Category Archives: Recipes and Recipe Books

A Digestive for the Voracious Reader:

Digital Humanities Approaches to a Recipe Book Corpus

By Elisa Tersigni

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably a voracious reader of recipe books. And, if you’re anything like me, you might even be partial to manuscripts. If so, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s holdings—which include the largest collection of early modern English manuscript recipe books in the world—is truly a feast for the mind. But one could spend years digging into this buffet of books, with its indecipherable early modern hands, challenging orthographies, and pages and pages of intriguing discoveries. How then might one quickly consume such a breadth of material? As one solution, I present to you a metaphor to go with this feast—a digestive, if you will. Digital humanities (DH) tools and methods can help an ambitious reader make sense of a lot of text at once—even when that reader has no programming skills—allowing them to detect patterns or isolate the points of interest.

Lucky for us, the Folger has anticipated the needs of the digital recipe book reader. As part of the three-year, Mellon-funded Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project (2018–2021) and its legacy, the library has aimed to photograph, transcribe, and encode the entire collection. All its recipe manuscripts (with the exception of the most recent acquisitions) are photographed, and of these, 50 are also fully transcribed and encoded, with more in the queue. The encoding makes the recipe books available for study not only as manuscripts but also as digital objects, in the form of lightly edited PDFs (“reading copies,” made for ease of reading) and plain text files. It is the latter that we’ll use for our DH analysis.

To learn more about the transcribing and encoding processes, see the blog posts “Code Breakers: the Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Transcriptions” and “Code Makers: the Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Corpus” on the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective’s (EMROC’s) website.

Using the Recipe Book Corpus

There are many ways one might use or peruse the Folger’s corpus of recipe books, but here I’ll illustrate a couple of the easiest using Voyant, a free, browser-based software with many language and visualisation tools (Figure 1). All one must do is upload the plain text files, and Voyant will immediately present them with an interface displaying the results of the default tools.

Fig 1. Screenshot of Folger Recipe Corpus in Voyant Tools

From these default tools, one can dig deeper. Let’s use the “Contexts” tool (bottom right hand) as an example of what kind of analysis is possible. In the search bar, typing a word, such as “digestive” will search across all the uploaded documents for that spelling, listing all the instances and contexts of that term. If one then selects the term, the “Reader” tool (top middle) will display the document in which that spelling appears. Essentially, using these two tools together permits the reader to search across the entire corpus for key terms and immediately read the recipes in which those terms appear. (N.B.: these tools only search spellings, and not words, and so users should expand their search options by trialling different spellings or using wildcard searches for more comprehensive results.) For instance, searching “digestive” found three instances of that spelling across the entire corpus: two in manuscript E.a.5 and one in V.a.260. This search took seconds whereas reading all 50 books might have taken weeks.

Another neat tool is “Cirrus” (top left hand), which creates word clouds of commonly used spellings: the bigger the word, the more common the spelling. Hovering over a word will give the user the number of times that spelling appears in the corpus. To view a word cloud for a specific document, rather than the entire corpus, one can use the “scale” function (found just below the word cloud) and select the manuscript of interest. By comparing resultant word clouds, the user can gain an immediate sense of the focuses of each document. For instance, compare these word clouds from two different manuscripts in the corpus:

Fig. 2. Folger manuscript E.a.1

Fig. 3. Folger manuscript V.a.401

The word cloud in Figure 2 —featuring words like “god,” “grace,” and “lord,”—suggests that the manuscript is more likely a commonplace book or miscellany than a receipt book, whereas the word cloud in Figure 3 —featuring words like “butter,” “sugar,” and “salt”—suggests the manuscript is likely a cookery book. Reading word clouds is one way a reader can quickly identify documents that might be of greater interest.

 While Voyant is a surprisingly effective tool, it’s important to note its limitations and the quirks of uploading a corpus to a tool not strictly designed for it. For instance, if using Voyant’s default settings, the most frequent spellings that will appear in the corpus’s word cloud are “folio”, “recto”, “verso”, and “page,” not because these are common words appearing in the manuscripts, but because they are common artefacts (encoding tags) of the digital documents. Still, Voyant is flexible enough that creative problem solving can expand its possibilities. For example, to get around the issue of encoding tags cluttering the cloud, the user can modify the stop words list (i.e., the words that Voyant automatically filters out of its analyses and visualizations, which include function words like “the” and “a”) to include these tags so that the remnants of the digital artefacts do not appear.  

These examples are but tastes of what is possible with the Folger’s corpus. The simplicity and accessibility of the corpus and DH tools like Voyant make them ideal interdisciplinary teaching resources in addition to effective research tools. There is something for everyone, whether your focus is the big picture or the fine detail. Dig in!

Towards an Inclusive Recipe Literature

By John Broadway

Like any other piece of literature, a recipe is an act of translation. As literature takes the complexity of the human experience and translates it into a coherent set of signs and symbols, recipes take nature’s diversity and translate it, through language, into a recognizable semiotics. Yet in this translation process information is lost and changed. Just as literature is prone to omit minorities (and focus on the straight, white and male), recipes are liable to problematic limitations through their in- and exclusions.

An incredible diversity of colors, shapes, flavors, and applications flow from this one vegetable. Courtesy of


Take the humble carrot. There are two main classifications for carrots: eastern and western. Under the western branch, there are four subdivisions: Chantenay, Danvers, Imperator, and Nantes. Some estimates put the total number of individual carrot varietals in the hundreds. Soil type influences carrots’ flavor, with peat soil creating the most sweetness, while sandy soil results in more perfectly formed roots. An incredible diversity of colors, shapes, flavors, and applications flow from this one vegetable.

And yet: how many recipes acknowledge this diversity? In culinary school one of the first formulas shared was the classical mirepoix: two parts onion, one part celery and one part carrot. But which carrots? And for that matter, which onions, and which celery? Behind each of these words, incredible diversities of beautiful, unique, delicious things are hidden. How often does one find a recipe calling for Deep Purple Hybrids, Imperator 58s, Lunar Whites, Parisian Heirlooms, or Purple Dragons? There is only one default carrot, and it is obfuscating a world of diversity.

Exclusion has consequences. Just as traditional western literature is prone to shortcomings in representation, recipes are complicit in creating a world where nature is similarly monolithic, containing only a fraction of its constituent complexity. It then becomes much more difficult for nature to be made visible in its fullness.

In the late 20th century, French feminists argued persuasively for the creative, generative power of language. Hélѐne Cixous (1976) claimed that masculine language being the norm made the feminine other. More recently, Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars, especially Annemarie Mol (1999) and Bruno Latour (2013), have argued for epistemology’s role in shaping ontology; that what we know, how we know, and the ways we go about knowing, all have consequences for emergent conceptions of our realities (very much in the plural). Following Cixous, a literature that falls short in representation creates a world in which diversity is othered – exorcised, even – in favor of monoculture.

It’s a thorny problem. Recipe authors know they need to prescribe ingredients that cooks can reliably find. And yet, a recipe calling for a one-pound bag of carrots is working with a completely different set of assumptions about the world than a recipe that calls for sixteen early-season Thumbelinas. Moreover, each generates a very different sort of world. In the former, there’s only one thing that goes by the name carrot, and it’s the same every time. In the latter, there are myriad things known as carrot, and what they are, what they taste like, and how they cook, varies depending on time of year and provenance. There is an ontological politics at play that, carried out over the entire corpus of recipes and cookbooks, creates a world in which nature’s diversity ceases to exist. As Donna Haraway (2016) teaches, stories make worlds and worlds make stories.

Of course, in a world where access to any fruit or vegetable, before even considering which type, is not only fraught but oftentimes impossible, it’s clear that the work of equity is pressing. Still, the relationship between humans and nature is in dangerous need of reconciliation, for the betterment of all. Part of this work must be a critical evaluation of what we understand nature to be, and how we arrive at that understanding. A more inclusive recipe literature would help better understand the nature in which we are but one small part.



Cixous, Hélѐne. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1, 4 (1976): 875–93.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016.

Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Mol, Annemarie. “Ontological politics. A word and some questions.” The Sociological Review. 47, 1 (1999): 74-89.


After earning a BA in English at St. Olaf College, John Broadway spent ten years working throughout the food industry. He recently completed an MBA at the University of Oregon and an MA in Cultural Studies at Malmö University while managing sustainability communications for Yogi Tea. He hopes to continue his interest in food with a PhD next.

Recipes to Remember: Coriander, Gallyngale, and the Legacies of the Lost

By Lucy Mookerjee

Originally composed for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Beyond Shakespeare blog, this primary source highlight from Lucy Mookerjee, a Research Fellow at the Folger, invites the reader to think beyond the study the recipe as a set of instructions to be performed, and to consider the recipe itself as a generative composition with much to tell us about origin and loss, remembrance and ignorance, revival and rebirth.

A detail of a painting of Ophelia semi-submerged in water with flowers around her.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.

Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,

that’s for thoughts.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5

On learning of her father’s death, Ophelia, the heartbroken heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, falls into a “weeping brook” and quietly allows herself to drown (4.7).  While modern scholarship has tended to construe Ophelia as ‘feminist heroine; critics in the Victorian period perceived Ophelia as a deranged ‘madwoman’; not only has she lost her father and her lover, but she has also lost her mind. In the words of Hamlet’s mother, she is “incapable of her own distress” which is to say: she has forgotten her ‘self’ (4.7). It is curious, then, that the “sweet flowers” – pansies, forget-me-nots, rosemary sprigs –which surround her in the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, and which are frequently referenced in the play, should have a long history as symbols not of loss, but of memory.

The term pansy comes from the French pensée, meaning “thought” or “remembrance”. Legend has it that forget-me-nots are named after a medieval knight who died while picking the delicate flower for his lover and spent his last breath crying out: “Forget me not!” In Ancient Greece, students wore circlets of rosemary to school to increase their capacity to remember their lessons.

While memory-enhancing herbs have a rich legacy in symbolism, the evidence of herbal consumption – though less studied – is well represented in the historical record. Recipes for memory-boosters surface in early modern manuscripts in the form of charms, spells, and medical treatises. Hundreds of these recipe books — digitized and transcribed into Modern English — can be found here.

The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619), compiled in 1675, contains a recipe for a memory-potion called “Confect of Coriander Seed” and provides step-by-step instructions for a brew to “helpe the memorie … by comforting of the braine.”

Manuscript receipt book.
The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619.
To read more of Lucy’s post about remembrance and recipes, visit the Folger Library’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Shopping for Recipes in Early Modern London… Virtually

By Melissa Reynolds

Within just a few decades after William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476, Londoners had their choice of printed collections of medical recipes, herbal lore, instructions for distillation, and surgical instruction. Most of these editions were printed versions of texts that had been popular in Middle English manuscript collections, and printers did their best to choose from among these handwritten collections to produce printed editions that were better organized or more comprehensive.

Between 1525 and 1526 the printer Richard Banckes produced a suite of medical books, each of them sourced from Middle English manuscripts. Banckes’s medical books were the first of their kind printed in English: a medical recipe collection, known as The Treasure of Pore Men, with remedies collected from a number of manuscript collections; an herbal, known as The virtues & properties of herbs, based on the Middle English Agnus castus; and a uroscopy treatise known as The seynge of urynes, which was probably based on British Library MS Sloane 382, a manuscript created around 1450. In other words, the volumes that Banckes printed in the mid-1520s contained medical knowledge that had been widely read in England for a century or more.

But in print, century-old remedies were hugely popular. Banckes’s herbal and remedy collection were best-sellers among English readers. After Banckes left the printing trade in the late 1520s, rival printers began printing their own editions of his medical texts. By 1550, thirteen different editions of Banckes’s herbal had been issued by nine different printers. The same was true of a most printed medical collections.  By 1550, the London book market was glutted with reprints of the same remedy collections and herbal treatises, most of them sourced from manuscripts that were also still in circulation. 

So how did early modern readers decide on which recipes to read?

As scholars of recipe knowledge, we presume that our historical subjects were interested readers—that is, that they had a vested interest in assessing the value of the recipes or remedies that passed through their hands. Given the sheer number of recipe collections, herbals, and surgical collections on offer in what was a largely unregulated market, I imagined sixteenth-century London as the perfect environment for English consumers to begin honing their critical faculties, selecting from among dozens of inexpensive printed remedy books. For a few pennies, these readers could access a wealth of knowledge that had previously only circulated in manuscript. But for them to become discerning readers, they would need to be aware that choices could be made.

Though in the later sixteenth century, London’s booksellers would crowd the alleys around St. Paul’s Cathedral, this was not yet the case in the first half of the sixteenth century. With bookshops scattered throughout the old city, were sixteenth-century consumers really able to compare editions or locate the best prices? Could they hope to visit more than one or two shops in a single outing? 

The GoogleMyMaps above developed as an answer to those questions. It features the locations of English bookshops in London between 1525 and 1555, divided up by decade. In what follows, I’ll briefly describe the process of creating it, not because I think others will have the same questions about recipe shopping in London, but because creating a historical map to understand the circulation of recipe knowledge or material texts could be useful in a variety of classroom settings.

GoogleMyMaps is a totally free platform that will work for anyone with a Google account. Get started by visiting and clicking “Create A New Map.” Creating a personalized map is as easy as clicking the map to plot a location and then labeling it—at least, it’s that easy if you’re dealing with locations that actually exist on a contemporary Google map.

To create my map of early sixteenth-century locations, I couldn’t find Wynkyn de Worde’s shop at “the sign of the Sun” in twenty-first century London. Though printers’ colophons do include information on their shops’ locations, those locations are only described in relation to other sixteenth-century landmarks like churches or bridges. To find the print shops, I would need to find those landmarks on a sixteenth-century map. And luckily, I knew of one I could search: the Map of Early Modern London.

A nineteenth-century reproduction of the “Agas Map” of London, a woodcut map created in the 1560s and digitally annotated by the Map of Early Modern Project.

The amazing team at the MoEML project has digitally annotated the “Agas Map,” a woodcut map of London created sometime in the 1560s, so that a user can search for churches, parishes, alehouses, bridges, streets, prisons, playhouses, and almost everything in between. With the help of the Agas Map, I was able to find St. Dunstone’s church, which is where first Robert Redman, then William Middleton, then William Powell had their shops at the “sign of the George.”

For the most part, once I found a church on the Agas Map, I was able to find the same church on the contemporary Google Map. In some instances, I did my best to approximate a print shop’s location using street names on the Agas Map cross-referenced with modern streets in London. Because I had already carefully read the colophons of a number of early printed books and compiled a list of their locations, the production of my personalized Google map only took a few hours, and they were hours well spent. The exercise of searching the Agas Map and plotting early modern locations onto the streets of modern London gave me a much better sense of the early modern city I study, one which I’d never quite been able to visualize without buses or tube lines or high-rises crowding my mental picture. I felt I could really picture my sixteenth-century consumers, walking Fleet Street from one shop to another, looking for an herbal or remedy collection.

Google MyMaps are an easy, free, and accessible way for students to start to think concretely about the circulation of recipe knowledge, whether in early modern printed books, or among a network of friends or family, or as a collection of ingredients sourced from around the world. In my case, creating my personal Google map did help me to better conceive of the choices English consumers made about which books to buy. And for those of you interested in early English print, I hope you’ll find the map useful for research, too, whether inside or outside the classroom.