Category Archives: Ingredients

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

800px-margarine-on-toast
Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.

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Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Meeting Madam Geneva

By Emma Major

Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Government’s decision in 1736 to make gin prohibitively expensive through levying hefty licensing fees was met by a flurry of prints, poems and tracts lamenting the government’s cruelty in depriving the poor ‘of a chirruping Glass’.[i] ‘No more can I seat me to Study/ Than a Fish can swim without Fin,’ cried Timothy Scrubb; ‘My Brains are confus’d and quite muddy/ By losing my Comforter Gin.’[ii] Other writers complained of how all levels of society would suffer from the loss of gin: from poet to oyster-woman, whatever your role in the division of labour, gin, it seemed, ensured success and happiness.

Gin, or genever, or Geneva as it was first known when it was popularized in England, had become so popular in the few decades following the accession of William and Mary in 1688 that it had taken on the character of a boozy old lady, a familiar, friendly face who could be relied upon to help celebrate or commiserate in everyday life. She emerges as a demotic, alcoholic counterpart to the more sedate Britannia who also flourished in high and low culture during these years. Madam Gin, Queen Gin, Mother Gin: whatever her title, she came from impeccable Protestant lineage and offered a patriotic alternative to French brandy.  According to her eighteenth-century historian and panegyrist Stephen Buck, Gin had first aided the Protestant cause in general and England in particular by providing the troops in the Thirty Years’ War with the alcoholic fire or Dutch courage to triumph over the Roman Catholic opposition. (Indeed, he claimed English military success was not due to the famous national taste for ‘Beef and Pudding’, but to its adoption of gin.)[iii] The OED notes the folk-etymological connection historically made between genever and Geneva, that most Protestant of cities, though Buck dismisses any connection to foreign religious fanaticism, and praises it as a home-grown native beverage, scorning the snobbery and disloyalty of those who drink gin in secret and prefer Holland Gin to the British variety.

Madam Geneva’s demise by legislation in September 1736 was marked by mock mourning processions in the streets of London, Bristol and elsewhere.[iv] The authorities were concerned about riots when the act came into force, but although protests were vociferous, civil war did not break out. Lavish encomiums were published about Gin, though as you can see from the two commemorative prints I’ve included here, depictions did not glamorize or flatter. Indeed, ‘Mother’ and ‘Madam’ Gin may also be in the sense of ‘bawd’; this meaning of ‘mother’ was popularized during the eighteenth century as it drew on the anti-Roman Catholic slang that equated mothers, abbesses and nuns with brothel-keepers and prostitutes.[v] There are many visual similarities between William Hogarth’s depiction of the drunken mother in his 1751 print of Gin Lane and his depiction of bawds elsewhere in his work. Yet despite her general depiction by admirers as well as critics as a figure lacking in youth, beauty, or visible power, Gin was popularly regarded with affection, as offering a sociable tonic you could purchase from street-sellers and gin shops, or even via the world’s first vending machine, the ‘puss-and-mew’ mechanism that was devised to dodge licensing fees. Designs varied but the customer would address the cat shaped device with a ‘Puss’, and if gin was available would be told ‘Mew’; money would be put in a drawer and the gin dispensed either through a pipe connected to the cat’s tail, or via a filled container in the drawer. (Thomas Pink recreated this for a publicity event in 2014, using pink gin: see http://www.thomaspink.com/london-collection/content/fcp-content .)

Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

What was actually dispensed? The noun ‘genever’ or ‘Geneva’ came from the Dutch drink jenever, which came from the word for juniper. But juniper was not always present in the substances sold as gin, whereas turpentine, lime oil, and sulphuric acid, often were. Gin was also often watered down, so it is difficult to know the alcoholic strength or actual flavor of what was sold as gin, especially at the lower end of the market. The moonshine versions of gin sound foul-tasting, but the idea of gin, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, possessed magical properties for many, representing cheerful sociability, curative powers, aphrodisiac properties, and simply the promise of ‘best’ dispelling ‘all human Woe’. [vi](Buck, 10) For many, it seemed, gin, whatever its actual composition, was the ‘chirruping glass’ of universal cheer.

[i] Thomas Chaloner, The merriest poet in Christendom (London: for the author, 1732), 23.

[ii] Timothy Scrubb, Desolation: Or, The Fall of Gin (London: J. Roberts, 1736), 16.

[iii] Stephen Buck, Geneva: A Poem in Blank Verse (London: T. Cooper, 1734), 5.

[iv] Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (London: Profile, 2003), 126-30.

[v] Emma Major, Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and Nation 1712-1812 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 145-8.

[vi] Buck, Geneva, 10.

Emma Major is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Department of English and the interdisciplinary Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York UK. She has published on religion, national identity and gender in Britain 1670-1820, and is currently working on a book on faithful citizens 1789-1829. She has a sideline in gin studies.

 

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Tales from the Archives: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a seasonally-appropriate post by Molly Taylor-Poleskey.  In this piece from January 2014, Taylor-Poleskey discusses the ways that religious beliefs overlaid the cultural meanings – as well as the baking practices – of honey cakes in early modern Prussia.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.