Tales from the Archives — A Plant for the End of the World

As I sift through materials for my own research on manuals and strategies for famine prevention, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about plants. The near-obsession with the healing properties of plants pervades premodern East Asia, not just in the pharmacological sense but in nourishing one’s moral character.

When recording a book of recipes to stave off starvation, at least in the Japanese case, authors resorted to ingredients at the edge of edibility: fibrous stalks and wild roots, pulped tree bark, the scum from the bottom of your neighbor’s used rice pot. Yet they were equally concerned with spiritual upkeep as they were with bodily preservation.

Why?

So, I went digging through our own archives here at The Recipes Project and, to my great delight, discovered Michael Stanley-Baker’s contribution on botanicals for sustenance and salvation in premodern China: “A Plant for the End of the World.” I hope it sates your appetite for pondering plants too, or at least whets it.


By Michael Stanley-Baker

Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine) 1.101a
Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine, pub. 1525) 1.101a

Located in his mountain retreat near the Floriate Sunlight Cavern on Mount Mao, China’s earliest recorded pharmacologist, Tao Hongjing, is deep in his studies. He is editing the earliest known recension of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the Divine Husbandman’s Pharmacopoeia (Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經). It is about the year 500, and Tao is also compiling a collection of manuscripts, sacred revelations to a local family, the Xus 許 of Jurong, revealed to them over 130 years earlier. Collectively titled the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), they cover all manner of topics that interested the Xus, from personal salvation, bodily cure, the contours of the underworld, to the political careers of their friends who had died and passed over into the bureaucracies of the afterlife. One manuscript in this collection celebrates a plant native to the Mao mountains, the herb atractylodes, cangzhu 蒼朮.  It describes not only the medical properties of the plant but an entire array of health-related and salvific practices. It is revealed by the Goddess, the Lady of Purple Tenuity, Ziwei Wang furen 紫微王夫人, whose title refers to the canopy of heaven surrounding the pole star. This manuscript, copied in the hand of the younger of the two Xu brothers, Xu Hui 許翽, is titled Discourse on Eating Atractylodes (Fu zhu xu 服朮序).  It begins at the end of time, with the apocalypse that was predicted for the year 392. In succeeding layers, the Lady of Purple Tenuity describes different practices for dealing with the disease, warfare and famine to come.

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE. Wellcome Images
Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE.
Wellcome Images

There are massage and breathing exercises which nourish vitality (yangsheng 養生) to ensure robust health while drawing meditative awareness to the interior of the body.  These circulate qi and activate divine beings in the body.1 Other similar repertoires from this period further included daoyin 導引 stretching like those pictured here, sexual cultivation, and diet.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them.
Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept’s body, and returning, bringing the adept with them. 上 清金闕帝君五斗三一圖訣.

The Lady of Purple Tenuity goes on to describe the next phase of practice, in which the adept visualizes starry gods of the dipper and other asterisms as celestial bureaucrats, inviting them to take up residence in the body. These visualizations anthropomorphize the bodily awareness of earlier breathing meditations, and match the body with the movements of the stars, of the seasons, of the five phases.  Then come fantastic alchemicals, beyond material making or financial access, which stretch the imagination and aspiration:

Tiger spittle, phoenix brain, white cornelian, jade frost, lunar liquor of the Grand Bourne, thrice-cycled numinous steel.  If you offer up a knife-point’s worth, your divine feathery wings will spread wide. Opening up the supreme writs of the void-like cavern, you will blaze in glory in the chamber of the primordial beginning…2

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經
Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

One can add [to one’s lifespan] with the five micas, water cassia, atractylodes root, polygonatum, Lyonia Ovalifolia, sunflower, eastern stone, malachite, oily pine nuts, sesame, poria. These are all tools for cultivating life; using them can lengthen your years. I have completely investigated the successes and failures of trees and herbs. There are those which quickly benefit to oneself, but none equal the many proofs of the power of Atractylodes.4

It is here where she reveals that atractylodes, alone among all others, can dispel ghost-borne diseases at the millennial climax. The plant among plants, it is the key to survival in the end times.

Eat this potent herb to care for your health, swallow the floriate springs of clear rivers; study the secret instructions concerning mysterious wonders, and intone hidden texts of the most high. If you do this nesting high in mountain caves, you’ll be able to talk of your years in the same terms as metal and stone.5

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao’s collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.  The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  

What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity’s knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

1 On Shangqing massage techniques and their relationship to self-divinization see Michael Stanley-Baker, “Palpable Access to the Divine: Daoist Medieval Massage, Visualisation and Internal Sensation” Asian Medicine 7 (2012): 101-127. On the broader project, see here.

2 虎沫鳳腦,雲琅玉霜,太極月醴,三環靈剛。若以刀圭奏矣,神羽翼張,乃披空同之上文,煒燁元始之室。Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), Tao Honging ed.,DZ DZ 1016,  6.2b.

3 使五藏生華,守閉元關內存九真,三氣運液,而灌溉丹田。 Ibid., 6.3a-b.

4 乃可加以五雲   、水桂,朮根,黄精,南燭,陽草,東石,空青,松柏,脂實,巨勝,茯苓。竝養生之具。將可以長年矣。吾   又倶察草木之勝負。有速益於己者,竝未及朮勢之多驗乎。 Ibid., 6.3b. 5 餌靈朮以頤生,漱華泉於清川;研玄妙之祕   訣,誦太上之隱篇。於是高栖于峯岫,竝金石   而論年耶。  Ibid., 6.5b.

Observing Textures in Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I have held a long fascination with how textures are represented in recipes. As we all know, then as now, producing medicines and food often involves a multi-step process, and careful observation of changes in textures is often the key to success.

Classic White Sauce

Take, for example, the classic white sauce. It all seems simple enough – we mix and heat together butter and flour and then add milk (hot or cold, depending on where you stand on this issue), simmer and whisk away and, voilà, we should have a silky-smooth sauce, ready for some posh mac and cheese, or baked endive, and much more. Now readers, I know what you’re thinking. It sounds so easy on paper but, if we were honest, we all have stories of failed batches of béchamel. The sauce can taste raw (classic mistake of not cooking the flour enough) or be lumpy (the blender trick never works for me) or end up too thin or thick.

Mixing Flour and Butter

A few years ago, I finally found the perfect recipe for me from Annie Bell’s In my Kitchen. However, though Annie provides the perfect ingredient proportions for my family’s taste of white sauce, for the crucial step – cooking the butter and flour together – I rely on Martha Schulman’s description. The mixture needs to be heat for around 5 minutes until it looks like ‘wet sand.’ The monitoring and observing of textures, particularly any changes, is key to making the perfect white sauce and many other dishes besides.

The early modern recipe archive is also filled with similar sets of instructions where changes in texture were used as markers for the completion of a particular step in production. In my recent book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge, I discuss some of these examples in a chapter on “Recipes Trials.” Due to the generosity of friends and colleagues and the enthusiasm of groups such as the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and Before Farm to Table, new examples emerge all the time. Today, I wanted to share a particularly intriguing recipe, which came to light at the EMROC transcribathon last fall.

Dawson’s Recipe for Lemon Wafers

The recipe is for making lemon wafers and is part of the recipe collection of a seventeenth-century English gentlewoman named Jane Dawson. The instructions are brief but detailed. We are told to dry, sift and beat double-refined sugar and mix with the juice of a lemon until it becomes the consistency of honey.[1] Then, scooping some of the mixture in a spoon, we should heat the spoon over a chafing dish of hot coals until the surface of the mixture touching the spoon is “crisp” – that is (according to the OED) rippling, folding or wrinkling. Taking care that the mixture does not boil, we should then spread the melted mixture onto a square piece of paper, pinning the two corners of the paper together in order to curl or bend the wafer and let it dry in this configuration. When we are ready to eat or serve the lemon wafer, we should wet the “wrong” side of the paper with water to release the candy.

As with making béchamel, key to this recipe are the practices of observing and interpreting changes in texture. Two points are of particular importance here – ensuring that the sugar and lemon juice mix achieves the ‘consistency of honey’ and that the mixture heats until it crisps or ripples on the hot spoon.

After the transcribathon, some EMROC members were so intrigued by this recipe that they tried their hands at re-creating it. Lisa Smith, Maggie Simon, and their various assistants spent afternoons mixing and tasting lemony sugar syrup and heating it using a variety of methods from plate warmers to electric hobs. I’ll leave you to read about their adventures here and here, but it is telling that both ended their posts with a reflection about the assumed knowledge required for this recipe. One particular texture was picked up for comment – the consistency of honey. Both Lisa and Maggie were stymied by the instructions to mix fine sugar and lemon juice to the “right” consistency of honey. After all, as a natural product, honey can come in many guises. Our intrepid makers tried to reproduce the thickness of raw honey, runny honey, and crystalized honey and each resulted in a different product with varying degrees of success.

Maggie’s Sugar and Lemon Juice Mixture (Photo taken by Maggie Simon)

Observing textures or changes in textures is clearly a key part of following recipes. Yet, it turns out that it is hard to convey hands-on experiential knowledge on paper, particularly across time and space. Often times, descriptions of textures are made using analogies (e.g. consistency of honey) or metaphors (e.g. wet sand) requiring the recipe writer and reader to work within a similar frame of reference. Further focus on reading or interpreting representations of “textures” in past and present thus seems a fruitful way to shed light on histories of observation, sensorial and experiential knowledge.


[1] Folger v.b. 14, p. 47.

What We’re Reading This Fall

By Jess Clark

The abundance of fantastic historical writing—from insightful social media and blog posts to traditional academic monographs to op eds—means that most of us aren’t lacking interesting things to read. At times, though, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on important pieces, new books, or forgetting about germinal texts. This month, I decided to check in with some of the Editors here at the Recipes Project to find out what everyone’s reading in the coming weeks. Here are just a few of their suggestions, from their bookshelves and browsers to you.

 

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Basic Books, 1985)

In this classic study, Cowan charts the industrialization of housekeeping through a variety of new technologies designed to improve the experience of female homemakers: “washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton.” However, as she masterfully argues, these technologies actually served to replace the labour of other figures, like men and children, rather than lessen the amount of time devoted by women to maintaining the home.


Lisa Fagin Davis, “
Why Do People Keep Convincing themselves they’ve Solved this Medieval Mystery?” at The Washington Post

Davis unpacks the ongoing fascination with the Voynich Manuscript, an early fifteenth-century codex housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Written in an “unknown collection of symbols” and featuring illustrations of “realistic plants, circular zodiacal and astronomical diagrams,” the Manuscript has been subject to multiple attempts to decipher its mysterious code. However, “[b]y beginning with their own preconceptions of what they want the Voynich to be,” argues Davis, many would-be interpreters’ “conclusions take them further from the truth.”

 

Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (Cornell UP, November 2019)

This is a bit of a cheat since the book isn’t out until November, but many RP readers are no doubt looking forward to contributor Rachel Herrmann’s new book on the role of food in Revolutionary America. Focusing on “hunger creation and prevention” as “tools of diplomacy and warfare,” this text will be a must-read for historians of food, recipes, conceptions of dearth and plenty, and the foundations of early America.

 

Michael W. Twitty, “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down,” on Afroculinaria


Award-winning author, chef, and historical interpreter Michael W. Twitty responds to negative online reviews of southern plantations, which criticize interpreters’ attention to slavery and its legacies. Writing of his own experiences as a historical educator, Twitty emphasizes that, in doing this work, he’s “performing an act of devotion to my Ancestors. This is not about your comfort, it’s about honoring their story on it’s own terms in context.”

 

Michael Walkden, “’Excrements of the Earth’: Mushrooms in Early Modern England,” on Shakespeare & Beyond

Walkden analyzes seventeenth-century English attitudes towards the eating of mushrooms, pointing to the ways fungi could, at various points, signify danger and treachery, continental excess, or filth and debasement. Pointing out their distinctiveness as a food type, he suggests that “[t]he hostility that many writers expressed towards mushrooms is perhaps reflective of the threat they posed to the order of things.”

 

What are you reading this Fall? We want to hear from you! Let us know here what sites, texts, and projects we should be featuring here at the Recipes Project.

Restorative Jelly and Strengthening Soup

By James Stark and Richard Bellis

Victorians were obsessed with diet and appetite. Discussions about how to provide adequate nutrition to different human bodies spanned specialized scientific practice, domestic cookery, and manufacturers of new food products, not to mention popular culture and discourse.

Fig. 1. Recipes Books courtesy of The Cookery Collection at the University of Leeds

As part of a British Academy Digital Humanities project – Eating Yourself Young – we have been exploring the relationship between theories and practices of nutrition and health. Beyond scientific papers and newspaper articles on the subject, manuscript recipes from the period reveal how food and health were intimately intertwined in everyday cookery habits. The Cookery Collection at the University of Leeds, recognized by Arts Council England as one of its Designated Collections – a programme which ‘identifies and celebrates outstanding collections’ – includes around 50 manuscript recipe books from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, with a particular concentration in the early-to-mid-Victorian period. Striking in many of these are the claims made about the health benefits of various foodstuffs.

Fig. 2. "Mixing a Recipe for Corns." Etching by G. Cruikshank, 1819, after Captain F. Marryat. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection, CC BY
Fig. 2. “Mixing a Recipe for Corns.” Etching by G. Cruikshank, 1819, after Captain F. Marryat. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection, CC BY

In one anonymous collection of recipes, including regional specialities from Surrey and Yorkshire, we can see the integration of foods described as healthful. In this particular manuscript, amongst a list of 111 recipes for a wide variety of foods from sportsman’s beef and twirligigs to endless variants on plum pudding, the author (or, probably more properly, the compositor) included instructions for preparing restorative jelly and strengthening soup. The former consisted of sago, rice, pearl barley and ginger root, boiled in water until the volume was reduced by half. Strengthening soup, by contrast, consisted of stewing very slowly knuckles of lamb and veal with shin of beef, “mixed with sweet herbs,” in water, before adding “best rose water.” In contrast to all other recipes in the manuscript folio, the author also indicated when and how it should be consumed, “a tea cup-full to be taken every Night & Morning warm.”                 

Certain dishes could, of course, restore health. But foodstuffs were often incorporated into medical recipes as well. A collection of culinary and medical recipes – co-existing comfortably in the same volume – included “an excellent recipe for sprains.” This involved mixing “old ale” with turpentine and applying it to the skin. Ingredients for one of many preparations designed to treat a cough included lemon juice, “Spanish juice,” “Sugar Candy,” and a freshly-laid egg. The preparation of this particular cough remedy is particularly intriguing; it involved adding the lemon juice to the egg whilst still in its shell and waiting for the shell to dissolve before introducing the remaining ingredients.

Several medical remedies were also supposed to require other dietary and lifestyle changes to be effective. A “Cure for Influenza” required, for example, that the “patient [should be] … careful to keep the feet warm & dry [and subsist] … on a light diet.” Immediately following these clearly medical preparations were instructions for how to clean silk, devise a French polish, and remove grease from cloth fabric.

As much as these recipes were practical, the presentation of recipes was just as often playful as healthful and helpful. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference in a recipe for Paradise Pudding instructed the reader to “take of the same fruit which Eve once did taste, Well pared + well clipped, half a dozen at least.” Remarking on the experience that the diner might expect on eating this divine dish, the author noted that “Adam tasted this Pudding twas wonderous.”

Across all these, we can gain further insight into exactly where the expertise of everyday medicine in Victorian Britain was located. Of the recipes in this collection which were attributed to a particular person, almost all were women. The medical recipes employed much the same modes of preparation as culinary recipes, and many were written in the same hand. This suggests that the intersection of cookery and domestic medical practices were deeply intertwined. Whilst this is scarcely revelatory or unexpected, a more fine-grained analysis of these medical-related recipes in their social, cultural, and scientific context is needed to further highlight the importance and construction of domestic medicine and its practitioners.