Category Archives: Material History

Tales From the Archives: A Recipe for Disaster: How Not to Distill Turpentine

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, once a month, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by Tillamann Taape. In this post, first published in July 2013, Tillmann writes vividly about alchemical disasters. Heat, unsurprisingly, comes into play. Enjoy!


By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.

[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.


From the Hearth to the Gas Stove: A Study in Apricot Marmalade

By Marissa Nicosia

The early modern hearth and the modern gas stove are rather different technologies for controlling heat. Again and again in my recipe recreation work for Cooking in the Archives, I encounter complex instructions for managing cooking temperatures on a hearth and try to translate those instructions to my own equipment. To what temperature should I set my oven? How high should I turn up the flame under the pot? What volume of water should I add when boiling water is called for and no volume is specified? How long should everything cook?

Early modern recipes trust that cooks know their hearth and ingredients well. Some recipes are very precise about weight and volume and others read like general concepts on which a cook might improvise as best suits their needs, inclinations, or tastes. Cooking these recipes on a hearth with variable fire types and temperatures demanded a skilled cook who could manage heat effectively.

This is the part of updating recipes that most challenges me: I have a PhD in English, but no formal culinary training. This is also the part of updating recipes where I have been most challenged by others. Members of the historical reenactment and historical interpretation communities have in turn urged me to try these recipes again on a hearth to taste the different flavors the fire instills and chastised me for attempting to cook these recipes without a hearth in the first place. As I grow as a cook and expand this project, I’m going to accept these kind invitations to cook alongside skilled recreators [1]. But Cooking in the Archives is a project designed to give all readers a taste of the past: even if those readers possess only the tiniest apartment stove. That’s the kind of stove that I had in my West Philadelphia rental when I launched the site with Alyssa Connell in 2014.

In order to cook these recipes on my stove, I have to determine some basic information: Is this something I should make on the stovetop or in the oven? In a pot, pan, or roasting dish? Is the recipe asking for water and should that water be boiled first or with the ingredients? To answer these questions, I naturally start with the recipes themselves. The phrases recipe writers use for the ferocity or gentleness of the fire are subtle, but informative. Then I look at recipes in modern cookbooks. The “Jumball” cookie mix looked like a shortbread cookie so I started with the oven temperature from a familiar cookie recipe and kept track of the time [2]. These are skills that I learned from baking growing up and cooking for myself while I was in graduate school, but not, exactly, skills that I learned in the academy. Neither humanities course work nor historical recreation holds all the answers for how to, say, make an apricot marmalade from a late-seventeenth-century culinary manuscript in a twenty-first century kitchen.

This recipe “To make Marmalaid of Apricocks” is from Ms. Codex 785 at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve prepared quite a few recipes from this specific manuscript, and this recipe, like a few others in the volume, derives from Hannah Woolley’s cookbook The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet (1670) [3]. This marmalade is both fragile and delicious. It needs the careful tending outlined in the original recipe. I have attempted to convey this level of care in my updated recipe at the end of this post.

To make Marmalaid of Apricocks

Take Apricocks, pare them and cut them in
quarters and to every pound of Apricocks
put a pound of fine Sugar, then put your
Apricocks in a Skillet with half the Sugar
and let them boil very tender, and gently, and
bruise them with the back of a Spoon, till they
be like pap, then take the other part of the
Sugar, and boil it to a Candy height, then put
your Apricocks into that Sugar, and keep it stirring
over the ffire, till all the sugar is meted, but
do not let it boil, then take it from the ffire,
and Stir it till it be almost cold, then put it
into Glasses, and let it have the Air of the
ffire to dry it.

Images 1 & 2 – The recipe in Ms. Codex 785, 6-7

The recipe asks you to boil the apricots with sugar until the fruit is so tender that it breaks down into a luscious pulp. Then the recipe instructs you to make a simple syrup of sugar and water and allow the mixture to come to candy height or what we would now call the soft-ball stage. Early modern cooks would have been especially skilled at the subtle art of watching sugar change under the influence of heat. The cook is next told to stir the apricot puree into the hot sugar over the fire and then off the fire until the mixture is almost cold. The final instruction: “and let it have the Air of the ffire to dry it” is the most evocative image for me. The preserved apricots in glass containers glowing in front of the hearth.

This apricot marmalade is delicious on toast, lightly crisped by the heat of a toaster oven or toaster, of course.


An Updated Recipe

8 apricots (7 oz, 200 g)

generous 2/3 cup sugar (7 oz, 200 g)

1/3 cup water

Peel the apricots, remove their pits, and cut them into quarters. Cook them to a pulp with half the sugar. The apricots will release their own juices so no water is necessary here. (Approximately 10 minutes.)

Make a simple syrup with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a saucepan. Use a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature and cook until it reaches candy height/pearl stage 240F on the thermometer. When the syrup has reached this temperature, add the cooked apricots to it. Stir to combine over the heat, but do not allow the mix to boil.

Remove from heat and stir as the mixture cools. Transfer into a clean jar. This amount of apricots and sugar nicely filled an 8oz jelly jar.

Keep refrigerated and eat within two weeks. (You can also properly can this for longer storage.)

[1] Johnson’s work in particular suggests what traditional academics can learn by spending time with reenactors and participating in reenactments. Katherine M. Johnson, “Rethinking (re)doing: historical re-enactment and/as historiography,” Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193-206.



Counting on the body: Reflections on Numeracy in Indian dyeing practices

By Annapurna Mamidipudi

‘I don’t know how to read, but I can count’ said Salim, ‘I was not much for school, my father put me on an old tractor when I was 12, and told me to go around in circles, till I had learned to drive’. Salim was a 20 something driver, the same age as me, when I met him in 1990. I –along with a few other socially minded engineers – was trying to decipher the recipes from a century old colonial account of dyeing using natural materials, and he was hired to drive me around the weaver villages we were visiting in rural Andhra Pradesh in South India.  The idea was to use these recipes to bring natural dyeing practices lost over the last century back into the practice of craftspeople, in order to enter newly emerging green markets and support their livelihoods.

‘Keep the temperature around 70 degrees’ specifies the recipe. Yes, I could measure the temperature and tell when it was 70 degrees; but how to maintain a constant one? Salim smoked incessantly, yet he could blow on an open wood fire under the dyebath to keep it at a steady 70 degrees for as long as it took to extract the colour –whether yellow, brown or red. I measured and jotted down notes from his experiments, attempting to standardise a recipe that would provide fast colour across the different dyehouses, in the different villages where craftspeople were being trained to re learn natural dyeing practices. But this was an important first lesson about the material life of numbers in dyeing –they came attached with fires, smoke, dye baths, and always required a willing body to maintain them.

Indigo dyed yarn production in a weaver co-operative dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

So my first recipe:

Material needed:

For one kg. of yarn, take  15%  in weight in dyematerial Katha [Acasia Katechu]

Copper Sulphate: Take 10 % of weight of dye material

First measure out the quantity of dye material…….

‘Weavers don’t read, why would you want to write down a recipe in English?’ Salim interrupts, with some curiosity. The recipe is a formula, I explain, and it has to hold fast wherever we use it, and whoever uses it. It can be in any language, its the numbers and reproducibility that make it technical. ‘My car is technical, but I don’t need a manual’ he jokes, even as he measures out quantities out aloud for me to write into the journal we keep of all the dye experiments. After using the recipe on the field in a series of training workshops for weavers, he makes an observation. ‘Change the recipe standard to 4.5 kg, not one kg, if you want a stardardised recipe’. I reply patiently, if they learn to calculate quantities using the standard of 1 kg, they can multiply it by 4.5 or any number they chose, that’s the whole point of a recipe. ‘But they only use the 4.5 kg standard, or multiples of it, so if you write those down in the recipe, they don’t need to learn how to calculate percentages’. He is right, I realise, all across the world of Indian cotton handloom weaving, the general measure that applies across all dyehouses, is the weight of one box of cotton yarn, the ‘peti’, standardised across all thicknesses or counts of yarn. I change the recipe; we now formulate all recipes with 4.5 kg as the base. I need a calculator to figure out how much copper sulphate we need for the recipe for Katha, each time, meanwhile, Salim is measuring it out by hand. ‘Sometimes the quality is not so good, you have to add a bit more’. The weavers agree, accuracy is about the outcome of colour, not so much the weight of material as input.

Sample of jottings from a dyehouse in Peddapuram in Andhra Pradesh © Moody Chetanand

Almost ten years later, Salim is a master dyer, and well on his way to acquiring the skill of dyeing Indigo, one of the most difficult colours to master. He is successful in the market, and has trained more than a hundred artisan groups, forming a large network of dyers. I continue to be the documenter of recipes, now trying to author a small booklet of recipes in the four South Indian vernacular languages, for craftspeople learning natural dye colours. ‘You tell colour by smell, put away the notebook’, he says. Yet, in Salim’s pocket is a strip of paper that can measure the pH value of a solution; ‘Checking the Indigo vat with a pH paper helps me to get a general idea of how alkaline the vat is, before I start using my nose,’ he says. He is meticulous in checking the vats every morning and evening. ‘Yellappa is a master, [the 80 year old Indigo dyer who taught Salim] he doesn’t need the paper’, he says, a little enviously, ‘he can count on his nose to tell him when the vat is ready’. We decide to leave out the recipe for Indigo from the booklet, learning to tell colour and alkalinity by smell has to be learned from the master, not with recipes.

Salim setting up the Indigo vats in his dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

Ten years on, it is 2012, and I am theorising innovation in craft practices, as part of my PhD study –analysing the practices of dyers as socio-technical expertise. I am assailed by the smell of fermenting Indigo, as I enter the well functioning Indigo dyehouse for an interview with Salim the master dyer. Salim is a tad more portly, and is surrounded by a bevy of young men and women dyeing Indigo. ‘Come to learn Indigo dyeing?’ he asks with a smile. I take out my laptop, ‘put your hand in’ he says instead, ‘and turn the yarn 50 times’. I wet the hank of cotton yarn, and sit down amongst the other dyers. Unpractised as I am, I lose count after 37, but Salim tells me when I can stop, he can see when the colour is right.  Do you keep count? I ask the girl sitting next to me, curiously. ‘I used to’ she says, ‘now my body knows how long it takes, so the numbers disappear from my mind’.

Indigo dyeing: Dyehouse of Salim © Moody Chetanand

I reflect later, on how to write the recipe for Salim’s Indigo, and who to write it for. The underlying chemical principles of the traditional fermentation Indigo vat have been written up extensively by scholars and scientists. The aim of my own analysis was to establish that Salim like many other master dyers before and after him has indeed mastered the principles of Indigo dyeing. How does one establish that, without explicating his knowledge in scientific terms? Yet, even if I were to explicate such a recipe, Salim himself would not use it. Rather, he engages his material knowledge of Indigo as he problem solves, or sets up a new vat, or uses new materials to bring forth a resplendent blue time after time.

Where then does the knowledge of the underlying principle reside in his practice? I do not yet have an answer. All I can speculate is that the knowledge of the principles governing Indigo are known by Salim much like the numbers themselves are known in the dyeing: when dyers learn to count on their bodies, the numbers on the piece of paper disappear. Much like a weft thread woven through the warp, sometimes visible on the surface of the fabric, and at other times stabilised below the threads, Salim’s knowledge too is always present, sometimes visible and enumerable, and at other times invisible and embodied.

Annapurna Mamidipudi was trained as an engineer in electronics and communications, in Manipal, in South India. She had set up and worked for over 15 years in an NGO that supported vulnerable craft livelihoods where before completing her doctoral thesis titled “Towards a theory of innovation for handloom weaving in India” in the University of Maastricht in 2016. She is currently a visiting post doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is a member of the NGO Timbaktu Collective’s executive committee, which works in the drought prone district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh to support women farmers and trustee of the Handloom Futures Trust, in Hyderabad.

Beauty and Global Trade in Margaret Baker’s Book

This is the second part of a two-part post by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history.  Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls in history. Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was completed for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.

By Karen Bowman


The unlovely looking ambergris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In my last post, I examined themes of alchemy and beauty in Margaret Baker’s early modern recipe book.  Today I want to consider what her beauty recipes can tell us about England’s growing global connections in the late seventeenth century.  At first glance, the  list of ingredients in Baker’s recipes appear domestic. But those seemingly-simple household recipes had extensive connections to trade and empire. For those who could afford them, there were an increasing number of luxury ingredients available from around the world.

Through her beauty recipes, Baker was buying into the expansion of the luxury market. With a growing foothold in India via the East India Company, traders imported silks and spices. In turn, they sold these commodities onto grocers and apothecaries from whom Baker was able to purchase ingredients to make her perfumes.

I was alerted to her participation with empire through her use of luxury ingredients in her culinary recipes, such as wines and quantities of sugar in order to make “sugar cakes” (f.88). In her perfume, she included civet (musky smelling substance from anal glands from civets) and ambergris (waxy substance secreted from the intestines of sperm whales).

Civet and ambergris were regularly used in perfume manufacture. In the seventeenth century, the aromas of musk and spice most effectively covered body odour.  It would not be until the eighteenth century that alternative base notes would be used, allowing some perfumes to become increasingly more fragrant in conjunction with improvements in basic hygiene. Both ingredients continue to be used today, even with our vast range of scent choices.

We can see the use of civet in Baker’s recipe for perfumed gloves, as well (f.98). Spanish and Italian glovers settling in England in the sixteenth century had established the practice to sweeten the smell of leather, as the tanning process could leave an unpleasant scent. The most common fragrances were cinnamon or cloves, but the more expensive gloves were infused with musk, civet, ambergris and spirit of roses.

Seventeenth-century embroidered gloves. Credit: Metropolitan Museum.

The fact that Baker was perfuming her gloves is a significant social comment. By indicating in the first line of her recipe that damask rose water should used could signify to readers that her gloves were expensive, hinting at a level of wealth. Of course, it is equally plausible that her gloves were only made of linen. In that case, we can see an earlier connection to the Lady Croon’s pomatum that I discussed last week. In both cases their inclusion may point to Baker as a woman with social aspirations.

Baker’s instructions for perfuming gloves are similar to those found in seventeenth-century manuals, such as Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights For Ladies, which were considered part of a woman’s ‘secret knowledge’ (Rankin and Leong, 172). Plat provided instructions for perfuming up to eight pairs of kid-skin gloves at a time, proof that women knew how to redress the leather at home (Dugan, 150).

In a manuscript recipe book from 1685, Mary Doggett included instructions for perfuming gloves in the ‘spanish manner’. The gloves should be anointed until they ‘swim with amber [ambergris] and ‘drink up the ointment’–emphasizing the Spanish ingredients: ambergris, civit, and musk. Again echoing Baker’s recipe, Doggett suggested that the gloves should then be ‘Rowled up in fair paper very close so they do not lose their smell’ and next ‘layed 3 nights under the first bed quilt of the bed you lie on’ (Dugan,150).

Baker’s links with global trade rest with the transference of geographical, specialist, and domestic knowledge, as well as a household’s connections with foreign markets. The sourcing of ingredients resulted in the smells of luxury infusing the early modern kitchen (Dugan, 151).

It also gives us a social link to Baker via her gloves. Was she wealthy enough to afford expensive gloves that she would have wanted to keep scented? Or, was she simply buying into the early modern expansion of empire and perfuming cheaper gloves to give an impression of status? Whether the recipe was aspirational or reveling, Baker’s scented gloves were not just ornamental. The ingredients used in their perfuming highlight the ways in which recipes, global trade, and social status were tightly entwined.