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.

Recipes in Manuscript Miscellanies

By Eve Houghton

As several scholars have noted, early modern recipes do not only appear in recipe books. Ink recipes in particular are a staple of the commonplace book, as Adam Smyth has pointed out; and as Alun Withey has written on this blog, “[i]t was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records.”

But if, in Jayne Elisabeth Archer’s words, “recipe books did not simply include recipes,” and “manuscripts classified as ‘commonplace books’ or ‘manuscript miscellanies’ sometimes also contain recipes” (119), this generic mixing also raises a host of paleographic and interpretative questions.

  • Is a miscellany with recipes still “a recipe book?”
  • Are the recipes in the same hand as the other entries?
  • Is a recipe always a non-sequitur, or can there be some conceptual link between the content of the notebook and the content of the recipe?

Some compilers seem to have taken steps to clearly differentiate recipes from the other content of their notebooks. One late seventeenth-century manuscript (Beinecke Osborn b115), for example, includes two sections with the handwriting running in opposite directions: the first devoted to commonplaces and poetry excerpts, and the second to recipes, including “pankakes,” “lemon cream,” and “apricock wine.” Another seventeenth and eighteenth-century notebook (Beinecke Osborn b419) has a section devoted to laundry accounts (“my brothers washing”) and a separate section for listing cookery recipes such as “cowslip wine” and “a good sort of gingerbread.” In other manuscripts, however, the distinctions are not nearly so clear-cut.

The notebook Beinecke Osborn c663, compiled by a “Miss Barton” of Suffolk from 1758 to 1766, includes medicinal and cookery recipes which appear as diary entries:

July 10. I heard yt…in Northamptonshire there is a well wch at certain times has a sound like a drum, it has been emptied, & at Bottom tis a mill stone, ye Person sd it was reckoned one of ye worlds 7 wonders. At this place are 3 Hospl [Hospitals], 1 for men 1 for women 1 for children 3 years schooling books some cloathes

To Cure Deafness

Take some green wormwood & rub it in yr hands till it is very moist then put it into ye hollow of yr ear & it will cause <it> to Discharge you must repeat it every day or two (f. 1r)

This at first seems like a bizarre turn: what does a cure for deafness have to do with an empty well and a charitable hospital?

The entry of July 10th, poised somewhere between folklore and local gossip, has certain continuities. After writing about this wondrous well with “a sound like a drum,” Barton’s next subject is the human ear drum. Another entry similarly juxtaposes a medicinal recipe with details of local interest:

Osborn c663, f. 2v (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).
Osborn c663, f. 2v (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).

Memorand

Mr Alexander’s mill is square its built on a risin hill, I’m told there’s but one more such in Engl, tis what they call a smock mill.

A blood shot eye has been often reliev’d by holding it over ye steam of hot coffee (f. 2v).

Both the recipe and the account of the smock mill are headed “Memorand,” situating these fragments of seemingly unrelated information within the broader framework of “things worth remembering.” Barton seems to have had no need to create a separate heading for her recipes, then, because they are part and parcel of the notable, useful, or amusing matter of her daily life.

A manuscript from the 1620s (Folger X.d.393) is described in the Folger catalogue as a collection of “historical extracts.” However, it also includes a recipe for “a dormant drink,” which appears even more incongruous alongside accounts of Sir Francis Drake’s famous expedition to Cadiz and various military actions in Ireland:

A Dormant drink.

Take Enatnalp, Ecittel, yllil-retaw, yppop, & Edahs-thgin, short Ssom on ye Seert, Enab-neh Esserp-ic-flowers; pown all yes together, & strain ye verdure or juice out: yen take ye Niarb of Senarc, Ecim-rod doolb: warm ye liquor of all yes togither wth Eniw: it will bereave ye sense to cold numbness, & mortify ye Patient by an hour slumbrig for 2 daies, & by no meanes waking (f. 34r).

Folger X.d.393, f. 34r (Folger Shakespeare Library).
Folger X.d.393, f. 34r (Folger Shakespeare Library).

This recipe is in code, but it is not a particularly difficult code to break. One need only reverse the letters to find that this recipe calls for “water-lilly, poppy, & night-shade” in addition to “dor-mice blood & snakes blood.” Two puzzles, then: why write a recipe backwards, and why include a recipe for “a dormant drink” between an account of Shane O’Neill’s rebellion in Ireland and the reign of Richard II? It is possible that the compiler’s mind had turned to libations, since the account of O’Neill’s rebellion includes a reference to the “quaffing & drinking of Wine” (f. 33r). Or perhaps—like many early modern readers—the compiler simply saw no reason not to include a recipe in a manuscript of extracts on other subjects.

Because of the seeming haphazardness and unpredictability of their appearances, recipes which appear outside of recipe books or collections can be difficult to track down, catalogue, and interpret. But as Sally Osborn has argued in a post on this blog, recipe books were “working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.”

The recent work of Sara Pennell, Michelle DiMeo, and Wendy Wall, among others, has highlighted the ways in which heterogeneity (multiple hands, collaborative or anonymous authorship, unstable generic categories) is a hallmark of the recipe genre, placing notebooks like these in a broader context of manuscript miscellaneity. As more recipes are unearthed in diaries, commonplace books, and even collections of “historical extracts,” then, these manuscripts might start to look less eccentric–and perhaps even paradigmatic.

 

 Works referenced

Archer, Jayne Elisabeth. “The Quintessence of Wit,” Reading and Writing Recipe Books 1550-1800. Eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Smyth, Adam. “Commonplace Book Culture: A List of Sixteen Traits,” Women and Writing, c.1340-c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture. Eds. Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Philippa Hardman. Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2010.