Worst Housewarming Ever

By Lisa Smith

The Editorial Team debated whether or not to join the digital #ClimateStrike. The team was divided: should we make a political stand at all? In the end, we compromised. Rather than shut down the site temporarily, we decided to have a banner supporting #ClimateStrike week (September 20-27) and a blog post to explain our position.

To pick up on a theme of ‘hospitality’ that is so often a part of the history of food, I chose a banner for the week that suggests a big party–but one that has gone very badly wrong. What can we do to be better guests?  There is no Planet B for us to move onto for our next party once we trash this one.

Although we don’t often directly address it, many of us who work on recipes came to it through an interest in the natural world. What knowledge about plants’ medicinal properties have been lost over time as we became detached from our environments? How have modern agricultural practices reshaped what foods we can taste, and how we taste them? How can historical practices inform a need for agricultural sustainability?

Take, for example, work by Ryan Kashanipour that highlights the overlapping relationship between body, society, and nature. Or by Carla Nappi that describes the ways in which recipes encapsulate medical ingredients, embodiment, and time flows. For pre-modern Europeans, stewardship of the earth even had a religious imperative, as Marieke Hendriksen has argued. Religion was not the only reason, though; seasonality framed day-to-day experience. Our issue on seasonality from May 2017 has a range of posts that consider how seasons and availability affected foods, medicines, and artisanal crafts. I wonder how recipes of the future will be shaped by a hotter climate, fewer seasons, more deadly weather, and rapid change.

I will not hark back to the good old days (always bad historical practice), but we might consider how we can restore a sense of our human bodies and cultures as being part of nature rather than separate from it–or, masters of it. (Carolyn Merchant’s analysis in The Death of Nature seems more pressing than ever.) The work of some contributors offers, perhaps, more hope.  Anne Stobart’s work, for example, encourages us to look around more carefully at plants in our daily life.   Zara Anishanslin has a useful exercise for thinking about how things we use everyday have a global history: everything is connected. Sharing food helps to build cultural bridges and to build a sense of international community, as Megan Daigle describes. And one of our contributors, David Shields, is bringing back old crops, which expands our culinary AND agricultural possibilities.

If you want to know more about the climate crisis, I encourage you to read coverage in The Guardian. A good starting point is today’s article on “The Climate Crisis in Ten Charts”.

There is, of course, no easy answer. But one starting point might be to think more about our interconnected world, whether we are looking at the relationships among humans, animals, and nature, or across geographical regions. It is only by acting together that we can stop the housewarming guests from completely wrecking our home!

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Religion Mixed with Food: Turrón de Doña Pepa

By Michelle M. M. Hancock

A palette of colors, scattered like confetti decorate a signature Peruvian dessert. The flavored pastry, called the Turrón de Doña Pepa or Ms. Pepa’s Nougat, contains basic ingredients such as flour, water, shortening, butter, sugar, salt and eggs. A range of ingredients including anise, cinnamon, cloves, oranges, apples, figs, limes quince (similar to pears), sesame seeds and candy sprinkles amalgamate to create a unique flavor in this sticky October treat. The dessert originated near the capital city of Lima. According to legend, an Afro-Peruvian slave named Josefa Marmanillo, who suffered from paralysis in her arms and hands, created it in the 1700s. On a personal journey, she left her home in Cañete Valley (south of present-day Lima) to visit a black Christ painting in Pachacamilla just outside of Lima. The image, known to heal believers and grant miracles, cured Josefa. She created the dessert as an expression of gratitude to God.

Turrón de Doña Pepa dessert. Image credit: www.cooked.com July 2018.

History of Cristo Moreno (Black Christ)

Cristo Moreno’s own history emerges from Lima’s local spiritual landscape. In particular, Africans, both free and enslaved, revered his image. During the colonial era of the 1500s in the coastal city of Lima, Afro-Peruvian slaves worked the land and some converted to Christianity. As was common in the colonial era, churches and patrons often paid indigenous and African artists to paint portraits used to decorate colonial churches. In homage, artists rendered several images of Cristo Moreno. These paintings “were believed to please the spiritual forces that controlled the frequent earthquakes in the region”.[1] According to folklore, in 1651 an Afro-Peruvian slave, named Pedro Falcón from Angola, painted an image of a black Christ on the wall of slave quarters in Pachacamilla.[2]

Las Nazarenas Church in Lima, Peru. Image credit: Rafael Gómez, Flickr.

An earthquake hit the area in 1655 destroying churches and houses. In a sea of rubble the wall with the image of the black Christ remained. By 1687, locals built a chapel around the iconic image. That same year, another earthquake shook the city leaving the chapel in ruins. The image survived unscathed and endured a further earthquake in 1746.[3] These events signified a miracle and ignited a stream of devoted followers. Even King Charles II (1661-1700) of Spain issued a royal order calling the painting El Señor de los Milagros or Lord of Miracles.[4] The original painting stands as the centerpiece of the main altar at Las Nazarenas church in Lima.

El Señor de los Milagros procession in Lima, Peru. Image credit: USI.

Housed in the same church is a replica of the painting weighing two tons and is carried in a 24 hour procession once a year in October. Worshippers from all social classes dressed in purple singing hymns and praises “…accompany the image on its rounds through the oldest streets of Lima.”[5] Karsten Paerregaard states most Peruvians of African or indigenous heritage identify with the black Christ because white people have remained a minority in Peru since the Spanish conquest.[6] Processions of believers paying tribute to the image began in October 1687 and continue today as one of the largest Catholic ceremonies in the world.

Josefa Marmanillo

Josefa Marmanillo holding the Turrón de Doña Pepa dessert. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, October 2008.

Founded in 1556, Cañete Valley, named after Don Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza (Spanish noble Marqués de Cañete), became a key site of black culture.[7] As with Pachacamilla, Afro-Peruvian slave labor dominated the agricultural valley during the colonial period. Josefa, cursed with paralysis in Cañete Valley and healed in Pachacamilla, had a dream of visiting saints. They left her with a dessert recipe that she shared with others. Prepared, sold and ate during the purple month of October, the Turrón de Doña Pepa compliments the celebrations of El Señor de los Milagros. Today, a number of bakeries, such as the Panadería las Nazarenas in Lima, sell the treat year round. It is known for its strong taste as the anise flavoring is similar to black licorice. For many it tastes better homemade. Religion mixed with food brings Peruvians in all shades of skin color to come together in October and celebrate Peru’s month of purple, passion, procession and pastry!

[1] Karsten Paerregaard, “In the Footsteps of the Lord of Miracles: The Expatriation of Religious Icons in the Peruvian Diaspora,” Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies 34, no. 7 (September 2008): 1075.

[2] Cesár Ferreira and Eduardo Dargent-Chamot, Culture and Customs Latin America and the Caribbean: Culture and Customs of Peru (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003), 42.

[3] Paerregaard, “Footsteps”, 1075.

[4] Ferreira and Dargent-Chamot, Culture and Customs, 42.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Martin Mejia-Associated Press. “AP PHOTOS: Peru Venerates Lord of Miracle in Big Procession.” AP English Worldstream-English. Associated Press DBA Press Association, November 2, 2017.

[7] Roberto Sánchez, “The Black Virgin: Santa Efigenia, Popular Religion, and the African Diaspora in Peru,” Church History 81, no. 3 (September 2012): 637.

Michelle M. M. Hancock is a graduate student in the Historical Resource Management Master’s program at Idaho State University. She has a Bachelor of Arts-History from Idaho State University (2018) and an Associate of Arts-Biological Science from Arkansas State University-Beebe (1993). This blog post was written for a class with Dr. Kathleen Kole de Peralta.


Tales from the Archives: ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures

Everything seems to be unseasonably in bloom in England at the moment–blossom, daffodils, snowdrops, crocus… It is beautiful, to be sure, but horrible for us hayfever sufferers who are walking around with blossoming noses and eyes.

The Recipes Project now has over 700 posts in our archives. (Thank you to our wonderful contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes!) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be overlooked. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

Unsurprisingly, this month I was inspired to look for various flowers in our archives. What inspired me most was the sole entry on crocus–which, in this case, does not even refer to a flower! I’m going back to Tara Albert’s post from 2014.

Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-Century Southeast Asia

by Tara Albert

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year. (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.