By Katie Kadue
Recipes for food preservation document the fight against oblivion. All recipes are mnemonic: they function both as technical reminders and as records of past practices, passed down as “receipts,” as they were called in early modern England, from one generation to the next. But some early modern recipes proposed a more literal form of re-membering, promising to reverse the process of decay and return organic materials to their previous, livelier states.
Consider a recipe from Hannah Woolley’s evocatively titled The Queen-like Closet, or Rich Cabinet, stored with all manner of rare receipts for preserving, candying, and cookery, first published in 1670. This recipe for “Walnut water, or the Water of Life,” describes how to gather and distill green walnuts and “keep” the resulting liquid before proceeding to catalog its many “virtues,” concluding:
It is good for all infirmities of the Body, and driveth out all Corruption, and inward Bruises … ; whosoever drinketh much of it, shall live so long as Nature shall continue in him.
Finally, if you have any Wine that is turned, put in a little Viol or Glass full of it, and keep it close stopped, and within four days it will come to it self again.
If in a way the walnut water memorializes, in distilled form, the walnuts gathered in the summer for months or years to come, it also “driveth out all Corruption” and so recalls human bodies to healthier versions of themselves. Even soured wine can benefit from this panacea: “within four days it will come to it self again.” Despite a timeline similar to that between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, this is less resurrection than correction, as if the turned wine had merely forgotten itself and needed to be given smelling salts to come back to its senses.
This ordinary miracle of physical remembrance encoded in recipes, the promise that bodies and other matter can overcome the degradation of time and come to themselves again, was also a subject of fascination for poets like Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene (1590–96) frequently depicts characters who forget themselves and can only be brought back to life and cognition through the interventions of something like culinary or medicinal preservation.
In book I, the knight Redcrosse, scorched by a dragon, falls backward into a “well of life” that recalls Woolley’s “water of life”: he marinates there overnight and emerges in the morning as a “new-borne knight,” “drenched” from the thorough steeping, like rehydrated fruit, or like the dried artichokes that one recipe in John Nott’s Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary (1723) promises “will come to themselves, and be as fresh as at first,” when soaked in warm water. Having slept it off, the next day Redcrosse is again knocked out by the dragon, and—rinse and repeat—he again revives, this time thanks to the virtues of a healing “Balme” not unlike those described in contemporary recipe books, except this one trickles down directly from the tree of life.
In book III of Spenser’s poem, at the heart of the Garden of Adonis, we learn that this place is peopled by lovers—Hyacinthus, Narcissus—who have metamorphosed into “fresh” flowers and “to whom sweet Poets verse hath giuen endlesse date”: the memorialization of men being, after all, one of the primary functions of poetry since Homer. But a more mundane and domestic art of memory is also at work here. Adonis, having been impaled by a boar, undergoes a similar reconstitution as Redcrosse when his caregiver Venus thoroughly seasons him with “flowres and pretious spycery,” making his body like the sugared flowers that, in another of Woolley’s recipes, can be carefully arranged so that they “look as though they were new gathered.”
As a result of this spice regimen, Adonis—who corresponds, in Spenser’s allegory, to matter itself—will not altogether die; repeatedly brought back to himself, he will not, the poet assures us, be “forgot.” Like the authors of recipe collections, Spenser reminds us that both culinary techniques and writing have the capacity to recollect what would otherwise be scattered and lost.
Katie Kadue is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Her book, Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton, is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in fall 2021.