If you’ve browsed The Recipes Project in the past several weeks, you may have raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar black and white squiggles that decorate the top of our page (written, by the way, in a cursive form of premodern Japanese). As my October editorial duties slowly draw to a close, I couldn’t let the month go by without spoiling the mystery of this little recipe collection…of sorts…as economical in its prose as in its outlook.
Consisting of a single broadsheet (what you see above is the whole thing), Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice (Daikenyaku meshi no takiyō), was likely produced around the time of Japan’s Great Tenpō Famine in the 1830s as a no-nonsense guide to help households squeeze a little more out of their staple grains. Rice prices could fluctuate wildly from season to season in time of scarcity, and to the extent that ordinary people could afford to eat (usually brown) rice at all, cutting it with cheaper vegetables and coarse grains became a strategy for survival.
Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice was one of many vernacular publications—meant to help regular folks combat famine conditions—that circulated through the vibrant marketplace for commercial print during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). If it wasn’t given away for free, it was available for cheap, meaning a family could likely recoup what little they spent on the pamphlet itself in as little as a single meal. This was no small claim for those in need, and economizing became both a key premise in enduring food shortages and a central feature of every recipe listed here.
What are the Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice? The guide “instructs” readers on how to prepare rice seasoned and combined with a variety of inexpensive beans, roots, grains, and leaves, similar to the contemporary Japanese dish takikomi gohan. Each recipe indicates the proper proportions (five parts rice to four parts barley, for example) and basic directions for foods like barley, sweet potato, tofu lees, fava beans, millet, daikon radish, carrots, cow peas, red beans, as well as two kinds of “very economical” porridge that could stretch rice even further. Based on which ingredient one mixed in, a household could save a hefty thirty to eighty mon (a common denomination of copper coinage) on ten portions, a significant sum worth as much as $10 to $25 in today’s currency.
Yet one thing continues to bug me about these very frugal recipes: why go through the trouble to teach people what they already knew? The directions themselves are so simple and intuitive as to border on obvious: cook beans, mix with rice; cut potatoes into chunks, mix with rice; boil leaves, season, mix. What’s more, families likely prepared such dishes in their homes already, making Very Frugal Ways redundant knowledge that didn’t bear repeating. Barring anything earth shattering within the recipes themselves, communicating frugality was itself the point. In a society where rice was not only the staple food but the basic unit of taxation and exchange, where running out signaled destitution, economizing as a lesson was worth reproducing the same old recipes, even if everyone already knew what was on the menu.
I have held a long fascination with how textures are represented in recipes. As we all know, then as now, producing medicines and food often involves a multi-step process, and careful observation of changes in textures is often the key to success.
Take, for example, the classic white sauce.
It all seems simple enough – we mix and heat together butter and flour and then
add milk (hot or cold, depending on where you stand on this issue), simmer and
whisk away and, voilà, we should have a silky-smooth sauce, ready for some posh
mac and cheese, or baked endive, and much more. Now readers, I know what you’re
thinking. It sounds so easy on paper but, if we were honest, we all have
stories of failed batches of béchamel. The sauce can taste raw (classic mistake
of not cooking the flour enough) or be lumpy (the blender trick never works for
me) or end up too thin or thick.
A few years ago, I finally found the
perfect recipe for me from Annie Bell’s In my Kitchen. However, though Annie
provides the perfect ingredient proportions for my family’s taste of white
sauce, for the crucial step – cooking the butter and flour together – I rely on
Schulman’s description. The mixture needs to be heat for around 5 minutes until
it looks like ‘wet sand.’ The monitoring and observing of textures,
particularly any changes, is key to making the perfect white sauce and many
other dishes besides.
The early modern recipe archive is also
filled with similar sets of instructions where changes in texture were used as
markers for the completion of a particular step in production. In my recent
book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge,
I discuss some of these examples in a chapter on “Recipes Trials.” Due to the
generosity of friends and colleagues and the enthusiasm of groups such as the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective
(EMROC) and Before
Farm to Table, new examples emerge all the time. Today, I wanted to share a
particularly intriguing recipe, which came to light at the EMROC transcribathon last fall.
The recipe is for making lemon wafers and
is part of the recipe collection of a seventeenth-century
English gentlewoman named Jane Dawson. The instructions are brief but detailed.
We are told to dry, sift and beat
double-refined sugar and mix with the juice of a lemon until it becomes the consistency of honey.
Then, scooping some of the mixture in a spoon, we should heat the spoon over a
chafing dish of hot coals until the surface of the mixture touching the spoon
is “crisp” – that is (according to
the OED) rippling, folding or wrinkling. Taking care that the mixture does not
boil, we should then spread the melted mixture onto a square piece of paper,
pinning the two corners of the paper together in order to curl or bend the
wafer and let it dry in this configuration. When we are ready to eat or serve
the lemon wafer, we should wet the “wrong” side of the paper with water to
release the candy.
As with making béchamel, key to this recipe
are the practices of observing and interpreting changes in texture. Two points
are of particular importance here – ensuring that the sugar and lemon juice mix
achieves the ‘consistency of honey’ and that the mixture heats until it crisps
or ripples on the hot spoon.
After the transcribathon, some EMROC members were
so intrigued by this recipe that they tried their hands at re-creating it.
Lisa Smith, Maggie Simon, and their various assistants spent afternoons mixing
and tasting lemony sugar syrup and heating it using a variety of methods from
plate warmers to electric hobs. I’ll leave you to read about their adventures here
and here, but it is
telling that both ended their posts with a reflection about the assumed knowledge
required for this recipe. One particular texture was picked up for comment –
the consistency of honey. Both Lisa and Maggie were stymied by the instructions
to mix fine sugar and lemon juice to the “right” consistency of honey. After
all, as a natural product, honey can come in many guises. Our intrepid makers
tried to reproduce the thickness of raw honey, runny honey, and crystalized
honey and each resulted in a different product with varying degrees of success.
Observing textures or changes in textures is clearly
a key part of following recipes. Yet, it turns out that it is hard to convey hands-on
experiential knowledge on paper, particularly across time and space. Often
times, descriptions of textures are made using analogies (e.g. consistency of
honey) or metaphors (e.g. wet sand) requiring the recipe writer and reader to
work within a similar frame of reference. Further focus on reading or
interpreting representations of “textures” in past and present thus seems a
fruitful way to shed light on histories of observation, sensorial and
One of the many pleasures of studying late medieval English “how-to” manuscripts is the wide and often surprising array of knowledge to be found within them. Most contain a good bit of medical information, such as herbal recipes and instructions for bloodletting, and many also contain useful household information, like directives for animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, sewing, ink-making, and so on. Also common to these collections are charms for curing fevers, staunching blood, and protecting women in childbirth. Some medieval English collections of recipes also contain magic of a lighter sort, like directions to “make a woman lift her skirts” or “to make thunder and lightning,” discussed in earlier posts by Laura Mitchell and Catherine Rider.
One such example of a light—and somewhat lascivious—recipe is found on folio 20 of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1389, a late fifteenth-century recipe collection compiled by William Aderston, probably a surgeon working in London.
To make men & women to take off their clothes
Take grain with evil thistles [thystylls] which grow above the ditch & make from that a powder & put it in someone’s lap & immediately he or she will take off his or her clothes.
Certainly, as Mitchell has suggested, recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are inherently playful. Yet I am also inclined to agree with Rider who points out that there is little evidence that medieval compilers drew a sharp distinction between lighthearted recipes and straightforwardly practical ones. In the case of Ashmole 1389, the recipe to make men and women shed their clothes appears within a short section of non-medical recipes in an otherwise overwhelmingly medical collection. Most other non-medical entries in the manuscript are clearly useful, like a recipe to make glue or instructions for fishing and engraving on metal.
So why was this recipe included in an otherwise useful collection, and what can its inclusion teach us about late medieval culture?
Historians can read 500 year-old recipes for medicine, agriculture, textile production, or cooking and understand why such knowledge was selected for “how-to” manuscript collections, even though the materials and techniques described are unfamiliar to us now. We can understand why so many collections feature useful, natural magic, as there was little distinction between magical and non-magical cures in medieval culture. In these cases, our understanding of the medieval recipe book rests on the basic premise that people wanted acces to useful (and useable) knowledge.
But recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are perhaps more illuminating precisely because they don’t fit this mold. They challenge our presumptions about the purpose and function of a recipe. This recipe isn’t obviously practical, nor is it even apparent that it could be, or ever was, attempted by its compiler.
Though lighthearted magic like that in Ashmole 1389 is not nearly as common as healing magic, its presence in medieval collections should encourage us to reflect on what we expect from a recipe, and how those expectations color our historical interpretation. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if our focus on finding out how pre-modern recipes “work” always reflects the focus of pre-modern compilers and readers? Attempts at recipe reproduction can yield unmatched insights into pre-modern worldviews, materials, and techniques; hands-on and collaborative research into recipes should by all means continue! But while we’re building furnaces, making chacolet, and casting flowers, let us also remember that a pre-modern recipe might have had any number of meanings or uses for the pre-modern reader, some of which we may not yet fully understand.
Aderston left his signature at the bottom of a recipe on folio 14v (“per me W. Aderston”) and a record at the National Archives of the UK contains reference to a “William Aderston, of London, surgeon” as plaintiff in a trespassing case against the sheriffs of London sometime between 1483–1515.
Ad faciendum homines & mulieres deponere pannos suos / Accipe grana malignos cardenibus ^thys tylls^ qui crescunt super fossat & fac inde pulvere & ponite in gremio alicuius & statim exuet pannos. The Latin gremio could be “lap, bosom” or “womb; female genital parts.” You can see how a different translation would change the sense of the recipe entirely.
‘That is bad history!’ scowled my history lecturer back a decade or so. Yikes, what could I have done wrong? I felt struck down, so ashamed to have committed some major error, even deserving of being smitten with boils [Figure 1].
As a postgraduate, I had discovered women’s history, and become interested in researching seventeenth-century recipes. Deciphering these manuscripts required some skill, and so I had enrolled on a palaeography summer school where our kindly university lecturer introduced us to the transcription of poor law records. But what exactly was my error? From a science background, I knew only how to put together a scientific report with hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions. I had no training in historical methods, so I applied the scientific method, daring to voice a hypothesis about the poor in the seventeenth century.
The details escape me now, but likely my suggestion was a fanciful theory not borne out by the evidence, and the lecturer was trying to warn me about jumping to conclusions. It was a painful lesson about which I have thought many times since, and it certainly motivated me to find out about ‘good’ history. But, as I then began to immerse myself in early modern domestic medicine, I soon learned that ‘good’ history was something of a mirage.
Welcome from history colleagues
Rolling forward some years to growing interest in historical recipes and the Recipes Project, and what a welcome difference I found. I was much encouraged by history colleagues who gave freely of their knowledge and experience. In the early days, this led to setting up the Medicinal Receipts Research Group. I found other scholars developing much expertise in interpreting archival material with limited provenance and anonymous contributions by many hands. Often, the gaps themselves in the archives were meaningful, especially considering the invisible roles and activities of women. My doctoral research was assisted by groundbreaking studies of women’s history which questioned many historical concepts. I did go on to carry out research into historical recipes and domestic medicine (now published by Bloomsbury Academic as Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England). One of my earliest Recipes Project posts based on my research was about an unusual ‘not-recipe’, a vehicle enabling one woman to express her frustration in seventeenth-century medical matters, albeit in a limited way. It has been inspiring since to see Recipes Project contributions discussing ‘What is a recipe’ in a wide-ranging foray with much interdisciplinary collaboration.
Difficult conversations and living history
But, as a practising medical herbalist, my research also led me into difficult conversations with some herbal colleagues who claimed a romantic past of witches, midwives and healers. At times, I found myself, in turn, warning about ‘bad’ history, arguing for more objectivity about the historical evidence available, and questioning assumptions that all early modern women were expert healers [Figure 2].
Fortunately, I found other herbalists keen to encourage more scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and this led to setting up the Herbal History Research Network. At the opposite end of the scale, I found that historical colleagues needed ways to objectively evaluate medicinal plants, especially since many lacked medical or botanical backgrounds. This led me to develop the series entitled ‘The Working of Herbs’ providing a protocol for locating, and distinguishing, past and present understandings about medicinal plants. I have really valued the existence of the Recipes Project, as a sort of ‘room in the ether’ for networking with colleagues, a supportive space to explore such developments and techniques. I remain interested in the tensions between science and history, curious about issues of methodology in historical research, fascinated especially by ‘historiography’, an expansive term which seems to encompass everything about ‘writing’ history, yet draws back under the critical gaze of some historians at the ‘doing’ of history.
Particularly welcome in the Recipes Project has been the pioneering and positive approach towards the reconstruction of recipes [Figure 3]. As in the theatrical context (see Johnson, 2015), the recreation of living history, though not without drawbacks, brings greater appreciation of both emotive and technical aspects of culture, adding considerable value in interpretation of archives.
A great forum for knotty issues
For me, the study of historical recipes brings together so many social, cultural, economic and material aspects, that it is not surprising that historiography can be a challenge to articulate, let alone develop. I found that criticising other people’s historical approaches was easier than defining my own perspective. In my research I drew on a wide range of archival sources relating to an individual household, and I was glad to find others describing such a ‘micro-history’ style of working, recognising ‘ragged accounts’ in medical history research (Burnham, 2005, p.141). In further recognition of the importance of context, Wendy Wall (2015) writes of ‘knotty’ (p.91) issues raised by recipes, well illustrating the way in which these need to be carefully teased out. Trying to pin down accurate characterization of historical methods and frameworks is not a small task, but the Recipes Project can provide a great forum for such an endeavour. Long may the Recipes Project, and its tireless editors, continue to offer a rich feast of knotty historical recipe research.
Burnham, John C. What Is Medical History? Cambridge: Polity, 2005.
Johnson, Katherine M. ‘Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography’. Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193–206.
Stobart, Anne. Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.