You’re Invited! Brunch at the CLGA

Today, Michael Pereira of the Canadian Lesbian + Gay Archives shares some of the outstanding items in their Toronto-based collections, including a wide range of recipe books. A version of this post will also appear on the CLGA blog.

Michael Pereira

When it comes to meals, brunch is the queerest of them all. I may not have the empirical evidence to back up this claim, but I would bet that brunch is itself a queer invention. It’s not quite early enough to be breakfast nor does it have the requisite midday feel to be lunch. It’s boldly in-between. It foregoes traditional boundaries and crosses widely agreed upon lines—just like the queer folk among us.

It was clear to me  where I needed to look when asked to feature the Canadian Lesbian + Gay Archives’ collection of cookbooks. With heavenly hybrids of breakfast and lunch fare, brunch is the most versatile meal of them all. It’s also a perfect opportunity to pop open your finest (or cheapest—we don’t judge) bottle of champagne before 11am! Catch your local drag queens and kings for drag brunch at a queer-friendly cafe, restaurant, or early-rising bar on a Sunday morning for a different kind of spiritual experience.

Fig. 1. Illustration from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha'Ar Zahav, 1987). Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 1. Illustration from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha’Ar Zahav, 1987). Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

The CLGA is the world’s largest independent LGBTQ2+ archive. Established by The Body Politic’s editorial board in 1973, it maintains a vast collection of records, artifacts, artwork, periodicals, and books generously donated by members of our communities that are available for the public to learn from. Our collections have been meticulously archived largely by and for LGBTQ2+ people, many of whom dedicate their time on a volunteer basis. The cookbooks featured here are held in our James Fraser Library, named in honour of the late James Fraser, an early member of the Canadian Gay Liberation Archives who logged over 500 hours of volunteer service in just one year.

 

Fig. 2. Cover of Lou Rand Hogan, The Gay Cookbook (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965). Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 2. Cover of Lou Rand Hogan, The Gay Cookbook (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965). Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

You can find cookbooks that range from informative to campy by a wide range of authors in and out of drag. This includes:

  • The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Alice B. Toklas (1954)
  • Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (1987)
  • But Can She Cook? by Christopher North (1993)
  • Healthy Eating Makes a Difference: A Food Resource Book for People Living with HIV by Sheila Murphy (1993)
  • Be Gay! Eat Gay!: The Gay of Cooking by The Kitchen Fairy (1982)
  • The Gay Cookbook by Chef Lou Rand Hogan (1965)
  • Cookin’ With Honey: What Literary Lesbians Eat edited by Amy Scholder (1996)
  • La Gay Gourmet by Carl Mueller (1983)
  • The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living by Honey van Campe (1996)
Fig. 3. Covers from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha'Ar Zahav, 1987); Be Gay! Eat Gay! The Gay of Cooking (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982); Honey Van Campe, The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living (New Orleans: Pontalba Press, 1996). Images courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 3. Covers from Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking (San Francisco: Congregation Sha’Ar Zahav, 1987); Be Gay! Eat Gay! The Gay of Cooking (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982); Honey Van Campe, The Drag Queen’s Cookbook & Guide to Sensible Living (New Orleans: Pontalba Press, 1996). Images courtesy of CLGA.

 

So call up your besties, try-out some of the recipes that follow, and have a gay ol’ time!

 

“Kaffi’s Corn Bread” from But Can She Cook?

Don’t be afraid to get a little corny for your brunch party! A fabulous line-up of drag queens pose for glamour shots alongside their favourite eats in this cookbook published in support of Casey House Hospice, established in 1988 as Canada’s first stand-alone hospital for people with HIV/AIDS.

Fig. 4. “Kaffi’s Corn Bread,” from Christopher North, “But Can She Cook?” (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, 1993) 45. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 4. “Kaffi’s Corn Bread,” from Christopher North, But Can She Cook? (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, 1993) 45. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

“Oeufs Francis Picabia” from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book 

Fig. 5. Cover of The Alice B Toklas Cook Book (London: Brilliance Books, 1987) and Alice B. Toklas, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Images courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 5. Cover of The Alice B Toklas Cook Book (London: Brilliance Books, 1987) and Alice B. Toklas, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Images courtesy of CLGA.

Alice B. Toklas’ cookbook is a charcuterie board of the who’s who of 20th century art and culture in France. It includes recipes and anecdotes featuring Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and, as the name of this dish suggests, Francis Picabia. “The only painter who ever gave me a recipe was Francis Picabia and though it is only a dish of eggs it merits the name of its creator,” Toklas explains.

Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan—yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning the eggs with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities 1\2 lb. butter—not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

 

The Cooking Fairy’s “Queerberry Crepes” from Be Gay! Eat Gay!

On a cold wintry morning wrap yourself up in the warm, tender love and care of these silky strawberry crepes.

Fig. 6. “Queerberry Crepes” from Be Gay! Eat Gay!: The Gay of Cooking by The Kitchen Fairy (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982). Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 6. “Queerberry Crepes” from Be Gay! Eat Gay!: The Gay of Cooking by The Kitchen Fairy (Laguna Beach: Fairy Publications, 1982). Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

Michelle DuBarry’s “City Park Apple Tart” from But Can She Cook?

Any good meal must be topped off with a sweet treat. For dessert we have a recipe for a delectable apple tart from the legendary Canadian queen Michelle DuBarry.

Fig. 7. “Michelle DuBarry’s City Park Apple Tart,” from Christopher North, “But Can She Cook?” (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, c. 1993) 53. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.
Fig. 7. “Michelle DuBarry’s City Park Apple Tart,” from Christopher North, “But Can She Cook?” (Toronto: Bittersweet Press, c. 1993) 53. Photography by George Leet. Image courtesy of CLGA.

 

Bon Appétit!

That’s all we have on the menu today friends! Join us at the CLGA to feast your eyes on the rest of our collection and visit us at clga.ca for more information. You can sign-up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, too, to follow along as we continue to preserve and tell the stories of LGBTQ2+ people in Canada.

Regulations and Realities: Standardizing Diets in British Prisons

By Jess Clark

“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain
“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain

I was recently in the British Library, and among the sources that came across my desk was a small, thin text published in 1902: Manual of Cooking & Baking for the Use of Prison Officers. Compiled by Britain’s Prison Commission (est. 1877), it offered suggestions on selecting ingredients, preparing food, and serving different classes of inmates. As the preface noted, the text served to meet recommendations of the Departmental Committee on Prison Dietaries of 1899, stating that all prisons should receive the same guide “for everyday reference for the Cook and Baker.”

 

Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.
Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

 

The text aligns with moves, from the early nineteenth century, to reform prison conditions in Britain in both local and convict institutions. As many historians have noted, institutional reform was a key focus of the period, with a broad range of writers and observers weighing in on optimal conditions of inmates. This led to increasing regulation and overseeing of Britain’s prison system, albeit in ways that didn’t necessarily guarantee prisoner comforts so much as set increasingly stringent policies. These attempts at uniformity extended to food, and directives in 1843, 1864, and 1878 recommended standardized prison diets comprised of “bread, gruel, potatoes, meat, soup and cocoa.” However, this was enforced in a piecemeal fashion, and not all local and convict prison officials abided by dietary suggestions.[i] By the late nineteenth century, reform initiatives like the Gladstone Committee of 1894-1895 continued to scrutinize British inmate diets. Members offered a number of suggestions, including revised recipes for dishes like “stirabout,” a gruel-like concoction of Indian meal (or maize), oatmeal, and salt that was reportedly refused by three-quarters of inmates.[ii] 

It was in this spirit, then, that Manual of Cooking & Baking appeared, in yet another effort to uniformly administer prison diets across Britain. The 1902 text outlines a relatively robust set of instructions on the selecting, cooking, and serving of food. First, cooks and bakers were responsible for attaining and inspecting ingredients. Beef, fish, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, bacon, fowl, vegetables, peas, beans, ice, sugar, tea, wheat, and oatmeal were to be examined and carefully measured for freshness, size or weight, and overall quality. Readers were then instructed on the official methods of cooking in H.M. Prisons, which consisted of “boiling, steaming, baking, roasting, stewing, broiling, and frying,” the latter three primarily confined to “Hospital or Sick-room Cookery” (45).

Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Having procured desirable ingredients and employed various cooking methods, what did prison cooks serve for inmates’ daily meals? From 1899, local and convict prison diets were divided into five categories – Diets A, B, C, D, and E – with food diversity and allowance increasing with each letter. The meanest of diets, Diet A, consisted of bread and either gruel, porridge, potatoes, or suet pudding.[iii] Diet B added cooked meat to the mix, as well as beans and soup. Diet C received tea instead of gruel, with breakfast and cocoa for supper. Finally, Diets D and E received similar foodstuffs but in greater quantities, as they applied to male convicts assigned to labour details.

The designation of diets depended on the length of stay of inmates: the longer the stay, the richer and more diverse the diet.[iv] The lack of variety and quality of food for short-term inmates was to dissuade “temptation to the loafer or mendicant,” who reportedly got themselves thrown in prison for the steady meals.[v] Meanwhile, long-stay male labourers received a seemingly varied diet: bread and butter, potatoes, fat bacon, cooked mutton, pea soup with pork, cocoa, and cheese. If we are to believe the cooking instructions, these dishes were prepared in sanitary conditions with acceptable cuts and ingredients, under the careful watch of a state-appointed cook or baker.

However, as we know, what’s written in guidebooks and prescriptive literature doesn’t always reflect the realities of life on the ground. Food functioned in the institutional setting as a mode of control and bodily regulation of incarcerated subjects, a trend that is clear in alternate accounts of prison life. For example, the anonymous author of 1877’s Five Years Penal Servitude by One who has Endured it described a common punishment for unruly behavior—“smashing the teapot”—in which an inmate’s tea was traded out for gruel until he regained his standing.[vi] During the Gladstone Committee, inmates complained of the nauseating quality of foods, which caused diarrhea and other digestive ailments. Meanwhile, following his release from Reading Gaol in 1897, Oscar Wilde described the systematic underfeeding of child prisoners. Such trends were supposed to diminish following the circulation of texts like Manual on Cooking & Baking, yet no doubt endured in some institutions.[vii] In this way, prison dietary guides speak to objectives rather than material conditions, laying bare potential disjunctures between recipes and realities.

 

[i] See, for example, Michelle Higgs, Prison Life in Victorian England (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), Chapter 7; and Sean McConville, A History of English Prison Administration (New York: Routledge, 2016) 303-305.

[ii] Higgs, Chapter 7; McConville, 313.

[iii] This diet replaced the “No. 1 Diet,” a category dating from the mid-century. It was a restrictive diet of gruel which, as historians note, could result in death if misapplied to short-term inmates doing labor. McConville, 306-307, 310-313.

[iv] Diet A applied to those serving seven days and under; Diet B came into effect after seven days; and Diet C came into effect after four months stay, for the remainder of an inmate’s term.

[v] Quoted in McConville, 690. Men, women, and minors received the same diets, albeit in different quantities with women receiving less food overall (save for Diets F and G, designed for female convicts and allowing two ounces of golden syrup with suet pudding for “those female convicts who desire it”).

[vi] Five Years’ Penal Servitude by One Who Has Endured it (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878), 86.

[vii] Higgs, Chapter 7.

First Monday Library Chat: The David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection

Welcome to the September 2018 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month we travel to Tuscaloosa and speak with Kate Matheny, Reference Services & Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections at University of Alabama Libraries.

Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

 

The Lupton Collection is a key holding at the University of Alabama Libraries. Could you give us an overview of the collection?

The Lupton Collection documents African American foodways writing, a spectrum that ranges from professionally published cookbooks and food memoirs to recipe collections self-published by community groups or families. The earliest volume is The House Servant’s Directory, published in 1827, and the latest are from the twenty-first century. It’s a collection of over 450 books—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it very much is. Consider the factors that might prevent such books from being written, especially in the nineteenth century: low literacy rates, a historically improvisational method taught person-to-person, or the pragmatic need for someone working as a cook to safeguard his or her livelihood. That’s to say nothing of barriers to publishing cookbooks by black authors and the reality that some early works may have simply been lost over time.

Mother Africa's Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Mother Africa’s Table, 1999. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

The collection contains some cookbooks authored by whites, including corporate collections featuring figures like Aunt Jemima and nostalgic works by Southerners purporting to share the recipes of family servants. Including these in the collection may seem strange, but for a time these were the only works attempting to set down African American food culture, all while typifying stereotypical portrayals that black cookbook authors were working to combat. But the bulk of the collection is from the mid to late twentieth century, written by African Americans or on their behalf. It’s hard to sum up all the themes that run through the collection, but in many ways they reflect the currents of modern black history. For example, you can see the consequences of the Great Migration as well as the paradigm shift of the Black Pride movement. Two of the biggest recent trends are adjusting traditional soul food to combat health problems like heart disease and diabetes and highlighting the connection to African foodways and diaspora cuisines like Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian.

For those of us interested in the history of archives, can you tell us a bit about the Collection founder David Lupton?

Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Freda DeKnight, The Ebony Cookbook, 1962. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

David Lupton was an academic librarian who became a diligent bibliographer of early African American cookbooks, even after his retirement. According to his wife, Dorothy, his interest in the subject sprang from his purchase of a black-authored cookbook at a flea market and subsequent realization that such items were rare and hard to find. He became passionate about finding a way to document—as well as collect and preserve—these artifacts of African American culture.

I think knowing the rationale behind the collection is actually important in understanding how to use it. The Lupton collection is historical and academic, which is a different thing entirely from a personal collection accumulated by a cook. For example, we recently catalogued a large donation of cookbooks belonging to Viola Pearson Ragland, an African American woman from north Alabama. Some of those items overlap with Lupton, but not as many as one might think. Since they are books she owned and used, the selection tends to be more eclectic, and it’s possible she didn’t need or perhaps want very many works on African American cooking. An academic collection will naturally be more focused, as it is curated for posterity and for study, but it is not as reflective of actual use.

Can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

These may not be the most “important,” but they are certainly favorites, and they’re pretty representative of what’s compelling about the collection.

Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

When I teach, I often bring out Cookin’ with Coolio (2009). People don’t expect a rapper to have anything to say about cooking, but that’s precisely why I like it. Coolio did collaborate with a chef, but the aim of the cookbook and the tone are all his. He talks about growing up poor in inner city Los Angeles and learning to improvise with the ingredients he could find, including things as simple as canned tuna and white bread. It leads to pragmatic recipes with funny names, like, “Your Ribs Is Too Short to Box with God” and “Really? Corn Salad?” The book looks like a joke—on the cover, he calls himself the “Ghetto Gourmet”—but it’s a real cookbook with its own unique personal and cultural perspective. As a teaching tool, it asks us to evaluate kneejerk assumptions and provides a good entry point for a discussion about food and class.

Introduction from Ruth Jackson's Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Introduction from Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook, 1978. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

I also like Ruth Jackson’s Soulfood Cookbook (1978). It’s a self-published, spiral-bound volume put together on Jackson’s behalf by someone who clearly knows and loves her. Though the text is written in the third person, it asserts that “Ruth Jackson wrote this book.” After all, the recipes and all the intangible things that helped shape them — her small Georgia hometown, her church, her family — are hers. Interspersed are sketches and candid photographs, and there’s an essay in the back on the history of the local black community. Recipes are fairly simple, but it’s clear she has put her own spin on things. Two unusual recipes that stand out are “Cornmeal Gingerbread” and “Devil Chicken.”

This month, we are featuring a Teaching Series here at the Recipes Project. Can you tell us about some of the ways that you’ve used the Lupton Collection in the classroom?

Interior from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries
Interior image from Cooking with Coolio, 2009. Image courtesy of Lupton Collection, University of Alabama Libraries

What impresses me about teaching with cookbooks in general is how versatile they are. I didn’t set out to become the “cookbook person” at my archive; I just ended up with frequent instruction requests for the Lupton Collection — from half a dozen departments, including English, Anthropology, and History. There are so many things to analyze in a cookbook. The rhetoric of the text and the iconography of the visuals tell some of the story. The organization reveals a lot about the particular cuisine and the cook’s approach to it. The format and level of detail in the directions changes over time and indicates what kind of kitchen facilities the average cook had and who was doing the cooking. Even the ingredients are revealing, giving insight into the foods available at the time and the socioeconomic class of the audience.

In my experience, cookbooks also level the playing field for student discussion. Everyone eats, and most people have done some cooking at some point, so cookbooks feel very easy to approach. Deceptively so, I think. Students don’t get intimidated, so it’s easier to engage them in analysis and discussion. The instructor can tie them to complex ideas they’ve been discussing in class, and I can help them develop critical thinking and information literacy skills. To address the Lupton Collection specifically, it’s always interesting for students to see how much of traditional Southern cuisine has its roots in African American cuisine. It opens up an interesting dialogue.

Can you offer any tips to help users locate Lupton resources via your catalog, online, or finding aids?

We don’t have a formal finding aid for them as such, but this webpage has a comprehensive alphabetical list. You can also find the cookbooks in a search of our catalogue. If you’re interested Lupton’s bibliography, which also includes items that are not in the collection, it can be found in an appendix to collaborator Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (Oxford University Press, 1999). However, it is nearly 20 years old, so it doesn’t include one important early work that hadn’t yet been discovered: Malinda Russell‘s Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (Paw Paw, Mich., 1866).

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!

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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.