The Spring Clean for Recipes Project

By Chelsea Clark

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It might be autumn in the northern hemisphere–but in the southern hemisphere, it is spring! My experience in helping to tidy up the Recipes Project website has felt much the same as the typical spring cleaning that goes on after a long winter with the intent of brightening up a household or workspace. While keeping the essence of the site, I set out to make it a bit more accessible and user friendly by adding additional resource material and attempting to showcase the growing diversity of the site.

First, I would like to draw your attention to our new blog appearance. I wanted to show our clean-up in a very visual way by choosing a more sleek looking format for the blog. One of the things that I like most about the Recipes Project is its use of pictures. The main thing I wanted to showcase on the front page of the site was… even more pictures! When it comes to recipe manuscripts and books, there are so many images available–and our contributors are great at choosing images that complement their posts.  I wanted to use images on the front page to display the growing diversity of post on the site, from medicine to gardening, from exploring texts to trying out recipes, from delving into recipes for cakes to plaisters, and from gender to cultural explorations.

Original illustration (1865), by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's novel, Alice in Wonderland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Original illustration (1865), by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice in Wonderland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The clean-up also led me deep into the back pages of the website to analyze the categories and tags that our posters were currently using in order to see if there was anything to make searching the recipes posts more intuitive. With the website expanding in so many ways, it is important to us to make that information as easily accessible as possible. We’ve tried to make specific topics more findable (student posts, for example), as well as to connect posts on related information that may have been unexpected to the searcher initially (lists of series). Falling down the rabbit hole, so to speak, can be a delightful blogging experience.

I hope that a reader flipping through the categories will get an idea of the breadth of topics the site covers. Categories describe themes, while tags are used to break those themes down further. Any frequently used tags suggest that these topics are popular enough to need their own categories. When deciding which of these tags to change into category titles, I tried to place myself in a browser’s position. If I was to click on the categories drop-box, what would I be interested in seeing? I found that while “Recipes” and “Recipe Books” were popular tags, they did not need to become categories: for a recipe website to have a recipes category seemed redundant.

Categories can also separate the posts in ways that make them intuitively searchable. The country categories show diversity, so I added “Germany,” “Russia,” and “China” as new categories. I also saw the categories menu as a place to showcase some of the fun tags that had gotten a fair amount of hits, such as “Chocolate” and “Distillation.” In addition, I combined the two categories “Plants” and “Herbs” due to their overlap; this also included posts with the tags “Herbs,” “Herbals,” and “Herbal Remedies.”

The SEARCH box is another, often overlooked, way of searching both tags and categories to find posts which are related. Don’t be afraid to throw your own ideas in this box and see what the site can retrieve!

In addition to the Clean-up, We have also added something new and exciting to the site … ZOTERO!

In order to keep with the ‘shiny and new’ theme, the next step was to redesign our old resource page. We decided to go with a searchable, linkable, expandable, and downloadable Zotero resource list. The idea behind the Zotero list was to create a resource list for the site that was easily searchable by both contributors and readers with varying degrees of familiarity with the sources. I consolidated many resource lists from various recipe related projects and then hunted down the sources online and familiarized myself with them in order to link them together with tags and entered them on Zotero.org.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For those not familiar with Zotero, this site is truly an amazing research organization tool. The Primary and Secondary sources entered so far cover a broad range of subjects, from recipes and medicine to reading and publishing, including English, American, Italian, Welsh, French, and Latin sources. The primary sources are searchable by library or archive and even have the manuscript identification where possible to make finding them easy as pie. The secondary sources are linked together with subject tags to make not only finding the one you want easy, but can link you to other sources you may not have known about.

The Zotero link can be found on our new page Additional Resources along with several other research tools that are useful for recipe exploration.

I hope you all enjoy the new and improved Recipes Project site. Please explore, search, browse even better than before!

Categories in a Database of Eighteenth-Century Medical Recipes

By Katherine Allen

Creating a database is a valuable (though time-consuming!) methodological approach to the history of recipe collecting. The database that I constructed for my doctoral research catalogues over 5,000 medical recipes from 27 eighteenth-century manuscript collections. I used the data to help answer one of my thesis questions: in what ways did the recipe collecting tradition continue into the eighteenth century as part of domestic medicine in elite English households? The data suggests continuity and change in recipe collecting. Even as compilers maintained traditional methods of collecting, they were open-minded to innovations in medicine and other cultural and intellectual shifts.

I use a form-based system in Microsoft Access, with each entry receiving a unique searchable ID number for manuscript and recipe. The collector, when available, is noted, along with the date (for a specific recipe or the manuscript). By including the recipe title, I could also trace popular recipes and the ailments they treated.

Recipe Form in Database
Recipe Form in Database

‘Ingredients’ was an embedded form listing the ingredient item (modernised spelling), quantity (decimalised), unit of measurement, and a description of characteristics and preparations. I grouped like ingredients and categorised them as follows: plant, animal, mineral, prepared (compound), and unknown. I also found total counts for each ingredient, and how many individual (unique) ingredients comprised each category, enabling me to rank proportionally the ingredient categories.

One of the difficulties of categorising materia medica is finding balance between conveying diversity, while grouping like items for effective and efficient analysis. I used similar methodologies to those used by Jennifer Stine and Anne Stobart (see post on plant ingredients). Moreover, I endeavoured to categorise separately distinct components of plants and animals (for instance, seeds and petals, or, suet and blood) when each item was contemporarily viewed as having differing medicinal qualities and uses.

The ‘equipment’ form recorded household objects used to make medicine, the technique or instructions associated with tools, and descriptions. I used the data on distillation to determine how frequently stills were cited, and the types of distillation equipment cited in recipe collections. This data reveals that distillation remained an important component of recipe collecting up to the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

Data on the purpose and administration of remedies was compiled using a text box on dosage/administration and a drop-down menu on treatment. The dosage text box allowed me to define the most commonly used quantities of medicine, how they were administered, and frequency of dosage. This data shows that medicine was often tailored to an individual’s age, constitution, and tastes, and that regimens remained popular approaches to treatment in elite healthcare.

Drop-down menu for treatment categories in database
Drop-down menu for treatment categories in database

Categorising diseases in recipe books is challenging. These manuscripts present a long history of varied medical approaches and theories, and compilers frequently grouped remedies by the process of making the medicine, rather than intended use. We also need to contend with recipes being used to treat symptoms and/or diseases, and recipes that could treat several ailments, or were cure-alls.

I took an objective approach to categorising diseases, following how compilers described their remedies first, and later grouping the ailments thematically into categories such as: who they were treating, approach to treatment, and diseases. Using a drop-down menu for treatment allowed me to organise and amend my categories as I entered data. The data was entered according to the main ailment the remedies was intended to treat (if there was more than one), but recipes that cited many uses were often grouped as cure-alls. This approach to database categories attempts to provide a realistic portrayal of medicine in recipe books by following how eighteenth-century compilers understood medicine, but it also meets my needs as an historian to create manageable categories.

Treatment data allowed me to trace popular named medicines, like Peruvian bark and Gascoigne’s Powder, and this helps us understand how compilers categorised and understood diseases and approaches to treatment. I used Access reports to group the recipes by treatment, thus generating data to calculate percentages for each treatment category.

Finally, I had two text boxes for entering information on individuals attributed to recipes. Forty-percent of my recipes were attributed two one or more individuals. The queries used to run this data looked at recipes with no attribution, one attribution only, and multiple attributions. This data was used to understand direct and indirect citations referencing how medical knowledge was communicated and that recipes were often communicated in a multi-step transmission process. Compilers who referenced from whom (or what- with regards to print sources) they obtained recipes, from where, and when, demonstrate the significance of references in documenting a recipe’s credibility and the complexity of social networks used to send and receive medical knowledge.