Tales from the Archives: Community Conversations

The theme for this month is community, inspired by the UK university strikes in February and March.  Community is at the heart of the dispute: what do we want universities to look like? The wonderful sense of community that emerges on picket lines (whether in-person or virtual) during strikes can be a positive force for changing our university culture. 

This month, we have our monthly Around the Table (with a bonus one, too!), as well as an update on a survey about food scholarship networks, some post-Brexit food reflections, and an announcement about a new food studies journal.  There is also a piece of quite wonderful  bit of news about one of our regular RP contributors, Jennifer Sherman  Roberts… She just celebrated the end of her cancer treatment last week! 

Postcard, made in Germany (1910). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

With ‘community’ in mind, I wanted to revisit one of the projects that has intrigued me since I first read about it. ‘Stone Soup’, led by Jennifer Sherman Roberts in 2016-7, aimed to foster local community through talking about recipes. 

“Stone Soup”: Reflections on Community Conversations

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Recipes form communities.

Readers of The Recipes Project know this to be true. Scholars from diverse backgrounds meet in this forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, insights, experiments, and discoveries, brought together by a shared fascination with this amorphous form of record-keeping, receipt-making, and instruction.

Contributing to The Recipes Project has provided me with a rare chance to explore connections between historical recipes, to chart and analyze—and frequently delight in—what to modern eyes might seem bizarre and outlandish (pigeon blood eye wash, anyone?).

But the examination of the recipe’s central role in our lives and histories can also be expanded and enriched beyond the academic through public history and storytelling. There’s a special magic in talking about recipes, a visceral emotional reaction and an almost immediate connection to the past, to personal heritage and individual history.

It’s that sort of alchemy that I wanted to explore further when I applied to be a conversation project facilitator with Oregon Humanities, proposing a topic called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nurture Community.” 

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Recipes gathered for the Oregon Humanities conversation project “Stone Soup” at the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon (author’s photo)

Since the fall of 2016, I have facilitated conversations all over the state, in venues ranging from quiet libraries to bustling restaurants, from coastal towns to urban centers. And while the people and the recipes and the insights are always different (intriguingly and marvelously so), there are a few consistent threads.

Heritage

Before the event, participants are invited to bring recipes from their past—from a beloved family member, friend, or neighbor—and a story to accompany them. (My favorite: the woman in Grants Pass who brought a recipe for the cake her mother had burnt to a crisp–her husband had written “I love you” in the soot left on the walls.)

Often, the recipe is on a tattered index card, spattered and stained by years of use. Sometimes it’s in a small binder or book held together with rubber bands. Always it’s presented with memories.

(There’s a look people get when they talk about these recipes and stories, a faraway gleam, a small smile.

I love those moments.)

Often these recipes will spark conversation between participants as one memory is ignited by another, one culture compared with another, one history explained by another.

“What is a recipe?”

To begin the conversation, I ask participants to spend a minute or two thinking of the words they associate with recipes. Evocative words like “memories,” “grandma,” and “holidays” often make an appearance. We consider the figurative language surrounding recipes, a genre so unique the word itself has become a central metaphor (“recipe for disaster,” for example).

I then ask the participants to partner with one or two others to discuss the genre of the recipe: how is it different from a shopping list, or a narrative, or even a poem? We talk about ingredients and measurements, instructions and oven temperatures. We think about ways a recipe is like a chemical experiment–scientific and reproducible.

I’ll often use that distinction as a springboard to talk about some historical recipes and ways the form changes or stays the same. We look at a copy of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe “Against the biting of a Mad Dogge taught by Sir Kenelm Digby.”

fanshawe
Lady Ann Fanshawe, 1625-1680, Wellcome Library, MS 7113

People often notice that recipe books from the 16th and 17th centuries are visually compact and uniform, and that the basic elements of the recipe—ingredients, instructions, measurements—are familiar. One difference we have made note of, however, is the occasional focus on seasons in the harvesting of ingredients, as can be seen in Lady Fanshawe’s direction that crabapple flowers should be picked in June or July.  For those of us used to ingredients available at all times (even if shrunk-wrapped or frozen), this can be a revelation.

This discussion also led to one of my favorite stories from these conversations, shared by a woman in Beaverton who said her grandfather always knew to plant his corn “when the leaves of the white oak tree were the size of a grey squirrel’s ears.”

Recipes and community

We then, together, read aloud a short version of the folk tale that serves as the springboard for the project, “Stone Soup,” and talk about the story itself as a kind of recipe and about the metaphorical underpinning of community. We focus on the end of the story, where in some versions the villagers not only share the soup but dance and sing together, opening their homes and offering their beds with the strangers in their midst.

At this point, I introduce the participants to three examples of people who used recipes to create community and preserve history: Freda DeKnightMina Pachter, and (closer to home for Oregonians) Ing “Doc” Hay.

This particular version of public history, these conversations that evoke memories and elicit stories, have been a wonderful way for me to explore the more human, face-to-face side of recipe exchange that can sometimes get lost in manuscripts and archives.

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“Stone Soup” participants at conversation project sponsored by Washington County Museum (author’s photo)

 

 

Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package. 

 

‘A Curious Book’: The Many Functions of Martha Hodges’ Manuscript Recipe Book

By Kate Owen

On the inside cover of Martha Hodges’ recipe book (17-th-18th century), written in pencil, is a note that calls the manuscript ‘a curious book’. Although there is no further explanation from the author of this note as to why they deemed the book so curious, it may well have something to do with the manuscript’s varied content and the signs that point to its multiple functions within the home. Palaeographical evidence in Martha Hodges’ recipe book suggests that it acted not only as a place to document recipes and their efficacy, but was actually a site where domestic life took place.

Martha Hodges’ recipe book is a perfect example of how diverse the content of early modern manuscript recipe books can be. As well as recipes, the manuscript contains prayers, excerpts from Erasmus, and the first account of the  Pied Piper of Hamelin printed in English. The prevalence of religious content in manuscript recipe books may suggest that they were resources that encompassed moral and spiritual well-being alongside the physical.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f. 1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

As well as its diverse content, Martha Hodges’ manuscript bears signs of multiple uses. The cluttered nature of fol. 1r. reveals at least two uses of the manuscript recipe book. One function of this page seems to be as a place to remember dead relatives. A note reads:

Our Great Grandmother Hodges her receipt book. She was mother to Mrs. Priaulx who was the Grandmother of Mrs Sarah Tilley by Mr Howes marrying her daughter Mrs Mary Priaulx. Her name is written by herself at the other end. She was sister of Dr. Hodges the writer of a large book of receipts.

The note reveals that manuscript recipe books facilitate a relationship between previous and subsequent manuscript owners. The biographical note acts as a family tree and, although this family tree has a focus on the matrilineal, it carefully associates Martha Hodges with the medical expertise of her brother. This suggests that Martha belonged to a household of medical practitioners, a skilled environment which Martha would have learned from and contributed to. This, and the invitation to view Martha Hodges’ name ‘written by herself’, suggests that the note’s author had a great deal of respect for Martha and that the manuscript may have acted as a site of remembrance.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f.1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

Other uses of this page, however, were less respectful of the memory of Martha Hodges. Smaller and less coherent notes suggest the recipe book may also have been used as scrap paper or for pen-trialling. Due to the price of paper and the use of home-made inks, early modern writers often would test their writing supplies on ‘the nearest available paper, which in many cases would have been in a book’.[1] The ink scratch marks on the recipe book’s inside cover would support such an interpretation. Jason Scott-Warren offers a ‘less dismissive’ interpretation of such marks, arguing that they relate to literacy and are ‘a piece with the practice of alphabets that frequently crop up on flyleaves and around the edges of texts’[2]  Martha Hodges’ recipe book contains evidence to support this idea. Underneath the biography of Martha Hodges, ‘hie hec hoc – April 1 1769’ is written as well as the words ‘I read’.  Towards the centre of the page, ‘booksse’ is written confidently and underneath it is copied in a shakier hand. The page is also littered with the letter W. This would suggest that the page has been used as a space for learning and practising with writing materials.  Further in the manuscript, on fol. 154r., there is further evidence of recipe books being used as a space to practice literacy. On this page, the name William has been practised, paying particular attention to the minims.[3] Kristina Kowalchuk argues that both the kitchen and the recipe book act as educational spaces for the women who owned recipe book  and their female domestic servants.[4] The real question, for me at least, is whether these marks of literacy are purposeful or idle. Thus, have these recipe books been used as scrap paper to practise a certain word before immediately writing it in a ‘cleaner’ manuscript book or letter, or have they been used simply as a place to pass the time. Alongside the repeated ‘Williams’ are some drawings: a house, an animal, and some box-like shapes. Doodles and drawings are not uncommon within manuscript recipe books. Some relate to the manuscript’s content, such as the drawing of a woman cooking from a 17/18th century manuscript recipe book (Wellcome MS1796), and others, such as the doodles in Martha Hodges’ recipe book and the woodcocks from the Springatt recipe book (MS4683), are seemingly unrelated to the topic of the manuscript or have a context that has been lost over time.

To conclude, Martha Hodges’ recipe book had multiple functions within the domestic sphere. For Martha it was a space to document recipes, for at least one of her descendants it was a place to remember Martha, and for others it has been a place to doodle, scribble, and practice their handwriting. The Martha Hodges’ recipe book offers insight into the multiple ways manuscript recipe books functioned within the early modern home and how these texts have been valued by different users over time.


Kate Owen has recently completed her MA, Early Modern English Literature: Texts and Transmission, at King’s College London. She is interested in the many ways early modern manuscript recipe books functioned inside and outside the home. She has also has an interest in the medical humanities and currently volunteers for St Bartholomew’s Museum and Archive. 


[1] Jason Scott-Warren, ‘Reading Graffiti in the Early Modern Book’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3 (2010): 368.

[2] Jason Scott-Warren: 368.

[3] Vertical strokes made when writing, Minims are the main strokes in letters such as m, I, n.

[4] Kristina Kowalchuk, Preserving on Paper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 28-34.

 

Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).