Category Archives: Global Exchange

The Early Modern Potato: A Global History

By Rebecca Earle

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Have you encountered a reference to potatoes from before 1800?

I’m interested in all early modern potatoes and would be delighted if you could alert me to any references, however fragmentary. You can email me on r.earle@warwick.ac.uk or use this form.

This Potato Project asks two inter-connected questions.

  • How, why, and by what routes did the potato spread around the world and into individual diets after Europeans first encountered the tuber in the sixteenth century?
  • Why did states across eighteenth-century Europe begin to promote the cultivation and consumption of the potato?

The first question builds on the pioneering work of Alfred Crosby. Crosby and other scholars suggested that the spread of new world foods such as potatoes and maize helps explain the dramatic increase in the world’s population over the last five hundred years, and also hinted at the ways in which these foods travelled to Africa, India and elsewhere. At the same time, the details of their dissemination remain in many cases opaque. The Project traces the ways in which potatoes entered the diets of individual eaters around the world.

The second question examines the historical roots of the our conviction that food, agriculture, health and state security are intrinsically linked. The Project investigates the moment, in the late eighteenth century, when European philosophers, political economists, agronomists, doctors, bureaucrats, priests and other historical actors began to insist that strong, secure states were inconceivable without a resilient agricultural programme grounded on significant changes in the dietary practices of the population as a whole. It was in the eighteenth century that the processes connecting individual diets to the wealth and strength of the state began to be theorised in ways that allowed for effective manipulation and state intervention. Many projects and proposals for dietary reform were articulated in the eighteenth century. This Project focuses on the central role the potato played in many of them.

Translating Recipes 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

By Carla Nappi

Translation 1

A medicinal oil eliminating (harmful) poison.

One kind [of oil] used if a person has just been poisoned.

Before eliminating the poison, after taking a flour-based drug in accordance with the 30th prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach.

If the person has consumed so much poison that a lot of internal things are going wrong and the condition has become very serious, after taking 15 – 20 drops of the oil and combining it with either the fatty broth from boiled meat, or butter combined with milk, drink it. Having already smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach again after 2 erin periods, the following day smear it again two times.

If this has still not eliminated the poison, after taking one or more drops of this medicinal oil again according to the prescription, if you smear it according to the prescription all will be well.

IMG_9087The text above is a fairly straightforward translation of a Manchu medical recipe into English, preserving the structure and form of the original. But what if we were to read the recipe in another way, translating it instead (in light of my previous post) as another kind of narrative altogether?

I’ve incorporated Manchu phrases to give a sense of the disorientingly multilingual character of the original, with includes Latin, French, Manchu, and Chinese. The story is intimate, reflecting the sensual nature of the relationship that this recipe creates among its ingredients and the human body. Some of the plot is playful. For example, “nure” is the Manchu term for wine or alcohol, leading to the “drunken conversation” with her. “Manju beye” is a term for the Manchu body.

There are resonances that aren’t obvious on the first (or fourth) reading. Partly, this reflects the obscurity of some references in the original recipe. With that, I bring you the second translation of the recipe.

Translation 2

Act I, Scene 1.

You are incense. You are pearls. You are amber, roses, sugar. You are urine and clay, saliva. You are cinnamon and bile.

It is the end of the seventeenth century and you are the protagonist. (You are always the protagonist.)

You are booxi or nicuha. You are aisin, ding hiyan, gu-i pi. You are gingina okto.

You have just arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor. (Or maybe you’re still at the capital, en route to the court.)

You’ve spent the last months stuffed into close quarters with different ones in different languages: Eliksir, Mei Gui, Balsamun. At the beginning, you didn’t understand each other. Some muttered uncomfortably in Latin. You thought you heard a few of them complaining to each other in Chinese. There was a very quiet one in the corner that may have been French, but you’re not sure.

The only way you’ve managed to communicate is by using some of the words you’ve picked up from the world outside your temporary home. Cold words like xahvrun, watery words like muke. You had a drunken conversation with a mysterious one about nure: though you don’t remember much of it, it seems to have been heated and she’s been stealing looks at you since.

This last one, actually, might have potential: it’s a short life, and a lonely one, and any chance for intimacy before the final, sudden coming together…well, it gives you some sense that something might be in your control. Your first words are halting, but as they melt the silence she starts to turn toward them: uju. nimenggi okto. Ge-te-rem-bu-re nimenggi okto.

The first whispers of a response reach you…ehe horon be ge-te-rem-bu-re nimenggi okto…

And then you turn away as you realize that the words are coming from outside: someone has been poisoned, and everything changes.

Act II, Scene 1.

Everything in you has led to this moment.

The foreignness of the others to you, and yours to them, stops mattering.

You come together and now the only words you have are sounds that felt dissonant before but now flow like music. They surround you and come sliding out of you like the oil you’re feeling yourself dissolve into.

You see her – she’s also dissolving and you start dissolving into each other niyalma yaya ehe horon de neciburakv and you’re both moving toward the poisoned one and you’re absorbing into each other emu juwe sabdan gaifi and into him

and you’re moving and

he retches aikabade jeke omiha ehe horon umesi amba ofi and…

…And it doesn’t work. There was too much poison.

And now what do you do? She’s also half-dissolved and looks at you, disbelieving, not comprehending.

This is it. You can’t do anymore. This can’t be all there is…

Act II, Scene 2.

Here is what you do.

You don’t give up.

You collect what there is left of yourself and you wait and you wait and the others wait.

You turn away from each other, embarrassed, having forgotten how to communicate.

You’ve lost your language and you’re starting to reel from the swaying of the poisoned one, who is jerking as his systems shut down.

You have nothing to say.

And then. And then you smell something.

Butter…?

Act III, Scene 1.

Butter.

You smell butter and milk, and you feel some of it against you, and you look in surprise as she feels it too,

…and you start to speak and eici yali bujuha tarhv sile de and you find yourself moving down the poisoned one’s throat together and dissolving together, again, and you look at each other expecting to be torn apart again…

…try to get as much out of this brief time as possible eici sun nimenggi suwaliyaha sun de suwaliyafi omi and you sing to each other this time gu-we-ji-he teisu bade ulenggu de…and…

…and…and you stop singing. You start to drift. You lose the sense of a center, of your own boundaries.

You become her, become the once-poisoned one, become beye, Manju beye, and you sleep.

Translating Recipes 1: Narrating Qing Bodies

By Carla Nappi

Image from the manuscript of Dergici toktobuha Ge ti ciowan lu bithe, from a manuscript (Mandchou 289) in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
Image from the manuscript of Dergici toktobuha Ge ti ciowan lu bithe, from a manuscript (Mandchou 289) in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

I study and write about the history of science and medicine in early modern Eurasia, with a focus on China in that context. In particular, I’m interested in how medical and culinary recipes were translated in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and how the recipe format became a medium of epistemic exchange across early modern Eurasia.

A text that has been particularly exercising me lately is the Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書 [Handbook of Western Drugs]. It was written by two French Jesuits, Joachim Bouvet (1656 – 1730) and Jean-François Gerbillon (1654-1707), some time after they had arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor in 1688. The book itself was smaller than a modern passport. It begins with a series of thirty-six recipes for treating myriad illnesses, many of which were broken down into varieties on a common theme. After this, the text opens out into almost forty further discussions of drugs and illnesses, many roughly translated from European-language texts about health and the body.

Importantly, the text was written in a language called Manchu, one of the official languages of the Qing court and a crucial medium of translation of scientific and medical knowledge during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign. Many of the recipes used the Manchu script to transliterate the names for drugs in Chinese, French, Latin, and other languages. The text contains many recipes for making remedies for poisons of all kinds.

Reading through this text, I began to think deeply about these recipes as literary objects. What if we understand a recipe not just as a kind of text, but also as a form of storytelling? If a recipe does tell a story, what kind of story might that be? And how might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them?

Thus began the Qing Bodies project, a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling. Qing Bodies asks a very simple, but potentially transformative, question: how might reading Qing medical and scientific texts with an eye to narrative form open up creative possibilities for working and writing with the history of Eurasian science and medicine? This has been tremendous fun, to put it mildly!

One recent experiment stemming from this project (and inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau) has led to me thinking about the relationship between recipes and drama. Can we map a recipe onto–for example–a traditional three-act dramatic form? And how might that change how we experience recipes as literature?

If Act I of the recipe introduces the protagonist (or protagonists), sets out the conflict, and presents the incident that will set the ensuing events in motion, Act II introduces an obstacle for the main character and brings the protagonist to a moment of crisis. Act III resolves the crisis. Here, the recipe becomes a story involving characters (drugs, a body in crisis) that are transformed through their interactions in time.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you…

Chocolate in the Classroom

By Amanda E. Herbert

Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Chocolate, Courtesy of the Historic Foodways Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Chocolate, Courtesy of the Historic Foodways Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Last semester I taught a course on Tudor and Stuart Britain, and devoted one week to study of the Commercial Revolution.  This “revolution” in taste and consumption occurred c. 1650-1750, as exotic goods from British colonies came up for sale in metropolitan British markets.  From Edinburgh to Bristol, and from London to Dublin, early modern Britons began to purchase these “new world” products in great numbers, significantly changing British financial markets and British tastes.  The students readily grasped the economic and logistical details of this historical shift, but I wanted them to understand that the Commercial Revolution also marked a sensory change for early modern Britons, whose senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch mediated their interactions with new goods.  So I planned an experiment for the last day of the unit: the students would drink chocolate in class.

In early modern Europe, chocolate usually was consumed as a hot drink – Amy Tigner explored the many ways that early modern people ate and drank chocolate in her excellent Recipe Project posts on chocolate here and here – with crushed cacao nibs mixed with spices, hot water, and a bit of sugar.  I wanted the students to try early modern chocolate, and (luckily for me) there’s a company that makes it.  Starting in 2003, the Historic Division of MARS Chocolate North America began work on an eighteenth-century-style chocolate drink.  Partnering with historical organizations such as the Colonial Chocolate Society, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga, and the University of California, Davis, MARS created a chocolate blend which it believes is historically accurate.  The mixture is available for sale, and I purchased a container for the class.  After mixing the powder with hot water as directed, I poured each student a small cup and asked them to compose “tasting notes” on the drink, describing the flavors and asking them to identify what they thought was in the recipe.

Some of the students loved the chocolate.  Several thought it contained coffee, reporting that it reminded them of their caffeinated drink of choice:

“The texture and thickness reminds me of Turkish coffee.”

“It’s like thicker coffee which is nice and soothing.”

Most of the students believed that the chocolate contained spices and fruit extracts.  For many, the spicy and fruity flavors in the drink were evocative of banana:

“You can smell the different spices.  It seems to have fruity tones.”

“It tastes like banana after a while…I don’t like banana.”

“It tastes like hot cocoa and apple cider had a baby.  Kinda has a banana flavor.”

Many students commented on the fact that the drink was not very sweet.  In trying to emulate eighteenth-century recipes, MARS included only a bit of sugar in their recipe.

“I wish it was sweeter.”

Most students found the texture and the thickness of the chocolate to be disconcerting.  For these modern American students, chocolate was supposed to be smooth and sweet.  They thought that the texture and flavor were off-putting, even revolting:

“It’s like warm liquid cough medicine.”

“I’m slightly disturbed that there are yellow oily stains inside of my cup.”

“It reminds me of vomit.”

After everyone had finished their chocolate (or discreetly tipped it into the trash) and turned in their tasting notes, we sat down and discussed the recipe.  MARS doesn’t reveal the precise details online, but it does say that the chocolate contains ingredients commonly found in eighteenth-century recipes: anise, chili pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel, and vanilla.  One by one, I revealed the ingredients to the class, and then we mapped them onto an atlas, exploring where each ingredient originated in the early modern period, the shipping processes and time required to bring them to British markets, and how much they would have cost.  Many of these ingredients would have seemed strange, and their tastes or textures unpleasant, to early modern Britons themselves.  We finished the class by discussing how consuming fashionable products may not always have been a positive experience for people in eighteenth-century Britain — and sometimes even for those in twenty-first century America.

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Many thanks to the students in “HIST 308: Tudor and Stuart Britain” (Fall 2013) at Christopher Newport University for their enthusiastic participation in this project, and for their permission to reproduce their tasting notes online.