For me, this was a good example of how a niche sub-field I study as an academic can be intelligently worked into a broader public history event – one providing enough information to encourage critical reflection and engagement with material culture, but not too much information to alienate or overwhelm the non-specialist.

Thank you to Diane Richardson, Becky Diamond and Nicole Joniec for sharing their research materials with me and answering my questions.

Wot’s fer dinna luv? Yer favrit, stuffed dormouse!

By Thony Christie

The British Museum has a new exhibition on Pompeii and Cambridge classicist and current media star Mary Beard has been doing the rounds of the English press writing entertaining glosses on it. In her piece for The Sun (yes really that Sun!) she mentioned amongst other things that the Romans ate dormice. Now most English people on being informed of this Roman culinary delight automatically think of the common or hazel dormouse (Mucardinus avellanarius) famously seen being stuffed into a teapot by the Hatter and the March Hare at the formers tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Hatter’s Tea Party, John Tenniel. Source: Wikipedia.
Hatter’s Tea Party, John Tenniel. Source: Wikipedia.

Now this creature is about the same size as the common house mouse (Mus musculus) but has somewhat thicker brown fur and a furry tail. Skinned and boned it would provide, at best, a very delicate hors d’oeuvre or amuse-bouche but never a real meal. There are however many different species of dormouse something that most people are not aware of.

Hazel dormouse, (Mucardinus avellanarius). Source: Wikipedia.
Hazel dormouse, (Mucardinus avellanarius). Source: Wikipedia.

Where I live in Southern Germany for example we have lots of Siebenschläfer, literally translated seven sleeper, (Glis glis) which is supposedly so named because it hibernates for seven months of the year. It looks like a small grey squirrel with a grey and white stripped tummy and a very long, very bushy tail that curls up right over its head like a sunshade. They look very cute and cuddly but you shouldn’t try to stroke one as they are very aggressive and you’ll come away with some very nasty bites.

Edible dormouse (Glis glis). Source: Wikipedia.
Edible dormouse (Glis glis). Source: Wikipedia.

The edible dormouse is the domesticated Glis glis, which when fattened can weigh up to 300 grams. The Roman cookbook Apicius, now thought to date from the late 4th or early 5th century, famously contains a recipe for stuffed dormouse, which I reproduce below:

Apicius, De opsoniis et condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. Frontispiece of the second edition of Martin Lister’s privately printed version of Apicius. Source: Wikipedia.
Apicius, De opsoniis et condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. Frontispiece of the second edition of Martin Lister’s privately printed version of Apicius. Source: Wikipedia.

Liber VIII: Tetrapus

 IX. Glires

 Glires: glires: isicio porcino, item pulpis ex omni membro glirium, trito cum pipere, nucleis, lasere, liquamine farcies glires, et sutos in tegula positos mittes in furnum aut farsos in clibano coque.

Book 8:

Four-footed beasts

9. Dormice: Dormice: dormice: stuff the dormice with minced pork as well as the flesh from all of the dormouse’s limbs, together with ground pepper, pine nuts, laser and liquamen and place them sewn up on a clay tile in the oven or cook them in a roasting pan.

Liquamen or garum is a fermented fish sauce and almost universal condiment that served roughly the same function in the Roman cuisine as salt in ours. Laser or silphium was a, now extinct, Roman spice or herb thought to be similar to asafoetida.

So next time you want to surprise your loved one with some truly exotic cookery just rustle up a couple of Glis glis and get stuffing.

Thony Christie is an independent historian of science who blogs at the Renaissance Mathematicus mostly about the mathematical sciences and mostly about the Early Modern Period.

Early Modern Comfort Foods

By Amanda E. Herbert

Today we associate “comfort foods” with tradition, indulgence, and familiarity.  These humble but beloved foods have received a lot of recent attention from cooks and culinary specialists – the Guardian food blog even produced a full-page spread of its favourites last month.  But what were the early modern equivalents of comfort foods?  And how did early modern people feel about incorporating new or exotic foods into their diets?

A recipe collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts helps to reveal culinary adaptations made by early modern Britons: this is the Charles Brigham Account Book.[1]  Like many early modern manuscript recipe collections, the Brigham book had multiple author-compilers, and was maintained over a long period of time, for nearly one hundred years (c. 1650-1730).  Although little is known about the provenance of the book, at one point it was “given to Sarah [by her mother] when she moved to Grafton amonst the Indians [in] 1731…so that she could do her own Cooking & [doctoring] as there was no Dr in the county.”  This was probably Sarah Prentice (1716-1792), whose ownership mark appears in the book, and who was married to the Rev. Solomon Prentice (1705-1773), the first minister of Grafton, Massachusetts.

But the Brigham Account Book did not originate in Massachusetts.  Early entries in the book suggest that it was instead created in Britain.  It was first compiled by “Anna Cromwell,” who labeled the text “my booke of receipts December the 23 1650.”  Cromwell included a recipe for “fitts of the mother,” which encouraged readers to purchase ingredients from “Mr. Seamer an appothicary over against Aldermanberry Church [London].”  Another one of Cromwell’s recipes taught how “to make a Lestershiere plover.”  As later author-compilers made their own contributions to the book (it contains six different ownership marks), each added their own familiar, go-to recipes.  Some of these “comfort foods” had Scots influences, such as one “to make Skinke” (soup made from beef shin, traditionally from Scotland), and another “to make a haggesse pudding.”[2]  One or more of the compilers also had access to an extensive library of British gardening, cooking, and natural history texts.  The manuscript contains recipes copied from Digbys Closset and Verulams Nat Hist–and specifically fruit wine and cider recipes from Wordlidge Vinet Brit.[3]  There’s even a recipe for “Damson wine with Raysons, Woolley” which matches, ingredient for ingredient, a recipe in Hannah Woolley’s Queen-Like Closet (London, 1670).

But towards the end of the book, the recipes begin to reflect the influence of trans-Atlantic commerce, travel, and trade.  The recipe “to sauce a turkie like stargion [sturgeon]” suggests that one of authors learned how to cook “new world” breeds of animals, like turkeys, by preparing them in the same familiar, comforting way as fish eaten regularly in Britain.  Later recipes in the book celebrate the new plants and foods that were at colonists’ disposals; one recipe “to cleanse a skurffy skin” instructed practitioners to “bath the place where the scurff is with spirit of nicotiane,” a reference to Nicotiana tabacum, or tobacco.  Another recipe provided directions for making “jockaleta biskits,” or chocolate biscuits.[4]  Lists of accounts at the back of the book note the sums paid by the one of the book’s owners for “2 gallons of Rum of River Town,” as well as “2 galons molasses,” and “5 pnd of tobacco,” all popular colonial commodities.  Marginalia, too, reflect a change in geographical perspective, with authors centering themselves in British America rather than in Britain.  The author of a recipe for “incomparable cosmetick of pearl,” noted that “this is one of the most exelent beautifiers in the world this oil if weel prepared is richly worth seven pound an ounce in England.”

The increasing prevalence of “new world” recipes, as well as these subtle geographical and rhetorical shifts, suggest that the Brigham Account Book made a trans-Atlantic voyage sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably carried by one of its owners as they journeyed to a new life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As people struggled to adapt to colonial environments, familiar recipes and remedies from home could have provided comfort to colonial British Americans. Manuscript recipe books, handed down between family members and friends over generations, surely provided important and lasting senses of connection with loved ones who had been left behind. The Brigham book also reveals the adaptability of these early colonists, and demonstrates how recipe authors used their books to learn about and use the plants, animals, and foodstuffs available to them in their new home.

Thanks to Molly Warsh and James Roberts for their help with this post!

[1] Charles Brigham Account Book, MMS Dept., Folio Vols. “B,” American Antiquarian Society.  Charles Brigham was another early resident of Grafton, MA, and his ownership mark also appears in the book.

[2] For more on haggis recipes and their possible origins, see Chris Hilton’s Recipes Project post on Robert Burns Day here.

[3] Probably references to Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie (London, 1669); Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: or A Naturall Historie (London, 1627); John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider (London, 1678).

[3] In the late seventeenth century, “jacolatta” or “jockelatte” were common terms for chocolate.  For example, Samuel Pepys called the cacao-based drink “Jocolatte” when consuming it at a London coffee-house on 24 November 1664.  For more on early modern chocolate, see Amy Tigner’s Recipes Project posts here.

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…