By the end of February, I had set up nearly all of this month’s posts to publish. But not this one. It’s been less than a month, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, I was preoccupied with the community that came from the UK strike. Since then, though, a pandemic has been declared — and it’s increasingly clear that virtual community is more important than ever.
Today’s post had not yet been set, as I was planning to cross-publish something. But things had gotten on top of me before I could do it… like (virtually) coming back from strike to move all of my teaching for the last week online because our university had more-or-less closed.
I’ve been working from home all week, with a tiny co-worker keeping me company. Being at home with her has meant enforced time out in my day to play and to breathe fresh air. On today’s menu: making mud pies.
Throughout our playtime, the child narrated how to make a mud pie.
Take some dirt from this pile, then add leaves, twigs, and plant scraps. Tap it into your pail. Turn it upside down for serving.
Another variation included the fancy pies (see below) that could be served in their dishes.
What the child didn’t say, though, is that making mud pies is a fundamentally sociable activity. What is the point of making them if you don’t have someone to share them with?
The Recipes Project had already been taking stock of our future direction by looking at our blog stats and audience. We had been wondering what they could tell us about our wider community and what you might like to see from us. Over the past week, we’ve also been thinking a lot about the sudden changes in our (and our contributors’) work and personal lives. And virtual communities have become even more important than ever!
As ever, we’re delighted to hear from you and would love it if you let us know in the comments what you would like to see from us in the future, whether content, community building, or events… Please join us in making mud pies — or, thinking about what we want to see from our wonderful community of readers and contributors.
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.