I started working on food history in 1996. People often smirked when I mentioned it. It seemed like a little topic, something that wouldn’t help answer the big questions about human identity and experience. Yet eating is one of the few universals: thinking about how differently it has been organised across time and space provides amazing insights into class, gender and ethnic identities. With the choice of ‘Food in History’ as the theme for this year’s Anglo-American Conference, food history has finally come of age. A wide range of periods were covered, from classical antiquity to the Arab spring, and everything in between. Some people discussed a particular food, such as milk or bread. One intriguing paper (by Rebecca Ford, University of Nottingham) was even more specific, focusing on the social and cultural geography of watercress in nineteenth-century England. But ‘Food in History’ was given a wide scope, going far beyond discussions of food and recipes, in ways that showed the possibility for telling all sorts of cultural and political stories by understanding what we eat, with whom, how we shop for it, and the routes it has had to travel to reach us.
After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast
“’to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)
Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.
The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)
For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.
(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377
For a long time I have been interested in the endurance/longevity of charms and recipes over extended periods of time, a topic which Alun Withey addressed in a recent post. The major tropes that make up medieval medical charms, for example, appear with relatively minor variations from the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (at least in England, the area I focus on), and of course there’s those herbal remedies discussed by Dr. Withey. A few years ago I encountered a somewhat surprising form of this longevity with a sixteenth-century love charm from Trinity College Cambridge MS O.1.57 (1081).
This manuscript is a household notebook originally owned by the Haldenby family, members of the lower gentry in late medieval Isham, Northamptonshire. Largely written in the first half of the fifteenth century, it contains several later additions including a collection of (mostly) medical recipes written in the margins by a sixteenth-century hand. One of these later additions is a love charm on folio 20r:
To know who shalbe his wiffe or hir husband.
Say thus: “hempe seed, hempe I thee sow lede and vnlede. she that shalbe my worldes make come after one and rake sleepe sleepe and I her see, wake and her know.” this most be done on new yeares day at even taking alitle hempe seed in one hande and going thrise aboute the fire, sowing the hempe seede aboute the fier but not in the fyer. then go to bedde and lie downe vpon the right side speaking never a worde to no body but to say your pater noster and your Credo.
Imagine my surprise while watching an episode of the BBC show Victorian Farm where the presenter conducted a very similar Victorian ritual! The episode in question takes place at Midsummer’s Eve. The presenter, Ruth Goodman, and her daughter, Catherine, go out at midnight to the local churchyard. Catherine scatters hemp seed while saying:
Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.
According to Goodman, the future husband was supposed to appear in the churchyard, or possibly that night in a dream.
Obviously there are some differences between the sixteenth- and late nineteenth-century rituals. They take place on different dates: one on New Year’s Day; the other at Midsummer’s Eve. Only the first part of the ritual, spreading the hemp seed and reciting the special words, appears in the nineteenth-century version – there is no fire and no prayers. Naturally, we must also keep in mind that aspects of the charm and ritual might have been changed for television – doing magic is not necessarily entertaining to watch after all! As well, a popular history show is not the best source for scholarly work. Nevertheless, I find this example very interesting and a good starting point to think about the traditions of charms over long periods of time. How did a charm get from the sixteenth century to the Victorian era and finally to a television show in the twenty-first century?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, medieval medical charms continued to be used throughout the period with little variation in the major tropes used. Owen Davies has also shown that medieval and early modern magical texts continued to be used by cunning-folk in England right into the modern period. The long-term use and survival of these kinds of charms speaks to the ingrained belief among people that magic worked. Much like the Welsh herbal remedies, magic charms and rituals continued to appeal to people for a very long time.
 See Lea Olsan’s article “The Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books,” in Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 214-237; and Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England: Introduction and Texts (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).
 Naturally, the charm may have earlier antecedents but I am not aware of any at the moment. As a medievalist and not an early modernist or Victorian historian, I do not know of later examples of this charm, but I would be very interested if any readers know of other examples of this charm.
 I am not aware of any special property of hemp seed that might explain its inclusion in those sort of charm, although it has been suggested to me that it might be drawn from the use of hemp to make rope and thus “tie” the two people together somehow. Presumably the growing of the seed is meant to parallel the growing of the love between the two people. I am, of course, open to other suggestions.
 See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).
Twelfth Night, when the world turns topsy-turvy until midnight and the wassail is drunk to ensure a good apple harvest… A fitting day for the first History Carnival of 2013! This month, The Recipes Project has the privilege of rounding up the past month’s history blogging.
As you might expect in a Twelfth Night edition, there are several Christmas-themed posts to be found. In the winter, a blogger’s interests might turn to thoughts of dark poetry. Over at The View East, Kelly Hignett offers us “A Communist Christmas Carol”, in which Romanian children (c. 1980) request that Father Christmas bring some simple food items (and toilet paper). Lindsey Fitzharris (The Chirurugeon’s Apprentice) takes “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” as her inspiration for a reminder of our mortality, “The Dead Man’s Poem“, wishing us to “thank God you are safe and secure in your life”.
Other bloggers considered another potentially heavy side of Christmas: food! Many of you may have already been back to the gym and turned to salad-eating, but Twelfth Night is a time of cake and pie, so let us remember once more the feasts of yore. Tiffany Stoziciki gives us a taste of American Christmas dinners at the History Reporter (“Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960“), starting with the pared down offerings of the Civil War tables to the best meal of the year on Cold War tables (with some very American bubbly)… At The Board of Longitude Project, Alexi Baker looks at what Board of Longitude members, whether on shore or at sea, got up to during the Christmas season in “Longitude and a Christmas lark“– and yes, this is a reference to roasted lark! For the lighter side of Christmas, see Caroline Rance’s hilarious “‘Set the Spirit Alight’: Victorian festive science” (The Quack Doctor): from fiery masks to breathing flames, it sounds like Victorian Christmases were rather fun–if dangerous.
In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, you might check out the future of technology and entertainment at “Fun Places on the Internet (in 1995)” by Matt Novak (Paleofuture). The post is interesting in two ways: bringing back memories of one’s early online forays (ahhh–recalling the sound of a connecting modem still brings a thrill to my heart!) and considering the classification of “fun”…
What are the dark days of winter without a bit of inversion and oddity? Romeo Vitelli at Providentia examines the fascinating case of Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental breakdown in a four-part series, “Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial“. In a post on “Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Beckett and Edward the Confessor“, Steffan (My Albion) considers the seemingly contradictory ideas of what made a good medieval saint (peaceful virtue or violent martyrdom). Natalie Bennett at Philobiblonreviews Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in early Modern London, recounting several tantalizing stories of disorderly early modern women.
Trevor Owens and T. Mills Kelly, in turn, are concerned by the research and teaching challenges posed by rapid technological change. Owens–and the lively comments section–suggest ways that archivists might make their collections more searchable in a Google-dominated environment: “Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices“. Kelly has a multi-part series in which he rethinks the entire history curriculum, specifically the imperative of integrating technology into teaching research skills: “The History Curriculum in 2023“.
The complicated relationships among history, narrative, author and audience were discused by Lucinda Matthew-Jones, Christopher Dummit and Christopher Jones. Matthew-Jones’ post “Doctor Who-ing the Victorians” (Journal of Victorian Culture Online) is a thoughtful response to a recent U.K. report on teaching history in British Schools. The use of history in Doctor Who, she argues, assumes a more sophisticated level of historical knowledge than the government report does! Dummit at Everyday History wonders if a historical novelist can be classed as a great historian “Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?” In “Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance“, Jones of The Junto discusses the problems and possibilities of blurring subject and author when writing narrative history. Rethinking our methodological practices and assumptions? Contemplating non-linear Doctor Who history? Considering how best to tell stories? Fine questions to consider on Twelfth Night.
The world, obviously, didn’t end on December 21. For those who were disappointed, Sir Isaac Newton also had a few thoughts on the apocalypse, which he anticipated happening in 2034 or, perhaps, 2060: “Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse (1733)” (The Public Domain Review).
In any case, it seems likely that we’ll all be here next month, so please come by next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by our own Sally Osborn at her blog Travels and travails in 18th-Century England. Happy Wassailing to you, tonight!