Mistranslating Macaroni and Cheese

Amanda E. Herbert

Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mac and cheese is a well-loved, popular, time-tested dish, one that’s woven into the histories and cultures and memories of people around the world.  In America it’s an essential soul food dish.  In Canada, Kraft Dinner – mac and cheese with pieces of hot dogs and a squirt of ketchup – is a comfort food staple.  Western Europeans claim macaroni and cheese too, tracing its origins to the Swiss Alps, where Älplermagronen was made by French-speaking Swiss people, who believed it was the ideal snack for shepherds.

Macaroni and cheese appears in Anglo-American cookbooks as early as the fourteenth century – its antecedents include a sort of lasagna-like food called “Macrows” in the 1390 Forme of Cury – and by the long eighteenth century, the cheesy noodles were an established dish, garnering frequent mentions in both print and manuscript.  Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell chose an eighteenth-century “Maccarony Cheese” for their very first post on Cooking in the Archive, and it was a hit, helping to launch their incredibly successful blog and garnering a host of re-posts, comments, and suggestions.  In most Anglo-American recipes for mac and cheese, eighteenth-century authors called for the noodles to be boiled until tender and then mixed with ingredients like butter, eggs, and cheese.  The noodles were then either baked or put under a salamander – which in the period was a piece of iron that was heated and passed over a dish – that was supposed to give it a nice brown crust.  It’s a wonderful dish to suggest to folks who like to re-create early modern recipes, because most early examples of macaroni and cheese contain familiar, easy-to-obtain ingredients and clear, straightforward instructions.

But there are always exceptions to the rule.  Recently I found a recipe for macaroni and cheese in an eighteenth-century letter, and the account was confusing, if not downright disgusting.  Philip Thicknesse (1719-1792), an eighteenth-century artist, traveler, and writer, included a recipe for mac and cheese in a letter written to a man named John Cook.  Thicknesse spent a lot of time in France and took pride in his knowledge of French cuisine.  He wrote to his friend Cook on January 14, 1770 that he had recently “recv’d a very small present from France,” which included foods such as “Olives, a few Anchovies, [and] a pint of Vinegar.”  But the crowning glory of this gourmet stash was “some Maccerone.”  Thicknesse shared a portion of his dried French noodles with John Cook, bragging that macaroni and cheese was “no bad dish” and including instructions for preparing the food.  And this is where things seemed to go wrong.

Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
A pleasant and confident Thicknesse.  Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Thicknesse told Cook to take the packet of noodles and “boil it in water til it is quite tender, on[e] hour and a half at least, then the remaining water is poured off, and some butter and scraped cheese is put to it til both are well melted & dis[s]olved.” [My emphasis.] When I read this in the Huntington’s reading room I had to rub my eyes and take another look.  Boiling modern-day macaroni noodles for an hour and a half (at least!) would render them into an unappetizing slush, so far beyond al dente that they’d surely constitute a crime against pasta.  Was Thickness a bad cook?  Why was his advice so terrible?  At first I thought that this was a classic example of mistranslation in the period: the introduction of new foods into Western European diets via the so-called “Consumer Revolution” wasn’t a straightforward or guaranteed process, and British experiments with foods sourced from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean worlds could go wrong as frequently as they went right.  Thicknesse didn’t understand how pasta was supposed to be cooked, and as a result he offered bad culinary advice to his friend.

Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

But the more I thought about Thicknesse and his overcooked macaroni, the more I began to wonder if there wasn’t an entirely different process of mistranslation at work: one that was my own, rather than my historical subject’s.  What did Thicknesse’s pasta look like?  How long would it have taken to cook?  It turns out that, in the long eighteenth century, Western European people ate two very different kinds of pasta: soft noodles, made out of a paste of water and dough that was boiled quickly and lightly (akin to “fresh” pasta today) and hard noodles, where the dough was extruded through a machine before being dried (a bit like the crunchy, shelf-stable pastas you can find at modern grocery stores).  Soft noodles, like the “Macrows” featured in the Forme of Cury, called for cooks to roll out “a thynne foyle of dowh and kerve it on peces, and cast them on boillying water & see[th] it wele.”   Quick-cooking and easy to make, soft noodles were popular in a lot of eighteenth-century dishes.

The pasta Thicknesse was describing, however, would surely have been dried, as it had been transported to Britain from France.  Early modern dried pasta was durable and was considered easy to transport, even under very difficult conditions.  And it was massive: the earliest surviving example of an eighteenth-century pasta extruder made bigoli (a huge type of spaghetti) which was just over a foot long and 3 inches wide.  Even one of these enormous, snake-like pieces of pasta could have constituted a meal.  Hugh Plat (c.1552-1608), an English inventor and writer, created a different kind of pasta machine in the late sixteenth century, which produced oval-shaped, wafer-like pieces of pasta.  Plat included a diagram of this pasta machine in his Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594); while it’s notoriously difficult to get a sense of scale in early modern schemas such as these, comparing the size of the hand-crank on the right side of the machine with the pieces of pasta coming off of the wheel suggests that each wafer would have been three or four inches across – much larger than a modern orecchiette or conchiglie.

Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75. Image courtesy of the author and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75.

Everything I learned about eighteenth-century dried pasta suggested that it would have taken ages to cook until tender.  And although the resulting pasta might well have differed from the way that I expect modern pasta to look and taste, Thicknesse’s estimate of an hour and a half in cooking time perhaps wasn’t so far off after all, and the confusion was on my part rather than his.  Historical food recipes are fun and engaging, offering us almost instantaneous senses of familiarity and closeness with the past: food is a great universal.  But as we analyze old recipes and work to understand them, we have to fight our assumptions and presuppositions – perhaps especially about ingredients which are the most familiar to us – in order to make sure that we’re translating accurately.

Primary Sources:

The Forme of Cury, c. 1390. This book exists in manuscript in many different copies. I’ve consulted the first print version, compiled in 1780 and reproduced via Project Gutenberg.  Accessed April 23, 2018.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8102/pg8102-images.html

Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Philip Thicknesse Letters, c. 1770-c. 1785, MSS TH 1, Huntington Library.

Secondary Sources:

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davison ed. (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 580-584.

Sidney Lee, “Plat [Platt], Sir Hugh (bap. 1552, d. 1608), writer on agriculture and inventor,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed April 23, 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22357.

Malcolm Thick, “Sir Hugh Plat’s Promotion of Pasta as a Victual for Seamen,” Petits Propos Culinaires Vol. 40 (1992).

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next four Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These four features are  just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Angela N.H. Creager

Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.

What did it mean to clone a gene? Simply put, cloning is copying, and a gene is usually copied onto a vector that can replicate in a cell, so that the copied gene can be propagated and studied. In seeking to make copies of genes and move them around from organism to organism, biologists were inspired by bacteria, whose ability to exchange genetic material had been recognized in 1946 by Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum. It turned out that there were numerous genetic units that enabled gene exchange in bacteria, including lysogenic viruses and fertility factors. In 1952 Lederberg christened the entities “plasmids.”

By the 1960s, researchers were using these naturally-occurring gene shuttles in microbes to identify, map, and characterize bacterial genes.[1] Unsurprisingly, many biologists were more interested in tracking genes found in humans and other “higher organisms” (eukaryotes—plants, animals, and fungi—as opposed to the one-celled prokaryotes, mostly bacteria). The discovery of bacterial restriction enzymes, which sever DNA strands at specific base-pair combinations, inspired molecular biologists to attempt to use these as microscopic scissors. In principle, if a researcher could identify and locate a particular eukaryotic gene, she could use a restriction enzyme to “cut” it out of chromosomal DNA and insert it into a circular bacterial plasmid (Figure 1). Cloning eukaryotic genes was an immensely difficult task, and several early attempts faltered. Other efforts did not go forward due to the potential public health hazards of placing genes from widely-studied tumor viruses into E. coli, a bacterium that usually inhabits the gut of humans. No one knew whether exposure to bacteria toting these tumor-associated genes could give people cancer.

Figure 1. Image and caption from Congress of the US, Office of Technology Assessment, Impacts of Applied Genetics: Micro-Organisms, Plants, Animals (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), 5. Public Domain.

In 1973, a group of scientists at UCSF and Stanford, led by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, succeeded in placing a copy of a frog gene (one that encoded ribosomal RNA) into a bacterial plasmid. Not only was the inserted gene on its plasmid vector taken up and replicated by E. coli, but also the foreign DNA was expressed into the corresponding product RNA. Their 1974 publication became the much-cited proof that genes from a higher organism could be cloned and expressed in a bacterium.

Few scientists, however, had the specialized materials with which to achieve such a feat. Richard Roberts at Cold Spring Harbor discovered and purified many of the restriction enzymes essential for this work. He recalls that “Summer visitors would stop by with a tube of their favorite DNA in their pocket, just to see if we had an enzyme that would convert it into some useful fragments.” Unable to persuade his own institution to start manufacturing and selling restriction enzymes, Roberts helped the newly-founded New England Biolabs corner this market. The first company catalog was issued in 1975; their enzymes became indispensable to the early gene cloners. Biologists who worked on bacteria were able to rapidly exploit these newly commercialized enzymes and customized plasmids, so that the cloning of genes from microbes took off.

However, cloning of genes from higher organisms remained in the hands of the experts who could make the difficult techniques work. In 1977, Shirley Tilghman and other members of Philip Leder’s group cloned the first mammalian genes from mice.[2] In addition to academic researchers, biotech entrepreneurs were keenly interested in cloning eukaryotic genes. Simply obtaining genetic material from higher organisms in a form that could be searched for a specific gene was a formidable challenge. Tom Maniatis, part of the group that cloned the first human gene, created a human genomic “library” and shared it with other biologists.[3] But researchers also needed protocols and know-how. Courses (for practitioners, not only university students) became a popular way to meet this demand.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory had been offering summer courses on new laboratory techniques since the 1940s. One popular course, “Advanced Bacterial Genetics,” already offered researchers a chance to learn how to identify, map, and copy genes from prokaryotes. In 1980, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) began offering a postgraduate summer course called “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes.” James Watson, director of CSHL, asked Maniatis to teach this course, and others joined the effort. Nancy Hopkins, who had taught a tumor virology course that had just ended, stayed on for the cloning course. Ed Fritsch, a postdoc in Maniatis’s lab, put together the laboratory materials, and Helen Donis-Keller and Catherine O’Connell served as course assistants.[4]

The coursebook was made up of “consensus protocols” defining the field at the time (many of which were already circulating informally).[5] Upon advertising the postgraduate training course, “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes,” more than 300 applied to take it. Only sixteen students could enroll. Watson immediately saw the opportunity to make cloning know-how available to a wider base of users through publication. Issuing an instructional guide from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory would further consolidate the institution’s reputation for being at the vanguard of molecular biology—and there was already a tradition there of publishing course manuals as books.

Figure 2. Cover of Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982). Author photo.

Watson wanted Maniatis on the team of authors, as his reputation in cloning genes was already formidable. But he had recently moved to Caltech, where he was busy chairing an NIH study section and running his own lab. He only agreed to prepare a manual based on the course if he had significant help.[6] Watson persuaded Joe Sambrook, a long-time tumor virologist at the lab, to join the effort. Although Sambrook had not taught the summer course, he did have extensive relevant knowledge, and he would do a lion’s share of the manual-writing.[7] Fritsch, who was about to leave for a tenure-track faculty position at Michigan State University, remained involved with the project having helped teach the course twice.[8] In the end, the collaboration was productive, and the first edition was published in 1982 (Figure 2). Maniatis handed off teaching of the “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes” summer course at CSHL to others the same year as the manual came out.

The three authors explain in the Preface that because “the manual was originally written to serve as a guide to those who had little experience in molecular cloning, it contains much basic material.”[9] Indeed, the book was full of both recipes and tips. That said, part of its success, according to one early user, was that it communicated enough about the science behind the recipes that users were able to trouble-shoot the problems they ran into.[10] And part of the utility of the book was that, by virtue of its plastic-ring binding, it could be laid flat on a laboratory bench [11] (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Pages 92 and 93 of Maniatis, Fritsch, and Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual. One can see how the book is spiral bound so it lays flat when open. Author photo.


Just as Watson had suspected, Molecular Cloning met widespread demand. There were orders for more than 5000 copies before the publication date. Consequently, the press sold 5113 copies the first month of its appearance, in July 1982 (as compared with its original number for sales projected by the press: 210 copies). In August 988 copies were sold, in September 2487, in October 1863, and in November 768. That fall, Molecular Cloning was outselling every other book in the press’s line-up.[12] As a reviewer for the British Society for Developmental Biology put it, “no laboratory with any serious interest in molecular biology of development and their [sic] cloning should be without it.”[13] By late June 1983, more than 18,000 copies had been sold.[14] Plans for a second edition, initially scheduled for 1984, were already underway.[15] The second edition, which actually appeared in 1989, was received just as enthusiastically as the first. As a reviewer in Nature put it,

Few molecular biologists welcome publication of any of the many protocol books that promise to be the single source for their laboratory methods. For the most part, such laboratory methods fall far short of this goal. So why the excitement surrounding the long-awaited second edition of the classic guide, Molecular Cloning, which first appeared in 1982? The original version immediately filled the need for an anthology of laboratory procedures pertinent to the emerging field of recombinant DNA. With the 545-page spiral-bound paperback in hand, virtually any experimentalist could make a stab at cloning and have a reasonable expectation of success.[16]

Figure 4. Frederick M. Ausubel, Roger Brent, Robert E. Kingston, David D. Moore, J. G. Seidman, John A. Smith, and Kevin Struhl, eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, vol. 1 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987). Author photo.

In short, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory publication became the canonical manual—or “Bible”—for gene cloners. Extending this common metaphor, one biochemist made reference to “those who daily workshop the Cold Spring Harbor idol.”[17] But the deity had rivals. Its strongest competitor was Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, introduced in 1987 by a group of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital.[18] Sarah Greene was the original publisher, but the series was soon bought by Wiley. Rather than being written by three authors, this manual was produced by an entire team of scientists, who contributed individual pieces on various techniques. In addition, Current Protocols had a very different way of dealing with the rapid growth (and obsolescence) of techniques—the book was designed to be expanded via subscription. Through a quarterly update service, subscribers received supplements to insert into the original loose-leaf binder, which was separated into sections by preprinted dividers (Figures 4 and 5). This meant that the Table of Contents also needed frequent updating. Five thick binders were published in the original series (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, open so that dividers between the sections of the loose-leaf bound book are visible. Author photo.

The loose-leaf format proved unwieldy, and in 1989 Wiley published Short Protocols in Molecular Biology: A Compendium of Methods from Current Protocols in Molecular Biology. This single volume work was bound as a traditional text, with wide pages in a format that would prop open easily on the back of a lab bench. The challenge of updating was more easily accommodated by the growth of multimedia technologies in the 1990s. The 2001 edition came with a CD-ROM “Lab Book.” By the third edition (2001), Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual also had an associated website for its publication. Moving manuals online put knowledge at one’s fingertips in a new way, yet the demand for guides that can be plopped open on a lab bench has meant that print versions retain value, as evidenced by the publication of a fourth edition of Molecular Cloning in 2012. Most fields of life science today, including bioinformatics, cell biology, immunology, neuroscience, stem cell science, and toxicology, have their go-to manuals and protocol books, in print and online.

Figure 6. Three of the first five volumes, published in the late 1980s, of Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, stacked on office table. Author photo.

These “cookbooks” occupy the shelves, benches, and hard-drives of most biology labs, important if unnoticed. Their ubiquity enriches our understanding of the scientific process. An obsession with innovation may blind us to the importance of procedure, repeatability, and tried-and-true methods. Manuals make discovery possible, by leading scientists through the routine steps of their experiments and (if the manual is good) helping them trouble-shoot when experiments fail. In a world of hyper-specialized research, guide books are bridges, carrying technical know-how between laboratories and enabling researchers to master the latest methods without going back to school.


[1] For an overview see William Hayes, The Genetics of Bacteria and their Viruses (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965).

[2] S. M. Tilghman, D. C. Tiermeier, F. Polsky, M. H. Edgell, J. G. Seidman, A. Leder, L. W. Enquist, B. Norman, and P. Leder, “Cloning Specific Segments of the Mammalian Genome: Bacteriophage  Lambda Containing Mouse Globin and Surrounding Gene Sequences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 74 (1977): 4406–4410; D. C. Tiermeier, S. M. Tilghman, and P. Leder, “Purification and Cloning of a Mouse Ribosomal Gene Fragment in Coliphage Lambda,” Gene 2 (1977): 173–191.

[3] Richard M. Lawn, Edward F. Fritsch, Richard C. Parker, Geoffrey Blake, and Tom Maniatis, “The Isolation and Characterization of Linked d- and b-Globin Genes from a Cloned Library of Human DNA,” Cell 15 (1978): 1157–1174.

[4] Interview with Tom Maniatis, Columbia University, New York, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

[5] Jonathan Karn, “Yet Another Maniatis?” Trends in Genetics 4/9 (Sept 1988): 268.

[6] He was chair of an NIH study section and running a big lab, which involved constantly writing grants, as well as teaching a full load at Caltech. Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[7] Joe Sambrook was a talented and combative British tumor virologist whom Maniatis met when doing his cloning work at CSHL in the 1970s. Involving him as an author of the molecular cloning manual enabled a certain redress at CSHL. A few years earlier Sambrook had contributed significantly to John Tooze’s Tumor Virology book, but this was not acknowledged by his being an author. Personal communication, Alex Gann, 26 May 2010.

[8] Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[9] Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982), iii.

[10] Conversation with Michael S. Levine, fall 2016.

[11] Stephanie Radner, Yong Li, Mary Manglapus, and William J. Brunken, “Joy of Cloning: Updated Recipes,” Trends in Neuroscience 25/11 (Nov 2002): 594–595.

[12] Memorandum from Susan Gensel to Jim Watson, 10 Dec 1982, re: sales at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting, Watson papers, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives. At that meeting Molecular Cloning sold 83 copies, and all the other sales together, 22 titles in all, made up 102 copies.

[13] British Society for Developmental Biology Newsletter VII, October 1982, review of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, copy in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

[14] Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1982, 12.

[15] J. Sambrook, E. F. Fritsch, and T. Maniatis, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, 2nd ed. (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1989). This edition was three volumes.

[16] Stuart Orkin, “By the Book,” Nature 343 (15 Feb 1990): 604–605, on 604.

[17] S. J. W. Busby, “Comprehensive Cloning,” Trends in Genetics 4/12 (Dec 1988): 352.

[18] The Harvard-affiliated editors were Frederick Ausabel, Robert Kingston, Jonathan Seidman, and Kevin Struhl.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Making Senses: Artisanal Practice and Sensory Perception in an Early Modern French Manuscript

By Tillmann Taape

Ms Fr. 640 was written in French by an unknown craftsperson in Toulouse, likely between 1580 and 1600. [1] It is an intriguing and eclectic source, with entries ranging from medical recipes to metalwork and pigment-making, and it forms the core of the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, introduced previously on the Recipes Blog in a post by our Director, Pamela Smith.

With its numerous instructions for making things, our manuscript provides a rich case study for the way artisans worked with and thought about materials. As previous posts in this series on Recipes and the Senses have shown, physicians, alchemists, apothecaries, and other craftsmen recognised in their bodies and its senses an important set of tools for understanding and manipulating the material world, and historians pay increasing attention to these embodied and sensory ways of knowing. In this post, I will share a few examples of the rich language of the senses in Ms. Fr. 640. As one might expect from a manuscript including painting and sculpture, the eye often takes precedence over the other senses. However, a discussion of the visual in the manuscript would by itself be far beyond the scope of a single post – we spent much of this year just trying to figure out how the author-practitioner conceptualises different pigments and shades of blue. The aim here, therefore, is to focus on the oft-neglected non-visual senses and what they can teach us about our author-practitioner’s concept of the material world, his ‘material imaginary’.


A strong smell was often a sign that things had gone wrong – the papier-mâché had turned rotten while being left to soak, or a kitchen pot had been made with too much latten (a copper alloy), which ‘stinks and smells bad’ (fol. 36v). However, smells could also help identify the materials needed for a recipe. The ingredient list for a metal alloy, for example, includes the intriguingly specific ‘congealed mercury with the smell of tin’ (fol. 92v). Musing on one of his favourite topics, the properties of fine sand used for metal casting, the author-practitioner notes that

white sand smells like sulphur when heated, and I believe it would melt. And as the substance has been cast in it, it acquires in the mold a lustre as if it were leaded or vitrified. I believe that glassmakers could use it (fol. 99r).

In addition to his observation of a vitreous glaze on the cast object, it is the sulphurous smell which suggests to the author-practitioner that this particular kind of sand is prone to melt and could even be used for making glass. Throughout the manuscript, sulphur does indeed appear as a material which can easily be melted and used to cast small objects, and even appears to function as a sort of material metaphor for transformation and experimentation.


The sense of hearing becomes itself the subject of a short entry. Under the heading ‘hearing from afar’, the author-practitioner records one of the tidbits of advice and tricks for daily life which are scattered here and there throughout the manuscript: ‘Make a small hole in the ground, put your ear against it during the night or during a quiet time, and you will easily hear muffled sounds’ (fol. 125r). In addition to facilitating amateur espionage, specific noises could serve as helpful indicators in the workshop. Before casting metal into a mould made from cuttlefish bone, the author-practitioner writes, one has to make sure that it is completely dry: ‘you will know that they are dry enough when, after having held them near the fire a little, their inside and the impression scream & crackle when you hold them up to your ear’ (fol. 145r). If one was prepared to listen carefully, the materials themselves could tell when they were ready to be worked upon.

Cuttlefish bone used for casting metal objects. © The Making and Knowing Project


The sense of taste could also help to assess and adjust one’s materials. To make ‘essence of sal ammoniac’, for example, ‘the size of two chestnuts of pulverized sal ammoniac suffices in a pot of water, and to the tongue you find the water moderately salty, for too much is not good’ (fol. 111v). The concentration of the sal ammoniac solution was clearly of some importance here, and like in most early modern recipes, the given measurements – size of a chestnut, a pot of water – might not yield very consistent results, so a qualitative sensory indication – ‘moderately salty’ – is added as a further point of reference. As well as checking one’s own procedures, taste could of course be used to assess the quality of merchandise. The city of Toulouse, where our manuscript was compiled, gained much of its considerable wealth from the trade in woad, a blue dyestuff whose French name, pastel, is a likely origin of the term ‘pastel’ colours in English and other European languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author-practitioner mentions this sought-after material and tells us how to tell the good from the bad. This involves several steps, including inspection and a dyeing test, but the first step is a taste test: ‘The goodness of the woad is known when, put in the mouth, it gives a taste as of vinegar’ (fol. 39r).


Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who clearly worked with his hands a lot, the sense of touch plays a particularly important and intriguing part in the author-practitioner’s practice and writing. Returning to his favourite topic – the different kinds of sand or plaster used for casting moulds – he describes how the addition of a substance called alum de plume (literally ‘feather alum’ – it probably refers to a group of minerals known as feldspars in English) helps the mould hold together because it forms fibrous structures (hence probably the reference to feathers). Its production requires a complex process of heating and grinding up in a mortar. In the margin next to the recipe, the author-practitioner notes that one should grind the alum slowly and in small portions, and finally ‘render it very fine & soft to the touch’ (fol. 108v). The manuscript is full of these kinds of haptic properties to indicate the appropriate consistency or particle size of materials. Another ‘sand’ for casting, for example, is made with ‘the bone of oxen feet, very burned & pulverized & ground on porphyry, until it is not felt between your fingers’ (fol. 84v). Intriguingly, here the reader is told to stop grinding not when they can feel a particular sensation, but when they can no longer feel the material at all with their fingers.

As it turns out, this criterion of eluding the sense of touch was an important technical concept for early modern artisans. Our former Making and Knowing postdoc Jenny Boulboullé and former students, Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, have shown that the term impalpable, that is to say ‘un-feelable’ or ‘impalpable’, is central to the way the author practitioner experiences and thinks about different kinds of materials used for casting moulds.[2] Furthermore, they found that he is not the only one: the use of the term ‘impalpable’ is used in published works on metallurgy, such well-known book Pirotechnia by the sixteenth-century Italian founder and metallurgist Vanoccio Biringuccio, and the Secreti, a famous book of secrets attributed to Alessio Piemontese. In his emphasis on the haptic sensation of a material being impalpable, then, the author-practitioner speaks to a sensory terminology apparently widely shared by expert makers.

‘Knead as if you wanted to make bread’: making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab. © The Making and Knowing Project

Describing specific sensory experiences can be difficult, and it makes sense to refer to well-known parallels from daily life – a smell like sulphur, a taste like vinegar, and so on. When it comes to the sense of touch, too, the author-practitioner relates processes described in his recipes to everyday practices. As our former student Emma Le Pouésard has shown, the practices surrounding making bread were a particularly fruitful source of these kinds of comparisons.[3] To unmould a cast object, one should ‘strongly separate the moulds as if you wanted to tear bread apart’ (fol. 114v). In an age before thermostats, this could even provide a way of gauging consistent temperatures. For one’s domestic taxidermy needs, the author-practitioner writes, one could dry animals ‘in an oven as warm as when bread has been taken out’ (fol. 129v). In a recipe for making stucco, bread making is used as a referent for working up the right kind of consistency: the recipe tells us to ‘knead as if you wanted to make bread’, until the stucco paste is ‘firm as bread dough that is ready for the oven’ (fol. 29r).

When we tried making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab in the Fall semester, this proved to be very useful guidance. While we were not experienced bakers in the way that many early modern householders probably were, we could draw on our experience from one of our ‘skillbuilding’ exercises a few weeks earlier, when we made bread to use as a mould for wax casting, replicating one of the most intriguing processes in the manuscript. When it came to making stucco and mixing the right amounts of tragacanth gum and rye flour or champagne chalk, the author-practitioner’s instructions about kneading to a consistency like bread dough were very useful, especially in the absence of any other indication of measurements. By adding flour until we achieved a dough-like mass which would ‘stretch enough without breaking’ (fol. 29r), we eventually produced stucco which displayed fine detail and could be detached from the mould without too much trouble.

Even this brief tour of Ms. Fr. 640 shows that much is to be gained by paying attention to the non-visual senses in recipes and practical instructions. In the absence of precise standardised measurements and procedures, sensory descriptions were paramount to articulating a material’s properties, whether it was of good quality, or how much longer it needed to dry, boil, soak, or be crushed in a mortar.


[1] High-res digital images of BNF Ms. Fr. 640 are available through Gallica. The Making and Knowing Project is preparing a Digital Critical Edition of the Manuscript. In the meantime, readers may wish to refer to our Minimal Edition prototype (with translation still in progress).

[2] Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, ‘Casting in a Box Mold’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.

[3] Emma Le Pouésard, ‘Pain, Ostie, Rostie: Bread in Early Modern Europe’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.

Tales from the Archives: Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month’s we re-feature a post by Colleen Kennedy, first published in August 2013. I think that it fits very well with our conversations this month, don’t you?

Enjoy the spring flowers, everyone!



By Colleen Kennedy

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.

‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine