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/

What is your favourite recipe? Reflections on Day 2

Post by Laurence Totelin; Storify by Tallulah Maait Pepperell

The second day of our Virtual Conversation ‘What is a recipe?’ has been very busy indeed, with contributions on Instagram and Twitter. Some clear themes started to emerge, and I take the opportunity of this post to draw them out.

We opened the day by asking people to share photos of their favourite recipe books.

Several of you tweeted pics of treasured family heirlooms: books with pressed flowers, stained recipe cards, well-thumbed volumes. Often these had been passed down the generations, usually from mother to daughter, but we also heard about some father-to-son transmission. There was a sense of nostalgia, but not of sadness, as we recalled past smells, tastes and gestures. Perhaps the written words of the recipe serve as proxy for all those other things that we find so difficult to express? Through short recipes we remember family stories and traditions. Please continue to share your favourites with us over this month!

Perhaps more strictly ‘historical’ was our question about ‘big stories’ in the transmission of recipes. We touched upon issues of class (Mrs Beeton and the rise of the middle classes); nationalism versus internationalism, and the link between recipes and empires; the importance of celebrity culture; and the prevalence of antidotes and panaceas in pharmacological recipe books. Celebrity endorsements, ancient and modern, seemed to strike a particular chord, especially endorsements for cosmetic products (Alfred Curie’s radium cosmetic powder anyone?).

Lisa Smith asked whether the celebrity serves as a guarantor of efficacy or as an ingredient. I need to ponder that question further, but it raises the further question of ‘what counts as an ingredient’? Is skill an ingredient? I mean, without skill and embodied knowledge, a recipe can fall flat like bread without yeast. If so many contributors to the Recipes Project and its Virtual Conversation are able to recreate historical recipes, it is often because they are skilled cooks (and at times gardeners, because they need to grow rare herbs): they can fill in the blanks. And this leads us to the question of secrecy, which fleets in and out of focus in our conversation. What exactly constitutes secrecy in recipe transmission?

We also touched upon literacy and grammar. I have often argued, following the anthropologist Jack Goody, that recipes are intimately linked to literacy and writing. Recipes, to me, are a written genre. Of course, recipes can be read aloud, and oral transmission of knowledge accompanies and complements recipes; but they remain texts. And as texts, they obey to specific grammatical and structural rules. We left the algorithms, knitting patterns, and musical scores a little behind today, but I hope we will get back to them in our future events.

Do join the conversation in the coming weeks. Share photos, reminiscences, and asks questions to our community. You may find someone who knows that treasured recipe book, which you lost in that move years ago, as it happened today to one of our contributors. A lovely moment!

Find out more in the Storify by Tallulah Maait Pepperell



The Heroine of the Cookbook Story

By Rachel Rich

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every cookbook tells a story about itself, and the imagined reader it addresses is the heroine of that story. In the nineteenth century, following recipes meant embarking on a quest for respectability, stability and family happiness. The author offered guidance, and the reader was warned of the perils of leaving the path of good housekeeping. From start to finish, cookbooks in the nineteenth century had a fairly consistent tone… and a story that was repeated time and again. The introduction was where the reader—the protagonist—was introduced to herself through the eyes of the author-narrator.

Mrs Beeton’s introduction of the central character may the most famous, but it is not the only one. The heroine of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is introduced as ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’. But others had already got the idea that the main character in the story of the cookbook played a role of national significance. As early as 1803, John Armstrong was placing the women of Britain centre stage in the success of the nation:

To the Young Females of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, This Work is most respectfully inscribed, as a new, safe, and pleasant Guide to the purest and most lasting sources of happiness, and which essentially depends on the just performance of the various Duties of their Sex, whether as Servants, Daughters, Wives, Mothers, or Mistresses of Families.[1]

Others were similarly confident about the importance of the reader, and the task she was undertaking in following the instructions which the author could provide. In 1837, one wrote:

The Collection of Domestic Receipts now presented to the public could not have been formed in any age but the present. The wisdom of this age has been to bring science from her heights down to the practical knowledge of every-day concerns’ and the number or its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man.[2]

Eliza Acton entrusted the heroine of her story with no less than the fate of civilization:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skilfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization.[3]

After carefully conveying the importance of her task to the reader, it was now the job of the author to explain the extent to which contemporary women were failing to become the heroines imagined by the author, thus introducing the possibility of adversity and defeat into the story.

Young women utterly ignorant and careless of domestic duties often think themselves fully qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of married life, while at the same time regarding it as derogatory to their dignity to cultivate knowledge on which, unless their husbands are very wealthy, the happiness of their homes must necessarily depend.[4]

In warning women of the adversity they faced, without the help of their cookbooks, Mrs Warren uttered this rousing cry:

Diligently and zealously learn and practise every domestic duty and every feminine accomplishment…and no longer will they say, “We cannot marry, our incomes will not suffice.” [5]

The recipes, then, formed the denouement. Once the tension was set up in the introduction, juxtaposing the importance of domestic management against the price of failure, the need for one more cookbook might seem obvious. But in case it was still an open question, many writers troubled themselves to impress upon the reader how different their own book was, and how important. Miss Renny, who’s What to do with Cold Mutton offered solutions for the use of leftovers, offered this explanation:

It may be thought unnecessary to add another to the already numerous list of books upon Cookery; books as various in their degree of excellence as in price. But this little Work does not profess to teach “the whole Art of Cookery:” it simply aims at supplying a want often felt by the young and inexperienced mistress of a household, where a moderate income, rather than position, renders economy advisable; and who, accustomed to every luxury and comfort in her father’s house, is yet ignorant of the art by which such culinary results are attained, and would gladly see her husband’s more modest table as well ordered, though by more simple means.[6]

The heroine of Miss Renny’s book is a young woman of modest means, who is willing to do what it takes to make a go of it: a true British heroine in the age of self-help and social mobility.

Every cookbook situates its imagined reader within the story of the recipes it holds. In the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered a fairly consistent message about the importance of domesticity to the nation’s success, always placing that story at the edge of the dark, looming clouds of the ruin that awaited women who would not follow the rules.

[1] J. Armstrong, The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness, Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, c.1803. n.p.

[2] Anon. The New Family Receipt Book London: John Murray, 1837. p. vii.

[3] E. Acton, Modern Cookery, For Private Families. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. p. viii.

[4] A. H. Miles, ed. A Look Inside: A Daily Household Guide. London: John Heywood, c. 1898. p. 118.

[5] Mrs Warren, How I Managed my Household on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864. p. iv;

[6] Anon [Miss Renny], What to do with Cold Mutton. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1887. p. 111