Laura Mitchell, longtime contributor and social media editor for the Recipes Project, recently stepped down after seven years of service. The editorial team will greatly miss her enthusiastic and reliable contributions and insights! While Laura has carefully maintained the Recipes Project’s social media presence for several years, she originally contributed her scholarship on medieval charms (beginning with this post in 2012). You can read some of Laura’s perspectives on the Recipes Project from the blog’s fifth anniversary. We recently chatted a bit more about her time with the Recipes Project.
Laura, you have been a part of the Recipes Project from the beginning. What sort of scope and impact did you hope it would have when it started? Has it met your expectations?
I didn’t really know what to expect with this project. Academic blogs still felt very new to me so I think I would have been happy if the blog had lasted a couple of years, let alone seven! Lisa and Elaine very graciously involved me in some of the earlier meetings of the editors and it was very interesting to see the project emerge from the ground up. I think it’s safe to say that the Recipes Project has far exceeded my expectations!
How have your contributions to the Recipes Project changed over time?
Initially I was just a contributor. I had finished my PhD in 2011 and this was an easy way to share some of the fun bits of my dissertation work that wouldn’t fit in an article. At that time Lisa was covering all the social media for the Recipes Project. After a few years as a contributor, she asked me to take over the social media for her and that’s what I’d been doing ever since. The last post I wrote for the Recipes Project was on animal charms in 2015. I’d started working outside academia in 2014 and I stopped doing academic research around that time too.
Has anything surprised you while growing the project’s social media presence over the past five years?
Honestly, one thing that has surprised me is the lack of trolls, even when we’ve posted on topics like transgender history, reproductive healthcare, or even labour issues like the 2018 UCU strike. I sort of took it for granted that a social media presence would attract bots and trolls to our accounts, but on the whole our audience is just really great! People tag us for help on Twitter, or just to tell us about something cool they’re doing. Our social media team has had lots of interesting conversations with people responding to our posts or to queries we’ve sent out.
Do you have any favorite posts or series?
Oh, there are so many! I love the interviews with libraries and museums. There are so many interesting collections out there and so many libraries I was not familiar with. Even the really well-known libraries, like at Cambridge or the British Library, are full of surprising items.
One thing that the Recipes Project does that I really love is highlight student research. Especially now that the blog has really grown its readership, I think it’s wonderful the way this blog has become a vehicle to share graduate and undergraduate student research. It’s such a great affirmation of the great work that students can do in the classroom and I love seeing how they interact with their sources. Some of my favourite student posts include Alana Martini recreating Egyptian makeup in “What’s In an Ancient Egyptian Makeup Bag?”; Emma Bragdon examining the role of beef in an American Senator’s political career in “Smothered Beef: The Role of Meat in Margaret Chase Smith’s Foodways”; and Molly Taylor-Poleskey recreating beer soup in “Beer soup: The Breakfast of Early Modern Rulers”.
Finally, I think one of the most interesting series we’ve done was the virtual conference on “What is a Recipe?” in 2017. I want to commend the editors for coming up with some really neat and innovative formats for hosting a virtual conference including blog posts, Facebook Live video discussions, Pinterest boards, Twitter, and Instagram and involving all our readers, not just the academics. The care and consideration that the team put into it was really clear throughout the conference.
What projects and opportunities await you now?
Just over a year ago I moved back to my hometown of Saskatoon and started working at St. Thomas More College. My new job is a bit of a switch for me from project management on a multi-year grant to research facilitation and grant administration for the college. I really love working with the faculty here and helping them develop their research programs. I’m really excited to develop in this field and see where it takes me.
Finally, I just wanted to say thank you to the editors of the Recipes Project for all their hard work over the years, thank you for inviting me to participate! I’d also like to thank the rest of the social media team, Melissa Reynolds and Clare Gordon for being a dream team to work with since they joined last year. They have done a fabulous job so far and I’ll be eagerly following them!
Thanks, Laura! We all wish you the best in your future endeavors!
If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.
Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.
What can you expect to learn? Michael Walkden will discuss early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually the “excrements of the earth?” And next up, below: Julia Fine explores the ways in which the general public contributed to and engaged with the Folger’s First Chefs exhibition.
-The RP Editors ***** Food culture and First Chefs: Appreciating the layers of meaning behind food in Shakespeare’s world and our own
In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio grabs a leg of roast mutton and throws it to the ground. Doing so, he exclaims, “it engenders choler, planteth anger,/ And better ‘twere that both of us did fast.” As food anthropologist Leigh Chavez-Bush writes of this statement in Atlas Obscura, this line was not a throwaway. Rather, “eating the right foods in the proper quantities, 16th-century Britons believed, balanced mind and soul.” Here, Petruchio is invoking this idea of balance, referring to the notion that food could imbalance the humors which were thought to impact the body. In Shakespeare’s plays, then, “roasts, ales, and pies are not props, but clues to characters’ souls, moods, and motivations.”
Whether we look to Shakespeare’s world or ours today, food represents something more than mere sustenance. Food is instead a universal ritual, one in which everyone takes part. Thus, food and eating, according to Sidney Mintz in his pathbreaking work Sweetness and Power, act as “foci of habit, taste, and deep feeling,” across different cultures and times. In this sense, eating is about more than just nutrition; food evokes the feelings, memories, and stories baked into each bite.
The Folger’s First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas exhibition, which ran from January through March of 2019, demonstrated the different functions that food served in the early modern British Atlantic world. The exhibition shared the stories of several First Chefs, people like Hannah Woolley, the first English-language woman food writer, and Hercules, a chef enslaved by George and Martha Washington. After encountering these stories, visitors were invited to reflect on their own experiences with food in a special area of the exhibition devoted to food and memory, and many wrote down their favorite food reminiscences, recipes, and stories.
The textual and culinary delights that guests shared with us spanned time and space. We received recipes in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian, written by children and grandparents alike. Some detailed how food shaped their lives, acting as a catalyst to immigrate to America; others discussed yearly rituals surrounding food that united their families. Some people left recipes for cookies passed down for generations; others detailed the joy of opening a box of Kraft mac and cheese.
To give you a taste, here are some of our favorite food memories shared at the First Chefs exhibition. As you read, we ask that you reflect on what stories, beliefs, and histories are encoded within these texts. What does food tell you about people’s lives and cultures? What information can you glean even from the most straight-forward of recipes?
Recipe, in Latin, meant imperative formula of medical prescriptions: take. This normative origin remained when the recipe migrated into the realm of food, as a set of how-to instructions meant to adapt the contingency of cooking to the standard of a given knowledge, generally overlooking the historical conditions and socio-material practices that constituted the recipe in the first place.
When joined by the adjective ‘urban’, either in merely rhetorical discourses (as in ‘recipes for a better society’, economy, and the likes), or in specific projects at the intersection between grassroots initiatives and artistic practice, the recipe often maintains this normative, prescriptive and instrumental connotation. Like other similar notions (e.g. urban acupuncture, urban mending, etc), the term ‘urban recipe’ is normally employed metaphorically, to refer to small-scale pragmatic – and at times, one may polemically add, technocratic – solutions seemingly able to bypass more complex (political) approaches.
In this issue of lo Squaderno we invite you to unpack the key relation of recipes with the embodied and sensorial practice of producing, making, and tasting of food. This is all the more topical as today ‘food’ has arguably become a key driver of urban planning, regeneration and gentrification, as the rise and rise of an ‘urban creative-food economy’ and the implementation of ‘food policy councils’ around the world (e.g. Toronto, Vancouver, Bristol, Amsterdam etc.) testifies.
From specialty coffee premises to organic food shops, from beer districts to farmer markets, from TripAdvisor to UberEats, from food waste recycling to urban gardening, the food-city relation is being reshaped, reterritorialised and prolonged in multiple novel ways. In short, there is (increasingly) a profound socio-spatial relation between food and the city that requires some careful unpacking: to do so, recipes may be employed as a sensorial way to explore, know and engage with the perceptible and imperceptible constitution of the city.
We therefore propose to rethink (urban) recipes as tools to increase sensory perception and knowledge of the structures, dynamics and everyday experiences of the urban. In other words, the challenge this issue seeks to address is that of reconfiguring the recipe itself, from a normative instrument into a sort of speculative map able to chart and disclose interesting (socio-cultural, political, etc.) dimensions of the relation between food and the city in a particular urban context.
We encourage interdisciplinary contributions that narrate, analyse, unpack, or indeed create urban recipes (real or invented, realistic or fantastic, utopian or dystopian, joyful or macabre, artistic or scientific) through which describe, explore or dissect tiny or wide, local or global, issues about the phenomenological and ontological, bodily and structural, spatial and temporal, sensorial and conceptual relation between food and the city.
| Deadline for submissions | 30 March 2020
| Deadline for abstract submissions | 30 January 2020
The Recipes Project is eight years old, and we now have over 850 posts in our archives! 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 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, we’re pleased to bring back this post on “Cold Wombs and Cold Semen”: what did it mean when families couldn’t conceive sons in sixteenth-century China?
Throughout imperial China, a family’s well-being and longevity required the birth of sons. [Fig. 1] Sons performed the ancestral rites, inherited land, and were responsible for supporting aged parents. And only men could take the examinations for government office which conferred elite socio-economic status. But at age 40, Liu Xiaoting was still sonless (wu zi). He appealed to the physician Gong Tingxian (15`38-1635), promising him rich recompense if he could help. As Gong recorded in his influential treatise, Curing the Myriad Diseases (Wanbing huichun, preface dated 1587), Liu’s “male member was weak, and his semen was icy cold.” Furthermore, his pulses were flooding when felt at the first position (cun) at the wrist, but deep and faint at the third position (chi). Gong’s diagnosis: a profound deficiency of primordial qi (yuan qi), the source of all the body’s vitalities and material manifestations. This was caused, he explained, by excessive drinking and sexual indulgence.
Depletion from debauchery was a common diagnosis for upper-class men of the time, those who had the means to own concubines and patronize courtesans. Doctors agreed that such carousing exhausted the body’s vitalities, not least because male semen was produced from “essence” (jing), the vitality that enabled growth, generation, and reproduction. Besides depleting the body, excessive outflows of semen harmed the kidneys, the organs that produced, stored, and transformed essence. To cure Liu, Gong prescribed a 16-ingredient formula called “Elixir to Solidify the Root and Strengthen Yang” (Guben jianyang dan) (see below). After taking one recipe’s worth, Liu felt that his nether parts were warm again. After an additional half-recipe, he felt recovered. To his great joy, he then begat a son. Liu subsequently shared the formula with a Liu Boting and a Liu Min’an (probably kinsmen) who also used it successfully. [Figs. 2 and 3]
Gong Tingxian placed Liu Xiaoting’s case in his discussion of “seeking descendants” (qiu si), which was part of a larger section on “women’s diseases” (fu ke). “Descendants” here referred specifically to sons. Although Chinese medical writings on childbearing focused primarily on the female body, people had also long recognized that male ailments could impede conception. These concerns were especially salient in Gong and Liu’s time, when population pressure, urbanization, and commercialization were creating new forms of socio-economic mobility and instability. As Charlotte Furth has shown, this inspired a proliferation of writings on male self-cultivation and producing sons. Such material appeared in various textual genres, and it was not uncommon to find the reproductive illnesses of men discussed in chapters on women. These discussions assumed, furthermore, that a deficient man might still be able to father daughters, but that only a properly regulated male body would create sons. The question was how best to achieve that regulation.
In medical discussions of infertility, cold could refer to somatic sensations of chillness, as well as to a sense of deficiency and absence of vitality. Writings on women were primarily concerned with ensuring the ample and free flow of female blood, which constituted the female seed, nourished the fetus, and later transformed into breast milk. But doctors also worried about coldness in the womb, whether from an invading wind, or arising from internal depletion. Cold would cause female blood to stagnate and become corrupt. But concerns about female cold were also expressed in terms of agricultural metaphors which portrayed the womb as a field that needed to be warm and nurturing to receive the male seed.
Women with cold wombs would simply not produce children. But when couples produced only girls, this suggested deficiencies in the man, who played a key role in determining the child’s sex. The various theories of sex selection might differ as to details, but they agreed that a man could produce boys by shooting (she) his seed into the woman on certain days, in a certain manner, at a certain point in the copulatory act. Particularly important was the belief that both men and women released reproductive seed during orgasm, and that the fetus’ sex was determined by the seed that came last. A man who wanted sons thus needed to bring his female partner to climax before releasing his own seminal essence. His semen also needed to be sufficiently “dense” (mi), lest it dribble uselessly out of the womb.
Coldness in men was thus associated with impaired copulatory function, manifesting as cold and watery seed and as a weak penis unable to control its emissions. Gong Tingxian’s fertility formula echoed this understanding, relying heavily on substances that were classified as “principal drugs for treating spermatorrhea” and/or as “principal drugs for treating impotence” in Li Shizhen’s authoritative and encyclopedic Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu,preface dated 1590). At the same time, Gong’s formula implicitly rebuked those who would treat male coldness with heating drugs. This objection was rooted in a particular understanding of how cosmological yin and yang forces expressed themselves in the male body.
To simplify enormously: yang referred to things that were external, active, and hot, while yin was internal, receptive, and cool. Men were the yang of humankind, and male potency and fertility were understood as expressions of bodily yang. As a result, people routinely tried to treat sonlessness with heating drugs. But some doctors warned that too much heat would damage and consume yin, harming the kidneys (yin) and consuming its essence (yin). Excessive heat would sicken the man, and even if he managed to conceive a son, the heat would remain as a latent poison in the fetal body and the boy would die young. Instead, they argued that the proper way to regulate yang was to address the underlying deficiency of yin. Gong Tingxian shared this viewpoint, and the key drugs in his prescription acted by nourishing bodily yin and the kidneys. As Liu Xiaoting swallowed the dozens of pills that Gong prescribed, he may have had initial doubts about their efficacy. But the birth of his son would have convinced him that, at least in this instance, Gong’s approach to male coldness was the correct one.
Elixir to Solidify the Root and Build Yang (Guben jianyang dan) Dodder seed (tu si zi) cooked in wine, one and a half taels
White poria, root end (bai fu shen), skin and woody bits removed Dioscorea (shan yao), steamed with wine Achyranthes root (niu xi), stems removed, washed in wine Eucommia bark (du zhong), washed in wine, skin removed, roasted until crisp Angelica root, main body (dang gui shen), washed in wine Cistanche (rou cong rong), soaked in wine Schisandra fruit (wu wei zi), washed in wine Black cardamom (yi zhi ren), stir-fried in salt water Tender deer antler (nen lu rong), roasted until crisp One tael each of the above
Prepared rehmannia (shu di), steamed in wine Dogwood fruit (shan zhu yu), steamed in wine, the pit removed Three taels each of the above
Sichuanese morinda (chuan ba ji), soaked in wine, the heart removed, two taels
Teasel (xu duan), soaked in wine Milkwort (yuan zhi), processed Cnidium seeds (she chuang zi), stir fried, the husks removed One and a half taels each of the above
Add: Ginseng (ren shen), two taels Goji berries (go ji zi), two taels
Grind the above into a fine powder, and mix with honey to form pills as large as the seeds of the parasol tree. For each dose, take 50 to 70 pills on an empty stomach, washed down with salt water. With wine is also fine. Before bedtime, take another dose. If the woman’s monthly affair is already concluded, then this is the time for planting sons, and if one takes three doses a day, that is no problem. If essence is not stable, then add dragon bone (long gu) and oyster shell (mu li), heated in fire and quenched in salted wine three to five times. Use one tael, three mace of each. Moreover, add five taels of tender deer horn.
 The weight of the tael (Ch. liang) has varied over time, but during Gong Tingxian’s lifetime would have been equivalent to approximately 37 grams. A mace (Ch. qian) is one-tenth of a tael.
Yi-Li Wu is a Center Associate of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (US). She earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and was previously a history professor at Albion College (USA) for 13 years. Her publications include Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010) and articles on gender and the body; medical illustration; forensic medicine, and Chinese views of Western anatomical science. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the history of wound medicine in China.