Tag Archives: Carla Cevasco

Gluttony and “Surfeit” in Early Modern Europe

By Carla Cevasco

From buttery stuffing to champagne, the holidays give us plenty of opportunities to indulge…and plenty of nutritional advice on how to avoid holiday decadence. Early modern Europeans likewise feared gluttony and offered remedies for overeating, but I can’t say that I’ll be too tempted to try any of them myself this holiday season.

In famine-wracked early modern Europe, gluttony was the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and as The Divine Physician warned in 1676, “Diseases are the Interests of Sin.”[1]  Medical professionals instructed their readers to restrain their appetites in the interest of physical and spiritual health. “Take heed of surcharging thy stomach,” Raymundus Mindererus cautioned in 1674, noting that there was “nothing more hurtful to health” than an “extravagant” appetite. Thomas Tryon’s 1698 The Way to Health recommended a kind of fasting cleanse, claiming that “a little gentle Hunger” cleared “superfluous Matter” from the digestive system (43). An 1816 print (shown below) by Thomas Rowlandson depicted an obese man dining with Death.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Warnings against gluttony did not always sit well with readers. Louis-François Charon’s print “Le Médicin et la Malade” (shown below),  in which a gluttonous doctor instructed his patient to go on a diet, mocked medical professionals’ emphasis on moderation and suggested that they failed to practice what they preached.

V0011678 A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does. Coloured engraving by Louis-François Charon. after: Louis-François CharonPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Louis-François Charon, “Le Medicin et le Malade,” colored engraving (undated).   Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Medical practitioners even recognized specific, pathological forms of overeating. Phillip Barrough‘s 1601 The Practice of Physick described the “Doglike appetite,” which caused sufferers to “devoure in meate without measure” before “vomiting like dogges” (110-11). For a curative diet, Barrough prescribed stale bread, herbs, “fat & oily” meat, mallows, and most of all, wine, to “heate the stomacke, and destroy the sharpnesse of humours” that provoked patients to a canine hunger.

For those unable to heed injunctions against overeating, many recipe books offered remedies for “surfeit.” A recipe “To Make Poppies Water which is Good for a Surfeit,” in Wellcome MS 4054, called for soaking “Corn poppys,” marigolds, gillyflowers, sweet marjoram, angelico root, raisins, licorice, aniseeds, white sugar, and rosasolis in aquavitae, then straining and bottling the resulting cordial. John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plants noted that “black Poppy drunketh in wine” stopped diarrhea; in addition, the opioid content of distilled poppy flowers or leaves would have eased the pain associated with indigestion (400-401). I would be interested in hearing from other scholars here about how the other ingredients of poppy waters might have affected their consumers.

Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from  Opiologia, or a Treatise...of Opium (1618).  Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Method of extracting the juice from the poppy. Woodcut Opiologia, or a Treatise....of Opium Sala (Angelus) Published: 1618 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from 
Opiologia, or a Treatise…of Opium (1618). 
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In a world where people constantly risked lapsing into gluttony, and suffering ill health as a result, lack of appetite was also cause for particular concern. Medical writers identified several types and causes of loss of appetite. Barrough claimed that physiological defects, humoral imbalances, and/or sickness could result in a loss of appetite. In A New Practice of Physick, volume 1, Peter Shaw wrote that a patient might experience “anorexia,” or a long-term distaste for food, “from hard drinking, great heat, a fever,” or “consumptions” (170-71). Medical writers agreed that lack of appetite did not spontaneously occur in a healthy person, but rather could be linked to a hangover, hot weather, sickness, or bodily dysfunction.

To “provoke appetite againe,” Barrough suggested exposing the patient to pleasant odors, such as “wine infused, or decoction of quinces, or peares,” and anointing the patient with fragrant oils “of roses, masticke, and such like.” After aromatherapy, Barrough prescribed a diet of “diverse” foods “after the daintiest fashion,” including corn, eggs, “birds of the mountaines,” dates, and prunes. While medical writers blamed “variety of meats” and “curiously and daintily dressed” foods for gluttonous excesses, Barrough harnessed the appetite-stimulating powers of delicious smells and tantalizing nibbles to encourage those who had lost their hunger to find it again.[2]

Today we might reach for pink bismuth subsalicylate instead of a poppy cordial after a big meal, but early modern Europeans had many of the same questions that we do about how much to eat.

Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.
Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.

[1] Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food among the Early Moderns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 114, 243-245.

[2] Nicholas Culpeper, Medicaments for the Poor; Or, Physick for the Common People (Edinburgh, n.p., 1664), 10.

Teaching High School American History With Cookbooks

By Carla Cevasco 

“Ew! Peanut butter in tamales?” a student exclaims. This unappetizing take on Mexican food, from the 1922 cookbook Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health, provides a perfect jumping-off point for me and a classroom of high school juniors to discuss American immigration policy in the early twentieth century. Bertha Wood’s ‘Americanized’ recipe for tamales hints that many Americans felt anxious about immigrants and the food cultures they brought with them.

Tamales. Image Credit: Phil Gregory. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Tamales. Image Credit: Phil Gregory. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Although I normally teach undergraduates, for the past two years, I’ve participated in a one-day food and farming teach-in at a college preparatory school in rural Massachusetts. The teach-in draws farmers, food scientists, and other community members to campus, including this food historian. It’s an exciting opportunity to get into the classroom with curious, enthusiastic high school students.

I’ve used historic cookbooks to teach American food history to students in classes as diverse as American history, multivariable calculus (the only calc class I’ve ever attended!), and American literature. For many students, this is their first experience with food history, and we usually only have at most an hour and a half in the classroom together. The cookbooks allow us to explore how many themes in American history–labor, gender, race, immigration, and ethnicity, to name just a few–intersect with the history of food. The lesson also trains students to look closely at primary sources, to draw comparisons between them, and to consider the connections between cookbooks and their historical contexts.

To start off the class, we review what a modern recipe looks like, just in case students haven’t really looked at a cookbook before. Next, I break students into groups of 3 or 4 and hand out packets of selections from historical cookbooks (typically the title page, part of the introduction or preface, and a few recipes), arranged in chronological order. Each group looks closely at two or three cookbooks. The students read their assigned selections aloud to each other, and take notes both on factual information (the book’s title, author, date of publication, names of recipes, etc.) and more interpretive questions (stated or implied audience, how this cookbook compares to the others, words/concepts they found interesting or confusing, etc.). The groups transfer these notes to a grid on the chalkboard and then present to the entire class on what they’ve discovered.

In our discussion, I encourage students to place their observations about the cookbooks in broader historical contexts: Why might the formerly-enslaved Abby Fisher have included a recipe for “Plantation Corn Bread” in her cookbook? Why did Peg Bracken’s hilariously sarcastic I Hate to Cook Book become a bestseller in the early 1960s?

For the books themselves, I selected books that held historical significance, or highlighted particular places, times, or themes. (Full-text or images at the links.)

Image Credit: Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (1798). The first ‘American’ cookbook published in America, the book makes use of English methods and some distinctively American ingredients (such as corn).

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1824). This cookbook features Southern regional cooking, including African influences.

Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881). This is the second cookbook published in the United States by an African American writer.

Bertha Wood, Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health (1922).The book shows ambivalence about immigrants bringing new food traditions to the United States.

Peg Bracken, The I Hate to Cook Book (1960). This book is a good jumping-off point to discuss post-WWII prosperity, convenience foods, and gender roles.

Rotten or Fermented?: Disgusting Cross-Cultural Foods in Early America

By Carla Cevasco

In Autumn 1764, the English missionary Samuel Kirkland was dispatched to a Seneca Indian village in western New York, where a Seneca family adopted him, as was common practice. A hard winter followed, and the family shared their increasingly scanty food supplies with Kirkland. When food ran low in early 1765, Kirkland traded one of his shirts to an Indian outside the family, receiving four cornmeal cakes in return. So great was his hunger, “At first sight I thought I could devour them all at one meal,” but he vomited up the first cake he ate.[1] He kept the remaining cakes until they began to mold, then offered them to his adoptive nieces and nephews, who ate them without hesitation. The hungry children could stomach what Kirkland could not. It is unclear why the cornmeal cakes so disagreed with Kirkland. Perhaps they were already moldering by the time he purchased them, or, as he noted, his digestive system was sensitive after months of near-starvation. Regardless, the fact that the cakes had begun to spoil did not deter the Seneca children from eating them. The Seneca also ate other foods that Kirkland considered rotten: as Kirkland’s sister-in-law cut up maggot-infested bear meat to feed to the family, she whispered to her husband Tekânadie that she feared “their brother white man could not eat of it.”[2]

Brown Bear, Etching by James Tookey after Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1796 Image Credit: Wellcome Library
Brown Bear, Etching by James Tookey after Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1796.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

From captivity narratives and missionary accounts, it is clear that Indians routinely and without digestive upset ate foods that the English thought of as rotten or spoiled. Of course, according to the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, rottenness is “culturally specific”—one culture’s rotten, inedible food is another’s fermented, edible food. For example, Icelandic people prize their fermented shark delicacy, hákarl, while Anthony Bourdain has called it “the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” (Full disclosure: the closest I’ve gotten to hákarl is Brennivin, the so-called “Black Death” schnapps that is meant to accompany the shark—it is also unspeakably foul.) In light of the cultural specificity of fermentation, it is less clear whether Indians ate these “rotten” foods only when they had no other options, or whether they sometimes desired the potent flavors that fermentation produces.

Joseph Johnson, a Mohegan missionary, wrote in February 1768 that the Oneida (who lived east of the Seneca) kept “rotten fish” from the previous fall “to Season their Samps,” or corn soups.[3] While Johnson seemed repulsed by this practice, the Oneida sought out the taste of fermented fish: “rottener the better they Say as it will Season more broth.”[4] This pungent condiment added variety and flavor to an otherwise repetitive winter diet of corn. As Mintz has also argued, many indigenous cultures rely on “core” staple grains for the bulk of their caloric intake, and then add nutritional value, flavor, and variety with the use of condiments, or “fringe” foods.[5] Where Johnson and the English saw rottenness, the Oneida saw fermentation.

 A hind and a stag of the family of Red-Deer and a Fallow-deer, Wood Engraving after Thomas Bewick. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A hind and a stag of the family of Red-Deer and a Fallow-deer, Wood Engraving after Thomas Bewick.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of course, English people of the pre-refrigeration era also ate spoiled meat. Recipe books abounded with household hints for camouflaging flesh that had passed its prime. Hannah Glasse instructed cooks that if a joint of venison “stinks, or is musty,” one must rinse it multiple times with water and milk, then “rub it all over with beaten Ginger” and hang it to dry (10). Gervase Markham offered a formula for spoiled venison, that required the cook to boil “a strong brine” with a combination of “strong Ale,” wine vinegar, and salt, to let this mixture cool, and to soak the venison in it overnight (113). Next, the cook would remove the meat from the brine, “presse it well,” then “parboyle it, and season it with Pepper and Salt,” before roasting. These preparations of burying, boiling, washing, and salting to counteract or mask spoiled meat also had their counterparts in Indian cuisine: Samuel Kirkland’s Seneca sister-in-law stewed rancid bear meat and served it with “half a spoonful of salt on one side.”[6]

Since discovering Kirkland’s journal, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural specificity of rotten or fermented food. This specificity is based not just on taste, but also presumably on which bacteria different people’s bodies are accustomed to and will tolerate. I am curious to know if other scholars have found similar cross-cultural examples from the early modern period.

[1] Samuel Kirkland, The Journals of Samuel Kirkland, 18th-Century Missionary to the Iroquois, Government Agent, Father of Hamilton College, ed. Walter Pilkington (Clinton, New York: Hamilton College, 1980), 22.

[2] Ibid, 30.

[3] Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, February 10, 1768, The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, ed. James Dow McCallum (Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Daye Press, 1932), 128.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sidney Mintz, “The Anthropology of Food: Core and Fringe in Diet,” India International Centre Quarterly 12, no. 2, Food Culture (June 1985): 193-204.

[6] Kirkland, Journals, 30.

“Look’d Like Milk”: Breastmilk Substitutes in New England’s Borderlands

By Carla Cevasco 

Captured by the Abenaki in 1724, the English colonist Elizabeth Hanson fretted as “my daily Travel and hard Living made my Milk dry almost quite up.” As Hanson recorded in her captivity narrative, God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty (1728), she watched her baby become “very poor and weak,” so thin that she could “perceive all its Joynts from one End of the Babe’s Back to the other.” Among English women taken captive by Native Americans in colonial New England, food shortage and the rigor of travel, as well as perhaps the psychological anxiety of captivity, caused many women’s milk to fail, or exacerbated other breastfeeding difficulties. Early modern medical authorities recognized the urgency of infant feeding and the difficulty of nursing: while breastfeeding was physically demanding for mothers, infants who were separated from their mothers often perished.[1]

At home, English women likely would have had access to remedies to help them with breastfeeding problems. Gervase Markham’s The English House-Wife (first published in 1615) offered two concoctions “To increase a womans milke.” One required the woman to consume “good store of Colworts,” a cabbage-like plant, that had been boiled “in strong posset-ale,” a drink of curdled dairy and beer. Another remedy consisted of “the buds and tender crops of Briony,” a common wild vine, in “broth or pottage.” Other nursing women also suckled the children of women who could not nurse themselves.[2] But women in captivity were usually isolated from the social support networks that would have provided them with alternate sources of breastmilk or treatments to increase their milk.

Instead, like other early moderns, women in captivity relied on substitutes to nourish their children. For much of her journey, Hanson used “Broth of the Beaver, or other Guts,” to feed her child “as well as I could.” When those foods were not available, Hanson drank “cold Water” and then “let it fall on my Breast” for the baby to suck “with what it could get from the Breast.”

Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Captives like Hanson found alternative support networks, who offered substitute foods and fulfilled the roles that other women or physicians would have played in helping mothers at home. When Hanson’s baby became emaciated and barely able to eat with a “weak Appetite,” an Abenaki woman noticed Hanson’s “uneasiness” at the child’s frailty and offered to help. She instructed Hanson “to take the Kernels of Walnuts, and clean them, and beat them with a little Water.” The resulting mixture “look’d like Milk,” Hanson noted. Next, the woman told Hanson to add “a little of the finest of the Indian Corn Meal, and boyl it a little together.”

The resulting mixture, to Hanson’s relief (and the child’s), was “nourishing to the Babe.” The woman explained to Hanson that “with this kind of Diet the Indians did often nurse their Infants.” Like Hanson, Abenaki women would have experienced periods of food shortage or had trouble breastfeeding for other reasons, and the combination of water, walnuts, and corn provided invaluable hydration, protein, and carbohydrates to nursing children. English women who were in the process of weaning their children often would have fed them similar paps or gruels.[3]


[1] Marylynn Salmon, “The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 2 (Winter, 1994), 260-262, 250.

[2] Ibid, 257, 259, 262.

[3] Ibid, 256.