Category Archives: Posts

My journey towards knotty history with the Recipes Project – reflections of a medical herbalist

by Anne Stobart

Starting from a science background

‘That is bad history!’ scowled my history lecturer back a decade or so. Yikes, what could I have done wrong? I felt struck down, so ashamed to have committed some major error, even deserving of being smitten with boils [Figure 1].

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826 William Blake, Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported),

As a postgraduate, I had discovered women’s history, and become interested in researching seventeenth-century recipes. Deciphering these manuscripts required some skill, and so I had enrolled on a palaeography summer school where our kindly university lecturer introduced us to the transcription of poor law records. But what exactly was my error? From a science background, I knew only how to put together a scientific report with hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions. I had no training in historical methods, so I applied the scientific method, daring to voice a hypothesis about the poor in the seventeenth century.

The details escape me now, but likely my suggestion was a fanciful theory not borne out by the evidence, and the lecturer was trying to warn me about jumping to conclusions. It was a painful lesson about which I have thought many times since, and it certainly motivated me to find out about ‘good’ history. But, as I then began to immerse myself in early modern domestic medicine, I soon learned that ‘good’ history was something of a mirage.

Welcome from history colleagues

Rolling forward some years to growing interest in historical recipes and the Recipes Project, and what a welcome difference I found. I was much encouraged by history colleagues who gave freely of their knowledge and experience. In the early days, this led to setting up the Medicinal Receipts Research Group. I found other scholars developing much expertise in interpreting archival material with limited provenance and anonymous contributions by many hands. Often, the gaps themselves in the archives were meaningful, especially considering the invisible roles and activities of women. My doctoral research was assisted by groundbreaking studies of women’s history which questioned many historical concepts. I did go on to carry out research into historical recipes and domestic medicine (now published by Bloomsbury Academic as Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England).  One of my earliest Recipes Project posts based on my research was about an unusual ‘not-recipe’, a vehicle enabling one woman to express her frustration in seventeenth-century medical matters, albeit in a limited way. It has been inspiring since to see Recipes Project contributions discussing ‘What is a recipe’  in a wide-ranging foray with much interdisciplinary collaboration.

Difficult conversations and living history

But, as a practising medical herbalist, my research also led me into difficult conversations with some herbal colleagues who claimed a romantic past of witches, midwives and healers. At times, I found myself, in turn, warning about ‘bad’ history, arguing for more objectivity about the historical evidence available, and questioning assumptions that all early modern women were expert healers [Figure 2].

Did all women make household remedies in the seventeenth century? Front cover of Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)]

Fortunately, I found other herbalists keen to encourage more scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and this led to setting up the Herbal History Research Network. At the opposite  end of the scale, I found that historical colleagues needed ways to objectively evaluate medicinal plants, especially since many lacked medical or botanical backgrounds. This led me to develop the series entitled ‘The Working of Herbs’ providing a protocol for locating, and distinguishing, past and present understandings about medicinal plants. I have really valued the existence of the Recipes Project, as a sort of ‘room in the ether’ for networking with colleagues, a supportive space to explore such developments and techniques. I remain interested in the tensions between science and history, curious about issues of methodology in historical research, fascinated especially by ‘historiography’, an expansive term which seems to encompass everything about ‘writing’ history, yet draws back under the critical gaze of some historians at the ‘doing’ of history.

Figure 3. Making a traditional recipe today (author’s photo)

Particularly welcome in the Recipes Project has been the pioneering and  positive approach towards the reconstruction of recipes [Figure 3]. As in the theatrical context (see Johnson, 2015), the recreation of living history, though not without drawbacks, brings greater appreciation of both emotive and technical aspects of culture, adding considerable value in interpretation of archives.

A great forum for knotty issues 

For me, the study of historical recipes brings together so many social, cultural, economic and material aspects, that it is not surprising that historiography can be a challenge to articulate, let alone develop. I found that criticising other people’s historical approaches was easier than defining my own perspective. In my research I drew on a wide range of archival sources relating to an individual household, and I was glad to find others describing such a ‘micro-history’ style of working, recognising ‘ragged accounts’ in medical history research (Burnham, 2005, p.141). In further recognition of the importance of context, Wendy Wall (2015) writes of ‘knotty’ (p.91) issues raised by recipes, well illustrating the way in which these need to be carefully teased out. Trying to pin down accurate characterization of historical methods and frameworks is not a small task, but the Recipes Project can provide a great forum for such an endeavour. Long may the Recipes Project, and its tireless editors, continue to offer a rich feast of knotty historical recipe research.

Burnham, John C. What Is Medical History? Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

Johnson, Katherine M. ‘Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography’. Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193–206.

Stobart, Anne. Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Reading the London Cries: how to analyse food sellers in art

By Charlie Taverner (Birkbeck, University of London)

This post is part of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food (IEHCA) series “Summer University on Food and Drink Studies”

Across early modern Europe, wandering food sellers were a multimedia phenomenon. From the sixteenth century, artists captured street vendors in poems, plays, songs and – most famously – printed pictures. The cries, as the genre of visual art became known, showed hawkers selling everything from artichokes and apples, oranges to oysters, turnips to tripe. For historians, a suite of such images, like Marcellus Laroon’s 1687 ‘The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life’, seems a gift. Its characters open a window on rarely represented parts of everyday life: city streets and food.

Helped by early historians, the cries have been entrenched in urban legend. In Victorian England, Charles Hindley collected hundreds of the ‘ancient and far-famed London Cries’. He saw these traders as timeless symbols of the metropolis, from ‘the days of Queen Elizabeth’ to his own. Just two years ago, The Gentle Author of Spitalfields claimed the cries revealed an essential truth about such sellers: ‘… they do not need your sympathy, they only want your respect – and your money.’

Such romance has risks, as scholars, especially art historians, have warned. Sean Shesgreen, in his comprehensive survey of the English cries tradition, argued the images were not ‘transparent reflections of historical reality’. From the late seventeenth century, he suggested, the cries ‘inexorably evolve in the direction, not of increasing realism, but of increasing idealism’. In her lecture to the IEHCA’s summer school this year, Valérie Boudier proposed a sounder approach for using early modern pictures of food. Breaking down vibrant works, such as Vincenzo Campi’s ‘The Bean Eaters’ and Annibale Carracci’s ‘Butcher’s Shop’, she suggested food historians interrogate not the images’ truthfulness, but the artistic conventions and symbolic meanings they contain.

Marcellus Laroon, ‘Crab Crab any Crab’, 1688. British Museum, London.

This approach can be applied to Laroon’s suite. Take, for example, his crab seller. At first glance, the picture reveals much about the women who peddled seafood in seventeenth-century London, perhaps nearby the artist’s Covent Garden workshop. Looking for information on the food trade, we might draw out the crab seller’s age, clothes, shallow basket, and purposeful stride. Most obviously – as we are interested in food – we could look more closely at the dozens of crustaceans, balanced on her head.

But in several ways the crab seller is not, as the suite’s title claims, ‘Drawn after the Life’. Many of Laroon’s characters have the same face, which makes them more mannequins than people. They are extracted from the street and set against a blank background. Notice too that the crab seller’s cry, printed at the page bottom, is translated into French and Italian. It reminds us these images, priced at half a guinea for the set of up to 74, were destined for an international market, with copies surviving in Paris and Amsterdam. Influences also flowed the other way. Not only was Laroon Dutch-born and –trained, his suite owed a debt, in its structure and the resemblance of its characters, to a Parisian set, drawn a year or two earlier by Jean-Baptiste Bonnart. The briefest scan through a survey of the European cries, such as Karen Beall’s 1975 bibliography, shows that common characters, selling familiar foods, cropped up time and again across the continent.

So, what can such images reveal? If we concentrate on form, it seems that artists and their audiences were interested in order. By arranging the criers in a grid, suite or illustrated book, they were classifying the street life of the city. Boisterous wanderers were dragged into the rigidity of the artist’s system. This tendency is part of a broader interest, across Europe at this time, of representing social groups in quasi-scientific hierarchies. But the structure also hints at a particular urban concern: contemporaries, especially in London and Paris, were grappling with the disorientating complexity of their fast-expanding cities.

With the crab-seller, we could also consider gender. In the cries, many roving vendors were drawn as young, attractive women, even if the actual labour split was more balanced. In an image like the crab-seller, two ideas are in tension. In one view, female hawkers are legitimate business folk, who keep the city fed; in another, they are scorned as temptresses, whose siren-like calls, such as ‘Crab Crab any Crab’, are stuffed with innuendo. On the streets of London, women traders had a similarly ambiguous position, as Eleanor Hubbard has argued. They were watched with suspicion on the margins of official markets, but also feared as food-selling rivals.

Depictions of those that sold food are deep, valuable sources, if they are used carefully. Bound up in artistic traditions, they cannot tell us what and how people ate, in the manner of a photograph. But, by concentrating on the symbols used and the way these images were produced, we can unpick past attitudes to not just food – but nascent metropolitan life.


Beall, Karen. Kaufrufe und Straßenhändler: Eine Bibliographie / Cries and Itinerant Trades: A Bibliography. Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1975.

Hindley, Charles. A History of the Cries of London (Ancient & Modern). London, 1884.

Hubbard, Eleanor. City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Shesgreen, Sean. Images of the outcast: The urban poor in the Cries of London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Charlie Taverner is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. His project examines the experience of selling food in the street in early modern London, with particular focus on urban space and informality. Trained as a journalist, he has covered business, food and agriculture for British magazines and newspapers. He blogs at and tweets @charlietaverner.

Cookbooks, nationalism and gastronationalism

By Venetia Congdon, Astra Spalvena, Dominika Zagrodzka

This post is part of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food (IEHCA) series “Summer University on Food and Drink Studies”

Few of us anticipated the extraordinary week we spent in Tours for the IEHCA’s Summer School on Food and Drink. It broadened our minds and made us aware of the many subjects of research in food studies today. Here, the authors would like to discuss a common theme of their research: the relationship between cookbooks and nationalism. Venetia Congdon researches the role of food in the contemporary Catalan nationalist and secessionist movement. Astra Spalvena studies Latvian cookbooks; from the first compilations of translated recipes published in 1795 to the coffee-table books of 2012. Dominika Zagrodzka researches Polish culinary tourism and food as cultural heritage.

Nationalism has once again come to the forefront of world politics, demonstrating its enduring power as an ideology. Cultural manifestations of the nation, including food and drink, take on new and increasingly important meanings. As everyday objects, they are tools through which to express and channel complex ideas about nationhood in a simple, relatable way.

La Cuynera Catalana

Since the inception of contemporary Catalan nationalism in the nineteenth century, cookbooks have played a role in the movement. The first explicitly Catalan cookbook was La Cuynera Catalana (Anonymous, 1833-35), contemporaneous with the beginnings of the Catalan literary resurgence. The next significant cookbook was La Cuyna Catalana, in 1907, by Josep Conill de Bosch. Its introduction makes it clear that the premise for the cookbook was world domination. Good food eaten with pleasure, leads to better digestion, and stronger people. In 1928, an even more obviously nationalist cookbook appeared, the Llibre de Cuina Catalana, by Ferran Agulló. Agulló was a politician and journalist, who made a still-famous statement in this work: “Catalonia, just as it has a language, a right, customs, its own history and a political ideal, so it has a cuisine”. So, by the 1930s, cuisine (and cookbooks) were clear standard-bearers of Catalanism, though the hardships of Civil War, and Franco’s anti-Catalan policies affected Catalan cuisine. However, Franco-era cookbooks were places where sentiments of Catalan difference could be covertly expressed. Today, cookbooks are part of a large market of books on Catalan culture, which has grown in the last few years in response to the pro-independence movement.

The Kaucminde School, from “The Work of Kaucminde Alumnae 1925 – 1938”

Latvian cuisine evolved as an interaction between Latvian peasant food and gastronomic traditions of Baltic German manors. The crucial point in the formation of a national cuisine was the 1930s when endeavours to strengthen Latvian national identity involved also reflection on culinary heritage and its use in modern world. Favourable social and economic conditions encouraged cookbook publishers to focus not only on modernization but also on nationalism. The nationalistic politics of president Karlis Ulmanis’s authoritative regime (1934-1940) was a further spur. In a time of economic growth when the newly-evolved middle-class demanded new living standards, Latvian national cuisine was localised in the renowned school of home economics Kaucminde, whose students continued to educate the nation at large: writing modern cookbooks, publishing recipes in magazines, organizing seminars, travelling across the countryside to popularize contemporary household management, and systematizing culinary knowledge. The cookbooks of the 1930s emphasized the use of local products, the modernization of local culinary habits, and modern nutritional science. Rational and practical approaches to nourishment dominated over the excesses and luxury of the past. This nutritional approach became a good basis on which Soviet ideologists, following Latvia’s occupation after World War II, started to develop Soviet cuisine. However, Latvian national food and cookbooks of the 1930s experienced a renaissance after the state regained independence in 1990. 

Kaucminde Christmas table. Illustration from “The Work of Kaucminde Alumnae 1925 – 1938”

The oldest Polish cookbook is Compendium ferculorum by Stanislav Czerniecki (1682), a book for professionals. The recipes provide a perfect example of how rich Polish people ate in the 17th century, characterised by plenty of spices, sweet and sour flavourings, and attractive presentation. The author was inspired by both French cooks and local ingredients. The next national cookbook to appear was Wojciech Wieladko’s Excellent Cook (1786). The recipes were simpler, based on French La cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon (1746). In 19th century, there were many cooking guides written by women for women. The most popular were by Lucyna Ćwierczakiewicz and Karolina Nakwaska. The  20th century was characterised by eating cheap, quick and healthy food. As in Latvia, Soviet ideologists also encouraged this. After the political and social transformation of 1989, Poles were impressed by food from other cultures, but have since revalued their culinary heritage. Modern chefs are interested in restoring old tastes and reviving culinary heritage, for instance Maciej Nowicki’s work at the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów, involving the reproduction of recipes from Compendium ferculorum and cultivating heritage vegetables.

As anthropologist  Arjun Appadurai has pointed out, cookbooks tell unusual tales in complex civilizations. Cookbooks, and the cuisines they represent, are often means for government actors seeking to assert a particular worldview. Yet they are also the representation of grass roots initiatives, such as the first Catalan cookbook, and the Latvian Kaucminde. They are educational tools, for bettering the health of the nation. And finally, today, they are connections with a national past, and objects of global consumerism.

Venetia Congdon completed her doctorate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2015. For her thesis, she studied how Catalans use food to express national identity. She is currently a post-doctoral research associate with the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include the intersections between national identity and cuisine, and the lived reality of nationalist movements in Europe.

Astra Spalvena is a lecturer at “RISEBA” University of Business, Arts and Technology in Riga, Latvia. She teaches courses on Media Semiotics and Food Advertising among others. She defended her PhD on historical and cultural aspects of Latvian food. Currently Astra studies the history of Latvian cookbooks with a focus on reflections of ideological dimensions and power structures. Another area of her research is Soviet cuisine and especially the role of public catering in imposing soviet ideology on territories incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War II.

Dominika Zagrodzka is a doctoral student in Cultural Science on Faculty of Philology of the Silesian University. She also graduated in Political Science on Faculty of Social Sciences. She is interested in food studies and has attended many conferences on the topic. She conducts researches on Polish contemporary food culture. Her thesis is about food as cultural heritage in Polish culture. She plans to create an academic magazine about anthropology of food.

LAW and TASTE book: Proposition for a Speculative Recipe

By Andrea Pavoni

LAW and TASTE book – Law and the Senses Series (University of Westminster Press)

About the series

The Westminster Law and Theory Lab is developing the Law and the Senses series, a project involving publishing five small edited book (University of Westminster Press), one for each sense, both available for free download as epub as well as sold in print, on demand, as “pocket size” (178mm x 111mm). The series is about questioning senses as subject of law and the extent to which law and its normativity is shaped by senses. The series are designed to include contributions from diverse backgrounds and explore the relationships between normativity, ordering and senses. It is not addressed to lawyers and, actually, it seeks to attract the widest possible range of contributions. In fact, we are looking for geographers, artists, philosophers, poets, gastronomes, psychoanalysts, speculative and non-speculative realists etc. etc. We are interested in exploring the materiality and spatiality of law, its gaseous normativity, its anaesthetic self-sterilisation in its unavoidable synaesthetic immersion in space, or, again, its touching, tasting, smelling the world or indeed the way in which it can be seen, smelled, swallowed, law’s impossible attempt to escape the sensible or its relation with the sensuous biopolitics of contemporary capitalism, etc. This call, for the conference we are holding this November, may give you a quick idea of what I meant  In 2013 we already published a small online issue on this subject, as a way to test the possibility of the book itself, you can find it here, the introduction is, again, quite useful the get an idea of what our project is about.

Proposition for a speculative recipe

We begin from an assumption, namely, that the various social, economical, political, affective, environmental etc. forces, structures, and power relations that normatively shape the way in which food is produced, distributed and consumed in the world, are somehow crystallised and enshrined in the very event of taste. True, normally they remain hidden, insofar as they escape the sensible parameters of human perception. Yet, what if we reconfigure taste as a tool for augmenting gustatory/speculative ability so as to grasp (to put it in Althusserian jargon) the position that an individual tasting event occupies within such a complex agro-socio-industrial system? What if we do so with special attention to its relation with the Law, in a legal, socio-cultural, chemical, geographical sense? This proposition challenge you to envisage a super-brief contribution, that is, a food/drink recipe (real or invented, realistic or fantastic, utopian or dystopian, joyful or macabre, artistic or scientific) able to gesture towards the configuration tentatively sketched above. This would be ideally accompanied by a very short explanatory comment (from few lines to few pages, up to you). It would be also a way, we think, to challenge the ongoing reduction of recipes to mere how-to instructions (what is a recipe if not the gastro-normative artefact par excellence?) and rather repurpose them as tools to increase sensory perception and speculative knowledge: speculative recipes, that is, in which the split between taste as knowledge (judgement) and taste as sensation is somehow reconfigured. You may also (you are indeed encourage to) use pictures. This contribution should reach us by the beginning of December. If interested, please email to discuss your idea.