“A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” and Nineteenth-Century Joke Recipes

Avery Blankenship, PhD Student, Department of English, Northeastern University

“A good many husbands are utterly spoiled by mismanagement,” begins a recipe printed in the December 31, 1885 edition of the South Carolina Anderson Intelligencer [1], “some women go about as if their husbands were bladders and blow them up. Others keep them constantly in hot water; others let them freeze by their carelessness and indifference. Some keep them in a stew by irritating ways and words. Others roast them. Some keep them in pickles all their lives.” The writer of this recipe, referred to only as a “Baltimore lady,” however, promises to provide a tried and true method for cooking a husband to perfection. 

Image 1 – “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” The Anderson intelligencer. December 31, 1885, Image 4. Courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

This recipe, like many of the joke recipes that made the rounds in nineteenth-century newspapers, takes the form of a recipe and puts a unique twist on it. Typically, these joke recipes have very little to do with food—often focusing on domestic issues such as marriage, keeping house, and tending to children. In this particular recipe, the reader—who presumably has yet to be married—is instructed to not “go to market for him, as the best are always brought to your door.” The rest of the recipe unfolds like a recipe for boiling crab or lobster, instructing the reader to make and cook them while alive, add “sugar” in the form of affection but never vinegar, and that in doing so, he will “keep as long as you want, unless you become careless and set him in too cold a place.” 

Joke recipes, particularly in the nineteenth-century, though their popularity certainly continued beyond this one-hundred year span, enabled people primarily operating out of the domestic sphere to speak to a wider audience through a genre that their audience might not typically read. Occasionally, male writers would attempt to copy the style of a joke recipe, for instance in the February 6, 1885 edition of the Maryland Aegis & Intelligencer in which a male writer is directly responding to the popularity of  “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands.” The writer is offering up advice on how to cook a wife, though he admits “I have never tried any of my receipts yet, but I am anxiously looking around for some one to practise them on.” 

Through this style of humorous recipe writing, domestic writers were able to set aside the seriousness of a typical nineteenth-century recipe with its precision and focus on the task of feeding families in order to share frustrations, joy, sadness, and even anger with others operating in domestic spaces. Particularly for nineteenth-century domestic writers and workers, for whom the division between work and leisure time was indistinct, carving out a place where they could play within the framework of work was especially important. Through joke recipes, domestic workers could take the frame of labor—in this case the recipe form—and share a particular type of humor that is associated with their lives outside of the kitchen. The appearance of the  “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” recipe in a newspaper, as opposed to a formally published cookbook or even community cookbook which both occasionally printed joke recipes, points to the ability of the joke recipe to speak back to audiences outside of the domestic sphere. On one hand, the recipe is a humorous inside joke amongst women, but with the wide readership of the newspaper, it ensures that male readers will also come across the recipe and take note of the complaints that women have regarding their domestic lives. 

“A Recipe for Cooking Husbands” not only provides a window into domestic humor in the nineteenth century, but also domestic struggles. The recipe urges its readers to not be lured in by silvery appearances or by a golden tint. In other words, to not prioritize looks or wealth over other factors such as attitude. The recipe also provides guidelines for when one’s husband angers, writing that “if he sputters and fizzes, do not be anxious; some husbands do this till they are quite done.” These lines, though comical, provide advice to young women either in the early stages of marriage or considering marriage, warning against too much focus on wealth and appearance and providing instructions for dealing with disagreements using humor to mask domestic advice.

The humor of “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” although crafted around nineteenth-century domestic life, continued to have cultural relevance even into the late 1950s, appearing in reprint in community cookbooks, magazines, and other domestic ephemera even the particular style of recipe writing used was outdated. This uptake and re-circulation of joke recipes shows that the stories coming out of the domestic sphere—tensions within a marriage, trouble with raising children, and even abstract depictions of joy, happiness, and even anger have a cultural relevance that extends beyond a single lifetime.  

Previous posts on parody and joke recipes have focused on early modern Russian recipes. 


[1]  It should be noted that this version of the recipe is a reprint of an earlier version which appeared in the Baltimore Sun. Based on commentary from other reprints of this recipe, we can guess it was originally printed at the end of January 1885. The Baltimore Sun is not included in Chronicling America’s database of historical newspapers, so I’ve pulled an early reprint of the recipe.



Waste Not, Want Not: Transforming Waste into Food – Skimmed Milk

By Lesley Steinitz

Fancy some pig’s wash with your granola? In the late nineteenth century, the ‘pig’s wash’ – a euphemism also for vomit – was skimmed milk. It was so-named because it had been the sour leftovers after the cream was skimmed off milk left out overnight in the dairy. Although some ‘skim’ was used to make cheese and feed poor agricultural workers, it was so disgusting that most of it was fed to pigs. Skimmed milk remained disgusting in the minds of consumers even after dairies were mechanised, from the 1880s, once it had changed materially into a fresh sweet liquid. It sold, at best, for a quarter of the price of whole milk, but philanthropists couldn’t even give it away to the poor.

From the perspective of nutritional chemists, this was a waste of a valuable source of protein at a time when dietary deficiency was a grave political concern, linked to worries about the fitness of the workforce and its implications for industrial productivity and military security. This waste therefore spurred innovation among commercially-oriented engineers and chemists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chemists devised noxious industrial-scale chemical processes which transformed skimmed milk into near-identical protein powders. These contained around 90% milk protein and 5% phosphates, and were off-white, insubstantial, odourless and flavourless. They didn’t resemble food in the slightest. It’s instructive to compare how the two most advertised brands in Britain, Plasmon and Sanatogen, were advertised.

Plasmon’s adverts presented it as a cheap nutritious food, using numbers and pictures to signify its protein’s muscle building power. To persuade people to cook with it, they ran cookery competitions, published recipes, and persuaded famous people – notably the vegetarian health writer and sports champion Eustace Miles – to do so. However, these efforts backfired. Plasmon and Miles were lampooned regularly. The Evening Post derided Plasmon as an uninviting food made by ‘nutrient necromancers’, while the Daily Express declared that this ‘food of the future’ did not satisfy the social and cultural expectations of food as something to enjoy and share.[1] Only Plasmon Oats and Cocoa, where Plasmon was mixed with familiar foods, remained popular.

Although it was near-identical, Sanatogen was positioned primarily as a nerve nutrient thanks to its phosphates (which are present in high concentration in the nerves and brain). Sanatogen therefore addressed another dominant health concern, ‘nerve weakness’, often referred to as the new disease category of neurasthenia. It was therefore not simply a food, but a ‘food-drug’, something that was ‘taken’ like a medicine before meals, rather than as part of them. There were no recipes, simply instructions on how to prepare a dose. With advocates including MPs, doctors, respected writers and aristocrats, and adverts with inspiring quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe, this was an aspirational product which sold for twice the price of Plasmon. You can still buy Sanatogen today.

At much the same time, engineers devised mechanical preservation methods. Their machines sprayed milk, skimmed or whole, onto steam-heated spinning metal rollers where it condensed instantly, forming a powder.[2] (While dried milk had been produced during the nineteenth century, the slow heating methods tended to cook the milk and caramelise its sugars, so it could only be eaten if it was disguised mixed in other foods.) Manufacturers, competing on cost, largely could not afford to advertise their dried skimmed milk. Exceptionally, Cow & Gate published recipes using it, but I’ve yet to find any in ordinary cookbooks, though when fresh milk was scarce in wartime, newspapers suggested using dried instead. Consumers were largely oblivious to the nutritional benefits of this ingredient and to its abundance in industrially manufactured foods such as bread, biscuits and chocolate, and in canteens and institutions. There are few traces before 1920 of people using it domestically other than the full fat versions for infants.

These foods were not popular thanks to their intrinsic palatability, convenience or physiological effects, but instead reflected the cultural characteristics that advertisers linked to their nutritional claims. Expensive Sanatogen was aspirational because it was presented as a respectable medicine-like supplement used by the elites. Cheaper Plasmon was less successful because this peculiar food seemed ridiculous. For consumers, the even cheaper dried milk was an alternative infant food, but was thought to be unsuitable for adults. The positioning of these three similar products demonstrates that food choices are far more than a rational choice relating to nutrition and economy. Now protein powders and skimmed milk are popular commodities. The change in their popularity illustrates how food manufacturers wield considerable power over consumers by leveraging nutritional ‘facts’ alongside cultural values to suit their commercial aims.

[1] Evening Post, 11 July 1900, p. 2; Daily Express, 11 July 1900, p. 4.

[2] A. W. Scott, The Engineering Aspects of the Condensing and Drying of Milk, Bulletin, no. 4 (Glasgow: The Hannah Dairy Research Institute, 1932).

“Daily Recipes for Home Cooking” (1924)

By Nathan Hopson

This is the second in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

Imagine a national cookbook. What would that look like? What would it say about the values and ideology of the society in which it was produced and the individuals and governmental organizations involved? Well, Japan gave us at least one answer to this almost a century ago, in 1924.

The first post in this series examined the “Nutrition Song,” a 1922 Japanese song with lyrics by the founding director of Japan’s Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). This song was part of an extensive and diverse media strategy that included early adoption of radio as a medium; IGIN-approved recipes were broadcast daily beginning in 1926 and printed the following day in the major newspapers. More remarkable as a manifesto than as a musical achievement, this song articulated a program for a rational, economical, modern diet. The lyrics encapsulate the IGIN’s advocacy of nutrition science as a win-win tool to improve individual quality of life and national strength.

In fact, the Institute began publishing daily “cheap, delicious recipes” on May 29, 1922 (figure 1), calling for a “kitchen revolution” to realize “an economical life and increased health for the Japanese.” Radio was a tantalizingly novel, fashionable, quintessentially modern medium rapidly adopted in urban Japan. Along with popular programs like radio calisthenics, the IGIN’s menus du jour, which carried the imprimatur of a premier government science laboratory and its celebrity chief, “modernized and ‘rationalized’ conceptions of the body, health, physical fitness, and exercise.” The appeal of both calisthenics and the Institute’s meal plans was both positive and negative, personal and patriotic. On the one hand, there was the possibility of personal betterment. On the other, many Japanese were plagued by “a nagging sense of physical inferiority vis-à-vis” the Western imperial powers.[1]

Figure 1 The IGIN’s first daily recipes published in a major newspaper. From Asahi Shinbun, May 29, 1922.

But even before its foray into radio, in 1924 the IGIN compiled a year’s worth of recipes originally published in newspapers into a cookbook called Daily Recipes for Home Cooking. A few columns explaining basic facts about nutrition, hygiene, etc., are sprinkled throughout, but otherwise Daily Recipes is a straightforward day-by-day guide to preparing “nutritious, delicious, and economical” breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a middle-class family of three.

When I picked up a copy of this book, I was delighted to find that the May 29 menu is in fact the same as that for the Institute’s memorable 1922 newspaper debut: shellfish simmered in soy sauce and mirin (tsukudani) and miso soup with cabbage for breakfast, fried bamboo shoots and salted salmon sashimi for lunch, and a pork and vegetable curry accompanied by spicy pickled bamboo shoots and wakame for dinner.

There are two marked differences between the 1922 Asahi article and the Daily Recipes version. First, the former explicitly lists rice as the main course, while the latter does not. (Conversely, the cookbook includes seasonings like soy sauce and sugar, not listed in the 1922 version.) The inclusion of rice is significant because, despite the IGIN’s open antagonism to white rice as wasteful and even a threat to national security (teaser!), the Institute expected a family of three to consume almost two liters of cooked rice daily. Second, the newspaper itemizes nutritional information, while the cookbook does not. This speaks to a difference in context. Cookbook buyers were likely to be converts to the IGIN’s ideology of “economical nutrition” and believers in the Institute’s bona fides and its scientized menu based on the principles of quantification and substitution. If the newspaper recipes were proselytization for the New Nutrition-style IGIN diet, the cookbook was more “preaching to the choir.”

Table 1 Nutrition information for IGIN’s May 29, 1922/1924 daily recipes (serves 3)

Ingredients Amount (g) Protein (g) Calories Price (sen)
Rice 1.9 (liters) 100.4 4814.4 54
Cabbage 75 2.2 35.2 2
Miso 112.5 13.8 177.9 3
Shellfish 75 13.6 57 10
Salted salmon 225 58.7 306 9
Daikon 150 1.1 27 2
Bamboo shoots 300 7.8 90 1
Sesame oil 56 0 506.3 4.5
Wheat flour 75 8.8 274.2 2
Beef 187.5 28.7 598.1 15
Carrot 56 0.7 21.9 2
Potato 112.5 1.7 96.8 2
Wakame 19 2.2 38.4 2
Suet 45 0.2 411.7 3.5
Total 240 7455 112
Total/person 80 2485 37.3

*Amounts approximate; calculated from Japanese Imperial units
**Sen = ¥1/100

To return to my original question, as exemplified by this daily menu plan from Daily Recipes, the IGIN relentlessly backed a national dietary reform program couched in the Fordist/Taylorist logic of quantification and substitution. In doing so, the Institute appealed to the self-interest of the new professionalizing housewife, who was increasingly expected to mobilize modern science to improve the efficiency and quality of life of her family—and by extension, the nation.

[1] Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018), 120.

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.

‘The Cholera Manuscript’: A collection of recipes and cures from Co Limerick

By Dorothy Cashman

Several years ago a manuscript collection of recipes came up for auction in Dublin. At the time, Ireland was in the throes of an IMF bailout and funding across all cultural institutions was grinding to a halt. This was the background to my suggestion to the National Library of Ireland that they should consider purchasing this manuscript to add to their collection.

Several things stood out about it, not least a nota bene attached to a recipe for White Current Wine, which for obvious reasons had particular resonance, and lent a touch of gallows humour to the initial reading of the contents (Fig. 1).[1] There was very little to grasp onto in terms of family history, other than an assertion that a block of the recipes were taken ‘from Lord Buckingham’s cook’, that reference to Mrs Hawksworth in the nota bene and the name ‘C. O’Carroll’ on the inside flyleaf. A trade label indicated that the slim book had been purchased from James Draper of Crampton Court in Dublin, bookbinders and paper merchants who coincidentally were appointed stationers to the Bank of Ireland in 1802.[2] The auctioneer verbally indicated that the manuscript was from Co Limerick.

National Library of Ireland, MS 42,105 .

The entries span twenty years, 1811 to 1831. The reference to Lord Buckingham’s cook, John Simpson, has added resonance for Irish readers, historically and in the present. Lord Buckingham, the first marquess, was twice lord lieutenant of Ireland, briefly in 1782/3 and subsequently from 1787 to 1789. In this latter period he created, by royal warrant, the Order of St Patrick.[3] The great ballroom of Dublin Castle was renamed St Patrick’s Hall at the time of the first investiture and is known as such to this day. It is the setting for the Irish State’s most significant ceremonial occasion, the inauguration of the President of Ireland, and where Ireland’s most honoured visitors are entertained.

Buckingham was also connected to Ireland through his marriage to Mary Nugent, daughter of the 1st Viscount Clare, and died two years after this manuscript was commenced, predeceased by a year by his wife. There is no reference to the fact that the recipes are from John Simpson’s published cookbook itself,[4] from which one could infer that the reflected glory from the provenance of these recipes arises as much from the fact of Lord Buckingham being the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland as it does from being a marquess on a distant shore.

Mrs Hawksworth, the other name accorded some weight by the scribe (Fig. 2) may be traceable to John Hawksworth, agent to Lord Castlecoote. One of the estates held by a junior branch of the Coote family through to the early twentieth century was in the townland of Mountcoote, Co Limerick, lending some credence to the intimation that the manuscript was of Limerick origin.  Interesting and amusing as the interjections and references to John Simpson and the chief bookkeeper of the Bank of Ireland were, it was the unusual assembly of four remedies for cholera that caught the attention, to the extent that I mentally referenced the collection as ‘the cholera manuscript’ thereafter.

National Library of Ireland, MS 42,105

Anglophone Ireland was an avid consumer of household and childcare books produced in Britain. There was also a healthy Irish market in reprinting popular British books; the copyright laws did not extend until the turn of the nineteenth century. Information of a domestic nature contained in gazettes, magazines, circulars and other printed material was quickly absorbed into the narrative in Ireland and this collection is evidence of this, notably so in the entries regarding the deadly disease. Cholera morbus is recorded as arriving in Limerick in June 1832.[5]

Tellingly, the recording of the first cure for cholera is located between a cure dated April 1831 and another dated August of the same year. This predated the spread of the disease from Britain to Ireland, indicating a heightened awareness in Ireland of impending disaster. This first entry is a close unattributed transcription of one appearing in The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany of 1831.[6] By March 1832 the disease had struck Belfast and Dublin, and between April and June it was ‘wrecking destruction in Ennis, Limerick and Tullamore’.[7]

Subsequent entries concerning cholera are positioned some time after October 1831, indicating perhaps a growing sense of panic in the household. The first of these, an ‘effectual cure for the cholera’, is transcribed as published in both The Lancet and The Isis: A London Weekly Publication.[8] The second is a cure ‘sent by Dr Shanfer from Warsaw to the Prussian Government’, while the final one is via the ‘Hon. Mrs Knox’, attributed to the Asiatic Journal ‘published nearly two years ago’. The disease having progressed through the country, normal domestic life resumes with the next entry, to take out stains or spots upon silk.

The National Library purchased the manuscript at auction. It fits neatly into their collection as being representative of what appears to be the narrative of one of the ‘less grand’, if not minor households in Ireland. Although relatively anonymous, it is noteworthy with respect to all of its quirks and sotto voce commentary, and recording of the passage of the dreaded cholera through the medium of possible cures.  Sufficiently noteworthy that they decided that it (MS 42,105) would be the first of the household manuscripts to be digitized. [9]

[1] The Irish state stepped in to secure Bank of Ireland in the form of a state guarantee in 2009.

[2] Mary Pollard, A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800 (London: Bibliographical Society, 2000), 168.

[3] The highest chivalric order for Ireland, established February 1783. The last peer appointed was in 1922. Since the foundation of the Irish state the order is officially dormant, as it was never abolished.

[4] John Simpson, A Complete System of Cookery (London: W. Stewart, 1806)

[5]Historical Records of the Existence and Progress of Cholera in the City of Limerick During the Months of May and June (Limerick: Edward Deane, 1832).

[6] The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, Vol. 5 New Series May-August 1831, (London, Parbury, Allen, and Co.)  The recipe appears to have been copied from Thomas J. Graham, M.D., Modern Domestic Medicine, A Popular Treatise, (London: published for the author, 1827).

[7] T. De Bhaldraithe, ed., Cín Lae Amhlaoibh  (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), 135. Sligo town suffered the highest number of fatalities in Ireland or Britain, fifteen hundred in a six-week period.

[8] The Lancet, 1831-32 (London, Mills, Jowett, and Mills), 216; The Isis: A London Weekly Publication,[iv] ed. Eliza Sharples, 1832, No 5, Vol. I, 74.

[9] The manuscript is un-paginated, the first cure for cholera morbus may be found on page sixty-four of the digitized copy. In its collections the NLI has the most extensive collection of archival material relating to Irish culinary history in public ownership, and the author would like to record her gratitude for their unfailing support in this regard.