Category Archives: Storytelling

Placing Historical Recipes in Fiction: The Lady of the Tower

By Elizabeth St.John

Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthven being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she (Lucy St.John Apsley) suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians. By these means she acquired a great deal of skill, which was very profitable to many all her life. She was not only to these, but to all the other prisoners that came into the Tower, as a mother. All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made them broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.

Lucy Hutchinson
Biographical Fragment
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson

Leaping from the pages of Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs, this insight to a seventeenth-century woman’s life within the Tower of London immediately set me on a hunt for more information about Lucy St.John and the world she inhabited. Writing about her mother, Lucy Hutchinson chose to focus on the attributes of medicinal skills and recipes she used to tend to the prisoners within the Tower. This paragraph inspired the writing of my debut best-selling novel, The Lady of the Tower, and sent me on a glorious journey into the methods and curatives that were an everyday part of Lucy’s life.

Portrait of Lady Johanna St.John by kind permission of Lydiard House & Park.

These  seventeenth-century remedies were precious commodities exchanged by family and friends alike. And since Lucy St.John would have known her nephew’s wife, Lady Johanna St.John, it was no stretch of the “probable” for me to think that Lucy would be familiar with the recipes within Johanna’s collection, or may even have contributed some of her own.

Already acquainted with Lady Johanna and the Lydiard estate through my own family records, I delved into her recipe book, which is archived at The Wellcome Library in London. (Ed. note: this recipe book has been of much interest to many of us here at The Recipes Project, too! See these posts.) The beautifully preserved leather-bound book contains recipes designed to help a knowledgeable and educated woman manage the health of her family, servants and livestock. Relying on a great deal of herbal wisdom, as well as the more exotic ingredients found in the London apothecaries, Lady Johanna’s book is a testament to the importance placed on remedies, in an age where so little was still known about the body and its infirmities. When I decided to use extracts from the book to illustrate Lucy’s learnings in The Lady of the Tower, I was fascinated to discover that many of the herbal properties and therapies Lady Johanna recommend are still used in pharmaceutical production today.

Extract and Photograph is of Lady Johanna Saint John’s Recipe Book, archived at The Wellcome Library, London, MS 4338.

One particular recipe of interest is that for “Gilbert’s Water.”

It is bad for nothing it cures wind and the colick restoreth decayed nature good for a consumption expels poison & all infection from the Hart helps digestion purifies the blood gives motion to the spirits drives out the smallpox for the grippes in young children weomen in labor bringeth the Afterbirth stops floods for sounding and faintings

Lady Johanna St.John
Recipe Book

Lady Johanna devotes two pages of her precious recipe book to Adrian Gilbert’s Cordial Water, which was perhaps indicative of the importance she placed on its curative powers. The recipe itself was complex, requiring Dragons Burnett leaves (probably the simple dragon’s mace, a common weed), and then moving on to a page full of rarer ingredients, such as “Crab’s eyes taken in the full of the moon.”  Promoting the contemporary belief man shared the virtue of the plants digested, Mr Gilbert was taking no chances with his curative, empowering the recipient with dragon strength to fight his condition.

But there is more to the story. Adrian Gilbert was a well-known alchemist and amateur scientist, and half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, himself a distinguished botanist. Adrian’s brother, Humphrey Gilbert, was under the patronage of Robert Cecil and Robert Dudley who maintained an alchemical laboratory in Limehouse. Now it gets interesting. When Sir Walter Raleigh was under the care of Lucy St.John during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, Lucy funded his scientific experiments, lending him her hen house in which to perform his alchemy. I don’t believe it is that much of a stretch to think that Sir Walter and his half-brother Adrian Gilbert traded medicinal recipes, nor that Lucy St.John would keep a record of any precious curatives that came into her possession. For her to then pass these on to her niece, who shared her passion for botany, gardens and curatives, would be a natural occurrence.

Writing credible historical fiction is always about linking the probables, and in connecting Lucy St.John with Lady Johanna and using their common interest in medicinal curatives, I brought truth to my narrative. What is undisputed is these interesting women’s common desire to protect their families and charges from the dangers of seventeenth-century life, and a shared concern for health, hope for treatment, and the rewards of recovery.

The Lydiard Chronicles. Available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.


Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost.

Storytelling and Practical Skills in Medical Recipes

By Ying Zhang

What constituted a medical recipe in late imperial China? Literati physicians often touted the efficacy of a medical formula by contending that it conforms to traditional order of the emperor and his officials. They might also praise the suitability of the drug combination for treating that individual body’s ills. (See discussion on drug knowledge in China elsewhere on this blog). While texts by literati physicians have attracted most scholarly attention, they might not contain some of the most widely circulated and used medical recipes in everyday settings. People in late imperial China had access to a wide range of vernacular texts to find a recipe for self-treatment. During this period, we see the circulation of many practice-oriented recipes through vernacular literature as well as personal networks. These sources included daily-use encyclopedias, almanacs, meritorious books, and fiction. These recipes functioned as a practical instruction for domestic use and a textual form that articulated practical health care knowledge through literary narratives. They highlighted the techniques of making medicine as an essential part of a medical recipe that non-expert could follow in their own homes.

The first page of the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination.” Image credit: Berlin State Library.

One fascinating example which I’d like to bring to you today is the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination,” which was collected and recorded in A Convenient Survey of Medical Recipes (Yifang bianlan), a manuscript written by a person with the sobriquet Gaoyangshi in the nineteenth century. This recipe presents a story at its beginning, which starts with the encounter in a certain famous mountain between an immortal and a sixty-one-year old men with the surname Zhou from Yunnan who has one wife and nine concubines but has been unable to conceive a child:

…[Zhou] talked about his family [with the immortal], saying that he does not have any children and asking for a good recipe. Moved by his sincerity, the immortal gave him a recipe. The medicine [made according to the recipe] has a character that is clearing but not cooling, warming but not heating. If men take it, [it] could strengthen the muscles and bones, invigorate the vitality, replenish the marrow, nourish the yin, and reinforce the primordial. If women take it, it could regulate the menstrual period, replenish the Blood, prevent miscarriage, regulate the qi, benefit the yin, and ease fertilization. Zhou bowed and received it [meaning the recipe] (bai er shou zhi), and refined and mixed [the medicine] according to the recipe (yi fang xiuhe)…

Following the story, the recipe lists the individual drugs required and, after each drug, it provides instructions on how to process it. For the chuan fuzi (Aconitum carmichalii Debx, Chinese aconite) from Sichuan, for instance, one needs to select the following:

Two pieces with each weighing four liang and five qian, cut off their sprouts and cut each of them into four pieces, soak them with raw gancao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Licorice) water for seven days, change the water every morning, and then cover them with half jin of wet flour, heat until cooked over a slow charcoal fire, cut them into pieces, and then heat to dry.

At the end of its drug list, the recipe summarizes, “to cook and make the listed drugs according to the [described] methods” (yi shang zhu yao ru fa paozhi). The word “paozhi” here refers to processing the drugs according to the methods listed under each drug. The recipe then continues with instructions on how to grind the drugs into powders and mix the powders into pills, and also explains the way to take the medicine.

It is interesting to note that the story at the beginning of the recipe uses the word “yi fang xiuhe,” a more general term referring to all of the work from processing individual drugs to mixing them together into pills. It suggests that the recipe worked well exactly because Mr. Zhou made the pills following all the technical details required by the recipe as a way of self-cultivation and demonstrated his piety in the making process. It was Mr. Zhou, not any physician or pharmacy, made the pills. The narrative episodes not only validated the efficacy by stating the mythical origin of the recipe, but also affirmed the efficacy by stating that this Mr. Zhou then had seven sons after taking the pills and lived to ninety-seven years old. They thereby presented the production of medicine as a personal endeavor that anyone could pursue. While the recipe exhibited a world of practical skills to handle medical substances and required utensils, the story advertised these specialized skills of drug processing as everyday household knowledge. The story also functioned to attract collectors through literary embellishment. This was especially desirable when recipes traveled out of medical contexts and became collectable artifacts in the context of literati sociability, connoisseurship, and moral practice. Recipes garnished with literary creation and moral teaching in this context usually encouraged its collectors to distribute it to more people to accumulate merit. Thus, when we exam the circulation and use of recipes out of medical context, we could find storytelling an essential part of medical recipes intended for household use.

Ying Zhang received her Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. Her dissertation titled “Household Healing: Rituals, Recipes, and Morals in Late Imperial China” investigates China’s rich tradition of household healing practices and reinterprets these practices in relation to religion, gender roles, and morality from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Drawing on a wide range of texts people used in their daily healing practices and texts about household healing, this research contributes to a deeper understanding of the heterogeneous health-related practices beyond the domain of learned medicine. It demonstrates the various ways in which the home served as a central site of healing technology in late imperial China. Through the study of the circulation of health related texts, it also sheds new light on the circulation of information in the context of literati sociability, philanthropic activities, and religious commitment in late imperial China. She can be reached at

Cooking With Anger

By Rob Wittig and Mark Marino

A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger, by Charles Le Brun, 1713. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As part of the ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation, we’re pleased to introduce a story-telling game, called Cooking with Anger. And you can play it in the comments below!

We’ll keep bumping the post up so you can play from now until the end of the Virtual Conversation.

This is a creative game modelled on TV cooking competitions. Cooking with Anger is a netprov where storyteller chefs improvise a tale and a recipe from a given basket of ingredients. Many have written about cooking with love; now it’s time for all the other emotions.

How to Play

  1. Get a basket from the Protag-o-Matic ingredients machine.
  2. Copy and paste your basket at the top of your tale.
  3. Create a small dish of a stirring story — 300 words or less — using ALL the ingredients from your basket. Use people places and things as narrative; use food items for a recipe folded into the fiction. Season the tale with the emotional spice packet.
  4. Post your delectable concoction in the Comments section below.

To enjoy other story/recipes from last April’s version of this netprov, visit the Cooking With Anger website.


Tales from the archives: Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our 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 forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

Kitchen form the 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book, with clock clearly on display

By Rachel Rich

After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)

Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.

The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)

For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.

(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377