Category Archives: Series: Reading Practices

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.

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

To break or not to break (Part 2): From Cairo to Dordrecht

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

In the eleventh chapter of his Steen-Stuck (Treatise on the Stone, 1637), Johan van Beverwijck related a story of an encounter in Dordrecht, the Dutch city where he was town physician. A man had shown him the pieces of stone that he said had been broken by the following recipe. Van Beverwijck tried it himself, but had not found the same results. Still, he noted, the pieces of stone that the “trustworthy man” showed him, would together make up a large stone.

Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.
Broken bladder stones from Des monstres et prodiges (1573) by Ambroise Paré (c. 1510– 1590). From the Lyon edition of 1664.

Around 1677, the compiler of Ms BPL 3606 copied this passage, leaving out Van Bever-wijck´s skeptical remark. Apparently, he found the display of broken stones, a tactic we have encountered before, to be persuasive proof of the recipe´s effectiveness.

When Sietske and I started our blog series on this Dutch recipe collection, I did not expect most of my posts to be about “stone breaking” remedies such as this one. However, they turned out to have been of particular interest to its compiler. By pursuing this interest, Sietske and I have learned quite a bit about him and his world. For example, we now suspect that he lived in or near the province of Zeeland in the south-west of the Dutch Republic. We also confirmed Sietske´s earlier observation, that the compiler especially noted down remedies that where accompanied by favorable experiences. In my last post, I showed that the compiler of BPL 3606 used Steen-Stuck´s tables of contents to find the information he was looking for.

As I continued studying the manuscript, the question of why there are so many stone-breaking remedies in it became more pressing. In an earlier post, Seth LeJacq laid out the persuasive answer that patients’ fears of surgery led them to explore alternative therapies. Master Reijmers´ story has shown us that the compiler of BPL 3606 shared these fears and desires. Perhaps, this is also key to understanding why he included not only so many recipes for stone breaking remedies in his manuscript, but also three other sections from Steen-Stuck that are not recipes.

Before the recipe, as a “Nota”, the compiler copied a short section on how the stone should be returned to the bladder if it got stuck in the bladder´s neck. In his Treatise on the Stone, Van Beverwijck suggested surgical options to actually remove the stone from the body as well. The compiler copied the most curious of these, after the recipe, as another “Nota”.

Alpinus told of this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title "To remove stones without an incision"
Alpinus described this procedure in Cap. XIV of the third book of De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591) under the title “To remove stones without an incision”

This particular option advised sufferers to blow into the   urethra with a little pipe. Thereby extending it far enough to be able to remove a stone no larger than an olive pit. Despite his interest in the cure, the compiler omits the original source of this procedure, Van Beverwijck´s teacher in Padua, Prosper Alpinus (1553-1617) and the Egyptians amongst whom Alpinus had resided.

The inclusion of treatments such as these  further confirms the compiler´s anxiety towards actually cutting the body. Moreover, I would argue this anxiety was a factor in the transmission of this custom from faraway Egypt to this Dutch recipe collection. Alpinus explicitly mentioned the non-cutting aspect of the procedure in the title of the chapter in which he described it. Van Beverwijck repeated this aspect in Steen-Stuck, before going on to describe cutting the body to remove the stone as a last resort.

Finally, in his exploration of alternative therapies the compiler also recorded knowledge that by 1677 was outmoded to many of his contemporaries.

Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4
Section from Van Beverwijck´s, Steen-Stuck (1649) Ch. 11, pt. 4

The same section copied in BPL 3606
The same section copied in BPL 3606

Van Beverwijck named several materials that possessed a stone breaking power. Some of these (such as lime zest and laurel) worked by a manifest quality and others (such as ashes of scorpio and woodlice) by a hidden property. In his note-taking, the compiler was careful to separate these into two lists.

The distinction between manifest and hidden or occult qualities was characteristic of academic Galenic medicine familiar to Van Beverwijck. It was fundamental to explaining the properties of medical materials. Was the way a material worked in the body “manifest”, that is, was it caused by the primary qualities (hot, dry, cold and moist)? Or could this “operation” not be explained from these qualities and was it therefore “hidden”? While this important distinction had come to be questioned by the 1620s, as I described elsewhere[1], Van Beverwijck included it without comment. Accordingly, when the compiler copied out this section, all that mattered to him was that the physician asserted the healing properties of these materials.

Here, the compiler´s fear of cutting the body thus resulted in a quite eclectic collection of materials, surgical techniques and a stone-breaking recipe, originating from as diverse places as Egypt and Dordrecht. Investigating his interest in alternative cures for bladder stones further, has also indicated the practical reasons behind the staying power of (parts of) Galenic medicine, despite its philosophical problems.

[1] Saskia Klerk, “The Trouble with Opium. Taste, Reason and Experience in Late Galenic Pharmacology with Special Regard to the University of Leiden (1575–1625),” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 19, issue 4 (2014): 287-316.