Tag Archives: pedagogy

Historic Recipes as Sources: A Special Series

By Amanda Moniz

Historians are currently engaged in a project of learning to use food as a source and as a medium for the study of history.  Long an aspect of historic sites’ programs, the history of food and eating is increasingly attracting the interest of historians working in a broad range of institutions.  Museums, such as the National Museum of American History, now feature exhibits and events about food history.  More and more scholars are studying the production, consumption, and meaning of food in various times and places.  Blog, journals and listservs are examining the topic.  Elementary, secondary, and college educators are integrating the history of food into their curricula.  Meanwhile, with interest in the history of sensory experiences burgeoning more generally, scholars are experimenting with making and eating recipes as part of the study of the history of food.  This special series examines some of the issues this endeavor raises.


Food is appealing and accessible as a means for studying the past.  As the posts in this series explore, that accessibility encourages scholars to address familiar questions about interrogating sources in distinct ways.  Alma Igra, recipient of a “History in Action” grant from the American Historical Association-Mellon Career Diversity Pilot Program for the Leftovers project, reflects on the tension between necessarily bringing her experience as a cook to historic recipes and faithfully recovering those recipes.  Comparing two early-modern rice pudding recipes, along with the larger history of global trade and labor they reveal, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia of Cooking in the Archives consider how historic recipes allow us to approach, though never fully reach, an appreciation of palates in the past.  David S. Shields, a leader in both the field of American food history and the repatriation of historic American foods, examines the unusual nature of American bitters, probing recipes for their insights into cultural preoccupations.

As these authors so insightfully discuss, making and eating historic foods raises questions experientially about cookbooks, recipes, and ingredients as sources.  The nature of cooking and eating, along with practical considerations, also fosters more collaboration among scholars and in historic foodways projects than in historians’ typical work, as the various endeavors of the scholars in this series show.  Much as the musical Hamilton innovatively explains historians’ reliance on an incomplete record to craft historical narratives, historic cookery similarly offers scholars’ opportunities to work with one another and with students and broader publics to grapple with the making of history.  We invite you to join our exploration of food as source and medium for studying the past and welcome your thoughts.

Amanda Moniz is assistant director of the National History Center and Program Coordinator at the American Historical Association.  A former pastry chef, she pursues public history projects about food.


In a recent class session of my graduate seminar, “Thinking Green: Eco-Approaches to Texts,” my students and I transcribed and discussed at length the first recipe that appears in a manuscript book in the Wellcome Medical Library: MS 213, “A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon. Anno Domini 1606.”

Wild daisies

To do this, we worked with the first recipe in the book, “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb or any other soore Eye,” which instructs as follows:

Take one handfull of three leaued grasse that is
most spotted with white: Gather it close to the roote,
as much of wilde Dasye rootes: Stampe them all in a
woodden dishe, and boyle them in one pinte of water, in
a clean brasse skillet with a very soft fyer. When
it is scommed putt in so much Allome as will make the
water tast roughe uppon your tounge. After putt in so
much honny as will make it Looke yeollowe and taste
very sweete. When it hath boyled a pretty while and is
cleane scommed, straine it into a cleane vessell, and
when it is colde poure the clearest into a glasse and
keepe it in a colde place, and it will last three weekes
in Winter and 14. Dayes in the Sommer: The water is to
be applied to the Eyes one hower before they aryse and when
they goe to bedd. If the Eye be very soore dresse it at two of the
clocke in the after noone, and sleepe after it, if they cann.

We then worked together on a (deceptively) simple question: “Who/what seems to have agency in this recipe, and what is the source of authority?” What followed was a 2-1/2 hour collaboration that I would say is at the heart of what I hope recipe transcription can do in our classrooms and central to how I think recipes work.

We began, well, at the beginning. Students turned to the title of the book, a collection of that which had been “experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon.” As such, authority lies in the tried and tested text itself, evidenced too by claims of “probatum” throughout these books. As students pointed out, the user/practitioner was also an authority. To “Gather [the grass] close to the roote” is evidence, that is, of how the woman using this recipe necessarily walked among the plants she gathered, touched them, identified which, in this case, had the white spots and three leaves (and not another grass). She was expected to exercise her discretion, using “so much Allome as will make the water tast roughe uppon [her] tounge” or ascertaining how much honey is just enough to make it “Looke yeollowe” and “taste very sweete.”

As we talked, though, we queried whether the patient him/herself, the treated body, was also a source of authority here. After all, the body receiving the cure, it was hoped, would respond positively to the treatment, whose precise timing was determined, at least in part, by how “soore” the eye was; and the patient’s more willful response played a role in the cure’s efficacy as demonstrated by the directive to “sleepe after it, if they cann.” But what about the potential authority and/or agency of the ingredients themselves, the nonhuman things from which the cure is derived—the grass and daisy roots, the honey, the fire, etc? After all, they contain properties that might be predictable to some extent, but individually and collectively they are arguably not entirely within the control of human manipulation. And we made note that the durability of the product comprised of such ingredients depended on seasonality—it, not surprisingly, lasts one less week during summer than during winter. In this way, do not the seasons dictate terms that the human practitioner cannot entirely mitigate through careful preparation?

What we concluded, and I think it is an important conclusion, is that this recipe illustrates a powerful collaboration of agents—human and nonhuman alike—whose efficacy is determined by multiple sources of authority, all acting together in dance-like fashion, where lines of demarcation between the individual and collective necessarily vanish. Just as importantly, though, we came to these conclusions collaboratively. And that, I would say, gets at the heart of what environmental justice (and ecofeminist) work aims to do and precisely what is, for me at least, what working with these books can teach us. We interrogate and revise together, looking anew at that which we often don’t see or take for granted: the relationship between human and nonhuman comprised, mitigated, and expressed in the most complicated of ways by a multitude of agents, articulated most powerfully in the substratum and the margins. We need to look and listen. And we need to do it together.

**I want to note the outstanding students in my graduate seminar without whose collaboration this post would not exist: Taryn Dollings, Henry Doss, Kailan Smith, and Breane Weber.