A Great Tea-Drinking: Collective Memory and Victorian Invalid Cookery

By Bonnie Shishko

Midway through Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Esther Summerson relinquishes her beloved role as adopted housekeeper and assumes another: sick nurse. In a tense scene that’s painfully relevant in this era of COVID, Esther rushes to isolate herself and Charley, a servant who has contracted smallpox. Quickly locking her bedroom door, Esther quarantines with Charley and nurses her around the clock. The two women mark Charley’s recovery by drinking tea. “It was a great evening,” Esther tells us, “when Charley and I at last took tea together.”

But it is the night of the celebratory tea that Esther realizes she and Charley have shared more than a room and a food ritual. Esther has contracted Charley’s smallpox. In a role reversal foreshadowed by the chapter’s ambiguous title, “Nurse and Patient,” Esther becomes the patient and Charley, at thirteen years old, the nurse.   

Although told from Esther’s perspective, the chapter “Nurse and Patient” makes one thing clear: for many Victorian women, illness and disease was not a private but a collective experience. “If I am to be ill,” Esther tells Charley, “my great trust, humanly speaking, is in you” (433). Esther’s assumption that she and Charley—both young, inexperienced, and of different social classes—are capable of and responsible for nursing each other through a grave disease exemplifies what Talia Schaffer calls the “reciprocal” and communal nature of Victorian caregiving. For much of the nineteenth century, “nursing occurs within the home,” Schaffer writes. And so, “in Victorian fiction, care really does take a village” (198; 193).  

While the realist novel might have fictionalized collective care through food, another genre offered explicit instructions in how to provide such care: “invalid cookbooks,” or cookery books intended to nourish the ill and disabled. Such cookbooks were not groundbreaking; invalid recipes appeared in manuscripts and print domestic manuals since the Renaissance (Notaker 201). Yet, Victorian discoveries in nutrition science and the ensuing effort to reform domestic cookery prompted a plethora of publications geared to help women prepare nutritionally-appropriate meals for the sick (Adelman 189; 194; 203).

For all their claims to modernization, however, a glance across the dishes in mid-Victorian invalid menus reveals a noticeable uniformity with cookbooks past—and with each other (Adelman 193-4). In her bestselling 1859 Book of Household Management, for example, Isabella Beeton includes a chapter on “Invalid Cookery,” with dishes that echo Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery: mutton broth, barley water, gruel. Other writers boosted this trend. Caregivers who wished to spice up Beeton’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches”—a slice of toast layered between two buttered and salted slices of bread—need look no further than J.W. Walsh’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches for Invalids” from The English Cookery Book (1859). In a twist on the bland diet traditionally assigned to the ill, Walsh’s recipe permits a dab of mustard (316).

On the one hand, the repetition of recipes across Victorian invalid cookbooks testifies to received beliefs around invalid diets. As Juliana Adelman argues, such texts established a “canon of foods” for the ill (193). But Victorian writers were not merely standardizing but collecting; they self-consciously harnessed the recipe’s status as a form built for exchange in order to construct a discursive care collective for working- and middle-class women who, like Esther and Charley, found themselves performing the role of nurse. What I especially want to emphasize is the centrality of the recipe as a narrative form to this enterprise. Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster explain that “[t]he root of the word recipe,” the Latin imperative recipere, or “take,” signals the restlessness of the form; its need to “exist in a perpetual state of exchange” (6). “Meaning both to give and to receive,” they write, recipes function as what Luce Giard calls ‘multiplications of borrowing’” (6). Recipes are mobile; they are traversable; they cross borders of time and space. With each “borrowing,” the “care community,” to borrow Schaffer’s term, multiplies. 

Frontispiece, Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton (1861). Credit: British Library, London.

 

To see the invalid recipe in action as an exchanged object, we might turn again to tea; this time, to the popular invalid dish “beef tea.” Between Beeton and Walsh, we find six recipes for beef tea, including plain, “baked,” and one “quickly made.” The recipe I want us to notice, however, belongs to a third writer: the celebrated French chef, Alexis Soyer. Beeton borrowed Soyer’s previously published “Savoury Beef Tea” for the chapter. Visually demarcated by the parentheticals “Soyer’s Recipe,” yet tucked between her own beef tea recipes, Beeton’s recirculation of Soyer’s instructions makes visible—and replicable—another option to administer care. In Walsh’s cookbook, the network of exchange materializes in the very subtitle, undergirding the work’s structure itself: “Receipts Collected by a Committee of Ladies.” Although “compiled” by women “at the head of well-conducted establishments,” Walsh spotlights their diversity and dailiness. “Many come from their own family scrap-books,” he boasts, and are “In Daily Use By Private Families” (iii; Title Page).

Soyer’s Recipe for Beef Tea, Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton (1859). Credit: author’s own photograph.

 

Invalid recipes are a form of recollection; a food memory. As formal objects with histories of exchange from “family scrap-books” to the print marketplace to sickrooms across Britain, invalid recipes like Walsh’s collect and publicly record private sickroom experiences of both eating and feeding. As we track the kinetic energy of the recipe, its urge for movement across space and time, a vast collective record of care, illness, and recovery comes into view. Perhaps more than any other recipe type, invalid recipes thus occupy the border of public and private memory. In his study of food and its relationship to memory, David Sutton argues for food’s ability to blend “social” and “individual” memory. “In producing, exchanging and consuming food” he explains, “we are continuously criss-crossing between the ‘public’ and the ‘intimate,’ individual bodies and collective institutions” (160).

Invalid Recipes, The English Cookery Book, J.W. Walsh, editor (1859). Credit: author’s own photograph.

 

Perhaps this is why Esther narrates her personal recovery from smallpox through a shared food memory. “How well I remember the pleasant afternoon when I was raised in bed with pillows for the first time, to enjoy a great tea-drinking with Charley!” (481). Both the communal act of drinking tea and the recollection of doing so carry healing for Esther. Yet this alimentary care is delivered not by Charley alone, but relies on a third woman: Esther’s beloved friend Ada, who prepares a tea-table for the event. Although banned from the sickroom per Esther’s strict infection protocol, it is the tea-table’s traversability that I want to call attention to, particularly its ability to move between and bind together three women of different social classes isolated in separate spaces of their home. For “nurse and patient”—and for their friend, relegated downstairs and off the page—the “great tea-drinking,” like the invalid recipe, connects the nodes in the care network and memorializes its collective labor.


References

Adelman, Juliana. “Invalid Cookery, Nursing and Domestic Medicine in Ireland, c. 1900,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 73, no. 2 (2018): 188-204.

Beeton, Isabella. Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1861.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House, edited by Jennifer Mooney. New York: The Modern Library, 2002. 

Floyd, Janet and Forster, Laurel. “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts.” The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 1-11.  

Notaker, Henry. A History of Cookbooks: from Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

Schaffer, Talia. “Disabling Marriage: Communities of Care in Our Mutual Friend.” Replotting Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, edited by Jill Galvan and Elsie Michie. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018. 192-210.  

Sutton, David. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 1 (2008): 157-180.  

Walsh, J.T. The English Cookery Book. London: G. Routledge and Co, 1859.


About

Dr. Bonnie Shishko is Assistant Professor of English at Queens University of Charlotte. Her research and teaching focus on the history of women’s domestic writing, especially the Victorian cookbook and the contemporary food novel. Her work on the recipe and its transformation into a mode of art criticism in the late-Victorian era is forthcoming in the edited collection Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays (Edinburgh University Press, Spring 2021). She has also explored the connection between Victorian recipes and the national trend of baking bread during Covid-19. Her essay can be read here

Of Kebabs and Lawsuits: A Case for Authenti‘city’

By Sonakshi Srivastava

Authenticity is a reflexive term, its nature is to be deceptive about its nature.

— Carl Dahlhaus

There is an instance in Intizar Husain’s popular novel, Basti, where, while dining at the Shiraz, a restaurant in the newly created Pakistan, discussion ensues about the authenticity of the identity of the bread seller, Nuru. He boasts of being a ‘pure bred Ambala man’, an assertion that seems out of place to the people in the new land, prodding Karnaliya, a fellow diner to remark that ‘they have added Ambali to their names just for prestige. I’m the only one from Ambala! That’s why they can’t meet my eyes’. 

This discussion is particularly relevant in the novel for its layered connotations of identity, nostalgia, and nation/al boundaries in the face of the partition of the British India. And before one is quick to dismiss any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events, as purely coincidental with a click of the tongue, attention must be drawn to the Rupees 50-crore Tunday Kebab Lawsuit. The lawsuit is one glaring example that teases the boundaries of fact and fiction, and one which can be located in the familiar matrix of identity, authenticity and nostalgia as is the instance from the novel. 

Reel-y authentic glimpse of Tunday Kebabs. Credit: Sona Srivastava.

 

The bone of contention that resulted in the lawsuit was the use of the gastronomic nomenclature, ‘tunday’. In popular culinary imagination that cuts across the Indian subcontinent, tunday kebab is synonymous with Lucknow, the City of Nawabs. The story of the origin of the kebabs is almost mythic – dating back to 1905. The kebabs were the brainchild of the Bhopali rakabdar (gourmet chef), Haji Murad Ali, whose recipe of delicately minced lamb patties in 160 spices particularly appealed to the decadent palate of the then Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula. When Haji Murad Ali fell off the roof of his house, he lost an arm. Yet he continued perfecting the mixture of shahi galawat, working expertly with one hand, so much so that the shahi galawat came to be known as tunday (adapted from the Urdu tunday, ‘without an arm’) kebabs.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, was between Mohammed Usman of Tunday Kababi Pvt. Limited, the grandson of Murad Ali, and Mohammed Muslim, who ran a chain of restaurants under the name, ‘Lucknow Wale Tunday Kababi’. The judgement was declared in favour of Mohammed Usman. The judge noted that Mohammed Usman had maintained the original taste of the kebab for the past 90 years, and that he had the exclusive statutory right to use the Tunday Kababi trademark and logo, and that the use of the said trademark by any other entity without his consent or license would cause confusion as to the source or origin. Mohammed Muslim was found guilty of infringing on the trademark, and had to rename his outlets nationwide. 

Postmodern consumer culture has numbed us to the idea of the real, the authentic, with the excess proliferation of imitations. Regina Bendix notes that our quest for authenticity is particularly nostalgic, and is simultaneously modern and anti-modern.(1) It aspires to the ‘recovery of an essence’ in a time that is characteristically demythologized and disenchanted. The Tunday Kebab lawsuit serves as a prime example of this theory articulated in gastronomic anxiety, and the question of the authentic, the ‘recovery of an essence’ underpins it.

In the local memory, Lucknow and Tunday kebabs are inseparable. No mention of the city is possible without the mention of the food. It may be that the two draw authenticity from each other. Moreover, historicizing food by associating it with a particular place or a story aids in lending it a flavour of authenticity. To attempt to duplicate authenticity is nothing less than a gastronomic blasphemy, of which Mohammed Muslim was deemed guilty. 

It becomes significant to note that the judge considered historical parameters in his assessment of the case, tracing the genealogy of the kebabs before delivering the final verdict. The desire to maintain the sanctity of the kebabs, for them to remain firmly grounded in the place of their origin, and the home of their creator’s descendants, conveys an attempt to keep memories alive, at least gastronomically.

The lawsuit can be read as a nostalgic gesture for our times, where the spectre of imitations haunts us, and our only recourse is the law. Partaking of the trademarked, authentic kebabs is our restorative attempt to feed our nostalgic souls, an attempt at recovering a feeling of ‘essence’.


References

1. Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 319.

Tales from the Archives: Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, with the first signs of spring here in the UK, I want to share a floral-themed post by Colleen Kennedy. In this piece from August 2013, Colleen discussed early modern uses of violets in confectionery and perfumery. I am particularly touched by Renaissance descriptions of the scent of violet as melancholy. Unlike overpowering floral scents, that of violet strikes a softer, perhaps sadder, chord.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.
‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).

Translating Recipes 14: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 8 – BETWEEN 3

[This is the third of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first two parts, see here and here.]

The following is a translation of our long-translated Manchu medical recipe in dialogue form, to explore the between-ness of the recipe through a conversation among materials: fluid, powder, and flesh. In this dialogue-shaped translation of the recipe, the major characters are the major materials interacting in the story. There are three of them – Oil, Flour, Flesh – with an early cameo by Spoon. Here, the medium of the conversation is not sound, but instead touch and movement. When speech is touch rather than sound – when voicing is touching and enabling your conversation partner to be touched, moving and enabling your partner to be moved – then the conversation works somewhat differently from what we tend to expect. Here, a single instance of touching functions as a single unit of this touch-speech. The conversation becomes a dialogue in gestures and movements over, across, with, etc. The problem that animates the dialogue is the event that stimulates and initiates movement; resolution is the circumstance in which movement eases. It is a critical issue that must be resolved: a body has been poisoned.

Between: A Dialogue in Touch

Characters:

Flour

Spoon

Flesh

Oil

 

 

Flour: (pillowed powder pile, then a smooth arc planes the surface as a small spoon cuts through to measure out a portion)

Spoon: (smoothes a concavity in the powder before cradling it away to a bowl and releasing it to its next home)

Flour: (bids farewell, dissolving into liquid and becoming something new)

Flesh: (suffering from a relationship with a substance that does not wish it well; welcomes flour in its new liquid form, into its throatspace and down and down)

Flour: (meets flesh, tries to soothe its suffering as it passes through the throat and down, roils the unkind substance poisoning the flesh and tries to bring it back up and out again)

Flesh: (pulses after ejecting the flour from itself)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands)

Flesh: (bucks and roils, breaks and bleeds, angry and unplacated)

Oil: (keeps trying; drops into meat broth – or drops into buttered milk – and mixes and swirls)

Flesh: (takes the oil back into its throatspace and down and down and retches and roils and drinks…and again…and again…)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (still roiling; flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands…and again…and again…)

Flesh: (roiling and retching…but less…and less…and on like that more and more gently…)

Oil: (sliding and dropping…now more faintly…and gently…and more gently)

Flesh: (stillness)

Oil: (stillness)