Recipe Books as Digital Feminist Archives

By Whitney Sperrazza, Rochester Institute of Technology

For sixteen weeks last fall, twelve University of Kansas students from a wide range of disciplines met at the Spencer Research Library to study, transcribe, and develop projects on one object from the library’s holdings: Elizabeth Dyke’s Booke of Recaits.[1]

I took this 232-page medicinal and culinary recipe book, dated 1668, as the foundation for a course on “Digital Feminist Archives” because this text, like all early women’s recipe books, has much to teach us about all three of these terms. In this post, I take my course’s title as a prompt to consider why recipe books are so useful for teaching at and about the intersections of archival, digital, and feminist practices.

Archives

Dyke’s Booke of Recaits contains over 700 recipes, many of which will sound familiar to Recipes Project readers.[2] You’ll find remedies for headaches, advice on using rose water to prevent the plague, and many, many recipes on preserving fruits. But, as we know, early women’s recipe books are so much more than historical recipe archives—and this manuscript is no different. Dyke’s Booke is a document of familial and social networks and a record of cultural practices.

“Elizabeth Dyke, her Booke of Recaits 1668.” Kenneth Spencer Research Library MS D157. Image Credit: Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

On the manuscript’s opening page (above), several women catalogued their ownership of the book—Sarah Dyke, Dorothy Dyke, Elizabeth Dodsworth—suggesting that the text was passed down through the family’s female line. Like many surviving recipe books from the period, the titles of the recipes themselves also include names of women and men, either to note the original creator of the recipe (“Lady Rivers’ recipe for orange or lemon cakes”) or to mark the recipe’s effectiveness (“A very good green salve and ointment proved often times by goodwife Wesens”).

The networks preserved within this archival object not only became the basis for many classroom discussions, but also a model for the networks created and cultivated by our engagement with Dyke’s manuscript. The course attracted students from a variety of disciplines—English, History, Theater, Museum Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—as if the recipe book had inherent interdisciplinary powers. The course structure also created space for collaboration and new networks between faculty, staff, and students that changed how students engaged with the “archive.” Our close work with Elspeth Healey, Spencer Research Librarian, and Whitney Baker, Spencer Conservationist, gave students the chance to experience first-hand the complex work of special collections librarians and archivists.

Digital

The Recipes Project, along with the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective and Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell’s Cooking in the Archives, provide excellent evidence of how recipe books can be incorporated into digital pedagogy. Drawing on teaching resources from all three projects, I structured “Digital Feminist Archives” as a workshop class. For the first eight weeks, students produced a collective transcription of Dyke’s manuscript and, for the second eight weeks, they designed and developed digital project prototypes focused on the manuscript.

I framed our hands-on work with Dyke’s manuscript with readings on feminist archival theory and feminist digital critique—readings that helped the students think humanistically and critically about the decisions we were making in our digital practice. This was the first “digital humanities” course for many of the students, but that field-specific term came up rarely in our classroom. Students were practicing the very best kind of digital humanities work without having to talk too much about it. Translating a physical archival object into a digital archive, the students gained digital skills while interrogating the digital translation process as part of that skill building.

“WebED.” Project Credit: Gwyn Bourlakov, Yee-Lum Mak, and Elissa Rondeau.

The students’ thoughtful critical thinking manifested in their final project prototypes, which included a study of Dyke’s medicinal recipes as a crowd-sourced ailments and remedies platform modeled on WebMD (above). Another group used MapHub to create a mapping tool that tracked the trajectories of Dyke’s main ingredients, allowing users to study the cultural and environmental impacts and influences of Dyke’s recipes (below).

“Mapping Elizabeth Dyke’s Recipes.” Project Credit: Brianna Blackwell, Mallory Harrell, and Kate Schroeder.

Feminist

The combination of early women’s recipe books and digital project development offers a chance to merge theory and practice in the classroom, a central tenet of both digital and feminist pedagogy.

Even more crucially, the embodied materiality of recipe books keeps the body at the center of digital training for students. Recipe books record the daily activities of women’s bodies. In a recipe for soft milk cheese, for example, Dyke explains that the cheese must be left to dry out in “very dry” grass, leaves, or nettles for 2-3 days, with the wrapping cloth changed daily. This description conjures women’s bodies moving through a garden with a pile of thin cloths, unwrapping and rewrapping blocks of soft cheese in the morning sun. Recipe books also prompt us to use our bodies actively as we read, whether by recreating culinary recipes (as some students in “Digital Feminist Archives” did) or by thinking about the various effects medicinal recipes could have on our bodies.

As we translated Dyke’s physical text into digital environments, the manuscript constantly reminded us to keep the body at the center of our decisions for transcription and project design. The students’ WebEd project started with a question about how bodies interact with digital spaces. What digital platform provides the most flexibility, multiple ways in depending on how that person thinks about their own body? The students’ cooking project started with questions about taste: will Dyke’s recipes taste the same now as they did in the late 17th century? how does taste transfer across time?

Culture and media scholar Kate Eichhorn defines the feminist archive as a “site and practice integral to knowledge making, cultural production, and activism.”[3] In “Digital Feminist Archives,” students debated the politics of access surrounding special collections libraries, studied the relationship between women’s household recipes and the histories of western medicine, and made new knowledge as they decided how best to translate Dyke’s manuscript into digital space.

In “Digital Feminist Archives,” Dyke’s recipe book invited the students and me into an interdisciplinary space of both theory and practice. What does your version of such a space look like and how have early women’s recipes helped you create it?

Notes

[1] A big thank you to the fabulous “Digital Feminist Archive” students: Brianna Blackwell, Gwyn Bourlakov, Mallory Harrell, Yee-Lum Mak, Jodi Moore, Sarah Polo, Elissa Rondeau, Kate Schroeder, Phoenix Schroeder, Suzanne Tanner, Rachel Trusty, and Chris Wright. And my sincerest gratitude to everyone at KU who worked hard to make this class possible and offered support for the students’ work at various stages: Elspeth Healey, Brian Rosenblum, Whitney Baker, Jocelyn Wehr, Erin Wolfe, Jonathan Lamb, and Scott Hanrath.

[2] The Spencer Research Library acquired the manuscript in 1977 from UK bookseller, Henry Bristow Ltd. While the manuscript has long been available for visitors to the Spencer, it is now available as part of the KU Libraries digital collections and as fully searchable text on the course website thanks to the hard work of the students listed above.

[3] Kate Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order, 3.