The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence

By Katherine Allen

In this post I would like to link several themes that have been explored on this blog recently: recipe exchanges, letters, and the role of emotions. Historians are frequently asked how compilers got their recipes (something that Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche raised in their post on the Countess of Exeter). In other words, we are continually searching for evidence from recipe books that suggests a wider network of information exchange.

In the case of eighteenth-century recipe books, attributions and marginalia can indicate an exchange, though these are often ambiguous. Occasionally longer anecdotes are included, revealing the circumstances of a specific recipe’s inclusion. Rarer still, letters associated with a recipe book can provide significant insight into the compiler’s health history, or domestic duties, as discussed by Elaine Leong in her recent post on Johanna St. John. Some sets of letters that are not associated with a recipe book can still tell us much about the creation and use of recipe books, as well as domestic medical care’s social milieu.

One collection of mid-eighteenth century letters that I am using in my doctoral research belonged to the Cox family, landed gentry based in Herefordshire. The majority of the letters are addressed to the elderly family benefactress, Mrs. Elizabeth Witherstone. Montserrat Cabré recently proposed that exchanging and preserving recipes can be emotionally charged. In the typical recipe collection, emotions and hidden lives are not always transparent, but they do emerge in letters that discuss recipe exchange.

Letters were crucial for keeping up-to-date on the extended family’s wellbeing and life events, and the Cox family kept each other informed about health matters in very intimate detail. Concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s poor health, cousin Alicia Cox wrote ‘let me beg you to take care of your health, kitchen physick as Broaths, and Jellys, are the best medicines at your time of life’.[1] Mrs. Witherstone also occasionally exchanged letters containing recipes. An acquaintance, S. Phillips, thanked Mrs. Witherstone for sending a receipt of ‘Turner’s Cerate’ for her mother’s leg. In exchange, she included a recipe for the Chin Cough, which she had used for her children and was ‘of great service to them’. This remedy was an ointment of spirit of hartshorne and powdered amber, which was to be rubbed on the children’s palms, soles of their feet, and pits of their stomachs for several days, morning and night.[2]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756
Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756

In a follow-up letter, Mrs. Phillips again thanked Mrs. Witherstone for the Cerate recipe, proclaiming that her mother thought ‘it has been of great use to her for thank god she has now little or no pain. She did not put it on just on the place of the wound’.[3]

Mrs. Witherstone’s family also sent her remedies to preserve her health in old age. Upon receiving an account of Mrs. Witherstone’s illness, Alicia Bund [Cox] concluded that the woman’s blood was poor and her frame ‘languid’; restorative medicines would be beneficial. She wrote: ‘I beg you would make trial of, its recommendation is the nurrishment it affords at the same time it never loads the stomach’. Alicia’s recipe for a restorative broth was as follows:

You must get a tin can to hold about a pint & quarter with a cover to it, for it is to be  done by a slow infusion the least boiling spoils it but I will set it down as particularly as I can. Take half a pound of lean Beef cut into small pieces and pick of[f] every bit of skin and fat and put a pint of boiling water to it and let it gently stew it is reduced to a strong broath. Put in 3 or 4 pepper corns but no salt till you drink it and eat with it a bit of  toasted bread and would advice (if it agrees) to make it your Breakfast and supper.[4]

Another relative, Elizabeth Saunders, was also concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s health and recommended an eye drop remedy that she described as ‘trifling but I have known it of use’. Confident of the remedy’s efficacy she concluded ‘I hope your next Letter will bring better News of your Eyes as you have no pain in them I flatter myself the complaint may get of the sooner.’[5]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Exchanging remedies was evidently an important part of the Cox family’s lives and these letters exemplify how the responsibility of family health care extended beyond each household to include the advice and remedies of concerned relatives and friends.

Letters are valuable resources for revealing the exchange process of a recipe’s history and the close relationship that recipe books had with the letter-writing tradition. Within these letters, expressions of authority, sympathy, hope, and desperation bring out the emotionally charged nature of recipes. Letters can provide recipe historians with a more complete picture of approaches to health care among England’s upper sorts, and they are important supporting documents for understanding the place of recipe books in a wider information exchange.


[1] Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone July 5 [no year]’.

[2] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756’.

[3] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone May 25, 1756’.

[4] Ibid., ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone Jan 11, [no year]’.

[5] Ibid., ‘Eliz Saunders to Mrs Witherstone March 27 [no year]’.

The Recipe Collection of the Last Medici Princess

By Ashley Buchanan

Two summers ago in the state archive of Florence I discovered, filed under the heading of “miscellaneous Medici,” a simple sleeve which held a collection of over 200 recipes that belonged to the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743). Born in 1667 in Florence, Anna Maria Luisa was the only daughter and second child of Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Marguerite Louise d’Orléans. In 1691, she was married to Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz (1658-1716), Elector Palatine. She lived in Düsseldorf, her husband’s capital, until his death in 1716. A year later Anna Maria Luisa returned to her native Florence. During her twenty-six year absence neither of her brothers, Ferdinando or Gian Gastone, produced a Medici heir. With the death of her father and both of her brothers, Anna Maria Luisa became the last Medici.

Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Electress Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici by Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of recipes covered topics as diverse as rare paint colors, desserts, fever waters, concoctions to control epilepsy and lung inflammation, and even forms of lapidary medicine. One rather strange recipe to control infant convulsions or a periodic fever (terzana) detailed how to make a powder from the precipitation of a pulverized skull of a man who died violently but was never buried, oriental pearls, red and white coral, yellow amber, and peony roots and seeds. Another simply prescribed female rhino blood for strokes and general blood flow, and yet another recipe recommended the vaginal insertion of St. Ignatius beans to “lower the monster of women.”[1]

Intrigued at what I had uncovered, I read on. I found that many of the recipes were straightforward directions for combining listed ingredients, like the infant convulsion powder, while others incorporated more complex alchemical techniques such as steeping, pulverizing, fermentation, and distillation. One of the recipes for fever water (acqua da febbre) called for the creation of a poisonous plant tincture and distillation of sulfur. The recipe then instructed to mix one ounce of each with Capraggine water (made from a European shrub) and leave it sealed to ferment in the sun for two days.

Pieces of folded paper and letters of correspondence grouped many of the recipes within the collection, making a few distinct categories apparent—techniques to create rare or secret paint colors and dye marble, the whitening of silks and lace, culinary recipes, and medicinal recipes and therapeutics. The sequential and identical page numbers penciled in at the top of every page indicated that these categories were the product of later archivists.

In addition to recipes for fever water, perfumes, and ointments, directions for applying balsams, and therapeutics for epilepsy and pleurisy (lung pain or inflammation), Anna Maria Luisa’s collection also included a lengthy and detailed Portuguese inventory of raw medicinal materials. This inventory not only listed materia medica, like roots and seeds from the Kingdom of Manica, beans from Manila, and “bread” from Timor, it also detailed the uses and virtues of each. Two pages, one written in Portuguese the other in Italian, were dedicated to the uses and virtues of Pietre Cordiali, or Goa Stones. The unknown author of the inventory explained that these stones, created by the lay Jesuit Gaspar Antonio, were the best heart medicines he had ever found, but could also be used to combat fevers, animal venom, poisons, and even kidney stones.

(Metmuseum.org), via Wikimedia Commons
Late 17th Century/Early 18th Century Goa Stone and container, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Metmuseum.org), via Wikimedia Commons

After reading through her collection, it was clear that Anna Maria Luisa collected recipes from her family’s ducal pharmacy (some of the recipes credit the Medici fonderia or are stamped with the Medici crest), received and exchanged recipes via courtly epistolary networks, and gathered exotic raw medicinal materials through Italian and Portuguese trade networks and Jesuit missionaries. As I read through the inventories of raw materials, it became apparent that Anna Maria Luisa’s collection was not only the product of European courtly customs, but was also connected to exploration, colonial expansion, and global exchanges through trade and missionary commerce, all of which facilitated the movement of people, things, and knowledge. 

Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes have become the foundation of my dissertation, which I have just begun researching. I look forward to sharing my findings as I search for what motivated Anna Maria Luisa to collect recipes, who (if anyone) she exchanged recipes with, and how she learned of the exotic raw materials she collected. On a larger scale, I hope this project offers the opportunity to study how people or groups outside institutional medicine contributed to the creation, dissemination, and legitimization of emerging scientific and medicinal knowledge. In this case, how did a Medici princess, courtly scientific patronage, Italian and Portuguese traders, Jesuit missionaries, and indigenous populations contributed to the discourse of early modern medicine through recipes?


[1] The rhino blood, presumably from Africa–“Dos Sangue d Abbada, Serve este sangue para cursos, e fluxos de sangue.” And the St. Ignatius beans from the Philippines–“Para fave (fazer) abaixar o menstro das molheres”