January 2020: a Taste of “Before ‘Farm to Table'” Part II

Dear Recipes Project community,

Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.

What can you expect to learn? Michael Walkden will discuss early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually the “excrements of the earth?”  And next up, below: Julia Fine explores the ways in which the general public contributed to and engaged with the Folger’s First Chefs exhibition.

-The RP Editors
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Food culture and First Chefs: Appreciating the layers of meaning behind food in Shakespeare’s world and our own

By 

In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio grabs a leg of roast mutton and throws it to the ground. Doing so, he exclaims, “it engenders choler, planteth anger,/ And better ‘twere that both of us did fast.” As food anthropologist Leigh Chavez-Bush writes of this statement in Atlas Obscura, this line was not a throwaway. Rather, “eating the right foods in the proper quantities, 16th-century Britons believed, balanced mind and soul.” Here, Petruchio is invoking this idea of balance, referring to the notion that food could imbalance the humors which were thought to impact the body. In Shakespeare’s plays, then, “roasts, ales, and pies are not props, but clues to characters’ souls, moods, and motivations.”

Whether we look to Shakespeare’s world or ours today, food represents something more than mere sustenance. Food is instead a universal ritual, one in which everyone takes part. Thus, food and eating, according to Sidney Mintz in his pathbreaking work Sweetness and Power, act as “foci of habit, taste, and deep feeling,” across different cultures and times. In this sense, eating is about more than just nutrition; food evokes the feelings, memories, and stories baked into each bite.

The Folger’s First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas exhibition, which ran from January through March of 2019, demonstrated the different functions that food served in the early modern British Atlantic world. The exhibition shared the stories of several First Chefs, people like Hannah Woolley, the first English-language woman food writer, and Hercules, a chef enslaved by George and Martha Washington. After encountering these stories, visitors were invited to reflect on their own experiences with food in a special area of the exhibition devoted to food and memory, and many wrote down their favorite food reminiscences, recipes, and stories.

The textual and culinary delights that guests shared with us spanned time and space. We received recipes in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian, written by children and grandparents alike. Some detailed how food shaped their lives, acting as a catalyst to immigrate to America; others discussed yearly rituals surrounding food that united their families. Some people left recipes for cookies passed down for generations; others detailed the joy of opening a box of Kraft mac and cheese.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

To give you a taste, here are some of our favorite food memories shared at the First Chefs exhibition. As you read, we ask that you reflect on what stories, beliefs, and histories are encoded within these texts. What does food tell you about people’s lives and cultures? What information can you glean even from the most straight-forward of recipes?

Want to learn more about our visitors and their responses to First Chefs? Read the rest of Julia’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2019/11/01/food-memories-culture-first-chefs/#food-memories

Review: La donna che amava i colori

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

“They [the Italians] seem to commence everything with spirit to get tired of it before it is finished.”[1] Mary Marrifield’s letters from Italy to her husband are full of charming–and if you are Italian sometimes engaging–reflections. The importance of the publication of Mary P. Merrifield’s (1804-1899) letters for the history of recipes will not pass unnoticed to the reader of this blog as well as to those interested in the transmission of the art techniques. Merrifield published the first English translation of Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte (1844),and a few years later, following her journey in Italy, The Art of Fresco Painting (1846), and the Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849), works that have made the history of modern artistic techniques.

Recently found in Brighton by Zahira Véliz Bomford, Merrifield’s letters have never been published in English. Sent by the English Royal Fine Arts Commission, Merrifield travelled in Italy for several months between 1845 and 1846 to collect as many historical manuscripts on painting techniques as possible. The objective of the search was to enhance the English arts, which were called to glorify the British Empire at its acme. The letters are a refreshing, revealing, and entertaining look of northern Italy in the years before the political turmoil of 1848, as well as a dive into Merrifield’s world and vision. Giovanni Mazzaferro now publishes the full text of the correspondence in an enjoyable Italian translation, La donna che amava i colori: Lettere dall’Italia 1845-1846 (Milano: Officina Libraria, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-88-99765-70-5).

An independent scholar at his second publication –the first being  Le Belle Arti a Venezia nei manoscritti di Pietro e Giovanni Edwards (2015)–Giovanni Mazzaferro keeps a renowned blog, Letteratura Artistica, which started around his rich collection of published sources for art history. Mazzaferro thorough apparatus of footnotes will be of use to the growing number of scholars interested in Merrifield as it spans from the identification of manuscripts and paintings, to individuating the people Merrifield met during her quest, and to secondary literature. In the substantial introduction, Mazzaferro insists that studying Merrifield under a single perspective, such as the artistic or the scientific one, deprives us of a full understanding of the complexity of her character. Merrifield was a multifaceted intellectual, almost the nineteenth-century woman version of a Renaissance virtuoso. A swift but careful overview of her life and works shows this vast breath: she published in the field of artistic techniques and colors, of maritime biology, and, toward the end of her life, for the advancement of women in society.

Merrifield’s familial practices predate her written commitments to the advancement of women. During the journey in Italy, Merrifield travelled accompanied by her son Charles, while her husband stayed in Brighton with their other four children. Husband and sons were all working for Mary, as they were involved in the transcription, translation, and writing of Mary’s books. Such odd family arrangement, at least for the time, presents us with an unconventional nineteenth-century woman. Overall, Merrifield does stand as a complex figure whose progressive private arrangements are parallel to her deep patriotism, her commitments to the English empire, and her Victorian style. Her figure reminds us that intellectual and private identities cannot be easily defined: a progressive stand on the role of women does not necessarily conflict with an imperial vision, the interest in old manuscripts, and color techniques can go hand in hand with a passion for algae.


[1] Mary Merrifield to John Merrifield, November 2, 1845.