The Art of Preserving Eighteenth-Century Cookery Through Interpretation

In this post, Tiffany Fisk explains the importance of recipes for apprentices in Historic Foodways, an immersive program offered at Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg.

Tiffany A. Fisk

Every day my colleagues and I are asked by visitors to Colonial Williamsburg the following: “You aren’t REALLY cooking, are you?” The purpose of Historic Foodways is to do the work of eighteenth-century cooks by using and understanding the techniques, equipment, and recipes from the period. We do this by completing a 5-level apprenticeship that involves building and mastering a variety of skills and techniques, understanding how to use and care for a wide-range of equipment, and how to read and comprehend eighteenth-century cookbooks. Those of us who “do” this type of history can attest to the fact that the latter is the most challenging component for many new apprentices.

Governor's Palace, Colonial Williamsburg. Image courtesy of WikiMedia and Larry Pieniazek
Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg. Image courtesy of WikiMedia and Larry Pieniazek

As readers of the Recipes Project will know, cookbooks of the eighteenth century were written differently than their modern counterparts, and, in our case, they provide context for understanding gentry households of the Colonial Era. The books were typically written by men and women who cooked for wealthy households including royalty.  Recipes or receipts were written in paragraph form, usually with very little detail, or if there are details, they don’t always make sense to the modern reader. Often steps are referred to but not explained, and sometimes, a step or ingredient is left out. Modern cookbooks, as most people know, have every ingredient listed with precise measurements, and the instructions are listed in order and are usually detailed. When a new apprentice starts out in Level 1, he or she quickly finds out that reading a recipe also means trying to get into the mind of an eighteenth-century cook. While a recipe for fried potatoes sounds easy, the cooks needs to know the size of a crown piece in order to slice the potatoes the right thickness. And what is the end result supposed to look like? Smell like? Taste like? The recipe says stir until it is enough; WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Why is utilizing the cookbooks of the period so important? As is true today, we can learn about what ingredients and flavor combinations were fashionable. For example, you can track how popular certain ingredients are over the course of the century based on how often they show up in new editions of certain books. This includes the increase in the use of sugar as the century progresses, as it becomes more affordable as a result of enslaved labor. In this way, cookbooks reveal the impact of global trade on food consumption. In wealthy households, cooks could obtain ingredients from all over the world.

In addition to revealing what foods were fashionable, certain cookbooks can also show practices around meals, such as how tables were set in the period. For example, Charles Carter’s The Complete Practical Cook (1730) has several suggestions for table settings.

Charles Carter's The Complete Practical Cook, (1730). Public Domain
Charles Carter’s The Complete Practical Cook, (1730). Public Domain

In gentry households in the last half of the eighteenth century, everyone at the table was expected to know how to serve the food. They passed their dinner plates around, rather than passing platters of food. This encouraged conversation among guests. Dishes on each course were placed symmetrically around the table. Dining in such a way was daily for this class at this time. Today, big, fancy meals are saved for holidays and special occasions, but we still set the table a certain way and implement traditions unique to our families. Despite this, it seems that most people are fairly detached from their food. Most food today is not consumed in its place of origin and has been packaged for convenience. The average American does not have to dispatch, pluck, and gut a chicken before he or she eats it. Nor do many people know how to do any of those steps.

Cookbooks from the period not only give us recipes and table settings, but they also provide instructions for purchasing good quality meat and produce, how to process live fish and fowl purchased at market, as well as instructions for preserving food and what recipes are appropriate different times of the year. For example, fresh asparagus would not be on the table in January, but asparagus you pickled in May, when it was in season, could be. At Historic Foodways, we learn seasonality by studying the cookbooks and coordinating what we are making with what is growing in our garden. We also have to be aware of the fact that we are cooking in Tidewater Virginia, and most of the cookbooks we use were published in England. What is in season when is usually a little different, as are varieties of seafood and fowl. We learn to adapt accordingly, just at early Virginians did.

The cookbooks of the eighteenth century are essential to successfully completing the work of our trade. They provide us with the context needed to understand cooking, economics, trade, and politics of the period.

“Stone Soup”: Reflections on Community Conversations

Editorial: This is the final of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Recipes form communities.

Readers of The Recipes Project know this to be true. Scholars from diverse backgrounds meet in this forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, insights, experiments, and discoveries, brought together by a shared fascination with this amorphous form of record-keeping, receipt-making, and instruction.

Contributing to The Recipes Project has provided me with a rare chance to explore connections between historical recipes, to chart and analyze—and frequently delight in—what to modern eyes might seem bizarre and outlandish (pigeon blood eye wash, anyone?).

But the examination of the recipe’s central role in our lives and histories can also be expanded and enriched beyond the academic through public history and storytelling. There’s a special magic in talking about recipes, a visceral emotional reaction and an almost immediate connection to the past, to personal heritage and individual history.

It’s that sort of alchemy that I wanted to explore further when I applied to be a conversation project facilitator with Oregon Humanities, proposing a topic called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nurture Community.” 

miltonfreewaterrecipes
Recipes gathered for the Oregon Humanities conversation project “Stone Soup” at the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon (author’s photo)

Since the fall of 2016, I have facilitated conversations all over the state, in venues ranging from quiet libraries to bustling restaurants, from coastal towns to urban centers. And while the people and the recipes and the insights are always different (intriguingly and marvelously so), there are a few consistent threads.

Heritage

Before the event, participants are invited to bring recipes from their past—from a beloved family member, friend, or neighbor—and a story to accompany them. (My favorite: the woman in Grants Pass who brought a recipe for the cake her mother had burnt to a crisp–her husband had written “I love you” in the soot left on the walls.)

Often, the recipe is on a tattered index card, spattered and stained by years of use. Sometimes it’s in a small binder or book held together with rubber bands. Always it’s presented with memories.

(There’s a look people get when they talk about these recipes and stories, a faraway gleam, a small smile.

I love those moments.)

Often these recipes will spark conversation between participants as one memory is ignited by another, one culture compared with another, one history explained by another.

“What is a recipe?”

To begin the conversation, I ask participants to spend a minute or two thinking of the words they associate with recipes. Evocative words like “memories,” “grandma,” and “holidays” often make an appearance. We consider the figurative language surrounding recipes, a genre so unique the word itself has become a central metaphor (“recipe for disaster,” for example).

I then ask the participants to partner with one or two others to discuss the genre of the recipe: how is it different from a shopping list, or a narrative, or even a poem? We talk about ingredients and measurements, instructions and oven temperatures. We think about ways a recipe is like a chemical experiment–scientific and reproducible.

I’ll often use that distinction as a springboard to talk about some historical recipes and ways the form changes or stays the same. We look at a copy of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe “Against the biting of a Mad Dogge taught by Sir Kenelm Digby.”

fanshawe
Lady Ann Fanshawe, 1625-1680, Wellcome Library, MS 7113

People often notice that recipe books from the 16th and 17th centuries are visually compact and uniform, and that the basic elements of the recipe—ingredients, instructions, measurements—are familiar. One difference we have made note of, however, is the occasional focus on seasons in the harvesting of ingredients, as can be seen in Lady Fanshawe’s direction that crabapple flowers should be picked in June or July.  For those of us used to ingredients available at all times (even if shrunk-wrapped or frozen), this can be a revelation.

This discussion also led to one of my favorite stories from these conversations, shared by a woman in Beaverton who said her grandfather always knew to plant his corn “when the leaves of the white oak tree were the size of a grey squirrel’s ears.”

Recipes and community

We then, together, read aloud a short version of the folk tale that serves as the springboard for the project, “Stone Soup,” and talk about the story itself as a kind of recipe and about the metaphorical underpinning of community. We focus on the end of the story, where in some versions the villagers not only share the soup but dance and sing together, opening their homes and offering their beds with the strangers in their midst.

At this point, I introduce the participants to three examples of people who used recipes to create community and preserve history: Freda DeKnight, Mina Pachter, and (closer to home for Oregonians) Ing “Doc” Hay.

This particular version of public history, these conversations that evoke memories and elicit stories, have been a wonderful way for me to explore the more human, face-to-face side of recipe exchange that can sometimes get lost in manuscripts and archives.

20171116_140530
“Stone Soup” participants at conversation project sponsored by Washington County Museum (author’s photo)

 

 

Writing Early Modern Medicine for Medical Readers

Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177
Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177

By Alisha Rankin

Years ago, in a recipe collection belonging to Countess Elisabeth of the Palatinate (1552-90), I found a fascinating entry: a copy of an official document that described trials of a poison antidote on dogs, which I described in a post on this blog. My interest in that document has expanded into an entire book project on poison trials. Because these trials feel vaguely like an antecedent to modern clinical trials (with many twists and turns along the way), I’ve found that this project has provided an exciting opportunity to introduce early modern medicine to a medical audience. Last month Justin Rivest and I had the privilege of publishing a short piece, “Medicine, Monopoly, and the Pre-Modern State: Early Clinical Trials,” in the New England Journal of Medicine. Just a few days later, I published a blog post titled “Poison Trials on Condemned Criminals under Pope Clement VII: A Medical and Moral Testimonial” for the Sperimento blog, run by the Medici Archive Project. The juxtaposition of these two pieces, of similar length and on similar topics but in two very different venues, led me to reflect on writing history for non-experts, and on how different it is to write for doctors than for historians. Because the Recipes Project blog intends to reach a wide audience, I thought it might be interesting to jot down some thoughts on the experience here.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.
Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

Writing the Sperimento piece felt very familiar. The blog is intended to introduce a specific document in early modern Italian science and/or medicine, so I picked a Latin pamphlet published in 1524 on the authority of Pope Clement VII. The pamphlet described three poison trials conducted on condemned criminals and was intended to show the wondrous workings of an antidote oil created by a surgeon named Gregorio Caravita. I reflected on the religious and moral undertones of the document, and I included several footnotes with the original Latin. It was a pretty typical blog piece – fun to work on and quite helpful to write, as it forced me to sit down and meticulously make my way through the pamphlet. (I had hoped to find a recipe for the oil at the end of the pamphlet, but sadly the recipe remained Caravita’s secret – although Jo Wheeler included a later Medici version in his book.)

The NEJM piece, on the other hand, was far harder. We had to plan the article out very carefully. The word limit was officially 1,200 (although they happily ended up being a little flexible!), and it needed a lot of framing on each end. Justin is an expert in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and I was highlighting work from sixteenth-century Germany. That left each of us just a couple of short paragraphs to present our case from our own research and to tie everything together. This is apparently the first time the NEJM has published a piece on early modern medicine, so we tried our best to make it fit into categories that medical readers would find familiar. That meant keeping modern medicine as the standard against which we compared our historical case. It also – helpfully – forced Justin and me to come up with a coherent narrative over a long period of time.

The hardest part – for me at least – was the footnotes. The journal allowed only five references, which was very hard for two historians with two completely different sets of research that drew on archives as well as printed sources. Justin and I worked and worked to get it down to the requisite number and felt pretty good about the result. Then the peer reviews came back – and the editor clarified that five references meant individual references, not footnotes. Because some of our footnotes contained multiple sources, we had to cut out an additional six references. Uff. We simply had to give up on documenting everything, and I learned how uncomfortable that made me. Would historians think that the article was shoddily researched? Maybe, but I kept reminding myself that historians were not the main audience, an important distinction when I had to choose between my archive and an important English-language journal article. Were I writing for historians, I almost certainly would have picked the archive, to show all the great (hard!) research I’d done. In this case, I went with the article, on the theory that an interested reader could follow up with it more easily.

The fun part of writing for the NEJM was thinking about how to make early modern medicine seem something other than “wrong.” We went for the basic takeaway point that trials (even in a very, very early form) have been used to assess drugs for a really long time. I also did a short podcast with the journal, to expand on certain points. I didn’t have the questions in advance, and I couldn’t help but cringe a bit when the interviewer straightforwardly referred to our historical actors as “scientists” and “researchers,” but in some ways that was validating, as it suggested he was treating our subject with respect.

A truly interesting coda was what happened afterwards. Both the NEJM article and the Sperimento post made the rounds on social media. Interestingly, the latter appears to have been of more interest to early modernists, at least judging by the re-tweets I saw on my Twitter feed (perhaps those footnotes mattered after all!). The NEJM piece, in contrast, really did reach physicians. While we did not receive any major press attention, Tweets came literally from all over the world. Looking at this metrics map of where the article was read was really fascinating:

NEJM page views

I hadn’t quite thought about how far-reaching a top medical journal is – that short essay may well be the most widely read thing I ever write. Most gratifyingly, I received a lovely e-mail from a former student – now a doctor – who was delighted to see his old professor pop up in an unexpected place. But overall, the consensus from Twitter appeared to be “Wow! I had no idea that people were testing drugs that early!” In some ways, that is exactly why we do public history – to make people look at the past a little bit differently and, hopefully, to put modern trends in context. Being forced out of your comfort zone (footnotes!) also makes you think carefully about what message you really want to share. And of course readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that recipes can lead you to all sorts of unexpected places!

Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement

By Paula Johnson

 Over several wintry days in January, at a sprawling hotel in midtown Manhattan, members of the American Historical Association and affiliated societies gamely selected from a virtual cornucopia of panel discussions, roundtables, and special sessions built around the theme, “History and the Other Disciplines.” Those interested in food studies—an inherently multidisciplinary field—found relevant sessions salted throughout the schedule, reflecting the field’s growth in recent years. I participated in one of these sessions, “Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement,” a panel organized and chaired by Amanda B. Moniz, assistant director of the National History Center of the AHA. The panel brought together historians to explore the opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities of sharing food-history research with a broad public.

The first presentation deftly illustrated the intensely collaborative nature of public history work. Moniz, with historians Helen Veit, assistant professor of history at Michigan State University, and Julia Irwin, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, discussed a multi-faceted media project that drew upon their complementary skills and expertise. With American Food Roots, a digital publication, the three historians produced content for a series of videos on how World War I changed American food and foodways. The videos feature Moniz (a former pastry chef) cooking period recipes while Veit and Irwin explain the larger historical and cultural context of food during the war. Veit showed one of the videos, which featured recipes for peanut butter soup (!) and a nut, cream cheese, and date salad, served with a mayonnaise dip.

Screenshot 2015-03-09 11.00.55Peanut Butter Soup recipe screenshot. http://www.americanfoodroots.com/features/wwi-food-shortages-changed-american-eating-habits/

Moniz, Veit, and Irwin discussed how they used the historian’s tools—and then some—to shape the video series. In addition to their research on the war itself, they scoured archival and library collections to help illustrate and expand the theme. The videos are enhanced significantly by the primary research underlying the production: period cookbooks, government posters and pamphlets, and news photographs allowed the historians to convey visually the urgency and deprivations of the war as well as the spirit of the times. The preparation of period recipes on camera also offers an accessible way for viewers to understand both the sacrifices caused by food shortages and the inventiveness of American cooks.

Rachel Hope Cleves, associate professor of history at the University of Victoria, spoke next about her blog, The Not So Innocents Abroad: Historical Ramblings on Sex, Food, and Other Bodily Pleasures, in Paris, Capri, and Beyond. Cleves noted how the blog permits a more informal voice than her academic writing, yet she grounds it in scholarly research and methods. Blogs, by their nature, are more widely and easily accessible than traditional scholarly monographs, and Cleves reported an unexpected benefit: the opportunity to engage immediately in thoughtful exchanges with people on the other side of the world, people she would not have encountered via academic channels.

Of her many intriguing food-related blog posts (e.g., “Elizabeth David & Coming Home,” and “Love’s Oven is Warm: Baking with Emily Dickinson”), Cleves spoke in depth about “Benjamin Franklin’s Apple Pudding” . While trying to follow Franklin’s instructions, she discovered they lacked adequate detail about quantities and ingredients. Perhaps eighteenth-century cooks familiar with the dish didn’t need such guidance, but a twenty-first century cook had questions—lots of them—and, like inquiries that drive academic research, Cleves’ questions underlie the structure and tone of the post. Finding the instruction to boil the apple-filled pastry for three hours difficult to reconcile, Cleves boiled it as directed and served the resulting putty-colored blob to guests. They, like readers of the blog, surely learned something new about the culinary milieu of Benjamin Franklin.

I wrapped up the session with a presentation about my work in food history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. As project director and co-curator of the exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, I addressed some of the curatorial decisions the team made in shaping an exhibition that presents the myriad—and often contradictory—forces behind some of the big changes in how food is produced, distributed, prepared, and consumed in American since World War II. The exhibition relies on objects, documents, and case studies to present the complexity of food and change, from Julia Child’s home kitchen to early microwave ovens and the rise of convenience foods; from artifacts of the counterculture to a menu board from an early drive thru restaurant. I also discussed the role of evaluation in public history work, reporting that survey responses to the FOOD exhibition are helping the team shape a robust schedule of public programming to enhance and expand the themes of the exhibition.

Julia Child's Kitchen new installation
The home kitchen of American cookbook author, teacher, and television chef Julia Child is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Our panel attracted a roomful of people who participated in a lively conversation about the expanding opportunities for engaging diverse publics in food-history discourse. While the panel touched on various media for bringing food history to the public, we agreed there are many other avenues to explore. We also agreed on our responsibility to continue bringing academic rigor, primary source material, creative thinking, and a passion for people, food, and history to every endeavor.