Category Archives: Knowledge Transmission

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 2

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

A good French omelette is a smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside. And as it takes less than half a minute to make, it is ideal for a quick meal. There is a trick to omelettes, and certainly the easiest way to learn is to ask an expert to give you a lesson. — Julia Child.

In our last post we traced the origin of the omelette recipe (or at least one of the origins) to François Pierre de La Varenne, but what we did not expect in our research was to draw a straight line to Julia Child. Through our research, we discovered that not only did Child own two 1712 volumes of La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier Fran FRANÇOIS, but also she carried on the style and type of cuisine pioneered by La Varenne’s incipient textual project.

Child’s two volumes of La Varenne’s text can be found within her significant personal collection of 5,000 cookbooks, which are now catalogued at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Marylène Altieri, Curator of Books and Printed Materials, and Honor Moody, Rare Book Cataloger, informed us that Child rarely marked any cookbooks dating before 1900 (even with an ownership signature). A rare exception is an annotated copy of Larousse Gastronomique E, “but otherwise she did not [generally] mark her collection of research books. On the other hand, she marked her own publications with many corrections for future printings”, especially Mastering the Art of French Cooking  (hereafter MAFC).

Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

When we further discovered that the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin held Julia Child’s editorial correspondence, we could not resist the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes creation of MAFC, one of the most iconic cookbooks ever published. Starting from its 1960s publication, this best-selling cookbook introduced French cooking into countless homes.

1950s America was not far removed from the restrictions and rationing of wartime (or the generational memory of Depression-era food shortages). Like their medieval and early modern forebears, those responsible for feeding themselves and their families prioritized sustenance and ease of preparation.

The post-War generation was naturally enamoured with convenient and cost-effective processed foods, such as Jell-O and frozen TV dinners. While time-saving kitchen appliances like refrigerators and electric mixers made daily cooking quicker, home cooks across the country needed help transforming the everyday chore of cooking back into an educational, pleasurable experience, as La Varenne had once done.

Enter Julia Child, a chef who helped introduce the idea of gourmet home cooking for modern audiences. Rather than settling for convenience, she advocated for cooking as a meticulous process that allowed room for error and fostered hospitality. She revived interest in taste over function, preaching the value of simple, local ingredients and flavors developed with care and attention.

Arnold Newman
Photograph of Julia Child in her kitchen for McCall’s Magazine, France, 1970. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

While her husband was stationed in Paris, Child decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu. Shortly after, she met French chefs Simone (“Simca”) Beck and Louisette Bertholle at Le Cercle des Gourmettes, a culinary club for women in Paris. Child’s eventual bestseller, co-written with Beck and Bertholle, drew inspiration from her close friendships with these women.

L’École des Trois Gourmandes: Louisette Bertholle, Simone (Simca) Beck, and Julia Child, 1953. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

In 1952, the trio started L’École des Trois Gourmandes, an informal “school” primarily aimed at American women living in Paris who wanted to learn about French cuisine. The lessons were held in Child’s kitchen. Although the school “closed”  in 1953 when Child moved to Marseille, their collaboration was the foundation for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 734-page encyclopedic cookbook published in 1961.

In effect, this trio had translated the collaborative kitchen environment developed over centuries in France for home cooks across the world. Once again, a chef’s decision to share knowledge with the world, using the medium of a book, inspired generations to attempt “professional” skills from the comfort of their home kitchen. By creating a systemized text to train the next generation of home cooks, they continued the cultural exchange began by La Varenne in 1651 (for more on early modern cooking, particularly female alliances in the kitchen, see previous RP post by Amanda Herbert).

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones, 31 October 1960, p. 1. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

The voluminous Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection in the Harry Ransom Center archives includes the editorial correspondence between Julia Child and her Knopf editors Judith Jones and Carol Brown Janeway. Looking at pages of contracts, book-signing notices, and editorial letters revealed the work of active editors. At their best, an editor ventriloquizes purpose back to the author, creating a loop of meaning that frustrates a sense of singular authorship. They also facilitate translations of works into other languages.

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones, 31 October 1960, p. 2. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

Judith Jones, Julia Child’s primary editor, began her career at Alfred A. Knopf as a French translation reader. She was quickly promoted to editor, ultimately spending 50 years at the publishing house. She recently passed away at the age of 93, and is remembered best for her dual passions for cooking and editing. These shaped her editorial collaborations with not only Julia Child, but also chefs like Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters, and Claudia Roden. It also inspired her to write her own cookbooks and blog, including The Pleasure of Cooking for One.

When adapting manuscripts for new audiences, cookbook translators often prioritize word-for-word accuracy, useful equivalencies across different measurement systems, and cross-cultural labeling of ingredients. Caution is advised, as altering formatting and spacing of the text also can change meaning.

In a letter dated November 6, 1975, Carol Brown Janeway related Child’s feelings about the British “translation” of MAFC:

Julia [Child] has always been very dissatisfied with what [British editors] did…they entirely changed the layout of the book which reduced to nonsense her whole method of teaching recipes.

Child was meticulous in her kitchen pedagogy, providing exacting instructions interspersed with diagrams for proper technique. The original MAFC progresses deliberately: beginning with basics such as knife skills, followed by tips selecting and using ingredients like wine, and building to the most simple type of recipes, soups. Just as La Varenne had done three centuries earlier! When the British editors rearranged the layout, they disrupted this meticulous process, transforming the book from a process of skill-acquisition to a collection of recipes.

Notwithstanding the potential difficulty, MAFC was rapidly translated into numerous languages including Finnish, Danish, Chinese, Russian, Italian, Korean, Dutch, and Spanish, and a second volume was ordered for 1970.

If all this talk about food makes you hungry, head to MAFC, Volume 1, to whip up a delightful omelette. It’s what Julia would want you to do.

Julia Child’s French Omelette Recipe

Makes 1 serving

2 extra-large or 3 large or medium eggs

Large pinch salt

Several grinds black pepper

1 teaspoon cold water (optional)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra to garnish

Several sprigs parsley, to garnish

Combine the eggs, seasonings: In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, pepper and water, if using, until just blended. Set aside.

Cook the omelet: Place a nonstick skillet over high heat. Add the butter and tilt the pan in all directions to coat the bottom and sides. When the butter foam has almost subsided but just before it browns, pour in the eggs. Shake the pan briefly to spread the eggs over the bottom of the pan, then let the pan sit for several seconds undisturbed while the eggs coagulate on the bottom. If adding any fillings, such as sauteed vegetables, do so now. Start jerking the pan toward you, throwing the eggs against the far edge. Keep jerking roughly, gradually lifting the pan up by the handle and tilting the far edge of the pan over the heat as the omelet begins to roll over on itself. Use a rubber spatula to push any stray egg back into the mass. Then bang on the handle close to the pan with a fist and the omelet will start curling at its far edge.

Unmold the omelet: Maneuver the omelet to one side of the pan. Fold the third of the omelet farthest from you over on itself. Lift the pan and hold a serving plate next to it. Tilt the pan toward the plate, allowing the omelet to slide onto it and fold over on itself into thirds.

Presentation: Spear a lump of butter with a fork and rapidly brush it over the top of the omelet. Garnish with parsley.


Sources

Beck, Simone, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Knopf, New York, 1961.


About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 1

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

La Varenne’s Ham Omelette

(Recipe #76)

Simply take a dozen eggs, and break them, saving only half the egg whites. Beat them together. Take your ham, and prepare as necessary (chop / dice / etc). Mix it with your eggs. Then, take some lard, melt it, and throw it in your eggs, making sure not to overcook the mixture. Serve.

The omelette lulls the novice cook into complacency. While it only requires a few ingredients, it demands skill, confidence, and timing to pull off with panache. One eggshell in the mix, an overly heated pan, or the unsuccessful flip, and the entire effort falls flat. Cooked to perfection, it represents the quintessence of modern French cuisine. It draws together fresh ingredients, developed for flavor. Simplicity and balance marry creamy texture and delicate, fluffy eggs.

Ever curious archivists, we wondered where the omelette made an early impression. We’ll be honest; we were a little hungry that brainstorming day. While this seemingly humble dish has become a brunch and Tuesday evening staple in our repertoires, the hunt was on to find its initial publication in a historic cookbook. A bit of determined searching later, we found a likely early contender.

Le cuisinier françois… Paris: Chez Pierre David, 1652.

In his 1651 cookbook Le Cuisinier François  (hereafter LCF), François Pierre de la Varenne helped transition France away from an Italian-style of cooking requiring expensive imported spices into its modern form. La Varenne was not solely responsible for altering the state of cooking, but he was the first to put these innovations in writing.

LCF contains over eight-hundred recipes divided by courses, soups and broths, starters, second courses, and small dishes. The first recipe describes “La manière de faire le Böuillon pour la nourriture de tous les pots, soit de potage, entrée, ou entre-mets [the manner of making bouillons for stews, soups, main courses, and small dishes]…” Beginning with the basics—seasoning broth—La Varenne built upon foundations to introduce dishes like bisques and pottages.

Instructing cooks to prepare locally-sourced ingredients in a recognizably “French-style” reinforced a sense of transferable cultural heritage connected to food. While the English and Italian cookbooks of its time offered primarily recipes more akin to potions or subsistence-level fare, this book emphasized the development of flavors in seasonal, taste-based dishes. Instead of tending toward preserves and the extension of foodstuff, La Varenne introduced foundational flavoring methods still in use today. La Varenne printed the earliest instructions for the roux, the béchamel sauce, and notably, the omelette.

LCF presupposed readers understood proportions, could adapt ingredients when necessary, and could interpret directions like “heat” or “boil” to suit their “kitchen” environments. By prioritizing the combination of  ingredients for flavor and texture, alongside instructions for presenting the dish in an appealing fashion, La Varenne established a new format for cookbooks. His legacy thus relies both on its place in the history of cooking in France and its status as printed object.

La Varenne, a commoner, started cooking as an apprentice in a local kitchen, participating in the guild system as a cook and eventually rising to the rank of kitchen clerk for Louis Chalon du Blé, Marquis d’Uxelles (1619-1658). As kitchen clerk for the Marquis’s household, La Varenne was responsible for all food service. His rise to this status was exceptional, as the role of kitchen clerk was traditionally reserved for nobility.

His humble roots and unprecedented success perhaps inspired him to share his passion with the general public, who he addressed so fondly throughout his career. In LCF he includes a letter which reads:

Dear Reader, in recompense all that I would ask of you is that my book be for you as pleasurable as it is useful.

By encouraging utility and enjoyment, La Varenne made cooking more than just a necessity, but a skill that could be elevated to an experience in even a modest household.

Cooking in medieval and early modern France had been largely a profession that relied upon oral transmission of secret knowledge through the guild system. Membership within the trade guild established apprenticeships and monitored job opportunities for individual cooks who worked in the large houses of the French aristocracy.

For two centuries prior to La Varenne’s text, perhaps in part due to the control enforced by the guild system, French cuisine languished, with no new cookbooks coming to market. Both English and Italian cookbooks dominated. In placing acquired knowledge in a sustainable, replicable form in the printed book, LCF circumvented time-honored traditions of gaining information. By presenting professional secrets to an open marketplace, this text suggested cooking was within reach for whomever had the means to purchase the book.

This quite naturally spurred controversy within the cooking community and sparked conversations about how much information should be shared. Despite the controversy—or perhaps because of the controversy—given England’s own rocky political situation in the 1650s, LCF was the first known cookbook translated from French in English in 1653. It remained a bestseller in both forms into the eighteenth century. Within the first 75 years, LCF had gone into 30 editions (Scully 11). Its ground-breaking translation, titled The Frenchy Cook, went into 61 editions before 1754.

While moveable type dated back to Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1440s, the seventeenth century encouraged the spread of print culture as general costs went down. Texts like LCF could be more easily exchanged, copied, and even translated for travel across the channel, especially as cities such as Paris and Amsterdam served as printing hubs.

Polly Russell, curator at the British Library,  explains that La Varenne’s cookbook was marketed to ‘every private family, even to the husband-man or labouring-man, wheresoever the English tongue is, or may be used.’ And the cookbook remained an international bestseller until the French Revolution!

To be continued…

From an English translation of La Varenne: The French Cook (London, 1653), p. 95.

Sources

John Crerar Collection of Rare Books in the History of Science and Medicine

La Varenne, François Pierre de, Le Cuisinier François (1651).

La Varenne, François Pierre de, and Scully, Terence. La Varenne’s Cookery : the French Cook ; the French Pastry Chef ; the French Confectioner. Blackawton, Totnes, U.K., Prospect Books, 2006.


About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.

A recipe for a community — 5 Years On

By Marieke Hendriksen 

My first contribution to The Recipes Project appeared in June 2013: a post on mercurial drugs, the topic of my then postdoctoral project at Groningen University. Elaine Leong had read my own research blog, The Medicine Chest, and invited me to contribute. Seventeen posts and over four years later, I still write for The Recipes Project a couple of times a year, even though the focus of my research has now shifted from the history of alchemy and medicine to the intersections of (technical) art history and the history of medicine.

For the five-year anniversary, Elaine asked me if I would like to write a blog about what The Recipes Project means to me, and of course I am happy to do so.

From one of my first posts: Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

The beauty of The Recipes Project to me is that it facilitates and encourages a broad interdisciplinary approach. For me, it is a place to test new ideas, to announce new projects, to let my peers know what I am working on and to keep track of what they are doing. It has helped me to see that my seemingly diverse research interests are inextricably connected, and to find others who share them. Over the years I have been asked by a few people if it isn’t dangerous to put your ideas out at an early stage, and why the ‘regular’ academic channels of conferences and peer-reviewed printed publications aren’t enough to keep in touch with the field.

Nothing too strange for The Recipes Project: from my post on human taxidermy. Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

The first time someone suggested it could be ‘dangerous’ to blog about work in progress I really thought I had misheard them. When I asked them why it would be dangerous, they suggested someone else could run off with my ideas, and that I would look ridiculous if I had to change my mind about something I wrote in an early stage of a research project.

My rebuttal to this is that I see only benefits from discussing my research with my peers as it evolves. I am not worried about someone ‘stealing’ my ideas – as a matter of fact, a blog could even serve as proof that I was working on something first, but that is not something I was ever really worried about.

As for the idea that I would make a fool of myself if I change my mind about something over the course of researching it… I expect my ideas to change, and I do not mind sharing that process with the world. What would be ridiculous to me is a researcher who never changes their mind.

To me, blogging on a collaborative platform like The Recipes Project is a valuable addition to sharing ideas at conferences and in printed publications. The main reasons for this are speed and accessibility. A blog is a fast way to test and spread your ideas. Writing it forces you to develop your thinking and express your initial thoughts and questions in a concise manner, and the responses it elicits can help you develop your work further.

A blog can be published within a matter of days–a pace that is unheard of in traditional academic publishing, where research often isn’t published until after a project is finished. In terms of accessibility, a blog is a very democratic way of sharing your research: it is not hidden behind a pay wall, and readers do not have to have the financial means to attend an international conference. Although both print publishing and conferences have an important function, I think academic blogging is a valuable addition.

Last but not least, what makes The Recipes Project such a constant factor for me is that it is an online community of peers, a repository of work in progress. Over the years, it has not only enabled me to share my ideas and learn about other people’s work, it also helped me find panel members for conferences, collaborators for grant applications, to be found by others, and lowered the bar for approaching people via email, at conferences and during visiting fellowships abroad.

When I finally first met Elaine in person in Berlin in the fall of 2014, thanks to The Recipes Project, it felt as if we already knew each other. More than anything, The Recipes Project has proved to be the perfect recipe for building a community.

Anecdotes and Antidotes

By Alisha Rankin

How did early modern individuals test and try their recipes and cures? This question is at the heart of the special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in which I participated as both a co-editor and an author. My article, “On Anecdote and Antidotes: Poison Trials in Early Modern Europe,” examines the ways in which early modern practitioners tested a specific kind of cure: antidotes to poison. It contains some information I discussed in earlier posts on this blog – here and here – but adds many details and thoughts about testing in general. Most cures, I argue, tended to be tested in the course of regular clinical experience. A patient got sick; a practitioner tried a particular remedy, observed the results, and frequently shared anecdotes of success or failure. The scale of this kind of testing could be small or large, but in most cases it involved patients who were already sick.

Poison antidotes were a little different, because practitioners could actually create the condition of illness by giving poison to a test subject. In 1563, for example, the royal surgeon to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, Claudius Richardus, wrote a letter describing the marvellous virtues of bezoar stone. As avid Harry Potter readers will know, bezoar was an animal byproduct prized as a poison antidote and cure-all. Richardus recounted a series of marvellously successful tests he had conducted on bezoar at the Emperor’s behest. In two of them, patients received bezoar in the midst of a serious illness – the usual practice. In the other two, bezoar was tested in contrived trials on condemned criminals.[1]

Bezoar stones from the imperial Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Photo by Alisha Rankin.

This second kind of test – which I call a poison trial – has a long history dating back to antiquity. Many ancient kings, most famously Mithridates VI of Pontos (135-63 BCE), used condemned criminals to test poison antidotes, from which he developed his famous antidote and cure-all, mithridatium. The Greco-Roman physician Galen reportedly tested theriac, a derivative of mithridatium, on roosters, and versions of this test appeared in the writings of several Arabic physicians, including Avicenna’s highly influential Canon of Medicine.[2] Medieval physicians repeated the description of Galen’s test as well. However, poison trials tended to be described as theoretical tests that one could conduct rather than as anecdotes about tests that had actually taken place, and they were mainly suggested as a means to test whether a batch of theriac was inferior, fraudulent, or old – not whether theriac actually worked. From the time of Galen, moreover, poison trials were conducted exclusively on animals, not humans. The dominant argument for the efficacy of these drugs remained anecdotal reports of their use on sick patients.

In the Renaissance, poison trials expanded significantly, as did their role in medical communication. From the 1520s, powerful rulers began to revive the gruesome tradition of using condemned criminals to test a variety of poison antidotes – not just theriac. In addition, these tests were reported and circulated as anecdotes rather than being described as theoretical suggestions. The first known example comes from Rome in August 1524, when Pope Clement VII directed his medical personnel to test an antidote oil created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. He granted the medics two Corsican criminals who had been condemned to death by beheading. Both prisoners were given a strong dose of the deadly herb wolfsbane (aconitum napellus). Caravita then anointed one prisoner with the oil. The other, a “savage spirit,” was given no antidote. The first man survived; the other died in much agony.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

A second successful test was conducted on a Mantuan prisoner given arsenic. Soon thereafter, the medical personnel published a public service pamphlet describing these trials in detail.[3]

A shorter version of this anecdote also appeared in the famous herbal published by Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544 (with a Latin version in 1554). Mattioli’s influence helped spread poison trials around Europe. From 1561-67, a number of contrived trials on condemned criminals took place under powerful princes, including Emperor Ferdinand I, King Charles IX of France, and Duke Cosimo II de’Medici. Significantly, royal physicians and surgeons spearheaded these poison trials, and they communicated the results in anecdotes that appeared both in private documents and printed books. Claudius Richardus’s bezoar trials were part of a series of such events.

These anecdotes demonstrated careful thought in how the trials were devised and conducted. They described the trials in in excruciating detail, including the number of times a prisoner had vomited and defecated as well as the hour at which these events had occurred. In some cases, physicians attempted to created conditions that would lead to a useful outcome. Richardus’s letter described how food was withheld from a prisoner before the test, “so that one could be more certain of the trial.” This step came in response to a previous case in which the physicians had trouble getting the poison to work. Finally, physicians took care in reporting and circulating their reports about the trials, clearly imbuing them with significance. A series of poison trials on dogs conducted in 1580 by a German prince circulated in both manuscript and print as a detailed Observatio, a report intended to be shared.

Poison trials represented only a miniscule part of drug testing in early modern Europe. Indeed, anecdotes about drugs used successfully on sick people helped drive the interest in new drugs from around the globe, as described in this post by R.A. Kashanipour. Nevertheless, the anecdotes about antidotes demonstrated significant developments in both testing practices and medical communication. To find out more, read my article!

 

[1] Richardus’s letter, to Archbishop Nicholas Olahus, was later published in Latin and German. Thomas Jordan, Pestis phaenomena (Frankfurt, 1576), 621–630; Johann Wittich, Bericht von der wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (Leipzig, 1592), 21.

[2] Galen’s poison trial appeared in the treatise On Theriac to Piso, which may be spurious. However, scholars in the Islamic world and Europe assumed it was authentic. See Robert Leigh, On Theriac to Piso, Attributed to Galen: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[3] The pamphlet was signed by the physician Paolo Giovio, the apothecary Tomasso Bigliotti, and the senator Pietro Borghese. Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524).