The Measure of Ingredients in Early Modern Recipes

By Juliet Claxton

Modern cookery books list recipe ingredients that are carefully weighed out using standardized units of measurement. It is precise calibration that allows for a recipe to be replicated with accuracy, even by a novice cook. Early modern recipe collections, however, are often frustratingly reticent about the exact quantities involved – so observation and experience must have been an important part of practical cookery. The expanding demand for texts of culinary and medicinal recipes from the early seventeenth century onwards, however, reveals that measurements, cooking times, and instructions had to become increasingly precise. Cooks and housewives needed the information to reproduce a recipe without prior experience. Knowing the measure of ingredients was a key aptitude, but contemporary inventories show that owning kitchen scales, while recommended, was not habitual until the mid-eighteenth century.[i] How were ingredients measured when the most frequently given instructions were to use ‘a handful’ or ‘a pretty quantity’?

The evidence from one of the earliest volumes of medicinal recipes, A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon, dated 1606 and attributed to the countess of Arundel (Wellcome: MS 213), reveals that ingredients were measured using a combination of weight, volume, and sight. To assist and guide in this procedure the recipes turned to both bodily parts and quotidian, domestic objects that were familiar to the early modern householder.

Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Fig. 1. Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Naturally a cook’s hands and fingers were the primary gauges.  The recipe for ‘A Medicine for those that have a moist Stomake’ calls for ‘a toste of white Breade of a reasonable thickness and of the breadth of your two fingers’ (MS 213/60). A ‘handful’ or ‘half a handful’ are the volume’s most often cited units of measurement, but hand sizes varied. As Nicholas Culpeper scornfully noted: ‘An Handful is as much as you can gripe in one Hand; and a Pugil as much as you can take up with your Thumb and two Fingers; and how much that is who can tell?'[ii] A need to refine this measurement was often necessary, and the recipe for ‘A Salue to cure every olde Sorre’ calls for ‘3 slyces of yeollowe rustye Bacon the slyces so long and brode as a large hand’ (MS 213/144). In a later printed volume, Natura Extentratealso attributed to the countess of Arundel, the term ‘handful’ was further defined.  Instructions for herbs were marked with the letter ‘M’ indicating a good or large handful, while directions for flowers had the letter ‘P’ to indicate a small handful.[iii] 

Other recipes in A Booke of diuers Medecines turn to kitchen paraphernalia to ascertain accurate quantities. Ladles and spoons appear, but so do objects from the natural world, particularly beans and nuts, which are usually consistent in size. For example, ‘A cure to take away the pynn and webb in the eye’ itemizes ‘fyne white sugar as much as a walnut and a piece of Sanguis Draconis as bigg as a Beane’ (MS 213/12). Sometimes this measurement was even further refined: ‘A Salue for any Soore’ instructs the cook to putt into this salve ‘so much Pitche as a greate wallnut’ (MS 213/144), while another recipe for an ‘olde Sore’ uses ‘a piece of white Copperesse of the quantitye of an Hassell [hazel] Nutt’ (MS 213/151). Even living creatures such as shellfish or birds are regarded as a useful comparable unit. For example, a water for ‘any newe or olde Soores’ uses ‘as much Allome as a crabb’  (MS 213/146), and an ‘Oyntement called Pampilion’ needed ‘a great lappfull’ of Popler leaves ‘before they be opened any bigger than a young cockes combes’ (MS 213/155).

Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection.CC BY
Fig. 2. Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Standard units of pounds and ounces appear less frequently in the manuscript and are often used for ingredients that were purchased commercially and weighed in store – unlike domestic kitchens, apothecaries usually owned a set of scales. The most expensive ingredients, however, were often cited in pecuniary terms. ‘A Medecine food for those that are apte often to caste through weakeness of the Stomacke’ uses ‘two penny worthe of Saffron’ (MS 213/62).  ‘A Medicine for the Collick and the Stone’ uses ‘a pennyworth of cloves and mace an halfepennye worth of longe pepper, and two pennyworth of Turmarick’ (MS 213/68/70), while another has ‘the weight of eyghte pence in Parmacetye, two pennyworthe of cloues’ and ‘half a crowne of the powder of Mastick’ (MS 213/76).

Many elite women of this period were responsible for large households and often relied upon senior servants, both male and female, to produce food, brew beer, and distil medicines. Providing careful notes that allowed for various units of measurement meant that recipes could prepared despite the absence of the householder.

 

[i] Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 98.

[ii] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory, (London: 1653).

[iii] Elizabeth Spiller, Seventeenth-century English Recipe Books, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), xxxvi.

A Recipe for Reproductive Healthcare

Melissa Reynolds

Last month I wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post’s Made by History section addressing the crisis in maternal mortality in the United States. Drawing from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reproductive recipes, I argued that pre-modern gynecological practice frequently emphasized the mother’s health over that of her fetus, in part because pre-moderns recognized that pregnancy and childbirth could be quite dangerous, and in part because fetal development was little understood and medical intervention in-utero was impossible. This attention to maternal health, I contend, is missing within the American culture of pregnancy, too often focused on the well-being of a fetus instead of its mother.

Figures illustrating malpresentations of a fetus, 17th century. The Wellcome Collection.

The kernel of the OpEd emerged when I began tracking occurrences of reproductive recipes in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English recipe books. As I encountered numerous recipes to aid conception, to bring about menstruation, to halt menstruation, to aid in childbirth, as well as numerous versions of recipes to deliver a deceased fetus, I found myself surprised by their straightforward, immensely practical tone. I think I expected something more ideological, more representative of misogynistc medical theories on reproduction that insisted on the toxicity of women’s bodies, expressed suspicion about women’s “secret” power of generation, or worried over the undue (and dangerous) influence women had on fetal development. These anti-woman sentiments were common to pre-modern medicine, yet in large part I found little evidence of these attitudes in late medieval recipe books.

Instead, in at least forty different manuscripts, I found recipes that offered women some control over their reproductive health, addressing the same range of concerns voiced by women today. For example, British Library MS Additional 34210, an early fifteenth-century medical manuscript, contains recipes for “Medicine to delivere a woman of a dede child” (f. 19r), for “Helpyng to conceive a chylde,” (f. 45r), “For to make a woman dolyver the hedde of a childe” (f. 45v), “For to sese a womanys flowris” (f. 47r), and one “For a woman that has lost her flowres”:

For a woman that has lost hur flowres when þay be destryed. This medicine faylis neuer but looke that sche be not with chylde. Take rote of gladon and sethe hit in vinegre or in wyne when hit is well sodyn set hit in to þe grounde and let hir stryd on so that þer may noone eyre a way but evyn up in to hur privite. (BL MS Additional 34210, f. 47r)

For a woman that has lost her flowers [menstrual flow] when it is destroyed. This medicine never fails but be sure that she is not with child. Take root of gladdon [acorus calamus, or sweet flag] and seeth it in vinegar or wine; when it is well sodden set it in the ground and let her sit on it so that no air escapes but goes only up in to her privates.

Like most vernacular recipes, these have their roots in much older medical traditions. For example, while at first I was surprised to see that recipes to “deliver a woman of a dead child” often outnumber other childbirth-related recipes in late medieval miscellanies, the prevalence of these directives makes sense given their prominence in ancient and earlier medieval gynecological writings. From RP Editor Laurence Totelin’s Hippocratic Recipes and Ann Ellis Hanson’s translations of the Hippocratic “Diseases of Women I ,” I learned that recipes to expel a dead fetus were not uncommon within ancient Greek medicine. From Monica Green’s translation of the Trotulagynecological writings in Latin from twelfth-century Salerno, Italy, I found recipes instructing women to drink rue and mugwort steeped in wine if they need to deliver a dead fetus—the same ingredients listed in two different English recipes for stillbirth from BL Additional 34210.

Artist unknown. The birth of a baby. 18th century. The Wellcome Collection.

These recurrences within reproductive recipes—many of which span centuries—indicate that while learned medical theory may have emphasized female weakness or toxicity, often the everyday practice of reproductive healthcare was responsive to women’s needs. Those needs remained much the same from ancient Greece to medieval England, and so, too, did elements of many of these recipes.

At the same time, ancient Greece, medieval Italy, and early modern England were still intensely misogynistic societies. The reproductive recipes common to late medieval English recipe books, no matter how attentive to women’s needs, are not evidence for some bygone era of egalitarian healthcare. Far from it. Even so, the prevalence of practical and relatively woman-centered reproductive recipes in late medieval miscellanies shows that even within a culture that was steeped in misogynistic medical theory, when push came to shove (or perhaps simply when it came time to push), pre-modern people needed remedies that set aside ideology and instead attempted to address women’s needs. If there is a lesson to be taken from pre-modern reproductive recipes, perhaps it is just that.

Vegetable Soup: A Friendship Revealed by a Recipe

Nikki Yutuc

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.

This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime. 

Margaret Chase Smith and Liz Hart at the Senator’s Skowhegan home c. 1980s. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

Margaret Chase Smith’s recipe collection includes a recipe for Vegetable Soup credited to “Liz Hart.” Research reveals the recipe contributor was accomplished sculptor and artist from Dallas, Texas, Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Hart. Her obituary credits Hart with the creation of statues designed for the Boy Scouts Headquarters, the rotunda of A. Webb Roberts University, and figures for Sea World Texas. Her most well-known piece is a bust of Margaret Chase Smith in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Her recipe in Smith’s collection preserves their relationship. More than just artist and subject, Liz Hart and Margaret Chase Smith were good friends.

The two women exchanged letters throughout the time that they worked together. The letters, kept in the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine, discuss the progress of the bust and details about their personal lives. Because Hart lived in Dallas, Texas, she was unable to see her subject regularly but managed to create a piece that truly captured the essence of Margaret Chase Smith. In a letter that Hart wrote to Smith, she said that “portrait sculptors throughout the ages have had different philosophies concerning their work. Mine lies somewhere in-between the Romans who pursued with fierce honesty the naturalistic notation of personal character, ‘warts and all’, and Michelangelo who observed, with respect to his idealized figure of Guiliano de Medici carved for the Medici Chapel in Florence, that likeness was unimportant in commemorating an individual, since a thousand years in the future, who would value the resemblance?” Her rendering of Smith captures her philosophy.  

Smith and the bust by sculptor Liz Hart. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

The bust has her signature curly hair and wrinkles that show her age at the time. It accurately resembles Margaret Chase Smith, but its position is the most powerful. Her bust looks upwards as if she is looking forward to the possibilities. She is a powerful woman, and the bust represents her well. Liz Hart was aware of Smith’s strong personality, and the bust needed to symbolize her achievements. Hart described the image of Smith that she wanted to create in a letter to Smith saying, “I have been trying to capture your personality as I see it, alert, brilliant, self-assured, determined, yet very, very feminine….. I have not, nor will I show every wrinkle, hair, etc.” Smith was aware of her appearance, and Hart did her best to create an image of Smith that pleased the subject. Smith was impressed by the sculpture because of its resemblance and Hart’s expertise.

A copy of the bust from the collections of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

During the presentation of the bust, Smith said, “The subject for a work of art is seldom pleased with what she sees, thus, my reluctance from the beginning to be the subject; but with the patience and expertise of Liz Hart, and her love and admiration for me, I did my best and was rewarded by what I believe to be a true likeness of me. Not a detail was missed; and after hearing so many oohs and aahs by friends and strangers and on close examination myself, I have come to believe that it is a true work of art.” Images of Smith standing next to her bust showcase Hart’s talent and attention to detail. Hart captured all of Smith’s prominent features and simultaneously replicated her determined personality. The original bust’s home in the Smithsonian, “is a testament to her importance. She inspired generations of women, especially in the mid-twentieth century when many women were expected to only serve in domestic roles, and her dedication to the public will forever be remembered through Liz Hart’s bronze bust of her” (Portraits of Women in the Western World).

Liz Hart’s recipe for vegetable soup in Margaret Chase Smith’s recipe collection.
Liz Hart’s recipe for vegetable soup continued.

The relationship between Hart and Smith was more than professional. The two had become good friends, and Hart gave Smith a recipe, Vegetable Soup, to keep in her collection. According to Angie Stockwell, a collection specialist at the Margaret Chase Smith Library, Senator Smith never made the recipe. Mrs. Stockwell speculates, “I suspect she might have had her housekeeper make it for her, as by the time Senator Smith met Liz, she would have been older and perhaps not too inclined to cook.” With many ingredients and an enormous yield, the recipe seems poorly suited to Smith’s lifestyle during her final years. However, for Liz Hart, as an artist with a family who worked from home, the long-simmering soup may have ideally suited her work and family’s needs. The recipe may have served as a reminder of a dear friend rather than practical instructions in Smith’s collection.

Nikki Yutuc is a fourth-year Finance and Management double-major and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine. 


  1. “Elizabeth Hart Sight and Sound Sculpture.” 20c Designhttp://20cdesign.com/product/elizabeth-hart-sight-and-sound-sculpture/
  2. “Elizabeth Hart Wall Sculpture – Entendons Nous.” At 1stdibswww.1stdibs.com/furniture/wall-decorations/contemporary-art/elizabeth-hart-wall-sculpture-entendons-nous/id-f_383654/.
  3. “Margaret Chase Smith.” Smithsonian Institutionwww.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.84.160?destination=sisearch%3Fedan_q%3Delizabeth%252Bhart&width=85%25&height=85%25&iframe=true.
  4. Halliday, Robin Rominger. “View Mary Hart’s Obituary on DallasNews.com and Share Memories.” Mary Hart Obituary – Dallas, TX | Dallas Morning Newshttps://obits.dallasnews.com/obituaries/dallasmorningnews/obituary.aspx?n=mary-elizabeth-hart-liz&pid=104222734.
  5. “Portraits of Women in the Western World.” 24, engl10524spring2017exhibitions.web.unc.edu/portraits-of-women-in-the-western-world/
  6. Stockwell, A. (2019). Email. Margaret Chase Smith Library

Exploring Class and Social Ties in Chocolate Crunch Cookies

Caitlin Hillery

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.

This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel A. Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime. 

“Chocolate Crunch Cookies” is the last recipe in the “Cookies” section of Margaret Chase Smith’s personal recipe box. Though entirely handwritten, it is absent from any sign of a contributor’s name or the date added. On the back of the recipe card is the first half of another handwritten recipe, this one for hermits—scratched-out, upside-down, but still legible. The contributor has added several personal comments after the customary instructions: “very good and something different,” she writes, and laments over the rising costs of semi-sweet chocolate—farmore preferable, she confides, to the cheaper but less satisfactory “sweet chocolate.” 

Smith’s personal recipe collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library in Skowhegan, Maine. Photography by Rachel Snell.

After a first glance, this recipe clearly relies on staple ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, shortening, baking soda, vanilla. The most expensive ingredients are the nuts and the chocolate (and these, of course, are entirely up to the individual baker’s discretion). Easy-to-find ingredients, yes, but not universally affordable. Upon initial analysis of this recipe, its apparent similarity to a chocolate chip cookie was immediately noticeable, and the original Toll House cookie recipe seemed to be a rational jumping-off point for research. “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies,” as they originally appeared in the 1938 edition of Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes, are, in fact, almost identical to the “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” in Smith’scollection. Theonly differences between the two recipes lie in the type of fat, the amount of chocolate, and theoven temperature. While the Smith recipe providesfar more detailed descriptions for how tocombine the ingredients, the similarities in the type and quantity of ingredients speak volumes.[1]

Smith’s recipe for Chocolate Crunch Cookies. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

The similarities between the two recipes suggests “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” made its way into Smith’s collection somewhere between 1938—when the pivotal edition of Ruth Wakefield’s cookbook was published—and 1940—when Nestlé began producing “chocolate morsels.” On March 20, 1939, Ruth Wakefield sold her aforementioned recipe to Nestlé for $1 and, reportedly, a lifetime supply of chocolate, immediately making “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” available to a much wider audience. Nestlé introduced “chocolate morsels” in 1940 for greater ease of making the cookies, though the contributor of the Smith recipe still specifies chopping a chocolate bar into pea-sized pieces—an indication that the “morsels” were, perhaps, a luxury item, too expensive, impractical, or even not yet invented at the date of contribution.[2]

Comparison of Smith’s Chocolate Crunch Cookie Recipe with Wakefield’s original recipe.

Expense, in particular, is a notable focus in the analysis of this recipe due to several factors that suggest the possibility of the contributor’s low socioeconomic status. She substitutes the butter in the original Toll House recipe for shortening, a less expensive and more shelf-stable fat; the scribbled-out recipe for hermits on the back of the cookie recipe suggests that she recycled recipe cards to avoid waste; much of her commentary surrounds the price of chocolate and her disappointment at not being able to afford to make this particular recipe anymore; and she cites substituting a cheaper chocolate, sweet rather than semi-sweet, in an endeavor to prepare the cookies nonetheless before dismissing that “it isn’t quite the same.”

Having grown up in a working-class family herself, living in Skowhegan and working her own job by the age of 12, Margaret Chase Smith probably cut a less intimidating figure to the women with whom she associated—indeed, itis even likely that women of lower economic status would have felt more comfortable sharing their recipes with her, even on previously used cards. The question still stands: who may have contributed this recipe to Smith’s collection? Assuming, for now, that the 1938-1940 hypothesis is correct for the submission of the recipe; it would make the most sense that Sen.Smith received this recipe from someone in the Congressional Club, the only women’s club in which she was active during those years. The scratched-out hermit recipe challenges this interpretation. Hermits are a uniquely regional food, containing northeastern/Canadian traditional elements such as raisins, molasses, and brown sugar. Would the same politically connected wife have submitted two such commonplace, simple recipes, on reused recipe cards, nonetheless?[3]

Photograph of Margaret Madeline Chase in 1927 while she was President of the Maine Business and Professional Women’s Club. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

The other most likely possibility as to the recipe’s contributor is a member of either Maine’s Sorosis Club or Business and Professional Women’s Club (PBW), the two women’s organizations in which MCS was notably active throughout her life. Such an origin would explain the hints of regional tradition, the congenial tone observed in the commentary, the indications of a lower-class contributor, and—perhaps mostnotably—the shareable nature of both recipes. The BPW, in particular, had a “downtown clubhouse” that members who worked in the city would use as an area to eat lunch—a prime excuse to have quick, easily distributed treats on hand.[4]

Smith’s Chocolate Crunch Cookies, adapted and prepared by the author.

It’s not surprising that this recipe retained its spot in MCS’ recipe box; as her personal secretary Angie Stockwell recalled, the senator “always liked to have some sort of crunch cookie on hand.”  Her former housekeeper remembered how, on her weekly shopping trips, she was always instructed to buy Pepperidge Farm cookies, which, apparently, “disappeared somewhere!”  Did she ever make these cookies?  We may never know—but if she tried them even once, I’d bet that they remained a favorite.[5]

Caitlin Hillery is a third-year Food Science and Human Nutrition major with a concentration in Food Science and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine.


[1]Carolyn Wyman, The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book: Scrumptious Recipes & Fabled History From Toll House to Cookie Cake Pie(New York: Countryman Press, 2013). 

[2]Wyman,The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book; Jon Michaud, “Sweet Morsels: A History of the Chocolate-Chip Cookie.”The New Yorker, 19 June 2017. 

[3]Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001). 

[4]Jeannette W. Cockroft, “The Transformative Power of Work: The Early Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith,” Maine History47:2 (July 2013); Diane Tye, Baking as Biography: a Life Story in Recipes(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010).

[5]Email correspondence with Angie Stockwell, Archivist, Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.