Tag Archives: Kristine Kowalchuk

The Recipe as Feminist Text: A Reflection on the Writing of Preserving on Paper

By Kristine Kowalchuk

Cover illustration of Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books. University of Toronto Press, 2017.

In writing Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, (University of Toronto Press, 2017) I found the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between often came to mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I have long been interested in food and language and the relationship between the two. The most obvious link is, of course, the recipe, but in my own postsecondary education, I always felt somewhat dissatisfied by the scholarship (or lack thereof) I encountered on these.

As a student of science and then of English, I noticed that recipes were either overlooked or disparaged in the courses I took. None of my biology teachers mentioned the role the recipe might have played in the formation of the scientific method (nor did they talk much about the historical context of science at all). And in my English courses, recipes, if considered, were regarded as a non-serious genre that could never be sufficiently contorted to fit literary expectations. Few academics at the time, it seemed, gave recipes much thought and no one seemed to know quite what to do with them. And I kept having this niggling feeling that we were missing something important.

During a graduate research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I accidentally called up a seventeenth-century receipt book. Serendipity! Holding the manuscript in my hands, I felt reverence…and also confusion. I had no paleographical training, so struggled with the recipes themselves, but it was clear there were many different forms of handwriting. Why so many? What explained all the marginal notes and attributions? Who was the author? Weren’t only a few women literate at the time? And what did the manuscripts say about the women themselves?

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 7v-8r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

I ultimately decided to focus on these manuscripts and their relationship to the women who wrote them for my doctoral dissertation (finally, a clear topic!), and I began an archaeological-like digging into the past to try to answer my questions above.

And finally, I stumbled upon the deep and diverse research happening by many scholars on recipes–including the same scholars who contribute to The Recipes Project. I learned how to read seventeenth-century handwriting. I read all kinds of helpful texts on the history of women’s literacy and physical work, on seventeenth-century food and farming, on Galenic understanding of human health and the virtues of plants, on kitchen tools and architecture.

Gradually, I began to piece together a better understanding of the period and of women’s work and writing within it. I completed and defended my dissertation and felt confident about my knowledge in this field of early women’s writing in English.

However, six months after I had successfully defended my dissertation and was teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the book, I was struck by an idea that changed my entire understanding of these manuscripts and of the recipe itself. We were discussing Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and I realized that my own modern assumptions about authorship and subjectivity and “literary” writing had led me, and many others, to miss the point entirely.

Receipt books did not reflect women’s oppression, nor, conversely, did they reflect the rise of modern subjectivity, because women were, until the seventeenth century, already the respected authorities on food and medicine.  Furthermore, they were collective keepers of this knowledge, rather than individual authors or owners. It is this culture, so very different than our own, that is preserved in receipt books – meaning they reflect an end of women’s wider authority rather than a beginning.

Patriarchal values of dominion over nature, individualism, and capitalism arose as new, male-dominated professions – chefs, doctors, and apothecaries – assumed individual authority over women’s collective knowledge and dismissed, ridiculed, and persecuted the women who persisted with special knowledge in food and medicine.

This is the history of the modern cultural view, and our inheritance of it today has caused most of us (including Foucault, who saw the “postauthor utopia” as occurring only in the future, not the past) to largely forget what came before, so that we have been complicit in the continued dismissal of, rather than pride in, both women’s traditional work and the not-so-humble recipe as the material form of this authority.

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 55v-56r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Our modern cultural outlook means we give Francis Bacon credit for creating the scientific method, even though women were cooking and curing at home long before men were performing experiments in labs (and many of us continue to believe that we might be objective observers of nature in the first place).

This culture regards traditional knowledge and household work as less valuable than academic knowledge and professional work. It marginalizes midwives and home care workers and mothers who breastfeed. It rewards celebrity chefs who collect traditional and “country” recipes and sell them in cookbooks under their own name. It subscribes to the cult of the single author. It regards recipes as unimportant. And it sees women’s traditional work as repressive, rather than recognizing its role governing the most critical cultural knowledge.

For this reason, as I say in Preserving on Paper, I see receipt books as “the ultimate feminist texts.”

I also can’t help but see how our cultural amnesia connects to current events related to women’s rights. To understand women’s struggles today, we need to look back and try to understand their origins. It is past time for all of us to deeply consider the particular historical construction of authority in the west, and to recognize that it once looked very different. A recipe for sugar puffs, say, or a remedy for an itch, might at first seem frivolous, but they are in fact windows into a world in which women’s collective authority was assumed.

That’s history worth remembering.

Searcing, Sieving, Sifting, and Straining in the Seventeenth Century

By Kristine Kowalchuk

“Take a pound of double refined sugar, searce it

through a tiffainey sieve….”

And so begins a recipe “To make sugar pufs.” As any scholar of early modern English cookery books can testify, the terms searce, sieve, sift, and strain come up with surprising frequency in recipes and remedies of the period. Those in the three manuscripts I focused on for my forthcoming critical edition, Recipes for Sharing, were no exception; searce comes up 28 times, in this spelling as well as scarce, scearce, scerck, search, seirce, serce and shvrch. Sieve comes up 33 times, including as cive, scive, sefe, seive, sieff, and sive. Sift comes up 29 times, and strain comes up no less than 129 times, usually as straine.

“To make sugar pufs,” from MS V.a.20 Image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC
“To make sugar pufs,” from MS V.a.20
Image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

What’s with all this searcing, sieving, sifting and straining? I thought I’d take a closer look at the instances of these terms in the manuscripts I focused on—Folger manuscript V.a.20 (otherwise known as the Receipt Book attributed to Constance Hall, and the source of the sugar puff recipe above), Folger MS V.a.430 (Receipt Book attributed to Mary Granville and Anne Granville D’Ewes), and Folger MS V.a.450 (Cookery and Medical Receipt Book attributed to Lettice Pudsey)—to see if I could, well, sift out any specificities. Or should I say searce?

While one might at least assume that sifting, and the historical term searcing, are for dry ingredients, and straining for wet (to filter out solids)—indeed this is what the Oxford English Dictionary would have us believe—in practice the terms seem to have been more muddled. They are used as both nouns and verbs (the noun sieve being associated with the verb sift). They are also often used in combination, as is evident in the sugar puff example above. Likewise, a grated penny loaf is “searced through a siue” in “To make Mackaroones” (V.a.430). However, these terms could be reversed: “sift [sugar] with a fine searce,” appears in “To mack the best sort of beskett” (V.a.450). Searcing and sifting are both used for sugar (in various grades, from loaf sugar to double-refined), bread, spices and lead, although sifting is also used for wetter ingredients such as ginger and lady’s smock blossoms. Straining, meanwhile, while indeed called for when dealing with medicinal waters, creams, and juice for jellies, is also used for drier ingredients such as herbs, butter, bread, and horse dung. I also recalled perhaps the most intriguing instance of straining in all early modern recipes: the Countess of Kent’s oil for an ache in the sciatica, which calls for a boiled and strained middle-aged badger.

The material specified for each term in their use as nouns—as physical tools—does offer some distinction. While searces, sieves and strainers are all often indicated as being made of cloth, the specific cloths differ (the frames are not described, nor whether the cloth was simply stretched or tied over a bowl). Searce is sometimes specified as “searce-net,” or sarcenet, a very fine, soft silk, indicating the etymology of the original term. Sieves are often specified as linen, cotton or tiffany—and, commonly, as hair, meaning horse hair. Strainers were specified as linen, cotton or canvas. This progression from fine to course weave suggests different uses. And it seems the tools for the job were not always interchangeable. “To make a carrett pudding” (V.a.430) calls for the cook to “grate a penny loaf & sift/ it thro a sive cullender.”

A colander comes up in another instance in the manuscripts too, as does a mazarine, a deep plate pierced like a colander (but shallower). The tool that stumped me was in a recipe for “bottel water”: “drawe [the water] forth into your bottels through / a sriprius bagg that it may run cleare from the yeast &…spicess” (V.a.450). My hunch that “sriprius” linked to cypress was half-correct. But it took an online call-out via the South West Heritage Trust and the Rural Museum Network for a basket-weaver from Thornbury named Jenny Humphris to come forward and fill me in on Scirpus lacustris—the common English bulrush, which for centuries has been used in weaving of chair seats and baskets. Jenny writes at the end of her email, “PS the bag would have acted as a sieve.”

Modern English bulrush bags. Image courtesy of Ruby Taylor, http://www.nativehands.co.uk
Modern English bulrush bags.
Image courtesy of Ruby Taylor, http://www.nativehands.co.uk

So what to make of all this? Based on my three sources, searcing is for dry ingredients only, sifting mostly dry, and straining mostly wet, and the materials used for each provide a range in granularity, but there is significant overlap. But why all the soft food in the first place? Early modern cooks did have to perform a lot of basic processing: flour for bread, butter, and medicinal waters all needed searcing, sifting, or straining. But so ubiquitous were paps and purees that one wonders if something else was going on. I look forward to Joseph Imorde’s upcoming talk, “Royal Cavities: The Bitter Implications of Sugar Consumption in Early Modern Europe.” While recipes for soft foods extend back to Roman times (see Apicius’s references to gruels and vegetable mashes), meaning sugar couldn’t be the only culprit, this doesn’t mean western Europeans haven’t had a long history of bad teeth. And ironically, the ingredient most often searced and sifted in the manuscripts I studied was…sugar.

Kristine Kowalchuk is a scholar of early modern English literature and cultural studies, with a focus on food, agricultural and land-use writing. Her critical edition of seventeenth-century Englishwomen’s receipt books is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press. Kristine works as an English instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, Canada.