In today’s post, graduate student Samantha Eadie discusses her experiences developing the recent University of Toronto exhibit Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada, which we featured here on the Recipes Project in May 2018.
At the conclusion of my first year of graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, I was invited to be a student contributor for the exhibition Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. Having previously served as a Research Assistant for the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Irina Mihalache, I knew this would be a wonderful opportunity to expand my understanding of interpretation and exhibition development. I did not realize at the outset of this project that my participation would teach me about so much more than museological work; most notably about the value of recipes within cultural and historical analysis and their power as interpretive objects.
As one of the graduate research assistants, I undertook a variety of activities in the development of the exhibition, from contributing object interpretation, to designing display case layouts, to managing the projects of the undergraduate research assistants. When working with the undergraduate research assistants, I helped to organize and conduct several interviews (known as oral histories within the heritage field) focused on the history of two well-known Canadian cookbooks. Although the interviews were intended to focus on the cookbooks and the related historic experiences of the authors and their audiences, the personal stories of the narrators came to the fore. Though the cookbooks were discussed in measure, the stories I found most interesting focused on their own diverse culinary experiences, such as the continuation of family food traditions, the thrill of trying new ingredients and recipes, and the simple enjoyment of eating a favorite food. Hearing the words of the narrators left me with a feeling of connectedness, as, regardless of the generational gap that existed between us, I have shared their experiences as food holds deep meaning within my personal memories. Since food and cookbooks are part of our everyday experiences and social interactions, hearing these stories can ignite meaning and memory-making in a wide audience.
Establishing connections and developing meaning are important features of many contemporary museum exhibitions. This is achieved through the interpretation of museum objects (in this instance, cookbooks and ephemera) and archival records (including photographs and written documents), which intentionally draw on past experiences to create these memorable moments for audience members within the exhibition space. The inclusion of the aforementioned culinary stories in Mixed Messages, which were presented as both textual and oral content, served as one element of meaningful engagement. By focusing on the shared experiences of the narrators and utilizing the well-recognized medium of the cookbook, the curators were able to discuss the challenging topic of women’s agency in historic Canada, thus, critically reframing those memories and our engagement with the culinary content.
Having participated in this exhibition project has changed my understanding of Canadian cuisine. It has encouraged me to reflect upon my own use of cookbooks, recipes and ingredients, as well as the role family traditions serve within my own culinary experience. Moving forward in my career I will incorporate learned museological techniques into my practice, while the culinary and historical knowledge will continue to influence my personal life.
Mixed Message: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canadawas on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto from May 22nd, – August 17th, 2018. You can learn more about the exhibition by reading curator Liz Ridolfo’s blog post.
Every day my colleagues and I are asked by visitors to Colonial Williamsburg the following: “You aren’t REALLY cooking, are you?” The purpose of Historic Foodways is to do the work of eighteenth-century cooks by using and understanding the techniques, equipment, and recipes from the period. We do this by completing a 5-level apprenticeship that involves building and mastering a variety of skills and techniques, understanding how to use and care for a wide-range of equipment, and how to read and comprehend eighteenth-century cookbooks. Those of us who “do” this type of history can attest to the fact that the latter is the most challenging component for many new apprentices.
As readers of the Recipes Project will know, cookbooks of the eighteenth century were written differently than their modern counterparts, and, in our case, they provide context for understanding gentry households of the Colonial Era. The books were typically written by men and women who cooked for wealthy households including royalty. Recipes or receipts were written in paragraph form, usually with very little detail, or if there are details, they don’t always make sense to the modern reader. Often steps are referred to but not explained, and sometimes, a step or ingredient is left out. Modern cookbooks, as most people know, have every ingredient listed with precise measurements, and the instructions are listed in order and are usually detailed. When a new apprentice starts out in Level 1, he or she quickly finds out that reading a recipe also means trying to get into the mind of an eighteenth-century cook. While a recipe for fried potatoes sounds easy, the cooks needs to know the size of a crown piece in order to slice the potatoes the right thickness. And what is the end result supposed to look like? Smell like? Taste like? The recipe says stir until it is enough; WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
Why is utilizing the cookbooks of the period so important? As is true today, we can learn about what ingredients and flavor combinations were fashionable. For example, you can track how popular certain ingredients are over the course of the century based on how often they show up in new editions of certain books. This includes the increase in the use of sugar as the century progresses, as it becomes more affordable as a result of enslaved labor. In this way, cookbooks reveal the impact of global trade on food consumption. In wealthy households, cooks could obtain ingredients from all over the world.
In addition to revealing what foods were fashionable, certain cookbooks can also show practices around meals, such as how tables were set in the period. For example, Charles Carter’s The Complete Practical Cook (1730) has several suggestions for table settings.
In gentry households in the last half of the eighteenth century, everyone at the table was expected to know how to serve the food. They passed their dinner plates around, rather than passing platters of food. This encouraged conversation among guests. Dishes on each course were placed symmetrically around the table. Dining in such a way was daily for this class at this time. Today, big, fancy meals are saved for holidays and special occasions, but we still set the table a certain way and implement traditions unique to our families. Despite this, it seems that most people are fairly detached from their food. Most food today is not consumed in its place of origin and has been packaged for convenience. The average American does not have to dispatch, pluck, and gut a chicken before he or she eats it. Nor do many people know how to do any of those steps.
Cookbooks from the period not only give us recipes and table settings, but they also provide instructions for purchasing good quality meat and produce, how to process live fish and fowl purchased at market, as well as instructions for preserving food and what recipes are appropriate different times of the year. For example, fresh asparagus would not be on the table in January, but asparagus you pickled in May, when it was in season, could be. At Historic Foodways, we learn seasonality by studying the cookbooks and coordinating what we are making with what is growing in our garden. We also have to be aware of the fact that we are cooking in Tidewater Virginia, and most of the cookbooks we use were published in England. What is in season when is usually a little different, as are varieties of seafood and fowl. We learn to adapt accordingly, just at early Virginians did.
The cookbooks of the eighteenth century are essential to successfully completing the work of our trade. They provide us with the context needed to understand cooking, economics, trade, and politics of the period.
With the holiday season behind me, I am already reminiscing about my family’s recent celebrations and thinking ahead to next year. I have gathered recipes I would like to try next year, made notes about recipes that worked (and those that didn’t), and listed the menus of the many meals my husband and I hosted for friends and family. When I starting thinking about appropriate topics for a Recipes Project post, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to consider the 1420 Savoyard cookbook, Du fait de cuisine. In it, Master Chiquart Amiczo, the chef of Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, dictates seventy-eight recipes to a scribe, provides an extensive description of how to acquire food and provisions for days of feasting, and records a menu of one particular feast. In October 1403 Chiquart prepared two days of lavish feasts in honor of Mary of Burgundy. Although Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy had been contracted in marriage since 1393, due to a number of political complications the bride had not left her Burgundian home. The feast celebrated her arrival at the Savoy court when she would join Amadeus VIII’s household as his wife. Chiquart’s menu and notes on preparing for a feast describe a much grander event than any I might prepare during the holidays, but the intention is the same: describing a successful event so that one might remember it or even replicate it.
Despite being a very accessible medieval cookbook, Du fait de cuisine has had relatively little scholarly attention. This cookery exists in a single manuscript, held at the Médiathèque Valais in Sion, Switzerland (MS Supersaxo 103). While the manuscript has been digitized, Terence Scully has been the only scholar to devote significant attention to the book, producing a French edition and two English editions. Du fait de cuisine is particularly interesting when considered among the larger corpus of contemporary cookbooks. While there are many similarities among the recipes, the surrounding text is remarkably different from most contemporary Continental and English cookbooks.
First among these differences is the amount of text and detail provided to the appointment of a kitchen for a feast. Folios 12r to 18v are devoted to this topic; Chiquart describes the necessary kitchen staff, how to order food from various purveyors, how much food to order, the vessels and equipment necessary for cooking, and the proper serving dishes. This section seems to be an attempt at describing the art of the kitchen, part of the aim of Du fait de cuisine. The only other medieval cookery with such an extensive section on these aspects of the cooking process is LeMénagier de Paris, produced in 1390s Paris for a wealthy administrative, but not noble, household. [For more on the Ménagier de Paris, see my previous Recipes Project post on “A November Feast.”]
Du fait de cuisine stands apart from contemporary texts in the level of detail included in the recipes. Many fit on a single folio, but others span up to eight folios. Other cookbooks describing lavish entremets, like the Viandier of Taillevent pale in comparison to the description of the final products. Chiquart’s creations of performative, edible art come alive on the page; even without illustrations, it is easy to imagine his castle with four lighted towers defended by various soldiers. Characters breathing fire are part of the creation, as well as a Fountain of Love spouting rosewater and mulled wine. Roasted and redressed peacocks and hedgehogs also make an appearance. As if this weren’t enough, Chiquart’s glorious entremets includes a faux sea filled with ships attacking the aforementioned castle. The entremet is naturally accompanied by a small group of musicians. Each aspect is described in such a manner that it can be replicated, provided that the cook has some knowledge of creating pastry and sugar and meat pastes which constituted the basis of construction.
Another difference is a variety of brief texts that Chiquart includes after the culinary recipes. This includes a verse the Chiquart composed to honor Amadeus VIII and his family on fols. 107v to 109r and several other types of brief writings on the final nine folios. These are mainly non-culinary writings, including a verse against the plague, a note on Virgil’s Georgics, and several aphorisms. It is not unusual to find such an array of writings alongside cookery books in late medieval manuscripts, especially in English manuscripts. Du fait de cuisine is unique in its inclusion of these items within the cookbook itself, seemingly at the request of the author, self-described as lacking learning and wit (“n’ay grand science ne sens”). I find these elements one of the most intriguing of the cookery and deserving of much more exploration.
A final difference is the menu of the feast in honor of Mary of Burgundy. Many medieval cookbooks provide generic menu suggestions or menus for unspecified events, and many non-culinary records provide menus for historically important feasts. However, relatively few cookbooks include menus for actual events. Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy’s wedding feast was certainly a magnificent affair and a significant event in the House of Savoy. Mary was the eighth child of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret III. Philip the Bold had arranged Mary’s marriage to solidify a political alliance to Savoy in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. The bride was only seven when her marriage was contracted; she would not arrive at the Savoy court for another ten years. While the alliance was only initially important to the House of Burgundy, the Savoy court benefitted greatly from this alliance. Amadeus VIII needed to welcome his bride to Savoy with all the opulence he could muster. His chef was tasked with preparing two days of lavish feasting to accomplish the goals of proving his wealth and status to his new bride and her family.
The fact that Chiquart recorded an account of the wedding feast seventeen years after the event is quite interesting; this is the only specific event the author describes. While Chiquart was evidently asked by Amadeus VIII to write the cookbook as a compendium of culinary knowledge, Chiquart does not provide any reason for recording the wedding events at the end of the cookbook. The menu is also written after what seems to be the original ending, the poem glorifying and thanking Chiquart’s employing household. I wonder if it was associated with the birth of Amadeus and Mary’s ninth and final child in 1420; perhaps the pregnancy or birth was particularly difficult, and Chiquart attempted to garner favor with his lord by crafting a glorious recollection of Mary’s arrival in Savoy after his original culinary text was complete. However, my guess is merely that, as the text does not indicate a specific intent.
Du fait de cuisine is an imaginative and detailed record of culinary information. There is much to explore in its similarities to and differences from other contemporary texts. For the moment, however, I take heart that some of my post-holiday recordkeeping habits are a bit like Master Chiquart’s.
 Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Reprint, Boydell Press, 2002), 89.
 Terence Scully, “Du fait de cuisine,” Vallesia 40 (1985): 103–231; Chiquart’s On Cookery: A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (P. Lang, 1986); and Du fait de cuisine / On Cookery of Master Chiquart (1420): “Aucune science de l’art de cuysinerie et de cuisine” (ACMRS, 2010). Another French edition was also published: Florence Bouas and Frédéric Vivas, eds., Du fait de cuisine: Traité de gastronomie médiévale de Maître Chiquart (Actes Sud, 2008).
 Sion, Switzerland, Médiathèque Valais, MS Supersaxo 103, fol. 11r.
 S 103, fols. 30r–33r.
 S 103, fol. 108v.
 S 103, 111v–114v.
 A couple exceptions are the Ménagier de Paris (multiple manuscript copies) and London, British Library, MS Harley 279.
In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 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, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.
After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)
Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.
The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)
For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.
(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377