Recipe Books as Digital Feminist Archives

By Whitney Sperrazza, Rochester Institute of Technology

For sixteen weeks last fall, twelve University of Kansas students from a wide range of disciplines met at the Spencer Research Library to study, transcribe, and develop projects on one object from the library’s holdings: Elizabeth Dyke’s Booke of Recaits.[1]

I took this 232-page medicinal and culinary recipe book, dated 1668, as the foundation for a course on “Digital Feminist Archives” because this text, like all early women’s recipe books, has much to teach us about all three of these terms. In this post, I take my course’s title as a prompt to consider why recipe books are so useful for teaching at and about the intersections of archival, digital, and feminist practices.

Archives

Dyke’s Booke of Recaits contains over 700 recipes, many of which will sound familiar to Recipes Project readers.[2] You’ll find remedies for headaches, advice on using rose water to prevent the plague, and many, many recipes on preserving fruits. But, as we know, early women’s recipe books are so much more than historical recipe archives—and this manuscript is no different. Dyke’s Booke is a document of familial and social networks and a record of cultural practices.

“Elizabeth Dyke, her Booke of Recaits 1668.” Kenneth Spencer Research Library MS D157. Image Credit: Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

On the manuscript’s opening page (above), several women catalogued their ownership of the book—Sarah Dyke, Dorothy Dyke, Elizabeth Dodsworth—suggesting that the text was passed down through the family’s female line. Like many surviving recipe books from the period, the titles of the recipes themselves also include names of women and men, either to note the original creator of the recipe (“Lady Rivers’ recipe for orange or lemon cakes”) or to mark the recipe’s effectiveness (“A very good green salve and ointment proved often times by goodwife Wesens”).

The networks preserved within this archival object not only became the basis for many classroom discussions, but also a model for the networks created and cultivated by our engagement with Dyke’s manuscript. The course attracted students from a variety of disciplines—English, History, Theater, Museum Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—as if the recipe book had inherent interdisciplinary powers. The course structure also created space for collaboration and new networks between faculty, staff, and students that changed how students engaged with the “archive.” Our close work with Elspeth Healey, Spencer Research Librarian, and Whitney Baker, Spencer Conservationist, gave students the chance to experience first-hand the complex work of special collections librarians and archivists.

Digital

The Recipes Project, along with the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective and Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell’s Cooking in the Archives, provide excellent evidence of how recipe books can be incorporated into digital pedagogy. Drawing on teaching resources from all three projects, I structured “Digital Feminist Archives” as a workshop class. For the first eight weeks, students produced a collective transcription of Dyke’s manuscript and, for the second eight weeks, they designed and developed digital project prototypes focused on the manuscript.

I framed our hands-on work with Dyke’s manuscript with readings on feminist archival theory and feminist digital critique—readings that helped the students think humanistically and critically about the decisions we were making in our digital practice. This was the first “digital humanities” course for many of the students, but that field-specific term came up rarely in our classroom. Students were practicing the very best kind of digital humanities work without having to talk too much about it. Translating a physical archival object into a digital archive, the students gained digital skills while interrogating the digital translation process as part of that skill building.

“WebED.” Project Credit: Gwyn Bourlakov, Yee-Lum Mak, and Elissa Rondeau.

The students’ thoughtful critical thinking manifested in their final project prototypes, which included a study of Dyke’s medicinal recipes as a crowd-sourced ailments and remedies platform modeled on WebMD (above). Another group used MapHub to create a mapping tool that tracked the trajectories of Dyke’s main ingredients, allowing users to study the cultural and environmental impacts and influences of Dyke’s recipes (below).

“Mapping Elizabeth Dyke’s Recipes.” Project Credit: Brianna Blackwell, Mallory Harrell, and Kate Schroeder.

Feminist

The combination of early women’s recipe books and digital project development offers a chance to merge theory and practice in the classroom, a central tenet of both digital and feminist pedagogy.

Even more crucially, the embodied materiality of recipe books keeps the body at the center of digital training for students. Recipe books record the daily activities of women’s bodies. In a recipe for soft milk cheese, for example, Dyke explains that the cheese must be left to dry out in “very dry” grass, leaves, or nettles for 2-3 days, with the wrapping cloth changed daily. This description conjures women’s bodies moving through a garden with a pile of thin cloths, unwrapping and rewrapping blocks of soft cheese in the morning sun. Recipe books also prompt us to use our bodies actively as we read, whether by recreating culinary recipes (as some students in “Digital Feminist Archives” did) or by thinking about the various effects medicinal recipes could have on our bodies.

As we translated Dyke’s physical text into digital environments, the manuscript constantly reminded us to keep the body at the center of our decisions for transcription and project design. The students’ WebEd project started with a question about how bodies interact with digital spaces. What digital platform provides the most flexibility, multiple ways in depending on how that person thinks about their own body? The students’ cooking project started with questions about taste: will Dyke’s recipes taste the same now as they did in the late 17th century? how does taste transfer across time?

Culture and media scholar Kate Eichhorn defines the feminist archive as a “site and practice integral to knowledge making, cultural production, and activism.”[3] In “Digital Feminist Archives,” students debated the politics of access surrounding special collections libraries, studied the relationship between women’s household recipes and the histories of western medicine, and made new knowledge as they decided how best to translate Dyke’s manuscript into digital space.

In “Digital Feminist Archives,” Dyke’s recipe book invited the students and me into an interdisciplinary space of both theory and practice. What does your version of such a space look like and how have early women’s recipes helped you create it?

Notes

[1] A big thank you to the fabulous “Digital Feminist Archive” students: Brianna Blackwell, Gwyn Bourlakov, Mallory Harrell, Yee-Lum Mak, Jodi Moore, Sarah Polo, Elissa Rondeau, Kate Schroeder, Phoenix Schroeder, Suzanne Tanner, Rachel Trusty, and Chris Wright. And my sincerest gratitude to everyone at KU who worked hard to make this class possible and offered support for the students’ work at various stages: Elspeth Healey, Brian Rosenblum, Whitney Baker, Jocelyn Wehr, Erin Wolfe, Jonathan Lamb, and Scott Hanrath.

[2] The Spencer Research Library acquired the manuscript in 1977 from UK bookseller, Henry Bristow Ltd. While the manuscript has long been available for visitors to the Spencer, it is now available as part of the KU Libraries digital collections and as fully searchable text on the course website thanks to the hard work of the students listed above.

[3] Kate Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order, 3.

Around the Table: Media Spotlight

This month on Around the Table, I am chatting with Laura Carlson, producer and host of the podcast The Feast. In other posts this month, we’ll read about many different experiences and methods for teaching with recipes. Here, Laura will tell us about her idea for incorporating food and recipes into her teaching, and how that turned into a popular podcast and unexpected career path.

When you started The Feast, you were also on the faculty in the Department of History at Queen’s University at Kingston. What sparked your interest in podcasting about food while working in Academia? Has teaching influenced your approach to podcasting about food history?

The idea for The Feast was born out of my experience in teaching history and classics at Queen’s University. At the time, I was experimenting with different types of sources in my syllabi as well as new formats for student research projects and presentations. I had also been incorporating food into my medieval history courses; students loved it, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do more within the course I was teaching.

I had been a fan of podcasts for a long time and I was interested in using podcasts as another source type for students to examine how medieval history and food was being used and discussed in the non-academic sphere. Beyond that, I also thought podcasts had incredible potential as a medium to communicate research and spark dialogue, but also to find interesting and immersive ways to talk about history and food. Because podcasts are free, the medium offered a fantastic way of reaching beyond the university community.

Although I listened to several food and history podcasts, none had struck the right tone that balanced research (engaging with sources, current research, experiments in the kitchen, etc.) with what I saw as a natural format for storytelling. That was really my goal in starting The Feast: a podcast focused on food history that I could feel comfortable assigning my students as part of a syllabus, but one general enough that anyone could listen to an episode and enjoy and (hopefully) learn something about a historical topic through the medium of food.

You strike a great balance between academic and popular in your show; it is a comfortable space for listeners with all degrees of training and interest in the topics. You also have something to offer to listeners interested in a wide array of chronological and geographical areas. How do you decide on your topics, and where do you like to go for sources and guest experts?

Thank you! How we figure out what will make a good Feast episode really depends; over the years, we’ve taken so many different approaches to coming up with show ideas and how to research. Many of the early shows came out of areas or topics I was already interested in or already knew there was source material for. For example, one of our earliest shows was about medieval pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. As the Feast developed, story and episode ideas really started to come from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve been able to collaborate on several episodes with other food historians and even some former history students of mine from Queen’s; one former student was even an associate producer on an episode focusing on Swedish cuisine in North America, inspired by her own family history.

A dish prepared on The Feast from an ancient Roman recipe: hypotrimma with honey spelt biscuits.

Inspiration for new episodes will often start with a single source and build out from there (for example, our episode on Alexander Dumas’ food dictionary). We’re also always inspired when we hear about other great food history projects or often when we’re travelling. My family is based in Arizona, for example, so it was always important to me to highlight some Arizona food history in the episodes. The same is also true for Canadian food history (as I now have a home in Toronto).

I know this is a big topic, but would you mind sharing a little about how one starts a podcast? What technology basics should you know before getting started, and what kinds of things can you learn along the way?

It’s one of the most often stated phrases in the podcast industry that “Anyone can have a podcast.” And, to a certain extent, that’s true. In terms of equipment and technical know-how, it can be very simple. Back in 2016, I started The Feast on a Macbook Pro laptop using pre-loaded Garageband software with a Blue Yeti microphone huddled in the closet of my condo. We just started trying things out to see what worked as far as mic technique, writing scripts to be read aloud, and understanding what went into having a show. As we got deeper into making the show and podcasting became a larger part of my life (and now my full-time job!), I wanted to learn more about equipment and technique.

One of the previous setups for recording The Feast.

So many online resources and new equipment have made it very easy for anyone to make a podcast. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of resources devoted to helping you record, edit, and publish your podcast online (like Transom.org, AIR, and NPR).

With so many resources available, I’d tell any potential podcaster not to get discouraged by technology or equipment. What’s more important is a strong concept to a show: why are you starting the show? What is its audience? Length and durability are also important to consider. Can you think of what your first 10 episodes can be about? What about your first 100? Is your idea focused but flexible enough so that you and your audience will still be interested in the subject in a few years?

Also, it’s also very important to set up a reasonable time commitment to your podcast. If you want to have an interview show, you might spend an hour interviewing a guest, but five hours editing the interview, two hours putting up a show page, an hour posting about it on social media. It really adds up. Consider what’s a reasonable amount of time you can devote to your show on a regular basis.

Has working on The Feast influenced your other research interests and recent projects?

100%! It has been a fantastic way of learning about subjects and periods, not to mention research folks are doing all over the world.

Laura Carlson leading a food tour in Toronto.

For example, since I was living in Toronto at the time, I really wanted to do an episode of The Feast that focused on Toronto food history. But it took me quite a while to find the right angle for an episode. We stumbled upon this great obscure piece of history about the two department stores in Toronto that faced each other for over 100 years. Both of them opened these opulent dining rooms at the same time. And both were very proud of their chicken pot pie recipes. I loved doing this episode because it meant I could focus on Toronto history. But it also inspired me to submit to lead a public history walking tour through the city agency, Heritage Toronto, about the history of food and dining in the city.

I have also been able to use a lot of the research that I did for Feast episodes that didn’t make it into the final cut to other articles or even other podcasts. I’ve also used some of our episodes, such as our holiday special on history of egg nog episode, for inspiration for other podcasts, like one about the history of the orange in North America on America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast, Proof

I also now work full-time as a podcast producer, both pitching stories to food podcasts such as Proof but also working with folks like NPR and Bloomberg to edit and produce popular podcasts. I also even teach food media at local colleges in Toronto. I’m also in the middle of writing a book on some of the topics inspired by Feast episodes. I continue to be surprised how many opportunities podcasting opens. What began as a side project to teaching history has become a diverse and rewarding but entirely unexpected career path.

Thanks, Laura, for chatting with me! You can follow Laura and The Feast on Instagram and Twitter @lauramcarlson and @Feast_Podcast, or on Facebook @thefeastpodcast. You can also reach Laura by email. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Which Ingredients are Witch Ingredients?”

By Dana Schumacher-Schmidt, Siena Heights University

Over the last ten years or so teaching undergraduate Shakespeare courses, I’ve developed an exercise to enhance students’ exploration of Macbeth. I’ve found this activity to be effective for engaging the whole class in critical thinking and discussion, introducing recipes as primary texts, and connecting students to aspects of early modern English culture in which the play is situated. The exercise begins with a question: what’s the relationship between the concoction the weird sisters cook up out on the heath and what any housewife might have bubbling in her cauldron at home?

At the start of the class period, I give students a list of ingredients, about half of which are drawn from the contents of the weird sisters’ cauldron as described in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth and the other half from a selection of early modern medicinal recipes. Without looking back at the play text, students have to sort the ingredients into two categories: “witches’ brew” and “early modern remedies.” I make things a little more challenging by changing Shakespeare’s language to match the vocabulary and syntax commonly used in recipes (“root of hemlock digg’d in the dark” becomes “a quantity of hemlock,” for example).

Apart from easy ones like “the toe of a frog,” students typically are surprised when they struggle to categorize many of the ingredients. This difficulty is the point of the exercise—I want students to see that ingredients they consider to be downright “witchy” were used in domestic medicine. Sometimes it’s their lack of familiarity with an ingredient that presents a challenge. For instance, “dragon’s blood” sounds like just the sort of thing a weird sister would reach for to someone unaware that it’s a plant resin named for its red color and used at the time as a clotting agent.

With another ingredient, the bezoar stone, I play on the students’ potential familiarity with its two appearances in the Harry Potter series. Alas, their association of this ingredient with the wizarding world backfires in this particular activity, as it, like the dragon’s blood, comes from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe for “The red powder good for miscarrying.” Even though (or maybe because) the list is kind of rigged against them, students tend to turn to each other for help and employ a variety of critical thinking strategies to figure out where the ingredients belong, two outcomes that contribute to the value of the activity in my eyes.

Image credit: Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, MS 7113, Wellcome Library.

After students share their choices in whole-group discussion, it’s time for the moment of truth: we look at the play text and digitized images of the original recipes to see where the ingredients really belong. These revelations tend to evoke equal parts delight and disbelief from my students, especially when they get to place the powdered skull and mummy in the “remedy” category. In addition to seeing the ingredients in context, along with other ingredients and preparation techniques, this part of the exercise shows students how recipes were written and compiled in the past and familiarizes them with digital collections from the Wellcome Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library that they might use for future projects.

From here, we discuss how the activity impacts our interpretation of the witches and our perceptions of early modern domesticity. To help students frame their responses, I give them Jennifer Munroe’s “Recipes and the ‘Weird’: A Halloween Rumination” and excerpts from Wendy Wall’s book Staging Domesticity. Both texts help further contextualize the recipes in their own time and ours with regard to gender, domestic labor, and the history of medicine. It is new information to my students that these ingredients, which sound so strange to them, are not especially unusual in the corpus of early modern home remedies. At the same time, it is helpful for them to see that their initial distrust of these ingredients as medicine would have been shared by at least some part of the early modern audience and also stems from a centuries-long, often gender-biased, effort to raise suspicion against domestic medicine.

At the end of our discussion, I ask students to write answers to a couple of reflection questions on the day’s activities: What’s the most interesting thing you’ll take away from this exercise? What additional thoughts or questions do you have about home remedies, recipe books, or domestic work in early modern England? I address their comments and answer their questions at the start of the next class. Students appreciate this opportunity to step outside of Shakespeare’s play text and realize that recipes can enrich their understanding of the past.

What We’re Reading This Fall

By Jess Clark

The abundance of fantastic historical writing—from insightful social media and blog posts to traditional academic monographs to op eds—means that most of us aren’t lacking interesting things to read. At times, though, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on important pieces, new books, or forgetting about germinal texts. This month, I decided to check in with some of the Editors here at the Recipes Project to find out what everyone’s reading in the coming weeks. Here are just a few of their suggestions, from their bookshelves and browsers to you.

 

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Basic Books, 1985)

In this classic study, Cowan charts the industrialization of housekeeping through a variety of new technologies designed to improve the experience of female homemakers: “washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton.” However, as she masterfully argues, these technologies actually served to replace the labour of other figures, like men and children, rather than lessen the amount of time devoted by women to maintaining the home.


Lisa Fagin Davis, “
Why Do People Keep Convincing themselves they’ve Solved this Medieval Mystery?” at The Washington Post

Davis unpacks the ongoing fascination with the Voynich Manuscript, an early fifteenth-century codex housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Written in an “unknown collection of symbols” and featuring illustrations of “realistic plants, circular zodiacal and astronomical diagrams,” the Manuscript has been subject to multiple attempts to decipher its mysterious code. However, “[b]y beginning with their own preconceptions of what they want the Voynich to be,” argues Davis, many would-be interpreters’ “conclusions take them further from the truth.”

 

Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (Cornell UP, November 2019)

This is a bit of a cheat since the book isn’t out until November, but many RP readers are no doubt looking forward to contributor Rachel Herrmann’s new book on the role of food in Revolutionary America. Focusing on “hunger creation and prevention” as “tools of diplomacy and warfare,” this text will be a must-read for historians of food, recipes, conceptions of dearth and plenty, and the foundations of early America.

 

Michael W. Twitty, “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down,” on Afroculinaria


Award-winning author, chef, and historical interpreter Michael W. Twitty responds to negative online reviews of southern plantations, which criticize interpreters’ attention to slavery and its legacies. Writing of his own experiences as a historical educator, Twitty emphasizes that, in doing this work, he’s “performing an act of devotion to my Ancestors. This is not about your comfort, it’s about honoring their story on it’s own terms in context.”

 

Michael Walkden, “’Excrements of the Earth’: Mushrooms in Early Modern England,” on Shakespeare & Beyond

Walkden analyzes seventeenth-century English attitudes towards the eating of mushrooms, pointing to the ways fungi could, at various points, signify danger and treachery, continental excess, or filth and debasement. Pointing out their distinctiveness as a food type, he suggests that “[t]he hostility that many writers expressed towards mushrooms is perhaps reflective of the threat they posed to the order of things.”

 

What are you reading this Fall? We want to hear from you! Let us know here what sites, texts, and projects we should be featuring here at the Recipes Project.