Category Archives: Students

Making Ink

By Amy L. Tigner

ink-and-quillI had been thinking for a couple of years that I would like to try to make ink the early modern way. I had run across several recipes for ink over the years in my research of seventeenth-century receipt books and I had read Amanda Herbert’s blog in which she discusses making ink in an undergraduate class.  I was also interested to find blogs in which scholars were teaching reconstruction in their classrooms, such as Patty Baker and Laurence Totelin, who are making ancient recipes for a MOOC video (read about it here), or Amanda Herbert, who had her students try tasting early modern hot chocolate (here). Finally, last fall I had a chance to teach both an undergraduate and a graduate class entitled “Early Modern Women’s Writing and Literary Practice” and decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to make ink.  

As it turns out, my interest in making ink comes at a time when scholars are in the process of reconstructing historical recipes, such as Marjolijn Bol, who has made Leonardo da Vinci’s Walnut Oil and ancient Greek and Egyptian recipes for fake gem stones.  Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicossi write a blog that is all about cooking from early modern recipes in Cooking with the Archives.  Some larger reconstruction projects are also occurring around the world: ARTECHNE in Utrecht is working to rediscover historical art conservation techniques; and The Making and Knowing Project, which is interested in reconstructing art and craft techniques and recipes from the sixteenth century. The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective is working on a digital humanities project that is transcribing early modern recipe manuscripts that will eventually be available online; they often cook the recipes they are transcribing.

Back to my own project: the process of ink making turned out to be more expensive and more time-consuming that I had imagined, though both of these factors were also likely similar in the period and in the end a great learning experience.   I cheated a bit by looking on some ink-making websites that were quite helpful (especially, this one), as it explained about the chemistry of the ink making and also translated some of the recipe terms, such as “copperas” into “ferrous sulfate.”  The site also had links for purchasing ingredients.  I considered several different early modern recipes, but I finally decided on one of the several recipes in the Mary Grenville family receipt book manuscript (Folger V.a.430), because it was in English (some of the recipes are in Spanish) and it was the simplest in terms of ingredients, steps, and time.


To make=Inke=Verie Good

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beerevinegre, a pound of galls bruised, halfe a pound of coperis, and 4 ounces of gum bruised, first mix your water and vinegre together, and put itinto an earthen Jug, then put in the galls, stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme, as you use it straine itt.

Most recipes use some kind of wine or vinegar that keeps the ink from molding, but this particular one uses beer vinegar, which I discovered is quite easy to make by combining the “mother” of cider vinegar and a bottle of beer, then letting it ferment for several days. As for the galls, I had been collecting oak galls on my walks in the spring and had several gallon zip lock bags full, but when I weighed them I had only about 6 ounces—not close enough to the one pound required. It turns out that Texas oak galls are the big, light, and fluffy apple gall rather than the smaller but denser traditional iron oak gall.


Not trusting the Texas apple galls would work, I ordered a pound from Amazon for $45, and they arrived from Guatemala (link here):


These I “bruised” with a meat hammer and then combined with the beer vinegar and rainwater. Because the mixture needed to “stand” for 8 or 9 days, I decided that I would do this in advance, so that we could simply add the final ingredients in class and try out the ink immediately.  I reserved the big fluffy apple oak galls for students to pound in class. The last two ingredients: gum arabic and the coperias (ferrous sulfate or green vitriol) I also ordered online from Amazon and Natural Pigments, respectively. I knew that gum arabic takes a while to dissolve, so I decided that I would pre-dissolve the crystals, first by grinding them into small pieces in a mortar and pestle and then placing them in hot water and finally I strained out the impurities. That process took about 24 hours.


On the ink-making day, students assembled the ingredients following the recipe. The most surprising and exciting part was adding the ferrous sulfate, which turned the formerly beer-brown liquid into the blackest black.


We then strained the liquid and poured them into old spice bottles. The recipe made enough for each student to have a bottle.

dsc01590The ink turned out to be very good in terms of viscosity and color–and I’d argue better than the run of the mill India ink you can buy on the market.  Students really loved the project, especially as they were actively involved, and I am certainly planning to make ink the next time I teach a manuscripts class, though perhaps I will try a different recipe.

Amy L. Tigner teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Keeping up Appearances: Economy vs. Extravagance in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery

By Sophie Hill, with Rachel Rich

In their final year of study undergraduate at British universities produce a 10,000-word piece of original, primary source research, called the dissertation. It has been a great pleasure for me this year to supervise Sophie Hill’s dissertation. Sophie spent her year trawling through old recipes, and–I confess–reading them in more depth and detail then I often do. In the post below, Sophie focusses on how the content of recipe books aimed at middle-class housewives can be a perfect place to look for the tensions and contradictions involved in carving out an identity in a fast-changing world where reputations were often forged around the family dinner table. In choosing Mrs Acton’s book as her case study, Sophie helps to show that Mrs Beeton was not alone in creating this new genre of culinary writing which provided a script for respectable domesticity to the aspiring housewife.


L0034889 Modern Cookery, Eliza Acton Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Spine details from Eliza Acton's 'Modern cookery.....' 1845 Modern cookery, in all its branches: reduced to a system of easy practice. For the use of private families / By Eliza Acton. Illustrated with numerous woodcuts Eliza Acton Published: 1845 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
The spine of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery, 1845.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the culinary best-sellers of the past such as Hannah Glasses’ Art of Cookery (1747) had become increasingly outdated as a new market–with new needs–emerged for cookery books: the rising middle classes. Recipe books were increasingly aimed directly at this audience, such as Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845).

Acton was aware of the audience she was addressing, stating in the introduction:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skillfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization (p. viii).

Recipe books intended for the middle classes provided the focus for my dissertation, which examined three well-known Victorian cookbooks and how they each reflected their target audience.[1] I did this through a close reading of the recipes, the ingredients they required, and the assumption each author made about what sort of equipment women had in their kitchens. Doing this highlighted the expectations placed on the middle-class housewife to practice good household economy, while simultaneously demonstrating the wealth and status of her family.

This idea was particularly well-illustrated in Modern Cookery which contains copious recipes for cheap, economical family-dishes like ‘Irish Stew’ and ‘Potato Soup’ whilst at the same time providing instructions for numerous extravagant, dinner-party recipes such as ‘Salmon à la Genevese’ and the aptly named ‘Fancy Jellies’.

Wood-engraving of one of Acton’s “fancier” recipes – Orange Jellies in Modern Cookery, 1845. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Wood-engraving of one of Acton’s “fancier” recipes – Orange Jellies in Modern Cookery, 1845. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The tension between economy and extravagance made visible by the different types of recipes that Acton includes in Modern Cookery was further highlighted by the ingredients used in each case. The idea of ‘household economy’ had was a mainstream concept by the time that Acton’s book was published–and the use of leftovers in meals played a key part in this. Acton’s recipes frequently demand the middle-class housewife religiously reuse whatever was left from previous dishes. Her ever-so-frugal recipe for ‘Economical Turkey Soup’ is an excellent example of this, as she directs the reader to use the ‘remains of a roast turkey, even after they have supplied the usual mince and broil.’[2]

However, because the Victorian housewife was charged with displaying middle-class status within the home and since food could ‘communicate many things about those who offered it; from financial wealth to the possession of cultural capital’[3], it was only fitting that Acton’s “extravagant” recipes emphasize the use of the finest and freshest ingredients. After all, these were dishes designed to impress. This is particularly well demonstrated in recipes such as ‘Lobster Cutlets (A Superior Entree)’, which Acton notes is an ‘excellent and elegant dish’ and includes in its ingredients

a couple of fine fresh lobsters’, ‘good béchamel sauce’ and ‘three or four ounces of the freshest shrimps.[4]

As I concluded in my dissertation, the presence of both economical and extravagant recipes, as well as the ingredients used in these recipes, is reflective of a wider tension. On the one hand, there was  the need for the middle-class housewife to display the signs of her family’s wealth and social status, thus distinguishing them from the working classes. This was done by providing luxurious dinner-party spreads. But on the other hand, the middle-class housewife needed to maintain the household’s economy.

Crucially, however, the extent to which Acton’s middle-class housewife could throw such parties was arguably hampered by the reality of budget constraints. After all, the number of cheap, economical recipes in Modern Cookery emphasises that the housewife had to be cautious with the food budget during the week–especially if she had any hope of maintaining the facade of extravagance displayed through dinner parties!

[1] These include: Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845), Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife (1849) and Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).

[2]  E. Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845: 1855). Re-printed with an introduction by Jill Norman (ed) London: Quadrille Publishing Limited, 2011, p. 33.

[3] R. Rich, Bourgeois Consumption. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011, p. 101.

[4] Acton, Modern Cookery (re-printed 2011),  p. 91.

Blood, Controversy, and Puddings in the Early English Atlantic

By Carla Cevasco

How to follow the Word of the Bible and still tuck into a nice blood pudding? This question inspired the Massachusetts Puritan minister Increase Mather to publish a brief pamphlet in 1697 entitled “A Case of Conscience Concerning Eating of Blood, Considered and Answered.” The conundrum, Mather wrote, lay in the injunction from Leviticus 11:14: “Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof.”

Portrait of Increase Mather. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Portrait of Increase Mather.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Massachusetts Puritans had left the Old World in order to found a separatist religious colony in the New. Like many believers, the Puritans worked to interpret their sacred texts into best practices for everyday life. This task meant reckoning with blood-eating, because on both sides of the Atlantic, the early modern English kitchen dripped with blood. A search for “blood” in this site’s archives turns up over seventeen pages of results, including a recipe for pigeon’s blood eye wash!

Blood began with animal flesh. The English prided themselves on meat consumption that visitors found excessive.[1] The wealthy ate numerous kinds and large quantities of meat, and recipes often assumed that cooks would begin with freshly slaughtered but not butchered animals. As Hannah Woolley instructed in a recipe “To Stew Chickens” in The Cook’s Guide in 1664, cooks had to “pull” (defeather) and “quarter” their chickens before washing them clean of blood (57). All this meat-eating meant a lot of blood, and in the kitchen, waste not, want not, which meant that blood played a starring role in some dishes.

English breakfast with black pudding. Photo credit: Ewan Munro, via Wikimedia Commons.
Full English breakfast with black pudding. Image Credit: Ewan Munro, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mather’s pamphlet did not mention any specific foods containing blood, but many English cookbooks of the era contained one or more recipes for “black” or blood puddings—a dish that today is much more popular in the UK than the US. Gervase Markham’s version, first published in 1615, called for the cook to soak oat groats in “the blood of an Hogge whilest it is warme,” then after three days, “with your hands take the Groats out of the bloud” and drain them.[2] These gory steps completed, the cook mixed the groats with cream and chopped suet, seasoned with herbs and spices, stuffed the mixture into intestines, and boiled it until solid. (Modern black pudding recipes remain much the same.) While Markham and many others recommended hog’s blood for this purpose, Robert May’s 1660 The Accomplish’t Cook (which reprinted Markham’s recipe) noted that one could adapt it to “sheeps blood, calves, lambs, or fawns blood” as well.

Even foods that did not contain actual blood still made reference to blood. One popular red wine based beverage in eighteenth-century America originated in Spanish colonization of the Caribbean. The combination of wine, spirits, sugar, and fruit resembled many other punches of the era. The English called it Sangaree, a corruption of the Spanish word for “bloody,” sangria.[3]

Sangria. Image credit: Flickr user ilker ender, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sangria. Image Credit: Flickr user ilker ender, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite (or because of) its popularity, cooking with or eating blood became the site of debate among some American colonists. It is unclear exactly what controversy inspired Mather to write his pamphlet, but somehow the everyday consumption of blood had come under scrutiny.

Deeply invested in following the Word of the Bible, Massachusetts Puritans struggled to reconcile their culinary tastes for blood with biblical law.  To defend culinary blood consumption, Mather noted that other English food preparation methods did not follow biblical prescriptions to the letter. “If it be Lawful to Eat things Strangled,” he reasoned, naming the way that kitchen workers often dispatched fowl, explicitly banned in Acts 15:20, “then it is Lawful to Eat Blood” (4).

But most importantly, Mather took the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as evidence for his case. Mather claimed that the consumption of blood outside of communion did not have ritual significance, precisely because Christ’s blood held such power: “since Christ has shed his Blood, there is no Sacredness in any other Blood,” he concluded (5). The metaphorical consumption of Christ’s blood in the Lord’s Supper rendered acceptable the actual consumption of more mundane blood at dinnertime.

Under Mather’s interpretation, blood puddings and other blood-based dishes would have been allowed at the Massachusetts Puritan table. This food historian wonders when black pudding died out in New England, while it remained so popular across the Atlantic.


[1] Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 194-197.

[2] Gervase Markham, The English House-Wife, 5th ed. (London: Anne Griffin, 1637), 77.

[3] Andrew F. Smith, “Sangria,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 3, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 197-98.

Thinking and trying the experiment in the study of Roman pharmacy

By Ianto Jocks

In continuing my investigation of Scribonius Largus, the first century CE author of a recipe book I have previously written about, I am frequently puzzled by some of the practical aspects of his recipes. This is in part because I am approaching a practical manual written for contemporaries who had personal familiarity with Roman medicine – as both doctors and patients – from a theoretical and unfamiliar perspective. Drawing inspiration from more hands-on approaches to historical recipes, such as the Making and Knowing Project or the recreation of one of Scribonius’ toothpastes by A. E. and M. Singer [1],  I decided to acquire some first-hand experience with Roman medicine myself.

One of the puzzling recipes is the very first remedy in Scribonius’ work, opening the section on headache cures. It reads:

For headache, even when <the patient is> feverish, a quarter pound (ca. 82 g) of wild thyme and a quarter pound of dried rose work well in the first days. These are boiled with two sextarii (ca. 1094 mL) of vinegar, until it has been reduced to half <its volume>. From this a cyathus (ca. 46 g or mL) is taken and mixed in two <cyathi> (ca. 92 g or mL) of rose [or rose oil] and from this the head is often healed: for when what has been spread on has grown warm, it harms, unless something fresh should be added there.

While the instructions for doctor and patient are reasonably clear, questions remain about the practicalities. What consistency does the vinegar reduction have – is it still reasonably liquid, or do the quantities of herbs make it more of a herb paste? What about the second occurrence of ‘rose’? In the ancient world, rosa can refer to both the parts of the flower and the oil produced by steeping rose petals in olive (or another) oil. Usually, terms such as arida – dry – are used to qualify and clarify the material required. However, this addition, which would be highly useful for me, is frequently not considered important by Scribonius. In accordance with the advice of 18th century surgeon and scientist John Hunter – “Why think, why not try the experiment?” [2] – I proceeded to resolve the issues of consistency and rose vs. rose oil, which I had been unable to do by thinking alone, from a practical perspective.

Rose, thyme, and vinegar (here represented by water) quantities required by Scribonius' recipe
Rose, thyme, and vinegar (here represented by water) in the quantities required by Scribonius’ recipe

In comparison to other Scribonian recipes, this headache remedy is a good candidate for experimentation. It uses four locally available ingredients in relatively conservative quantities – by contrast, other remedies in Scribonius’ work include up to 41 ingredients, many of them imported, expensive, and required in large quantities. Conveniently, my ingredients came from a pharmacy, ready-dried and quality-controlled, so I did not need to consult Scribonius’ near-contemporary Dioscorides for information on how to harvest and dry plants and how to spot adulteration. As the quantities of thyme and rose on my kitchen table were still quite large, however, I opted for only using a quarter of the original recipe.

1/4 of Scribonius' measures, used for the experiment
1/4 of Scribonius’ measures, used for the experiment

I made similar concessions to modern practicalities when selecting ingredients and preparation methods. My vinegar came from the supermarket rather than being the product of domestic wine consumption, and both my scales and my source of heat were electric rather than mechanical or requiring open fire. But by making my modern version of a first century remedy, I nevertheless learned a lot about the practical side of Scribonius’ work. Furthermore, I got a much better idea of the preparation process, consistency, and smell of a first century headache cure than I had previously gained from studying the text alone.

In the end, even in my well-ventilated modern kitchen the remedy produced rather than cured a mild headache due to the strong smell of boiling vinegar. Scribonius was evidently more concerned with the comfort of the patient than than that of anyone else involved in preparing remedies.

One dose (1 cyathus of the remedy mixed with 2 cyathi of rose oil) of Scribonius' headache cure
One dose (1 cyathus of the remedy mixed with 2 cyathi of rose oil) of Scribonius’ treatment for headaches

The remedy itself turned out to be a not necessarily unpleasant-smelling mixture of predominantly thyme and vinegar, somewhat overpowered by the smell of the olive oil I used to make my version of rose oil. The practical experimentation confirmed my suspicion that the second rosa has to be the oil rather than the petals, otherwise the two components couldn’t be mixed, let alone applied. I was nevertheless left with further questions – was the initial mixture to have that high a herbs-to-vinegar ratio? Is the final mixture supposed to be that runny, or are my measurements incorrect? Are there tips and tricks which Scribonius assumed the reader knew and leaves unmentioned which other historical writers do include in their work? Here theoretical exploration and experimental practice can be used together to gain further insights into the practical aspects of first century Roman pharmacy – or, to adapt Hunter’s words, to think AND try the experiment.

[1] Singer, A. E. and M. Singer, M. “An Ancient Dentifrice,” The Classical Weekly 43 (1950): 217–18.
[2] Letter to Edward Jenner, August 2, 1775