The Pressure Cooker was Not an Instant Success

Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin's "Digester of Bones," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin’s “Digester of Bones,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jennifer Egloff

“What’s in your Pot tonight?”

This question is often asked on Facebook pages dedicated to the Instant Pot and other electronic pressure cookers.  While many people know that the pressure cooker existed prior to becoming trendy during the past few years, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was invented in the 1670s by a man named Denis Papin.  Although Papin is not a household name or textbook staple like his colleagues Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, or Isaac Newton, he was a noteworthy member of the European knowledge community during the second half of the seventeenth century. (For more on Pepin and his connections to early modern scientists, technicians, machine-makers, natural scientists, and philosophers, see Thony Christie’s super post at The Renaissance Mathematicus!)

Born in Blois, France in 1647 he studied medicine and utilized patronage connections with Marie Charron, the wife of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in order to receive a position assisting the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens with physical and chemical experiments at the Louvre in 1673.  In 1675, Papin relocated to London—equipped with a letter of introduction from Huygens—where he soon began assisting Boyle with his air pump experiments.  While doing so, Papin designed his pressure cooker, which was a sealed container, in which water could be heated to create internal pressure that was many times greater than that of the earth’s atmosphere.  By experimenting on food, Papin was applying the principles of temperature, pressure, and volume to practical problems, while simultaneously formulating additional theoretical principles from his observations. 

After having demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, Papin published an account called A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681.  His text contained a description of the experiments he did with his Digester, and how it radically decreased the time required to cook meat, soften bones, ferment wine, prepare confections, dyes, and chemicals, and even incubate eggs.  He also included an account of the cost to build his engine, and provided some cost-benefit analysis, highlighting the potential for large profits. 

Papin especially highlighted how valuable his device would be at sea, both logistically—because one could cook with sea water in it—and with regards to nutrition.  Scurvy, which has the symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems, was a habitual problem for early modern English mariners.  While medical professionals now understand that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, also referred to as vitamin C, during the seventeenth century there were many competing theories about the causes.

Calling upon his medical training, Papin claimed that mariners’ high instances of developing scurvy was related to overconsumption of salted meat, which was a staple of mariners’ diets.  Papin considered his Digester’s ability to quickly and easily turn bones—which might have otherwise been discarded—into nutritious and flavorful jellies to be one of its most significant applications.  He claimed, “that Gellies being made of volatile parts, and easie to be digested, would be apt to correct that defect of the salt meat.”[1]  Papin thought that jellies would be nutritious for people on land as well, and he focused on jellies when making his financial arguments about the profitability of his Digester.

Although some of his contemporaries, including the diarist John Evelyn, enjoyed his jellies, Papin made it clear in his 1687 text, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, in which he detailed additional experiments that he had done, that “very few People have been willing to make use of it.”[2]  Throughout Continuation, Papin made efforts to promote his device to a wide variety of people.  He even performed a weekly live demonstration of his device—kind of the seventeenth-century equivalent of an infomercial.  However, his stipulation that anyone who attended needed “to bring along with them a Recommendation from any Members of the Royal Society” may have been working against his objective of trying to get more quotidian people interested in utilizing his Digester for practical purposes.[3]

There are many reasons why the pressure cooker may not have been immediately successful, including the temporal and monetary investment required to build the device, the fact that they did occasionally explode, and that preparing food was traditionally a female task, whereas Papin advertised his new technology toward men.  Nevertheless, Papin serves as an illustrative example of a member of the seventeenth century European knowledge community.  Similarly to many of his counterparts, Papin’s intellectual interests spanned many disciplines.  He studied medicine, performed physical and chemical experiments, taught mathematics, and knew multiple languages. 

The fact that Papin, and many of his counterparts, sought to apply theoretical principles to practical problems, such as food preservation and nutrition, while in turn utilizing their observations of these quotidian problems to further develop and refine their physical and chemical theories, can help us to understand that the equations written on the pages of our textbooks, and the quotidian events of our daily lives—such as preparing our daily bread—are not as disparate as we may have been lead to believe.

Resources and Further Reading

Papin, Denis.  A continuation of the new digester of bones its improvements, and new uses it hath been applyed to, both for sea and land : together with some improvements and new uses of the air-pump, tryed both in England and Italy. London: Printed by Joseph Streater, 1687.

Papin, Denis.  A new digester or engine for softning bones containing the description of its make and use in these particulars : viz. cookery, voyages at sea, confectionary, making of drinks, chymistry, and dying : with an account of the price a good big engine will cost, and of the profit it will afford. London: Printed by J.M. for Henry Bonwicke, 1681.

Shapin, Steven. “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist 77, no. 6 (1989): 554-63. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.nyu.edu/stable/27856006.

Shapin, Steven.  A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016.

[1] Papin, A New Digester, 21.

[2] Papin, Continuation, A3-A3v.

[3] Papin, Continuation, A3v.

Jennifer Egloff earned her PhD in History from New York University in 2015.  Combining her undergraduate training in Mathematics with her graduate training in History, Egloff’s dissertation “The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” incorporates elements of Atlantic History and the History of Science to explore the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals utilized numerical methods and mathematical techniques to attempt the face the challenges brought on by the opening of the Atlantic to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information.  A strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, Egloff recently held a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, and she will be joining the History Department of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in August 2019.

Thomas Tryon’s Harmless Cocoe-Nut Water

By Andrea Crow

Mouthfeel was only the beginning for the early modern vegetarian author Thomas Tryon. Tryon’s prolific literary output of tracts and guidebooks (complete with hundreds of recipes) advocating meat-free living treats texture as one of the most important properties of food for the thoughtful consumer to consider.

Not just a matter of taste, food texture mattered, according to Tryon, throughout the entire digestive process. Sounding more or less like a twenty-first century juice cleanser, Tryon obsesses over what he calls the “furring” of the body’s “passageways.”[1] His vegetarianism, though in part ethically-motivated, also arose from his revulsion at the image of internal organs coated by “the Fat of Flesh or Fish” in sticky “oyly bodies,” such that they become hairy with strands of partly digested matter that, in turn, coalesce into “crudities” (incompletely-digested lumps of food) and other “obstructions.”[2] He devoted his life to popularizing a diet designed to promote wellness by textually transforming the internal surfaces of the organs, making them smooth, sleek, and uniform of consistency, thereby bringing the body into a state of peace and harmony from the inside out.

The fantasy that consuming certain foods will purify the finicky, smelly mass of cavities and tubes that make up the human digestive system is persistent in dietary literature from the ancient world to the present day. Plutarch urged his readers to “eat cautiously of such food as is solid and most nourishing” in favor of “those things which are thin and light,” being particularly sparing in the consumption of flesh which “very much clogs us and leaves ill relics behind it.”[3] The Yogi-brand “Roasted Dandelion Spice DeTox” tea I’m drinking as I write this promises to cleanse my liver and make my skin even and smooth. For Tryon, this dream of textureless organs was becoming more possible than ever thanks to an influx of the early modern equivalent of superfoods: the fruits, vegetables, and roots of the Caribbean.

Tryon’s eager account of these new imports, “A Brief Treatise of the Principal Fruits and Herbs that Grow in Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other Plantations in the West-Indies”—the first portion of his three-volume collection Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies (1684)—is an interesting case study in the history of thought on food texture because of how significant this factor was to the arguments Tryon made for consuming this new fare. The most beneficial textural properties of Caribbean produce, he argued, could be found at the microscopic level. The “delicate cooling Breezes and refreshing Gales of Wind,” combined with the “Sun’s more near and direct Beams,” infused the vegetation with an invisible motion that  “digest[ed] their Rawness.”[4] While the bulk of Tryon’s writing encouraged his readers to subsist primarily on a relatively flavorless diet of plain gruel and bread, he was ecstatic about tropical fruits and vegetables because of his belief that climate conditions had pre-digested them into an internal state of refined homogeneity.

The pineapple’s visible “delicacy” and “curious Shape” is, according to Tryon’s treatise, complemented by its ability, when consumed, to “moderate, cool, comfort and refresh the Spirits, cleanse the Passages, remove Obstructions that fur the Pipes, and also purge away and help to digest all slimy and sharp Juices that offend Nature.”[5] Plaintains’ inner “brisk spiritous parts”  will “gently open obstructions”;[6] the “Cocoe-Nut’s” “think or milky Substance” contains “pure fine brisk Spirits” that “breeds good Blood”;[7] underneath the seemingly forbidding appearance of “pinpillow-pears” (apparently a type of prickly pear) with their “Martial Weapons or Prickles” run “Juices quick and penetrating” that “cut Phlegm … and help Concoction.”[8] In short, the foods of the West Indies promise dramatic advances in the study of the fluid mechanics of the body that so interests Tryon.

The motivations shaping Tryon’s particular vision of an idealized digestive system—clean, free of conflict, and so smooth that nothing offensive can stick to it—though theoretically a simple matter of health, becomes more sociopolitically complex when considered in the context of the subsequent two sections that follow the “Brief Treatise” in the Friendly Advice to the Gentleman-Planters volume. The subsequent texts, “The Complaints of the Negro-Slaves against the Hard Usages and Barbarous Cruelties Inflicted Upon Them” and “A Discourse in Way of Dialogue, between an Ethiopean or Negro-Slave, and a Christian that was his Master in America,” delineate the cruel, dehumanizing conditions and racist atrocities that bring the very health foods Tryon promotes to English tables.[9] Like Whole Foods’s infamous 2014 campaign featuring posters of a smiling child that read “Grow Up Strong and Harmless,” or the bizarrely-titled beverage “Harmless Harvest Coconut Water,” Tryon’s desire for a textureless and therefore harmonious and virtuous inner state reads like a case of protesting too much: displacing anxiety over one’s involvement in violent and destructive global food infrastructures by becoming a metaphorical embodiment of harmlessness through achieving conflict-free digestion.

[1] Thomas Tryon, Monthly Observations for the Preserving of Health with a Long and Comfortable Life, in this our Pilgrimage on Earth, but more particularly for the spring and summer seasons (London, 1688), 14.

[2] Ibid, 14-15.

[3] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, Vol. 1, ed. William W. Goodwin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1871), 268.

[4] Tryon, A Brief Treatise of the Principal Fruits and Herbs that Grow in Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other Plantations in the West-Indies (1684), 2-3.

[5] Ibid, 4-7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 13.

[8] Ibid, 37.

[9] Kim F. Hall offers a trenchant analysis of these treatises in the context of the xenophobia expressed in Tryon’s writings in‘Extravagant Viciousness’: Slavery and Gluttony in the Works of Thomas Tryon,” in Writing Race across the Atlantic World: Medieval to Modern, eds. Phillip Beidler and Gary Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 93-111.

Andrea Crow is an assistant professor in the English department at Boston College where she specializes in early modern poetry and drama. She is currently completing a monograph exploring the relationship between poetics and food scarcity in seventeenth-century Anglophone literature. Her work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Christianity and Literature, and Early Modern Women.

Textures: a Thematic Series

By Amanda E. Herbert and Marissa Nicosia

In a casual conversation about hippocras recipes over a year ago, we realized we had a shared interest in the many ways that texture was represented in recipes, and we wanted to explore this interest in a Recipes Project series. Hippocras, a spiced wine that was popular in Europe and the Americas c. 1400-1800, offers an excellent example of the ways that textures were and can be expressed and experienced in recipes. Making hippocras seems straightforward, if strange. After infusing wine with spices and sweetening it with sugar, hippocras recipes then often call for adding cream or milk. The dairy curdles for over an hour, with creamy lumps slowly coagulating within the wine. The milk solids are then strained out using cheesecloth, sieves, or “jelly bags.” The straining process clarifies the beverage, leaving the dairy’s sweetness behind. But for both of us, the intervening minutes when our precious infused wine was swimming with undesirable curdled matter was absolutely abject. (And we weren’t the only ones who found this process to be fascinating and unsettling: later this month, you’ll see how Emily Brandt undertook a similar project in her piece on “Milk Punch.”)

 

Elisabeth Hawar, Culinary and medical recipe book, c. 1687, f MS.1975.003, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
Elisabeth Hawar, Culinary and medical recipe book, c. 1687, f MS.1975.003, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.

For us, the curdled dairy in the hippocras was off-putting: clumpy, soft, squishy, the curds sent us messages about rottenness, wrongness.  But for early modern Euro-American eaters and drinkers, these curdles would have sent very different, desirable messages. Curdles were essential elements of many premodern dishes. In possets, such as this “London Possett” (excerpted above, see the full image here): eggs, cream, alcohol, and seasonings are combined and heated for the express purpose of forming a curdled layer.  

And of course, curdled dairy is a central component of many modern dishes made around the world: Dulce de Leche Cortada, featuring milk curdled with lime and then mixed with egg, cinnamon, and sugar; paneer or chhena, essential to dishes in east Asia.

By Sonja Pauen - Stanhopea - Own work, CC BY 2.0 de, https///commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4140434
By Sonja Pauen – Stanhopea – Own work, CC BY 2.0 de, https///commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4140434

People who work on recipes from the past are used to thinking about taste as subjective, malleable, and changeable in the ways it signifies. We should remind ourselves that texture works this way, too.  It informs what we believe to be edible or inedible, whether that assessment is based on logic, experience, or cultural norms. We experience texture through other senses: touch, taste, and sight. And recipes reveal how texture was considered both in the process and in the product of medicinal and culinary preparations.

In this series, we approach texture from the perspectives of food and medicine, materials and sensations. Over the course of this month at The Recipes Project, we will learn about textures from many different times, spaces, and cultures.  Jack Bouchard will discuss methods of preservation and preparation that transform ingredients in his post on stockfish. Susan Brandt will teach us about the textures of medical preparations and their application to the body in her post on “musk julep.” Jennie Egloff and Andrea Crow will write about pleasurable and abject mouth-feel in their posts on a premodern vegetarian diet, and on an early pressure cooker: the “digester of bones.” We’ll learn about encounters with new spices and foods through trade in Emily’s Brandt’s post on “Alcohol’s Empire,” and Elaine Leong will discuss the meaning and feeling of sweetness in her post on honey. A Tales from the Archive Post by He Bian will allow us to consider human milk – warmed by the body, like and yet unlike other animal milks in its consistency, color, and taste – as medicine in Imperial China. And RP Community Editor Sarah Kernan will bring us an Around the Table post from Helen Davies and Alex Zawacki of The Lazarus Project. Sarah, Helen, and Alex will discuss the “texture” of recipes via the materiality of texts, as they talk about their work with multispectral imaging and manuscripts

This is a processed spectral image of David Livingstone's 1870 Field Diary. The original manuscript page is held by the National Library of Scotland. This image is copyright National Library of Scotland and, as relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. The image has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.
This is a processed spectral image of David Livingstone’s 1870 Field Diary. The original manuscript page is held by the National Library of Scotland. This image is copyright National Library of Scotland and, as relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. The image has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.

A sticky substance on a kitchen floor, the jammy center of a hardboiled egg, the weave of a luxe brocade, the slipperiness of a rice noodle, the smooth surface of a metal spoon: the world of recipes is replete with texture, and this month, we’re delighted to explore all of these things with you.

Monkey Gland Cocktail

Lucy Jane Santos

Think of cocktails and, more than likely, imagery of impossibly glamorous people, smoky rooms, and bootleggers will pop into your head. Or perhaps it’s something closer to unsavoury bars with lurid coloured abominations masquerading as cocktails.

But these mixed drinks are so much more than that: they can also be used to tell stories of the past. They can be a window into many different types of histories, not least because they are reflections of the intentions of various peoples: the establishment that commissions them, the person that makes them, and even the customer who is meant to drink them.

Sometimes, the name of the cocktail itself can give us an insight into the most unlikely parts of history. For many cultures, the naming of something gave it power, substance, and meaning and it is no different for cocktails.

MONKEY GLAND COCKTAIL

Ingredients
One dash of Absinthe
One teaspoonful of Grenadine
Equal parts Orange Juice and Gin

Equipment
Cocktail shaker
Martini Glass

How to make this cocktail
Fill the cocktail shaker halfway up with gin, then orange juice to (almost) the brim. Add the Absinthe and Grenadine. Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.

Strange, unappetising, name for a cocktail isn’t it – Monkey’s Gland?

There are two claims for the creation of this cocktail. The first, and most likely, is from Harry MacElhone, owner of Harry’s New York Bar, Paris. And the second is from Frank Meier of the Ritz, also in Paris. Both claim they invented this cocktail in 1922.

“New Cocktail in Paris,” Washington Post, April 23, 1922

Less controversial is what influenced the naming of it.

The name – Monkey’s Gland – refers to a rejuvenation treatment that was in vogue in the image-conscious 1920s.

Serge Voronoff, a Russian Scientist who had been studying the effects of castration on eunuchs, devised the treatment. Voronoff observed that the eunuchs were sickly and tended to die young. He concluded that this was because of their lack of testicles. The treatment he devised took this to what he thought was the logical conclusion. Voronoff transplanted thin pieces of monkey’s testicles onto humans to improve their health and vitality.

This testicular transplant procedure was not unique to Voronoff -– others had tried interspecies transplantation with sheep, goats and bulls. But Voronoff was the first person to attempt primate to human transplant. He reasoned that monkeys were the closest to humans and thus it would work best.

Despite some very suspect before and after shots in his book, Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring, Voronoff’s procedure was a hit. Through the 1920s, an estimated 4000 people had the procedure. This also included women when Voronoff extended the procedure to ovaries taken from monkeys. For men, Voronoff promised increased sex drive, better memory, and a longer life. While for women, he promised anti-ageing and the restoration of beauty.

Before and After Photos of Mr E.L from Serge Voronoff “Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring”

The treatment’s downfall came when the subjects aged normally – despite Voronoff’s intervention. At first, he claimed that it was because the glands died after five years and it was just a matter of having the treatment again. But, eventually, the treatment fell out of favour.

Voronoff died alone in his castle in Switzerland. Though he died a very rich man, he had lost his reputation. Nevertheless, the cocktail he inspired is still served across the world.

Taste Test (or should that be Taste Teste)
I am not going to lie; this does take some getting used to. The absinthe and grenadine, though, takes this to another level. If you have the time, I recommend making homemade grenadine (seriously, do it – it will change your cocktail making for the better). Also, absinthe is preferable to Pernod or Ricard, which are adaptations that have been around since the 1920s.

Did you know?
Other cultural products also refer to Voronoff’s experiments. For example, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” (Strand Magazine 1923) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this story, Holmes discovers that an ageing professor has injected himself with an extract from a Langur, a type of monkey. This experiment had some, let us say, unexpected consequences.

Other cultural products also refer to Voronoff’s experiments. For example, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” (Strand Magazine 1923) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this story, Holmes discovers that an ageing professor has injected himself with an extract from a Langur, a type of monkey. This experiment had some, let us say, unexpected consequences.

 

Lucy Jane Santos is a freelance writer and historian with a special interest in popular science and the history of everyday life. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut non-fiction Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium will be published by Icon in July 2020. You can visit her at  www.lucyjanesantos.com, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/santoslucyjane/, Twitter: https://twitter.com/lucyjanesantos_, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lucyjanesantos_, Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/lucyjanesantos_