Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!

 

Teaching Recipes as Pattern Recognition

By Rob Wakeman, Mount Saint Mary College

In the throes of research, we often compile so much information we don’t know what to do with it. It’s not our fault, really. Working with recipe books takes us into so many wonderfully strange and intriguing corners of early modern material culture — it’s hard not to want to write about them all. I end up making circuitous spreadsheets of recipes, long meandering catalogs befitting an early modern naturalist. And so, during this summer’s research project, on migratory freshwater fish in seventeenth-century England, it often felt like I was looking at something akin to John Milton’s description of the River Trent, that

Earth-born giant [who] spreads /

His thirty arms along th’indented meads

At a Vacation Exercise, (ll. 93-94).

How do I get my hands around this monster? What do I do with these lists of fish? How does one make sense of this tangle of umber and umbrana, pike and pickerel, roach and loach, turbot and burbot?

Illustration from Mary Boutell, “Picture Natural History”, no. 224 (1869): The Pike-perch – sander. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately, I had help. Mount Saint Mary College provides excellent support for students who want to do research with faculty, offering a stipend and free summer housing. This summer two Mount students, Annalise and Tori, applied to work with me. Both students came in with a good background in early modern paleography. In addition to regularly participating in EMROC Transcribathons, Tori took my History of the English Language course, which features a paleography module as a key component, and Annalise completed an independent study on early modern neonatal medicine with me.

Although both Annalise and Tori have found paleography and the history of medicine useful in their respective museology and clinical psychology internships, I understand that most of my students generally do not find the study of recipes to be a “practical” application of the learning. Paleography and textual editing don’t directly relate to many to postgraduate plans or career goals, which tend to be pretty far afield from the literature and culture of the seventeenth century.

For that reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how the skills we learn through the examination of manuscript recipe books can translate to other fields… The careful patience and attention to detail required in the transcribing and editing of text… The creative problem solving necessary for the deduction of meaning and intent… The agility needed to place individual recipes in a larger cultural context, to connect the part to the whole and see the big picture through the particular example…

Going fishing in the archives… Frontispiece from Richard Brookes, The Art of Angling (1790). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But perhaps most of all, we talk about pattern recognition. What can you see that others might miss? How do the hidden patterns in recipes’ formal arrangement, lists of ingredients, and methods of preparation add up to something significant? Careful attention to the subtle structures of meaning is one of the most important skills we cultivate in the literature classroom, and recipe book culture offers a fertile field for this kind of analysis.

Compared with most of the literary texts we read in my class, the recipe books that we examine don’t come with a robust editorial apparatus that helps make sense of what they’re reading. Without an editor’s footlights to guide them, students have to pare down a massive amount of data into an intelligible pattern on their own. If we spend enough time comparing recipes, we learn how to read them on their own terms – why these ingredients are grouped together, why these sauces go with this meat, why this attribution is significant, and so forth. We did contextualize our research by reading a few articles each week, but ultimately this is an opportunity for students to devise for themselves the stories that can be told about recipe culture in early modern England.

Throughout the summer, the three of us met twice a week for six hours at a time to dig through manuscripts and discuss our findings. We don’t have institutional access to EEBO, ECCO, or Project Muse. And we don’t have any recipe books of our own in rare books collection. But thankfully many research libraries — such as the Folger, Iowa, UCLA, UPenn, the Wellcome —  have digitized many of their manuscript recipe books. Even though our college has limited research resources, online access to these archives gives students the valuable opportunity to work with primary source materials. We are also lucky enough to be a short train ride away from one of the great public libraries in the world. A New York Public Library card not only gives students access to a range of databases free of charge, it also allows them to work with the Whitney Cookery Collection.

Over ten weeks, we ended up examining 101 manuscript recipe books and twenty-eight printed cookbooks that dated from 1380 to 1780. We transcribed and analyzed 584 freshwater fish recipes in total.

Fish pies, image from Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (1660).

Emerging patterns in sturgeon recipes proved to be one of our most interesting findings, as we noticed they became much more common after 1660. Initially, I thought this could be explained by the influence of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), with its parade of thirty-three recipes for sturgeon baked, boiled, braised, fileted, forced, fried, soused, stewed, and stuffed. But while print cookbooks show a remarkable variety of preparations for fresh sturgeon, the manuscript recipes we found were almost exclusively pickles, perhaps a side effect of increased imports of sturgeon in brine barrels from Russia and North American colonies. Doubtlessly at play, as well, is a Restoration nostalgia for the royal feasts of yesteryear.

Sturgeon, in Rev. W. Houghton, British fresh water fishes (illus. A. F. Lydon), 1879. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons and Biodiversity Library.

The late-seventeenth century yearning for sturgeon – an expensive fish uncommon in English waters – can also be seen in a set of recipes for dishes “pickled like sturgeon.” The earliest of the sixteen such recipes that we came across were in the The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669): “to souce turkeys” tied “up in the manner of Sturgeon” and another for an “Excellent Meat of Goose or Turkey” put “into pickle, like Sturgeon-pickle.” Turkey is the most common substitute for sturgeon in these recipes, but salmon, turbot, veal, and calf’s head are also transformed into “artificial sturgeon.”

But these recipes were also met with some trepidation. Annalise hit upon a recipe for “Artificiall Stergon” in the cookery book of Lettis Vesey (Folger MS W.b.456, fols. 140-41). Following instructions to pickle a turbot or turkey, Vesey admits,

I like sturgon very well but I dont know how I should like this.

Recipe collectors clearly gathered together many recipes despite not knowing how many would be useful for their endeavors. In humanities research, we often find ourselves embracing that same spirit, following the interesting and intriguing instead of the obvious as we search for emerging patterns that others have missed.

Stockfish and the Texture of Trust in the Early Modern Period

Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By Jack B. Bouchard

Stockvisch muss man bleüwen – One must beat stockfish” declared Balthasar Staindl in the first line of a lengthy entry on cooking cod in his 1544 Kochbuch.[1] Wielding a blunt instrument, the sixteenth century cook was meant to hammer away at the flesh of a desiccated, full-length codfish until it was soft enough to soak in water. For this reason many markets sold purpose-made stockfish hammers, which regularly appear in early modern household inventories and ship cargo manifests. Hammering away at the dried flesh of what was once a living, deep-sea fish broke it down the fibers and made it easier for them to absorb water. So common was the practice that in Venice imported, dried stockfish was popularly known as battuto, “beaten,” derived from the word battere, ‘to beat.’[2] Here was a food which made you grapple with texture in a direct way: to eat it you had to beat it.

Though today it is overshadowed by its salt-cured cousin bacalao, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a kind of preserved fish called “stockfish,” literally a fish like a stock of wood, was amongst the most widely consumed proteins in northern Europe. In the widespread consumption of stockfish we can see that texture was not merely an ancillary consideration, a factor of taste, for early modern diners. Texture itself carried information about nutrition and was valued on its own terms. The dryness of stockfish conveyed that it was a manmade, preserved kind of meat, one which could be relied upon to stay edible for a long time. You could trust your battuto precisely because of its hard, unyielding texture.

Cod, which lives in the far north Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland, was important to households and military contractors alike because its oil-free flesh was easy to dry for preservation. Stockfish was a kind of codfish which could only be made at very northern latitudes, such as Norway and Iceland, where the cold winters and windy coasts made air-drying possible. Whole fish were headed, gutted and split open before being left outside on racks. The cold winds, alternating with sunlight, effectively freeze-dried the fish. The result was a board-like fish mummy, rock-hard and tough, earning the popular nickname “buckhorne” in England for its resemblance to animal horn. Today in Nigeria stockfish is even sold as “okporoko,” so named for the sound the hard pieces of fish make as they clang against a metal pot. Freeze-dried cod were sold whole in the market, stacked like logs or hung on walls, and were instantly recognizable to early modern consumers thanks to their long, thin shape. A seventeenth-century Dutch painting shows stockfish being wielded like a club by a group of monks – like a stick of wood, it could be used as a weapon.

To sixteenth-century consumers, it was the texture of stockfish which mattered more than its taste. Stockfish meat was thought too bland to be nutritious by many experts, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, but this was compensated for by its unusual physical nature. It was from its hard, dry consistency that the food derived its most important quality, that of durability. Cod which had been transformed into stockfish resisted decay in a manner that was unusual, even unnatural, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English sources sometimes called it pessoun dure (poisson dur, hard fish), or even winterfish, so-called for its ability to last throughout the cold months when other food had spoiled.[3] Without water it could not rot, mold or putrefy. Where most fish would rot in a matter of days, stockfish could be trusted to last not merely months but years before going bad, and it could be shipped over vast distances. Though coming from Norway and Iceland it was popular as far as Budapest, Rome and Seville. In an age of food insecurity and uncertainty these qualities were much-prized and sought out by consumers, creating a pan-European culture of stockfish cookery by the early sixteenth century.

But that trust came at a cost, for processed cod like stockfish could not be consumed directly, but rather underwent a texture-reversing treatment which could border on the violent – it had to be made battuto before it was ready to be eaten. Cooks learned that beating, soaking and burning the freeze-dried cod produced a softer, moist fish which could be boiled, roasted, mashed or fried. The hard texture had to be forcibly altered through hammering and soaking. In English, the process was described as ‘weakening’ the fish, and partially soaked stockfish was known as wokedfish (i.e. weakened-fish) in fifteenth century London.[4] To speed up soaking, the German cookbook of Sabina Welseren called for adding caustic lye to the water, and in the sixteenth century Hanse merchants sold lye-soaked cod dressed with mustard on the wharves of London.[5] Too much lye could even create something entirely different from dry or soaked fish, a gelatinous and translucent lutfisk which was popular around the Baltic. But if its rigidity could be weakened, the artificial texture could not be entirely eliminated. Resuscitated stockfish would never quite be like fresh fish, and always remained firmer, more fibrous and denser than the real thing. Each bite was an inescapable reminder of a food which had been processed and remade by humans.

[1] Baltasar Staindl. Ain künstlichs und nützlichs Kochbuch. (Germany: 1547). 22.

[2] This is known from a reference made by the Venetian merchant Alessandro Magno while visiting London in 1561, “un certo pesco seco che viene dalle Indie, e chiamano stofis, che vien a dire in nostra lengua battuto, et altramente si chiamano Bacalari.”  Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a. 259. “Account of Alessandro Magno’s journeys to Cyrpus, Egypt, Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Brescia, 1557-1565.” fol. 176.

[3] Examples can be found throughout: C.M. Woolgar. Household Accounts from Medieval England. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] Laura Wright. Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). 102-105.

[5] A transcription of Sabina Welserin’s book, dated to 1555, can be found at: http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/sawe.htm. For the description of Hanse merchant, see: Thomas Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation. (London : Thomas Newcomb, 1655). 262.

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018, and currently contributes to the Before Farm to Table team’s ongoing efforts to explore, through publicly-oriented research and programming, evolving food cultures and thought in early modern Europe. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve fish consumption and maritime food production in early modern Europe, as well as the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic.

The Ichthyologist’s Garden

By Didi van Trijp  and Robbert Striekwold

On a gloriously sunny day in May we rang the doorbell of ichthyologist Martien van Oijen’s home in Leiden for a rather peculiar project. Even though the original plan had been to carry it out in a laboratory setting, on account of the beautiful weather we all agreed to move the project outside. In his garden, Martien had set up a table on which had been placed an array of equipment for dissection together with some specimens of red seabream that he had bought at the fish market that morning. The reason for all this? The replication of an eighteenth-century recipe for preserving fish skins.

The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.
The freshly bought breams. All images courtesy of the authors.

This method was developed by Johan Frederic Gronovius (1690–1762), a physician and botanist based in Leiden. He boasted an extensive cabinet with all sorts of naturalia ordered according to the Linnaean system. In his quest for collecting specimens he developed a method for drying and compressing fish skins that would allow one to glue them to the pages of a book – much like dried plants in a herbarium. He described this method in a letter to Peter Collinson, who read it at a meeting of the Royal Society and had it published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1742.[1] Compared to other ways of preserving fishes Gronovius’ method was quite easy and affordable, as few materials were needed. The only requirements were a pair of scissors, wooden plates, a linen cloth, ‘minikin pins’, and cartridge paper. Thus, according to Gronovius, “in the space of 24 hours, the fish is prepared.”

We set out to replicate Gronovius’ method step by step, carefully documenting each act with photographs and taking extensive notes along the way.[2] The first order of business was to cut the fish open with a pair of scissors, while making sure that the fins were not accidentally destroyed.

Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.
Cutting the fish open. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then most of its right half and all of the intestines were removed, which resulted in a rather gruesome sight.

Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.
Completely dissected. All images courtesy of the authors.

Then we washed the left half and patted it dry with a linen cloth. After spreading the fins with pins, we exposed the half fish to the sun so that it could dry further (in the absence of sun, Gronovius recommended exposing it to the hearth).

Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.
Spreading the fins. All images courtesy of the authors.

We noticed fairly soon that some of the steps were not entirely clear to us. For one, what to do about the impressive swarm of flies that instantly flocked to the carcass once it was laid out to dry?

Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.
Swarming flies. All images courtesy of the authors.

Most importantly, although Gronovius said the skin could be separated from the flesh “with very little trouble” after the drying step, it took considerable effort to do so. This may have to do with the fact that some of the steps are described in a somewhat ambiguous manner. We interpreted the step telling us the “back-bones are then to be cut asunder” to mean that the backbone should be cut but not removed.

Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.
Drying the inside of the fish. All images courtesy of the authors.

After drying, however, these bones were very hard to remove, so we now think the entire backbone should be discarded before the drying step. Subsequent attempts with new specimens should shed more light on these issues.

The replication of this method is proving to be very insightful by giving us first-hand experience with a pertinent aspect of our respective projects: the preservation of fish specimens so that they could be collected, circulated, stored and classified. Fishes were notoriously difficult to preserve, losing their shapes, colours, textures, and often spoiling despite the collector’s best efforts to prevent these processes. So far, Gronovius’ method has indeed proven to be very quick and remarkably doable, and it appears to preserve the fish in very good shape, although we are not quite done with it yet.

After removing the dried flesh, the skin was placed between paper and left under a press overnight.

Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.
Pressing of fish skin between paper. All images courtesy of the authors.

The next morning an elegantly flattened half-fish came out that would have done Gronovius proud.

Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.
Result (sans varnish). All images courtesy of the authors.

Unfortunately, it did not smell quite as good as it looked. Our next step will be to use the recipe for a particular varnish that has been written up by Gronovius in a letter to one of his correspondents after having received a number of rotting fish skins. If all goes well, this should remedy the stench of the specimen – now safely stored in the freezer awaiting further treatment – and keep it in its current unspoilt state for many decades.

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1
J.F. Gronovius, ‘A Method of preparing Specimens of Fish, by drying their Skins, as practised by John Frid. Gronovius M.D. in Leyden’ in Philosophical Transactions 42 (1742) 57-58.

[2] Robbert did the dissecting, Didi the documentation.

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