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 , “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.
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.
 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.