Teaching Recipes as Pattern Recognition

By Rob Wakeman, Mount Saint Mary College

In the throes of research, we often compile so much information we don’t know what to do with it. It’s not our fault, really. Working with recipe books takes us into so many wonderfully strange and intriguing corners of early modern material culture — it’s hard not to want to write about them all. I end up making circuitous spreadsheets of recipes, long meandering catalogs befitting an early modern naturalist. And so, during this summer’s research project, on migratory freshwater fish in seventeenth-century England, it often felt like I was looking at something akin to John Milton’s description of the River Trent, that

Earth-born giant [who] spreads /

His thirty arms along th’indented meads

At a Vacation Exercise, (ll. 93-94).

How do I get my hands around this monster? What do I do with these lists of fish? How does one make sense of this tangle of umber and umbrana, pike and pickerel, roach and loach, turbot and burbot?

Illustration from Mary Boutell, “Picture Natural History”, no. 224 (1869): The Pike-perch – sander. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately, I had help. Mount Saint Mary College provides excellent support for students who want to do research with faculty, offering a stipend and free summer housing. This summer two Mount students, Annalise and Tori, applied to work with me. Both students came in with a good background in early modern paleography. In addition to regularly participating in EMROC Transcribathons, Tori took my History of the English Language course, which features a paleography module as a key component, and Annalise completed an independent study on early modern neonatal medicine with me.

Although both Annalise and Tori have found paleography and the history of medicine useful in their respective museology and clinical psychology internships, I understand that most of my students generally do not find the study of recipes to be a “practical” application of the learning. Paleography and textual editing don’t directly relate to many to postgraduate plans or career goals, which tend to be pretty far afield from the literature and culture of the seventeenth century.

For that reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how the skills we learn through the examination of manuscript recipe books can translate to other fields… The careful patience and attention to detail required in the transcribing and editing of text… The creative problem solving necessary for the deduction of meaning and intent… The agility needed to place individual recipes in a larger cultural context, to connect the part to the whole and see the big picture through the particular example…

Going fishing in the archives… Frontispiece from Richard Brookes, The Art of Angling (1790). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But perhaps most of all, we talk about pattern recognition. What can you see that others might miss? How do the hidden patterns in recipes’ formal arrangement, lists of ingredients, and methods of preparation add up to something significant? Careful attention to the subtle structures of meaning is one of the most important skills we cultivate in the literature classroom, and recipe book culture offers a fertile field for this kind of analysis.

Compared with most of the literary texts we read in my class, the recipe books that we examine don’t come with a robust editorial apparatus that helps make sense of what they’re reading. Without an editor’s footlights to guide them, students have to pare down a massive amount of data into an intelligible pattern on their own. If we spend enough time comparing recipes, we learn how to read them on their own terms – why these ingredients are grouped together, why these sauces go with this meat, why this attribution is significant, and so forth. We did contextualize our research by reading a few articles each week, but ultimately this is an opportunity for students to devise for themselves the stories that can be told about recipe culture in early modern England.

Throughout the summer, the three of us met twice a week for six hours at a time to dig through manuscripts and discuss our findings. We don’t have institutional access to EEBO, ECCO, or Project Muse. And we don’t have any recipe books of our own in rare books collection. But thankfully many research libraries — such as the Folger, Iowa, UCLA, UPenn, the Wellcome —  have digitized many of their manuscript recipe books. Even though our college has limited research resources, online access to these archives gives students the valuable opportunity to work with primary source materials. We are also lucky enough to be a short train ride away from one of the great public libraries in the world. A New York Public Library card not only gives students access to a range of databases free of charge, it also allows them to work with the Whitney Cookery Collection.

Over ten weeks, we ended up examining 101 manuscript recipe books and twenty-eight printed cookbooks that dated from 1380 to 1780. We transcribed and analyzed 584 freshwater fish recipes in total.

Fish pies, image from Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (1660).

Emerging patterns in sturgeon recipes proved to be one of our most interesting findings, as we noticed they became much more common after 1660. Initially, I thought this could be explained by the influence of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), with its parade of thirty-three recipes for sturgeon baked, boiled, braised, fileted, forced, fried, soused, stewed, and stuffed. But while print cookbooks show a remarkable variety of preparations for fresh sturgeon, the manuscript recipes we found were almost exclusively pickles, perhaps a side effect of increased imports of sturgeon in brine barrels from Russia and North American colonies. Doubtlessly at play, as well, is a Restoration nostalgia for the royal feasts of yesteryear.

Sturgeon, in Rev. W. Houghton, British fresh water fishes (illus. A. F. Lydon), 1879. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons and Biodiversity Library.

The late-seventeenth century yearning for sturgeon – an expensive fish uncommon in English waters – can also be seen in a set of recipes for dishes “pickled like sturgeon.” The earliest of the sixteen such recipes that we came across were in the The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669): “to souce turkeys” tied “up in the manner of Sturgeon” and another for an “Excellent Meat of Goose or Turkey” put “into pickle, like Sturgeon-pickle.” Turkey is the most common substitute for sturgeon in these recipes, but salmon, turbot, veal, and calf’s head are also transformed into “artificial sturgeon.”

But these recipes were also met with some trepidation. Annalise hit upon a recipe for “Artificiall Stergon” in the cookery book of Lettis Vesey (Folger MS W.b.456, fols. 140-41). Following instructions to pickle a turbot or turkey, Vesey admits,

I like sturgon very well but I dont know how I should like this.

Recipe collectors clearly gathered together many recipes despite not knowing how many would be useful for their endeavors. In humanities research, we often find ourselves embracing that same spirit, following the interesting and intriguing instead of the obvious as we search for emerging patterns that others have missed.

What We’re Reading This Fall

By Jess Clark

The abundance of fantastic historical writing—from insightful social media and blog posts to traditional academic monographs to op eds—means that most of us aren’t lacking interesting things to read. At times, though, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on important pieces, new books, or forgetting about germinal texts. This month, I decided to check in with some of the Editors here at the Recipes Project to find out what everyone’s reading in the coming weeks. Here are just a few of their suggestions, from their bookshelves and browsers to you.


Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Basic Books, 1985)

In this classic study, Cowan charts the industrialization of housekeeping through a variety of new technologies designed to improve the experience of female homemakers: “washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton.” However, as she masterfully argues, these technologies actually served to replace the labour of other figures, like men and children, rather than lessen the amount of time devoted by women to maintaining the home.

Lisa Fagin Davis, “
Why Do People Keep Convincing themselves they’ve Solved this Medieval Mystery?” at The Washington Post

Davis unpacks the ongoing fascination with the Voynich Manuscript, an early fifteenth-century codex housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Written in an “unknown collection of symbols” and featuring illustrations of “realistic plants, circular zodiacal and astronomical diagrams,” the Manuscript has been subject to multiple attempts to decipher its mysterious code. However, “[b]y beginning with their own preconceptions of what they want the Voynich to be,” argues Davis, many would-be interpreters’ “conclusions take them further from the truth.”


Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (Cornell UP, November 2019)

This is a bit of a cheat since the book isn’t out until November, but many RP readers are no doubt looking forward to contributor Rachel Herrmann’s new book on the role of food in Revolutionary America. Focusing on “hunger creation and prevention” as “tools of diplomacy and warfare,” this text will be a must-read for historians of food, recipes, conceptions of dearth and plenty, and the foundations of early America.


Michael W. Twitty, “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down,” on Afroculinaria

Award-winning author, chef, and historical interpreter Michael W. Twitty responds to negative online reviews of southern plantations, which criticize interpreters’ attention to slavery and its legacies. Writing of his own experiences as a historical educator, Twitty emphasizes that, in doing this work, he’s “performing an act of devotion to my Ancestors. This is not about your comfort, it’s about honoring their story on it’s own terms in context.”


Michael Walkden, “’Excrements of the Earth’: Mushrooms in Early Modern England,” on Shakespeare & Beyond

Walkden analyzes seventeenth-century English attitudes towards the eating of mushrooms, pointing to the ways fungi could, at various points, signify danger and treachery, continental excess, or filth and debasement. Pointing out their distinctiveness as a food type, he suggests that “[t]he hostility that many writers expressed towards mushrooms is perhaps reflective of the threat they posed to the order of things.”


What are you reading this Fall? We want to hear from you! Let us know here what sites, texts, and projects we should be featuring here at the Recipes Project.

On Paratext, Cookbooks, and No Useless Mouth

By Rachel Herrmann

Before I entered the final stages of revising my first book, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution, I had tried for reasons of sanity to compartmentalize the fun food stuff from the work food stuff. And then I came up against my final, self-imposed deadline and decided to blur the line between them. In this post, I want to explain why. During the editing process, I began to think about paratext. Although I don’t discuss the term “paratext” in my book, I think about it a lot when reading cookbooks and food writing. Paratext refers to the pieces of a book that are not part of its main body and can include epigraphs, chapter titles, and prefaces, as well as covers and blurbs. It can also refer to the index, even though Gerard Genette, who I cite here, did not include this in his definition of paratext; I would, especially now during a time when many of us compile our own to save money. This focus on paratext was not just about my manuscript, and linked to when I first started working on food and thinking about how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cookbook authors told readers how to feel about food from the moment they encountered a cookbook’s cover. I read cookbook prefaces to learn about intended audiences and errors in previous editions, and thought about the intentionality of an author’s recipe titles. I wanted a way to use paratext to do something similar for readers of No Useless Mouth.

Fig. 1. Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth, courtesy of Cornell University Press
Fig. 1. Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth, courtesy of Cornell University Press

A good cookbook teaches you a technique, uses it to make something delicious that works on the first attempt, and then uses that technique recipe as a base ingredient for other recipes in the book. A cookbook with excellent paratext tells you how to read the author’s recipes. Its preface tells the reader where to find specialty ingredients, instructs her to read the recipe once through before beginning to prep and cook, and explains how the author has indicated components that can be made ahead of time. For example, my most recent revelation is Andrea Nguyen’s caramel sauce in Vietnamese Food Any Day. This sauce becomes an ingredient that gets added by the teaspoon to subsequent recipes, like her (delicious) Coconut-Kissed Chicken and Chile. Let me just say: the caramel sauce recipe is a scary recipe on the first read. You’re instructed to cook caramel until it’s almost burned. As any amateur pastry or baking enthusiast will tell you, burnt caramel is nearly never the explicit goal of a recipe. But Nguyen makes you feel confident by showing you pictures of the beginning, middle, and end stages of the process. She also includes a genius hack to slow down the cooking process faster than I’ve ever been able to do: she has you fill your sink with an inch or two of ice water. And then when you start to panic that the caramel really is going to burn, you gently plonk the bottom of your saucepan in the sink! GENIUS! Nguyen writes recipes this way because she wants to teach you as you cook.

I wanted No Useless Mouth’s paratext to do similar work: to show readers how I undertook my research, to explain how they could replicate it, to provide signposts about navigating my ideas, and to suggest how some of the ideas I developed in the book could be used for other work on food history. I used the acknowledgements section of the book to tell readers a little bit about me as a cook and an eater. Sometimes when I meet people, they express reservations about going out to eat with me because they worry that I will dislike the food where we have gone. In my acknowledgments, I tried to make clear that although the food I eat with people at conferences and during non-work get-togethers matters to me, the company often matters more. I recall how conversations shaped my ideas and how the meal made me feel about them more than I remember the taste of what we ate.

Later in the process, when I was finishing the last round of edits on No Useless Mouth, my editor, Michael McGandy, asked me to write a bibliographic note—I suspect because I’d wanted a full bibliography and he wanted to keep the cost low by saving pages. I used the note to tell readers where I had traveled to do research, what travel current researchers could avoid, given the outpouring of digital databases with relevant primary source material, and what researchers should eat near the archives I visited if I thought travelling to them remained imperative. I suppose that the implicit argument in this part of my paratext is that research can be isolating, lonely, and all-consuming, but that using food to break up the monotony keeps it from being so.

The last piece of paratext I worked on was my index. This was the second index I’d compiled, and I took the advice of Sara Georgini, who has had lots of experience working on indexes for the Adams Papers: she described an index as an “on ramp to readers.” A good index allows you to enter a book slowly, get a sense of the subjects that inform and surround it, choose where you want to visit inside of it and then decide where to go next. The number of subheadings for a subject might suggest that these moments in the book are moments to get “stuck in.”[1] “See” informs readers that there’s a different term they should be using to search the index, and reveals the author’s opinions on navigating the subject. Cross-references (“See also”) provide another way to slow down and explore the backroads. This approach extends to cookbooks; Andrea Nguyen’s index is a great example of paratext that is informed by her overarching goal to teach. She seems to know intuitively that readers may remember a key ingredient in one of her recipes, but not necessarily the name of the recipe itself. Thus her Coconut-Kissed Chicken and Chile is indexed under “Chicken,” “Chile,” and “Coconut Water.”

More than anything, I wanted my index to teach readers that food and hunger are giant categories that require specificity. My food-related terms consequently include words like “animals” (which include edible animals like cattle and fish, but also crop-destroying animals like the Hessian fly). My entry for “food” includes verbs and nouns like butchering, gifts, marketing, markets, meals, preservation, rationing, spoilage, storage, and transportation, but readers will find “food diplomacy,” “food laws,” “food riots,” “food sovereignty,” and “foodstuffs” indexed, too. Among the foodstuffs you can read about you’ll find bacon (of course!), boiled bones, buttermilk, corn, mussels, purslane, spikenard root (said to prevent huger), and wild rice. My hunger-related terms include “appetite,” “eating,” “environmental problems” (including drought and crop failure), and “famine,” among others.

I have come to think of my paratext as adding an additional double layer of rigor and fun to the book. If you want to know how I became interested in food history, you can read my acknowledgments. If you’re wondering where I think there’s room for the field to grow, I’ve written about this in my conclusion. If you’re a student who wants to write an essay about food but is struggling to break “food” into more manageable themes, my index will help you to do so. If you’re a food studies scholar who, like me, is trying to pin down the distinction and overlap between food studies and food history, well, I can’t promise that my paratext will provide a single answer to this question, but I hope it will help to continue that conversation.


No Useless Mouth is available from Cornell University Press in November, 2019.

[1] I mean this phrase to include here both the British and the American possibilities. To get “stuck in” to something in Britain is to slow down, savor, and spend time.” To get “stuck in traffic” in American English is a less pleasant experience, but nevertheless encapsulates the possibility that readers will need to work slowly to wrap their heads around this subject.

From the Hearth to the Gas Stove: A Study in Apricot Marmalade

By Marissa Nicosia

The early modern hearth and the modern gas stove are rather different technologies for controlling heat. Again and again in my recipe recreation work for Cooking in the Archives, I encounter complex instructions for managing cooking temperatures on a hearth and try to translate those instructions to my own equipment. To what temperature should I set my oven? How high should I turn up the flame under the pot? What volume of water should I add when boiling water is called for and no volume is specified? How long should everything cook?

Early modern recipes trust that cooks know their hearth and ingredients well. Some recipes are very precise about weight and volume and others read like general concepts on which a cook might improvise as best suits their needs, inclinations, or tastes. Cooking these recipes on a hearth with variable fire types and temperatures demanded a skilled cook who could manage heat effectively.

This is the part of updating recipes that most challenges me: I have a PhD in English, but no formal culinary training. This is also the part of updating recipes where I have been most challenged by others. Members of the historical reenactment and historical interpretation communities have in turn urged me to try these recipes again on a hearth to taste the different flavors the fire instills and chastised me for attempting to cook these recipes without a hearth in the first place. As I grow as a cook and expand this project, I’m going to accept these kind invitations to cook alongside skilled recreators [1]. But Cooking in the Archives is a project designed to give all readers a taste of the past: even if those readers possess only the tiniest apartment stove. That’s the kind of stove that I had in my West Philadelphia rental when I launched the site with Alyssa Connell in 2014.

In order to cook these recipes on my stove, I have to determine some basic information: Is this something I should make on the stovetop or in the oven? In a pot, pan, or roasting dish? Is the recipe asking for water and should that water be boiled first or with the ingredients? To answer these questions, I naturally start with the recipes themselves. The phrases recipe writers use for the ferocity or gentleness of the fire are subtle, but informative. Then I look at recipes in modern cookbooks. The “Jumball” cookie mix looked like a shortbread cookie so I started with the oven temperature from a familiar cookie recipe and kept track of the time [2]. These are skills that I learned from baking growing up and cooking for myself while I was in graduate school, but not, exactly, skills that I learned in the academy. Neither humanities course work nor historical recreation holds all the answers for how to, say, make an apricot marmalade from a late-seventeenth-century culinary manuscript in a twenty-first century kitchen.

This recipe “To make Marmalaid of Apricocks” is from Ms. Codex 785 at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve prepared quite a few recipes from this specific manuscript, and this recipe, like a few others in the volume, derives from Hannah Woolley’s cookbook The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet (1670) [3]. This marmalade is both fragile and delicious. It needs the careful tending outlined in the original recipe. I have attempted to convey this level of care in my updated recipe at the end of this post.

To make Marmalaid of Apricocks

Take Apricocks, pare them and cut them in
quarters and to every pound of Apricocks
put a pound of fine Sugar, then put your
Apricocks in a Skillet with half the Sugar
and let them boil very tender, and gently, and
bruise them with the back of a Spoon, till they
be like pap, then take the other part of the
Sugar, and boil it to a Candy height, then put
your Apricocks into that Sugar, and keep it stirring
over the ffire, till all the sugar is meted, but
do not let it boil, then take it from the ffire,
and Stir it till it be almost cold, then put it
into Glasses, and let it have the Air of the
ffire to dry it.

Images 1 & 2 – The recipe in Ms. Codex 785, 6-7

The recipe asks you to boil the apricots with sugar until the fruit is so tender that it breaks down into a luscious pulp. Then the recipe instructs you to make a simple syrup of sugar and water and allow the mixture to come to candy height or what we would now call the soft-ball stage. Early modern cooks would have been especially skilled at the subtle art of watching sugar change under the influence of heat. The cook is next told to stir the apricot puree into the hot sugar over the fire and then off the fire until the mixture is almost cold. The final instruction: “and let it have the Air of the ffire to dry it” is the most evocative image for me. The preserved apricots in glass containers glowing in front of the hearth.

This apricot marmalade is delicious on toast, lightly crisped by the heat of a toaster oven or toaster, of course.


An Updated Recipe

8 apricots (7 oz, 200 g)

generous 2/3 cup sugar (7 oz, 200 g)

1/3 cup water

Peel the apricots, remove their pits, and cut them into quarters. Cook them to a pulp with half the sugar. The apricots will release their own juices so no water is necessary here. (Approximately 10 minutes.)

Make a simple syrup with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a saucepan. Use a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature and cook until it reaches candy height/pearl stage 240F on the thermometer. When the syrup has reached this temperature, add the cooked apricots to it. Stir to combine over the heat, but do not allow the mix to boil.

Remove from heat and stir as the mixture cools. Transfer into a clean jar. This amount of apricots and sugar nicely filled an 8oz jelly jar.

Keep refrigerated and eat within two weeks. (You can also properly can this for longer storage.)

[1] Johnson’s work in particular suggests what traditional academics can learn by spending time with reenactors and participating in reenactments. Katherine M. Johnson, “Rethinking (re)doing: historical re-enactment and/as historiography,” Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193-206.

[2] https://rarecooking.com/2014/09/19/my-lady-chanworths-receipt-for-jumballs/

[3] https://rarecooking.com/tag/ms-codex-785/