Tag Archives: recipe books

Early Modern Research with Britain’s Favourite Organic Producer

By Grace Palmer

In the spring of 2023, I undertook a deep dive into early modern British (and some European) recipes for a project with Hexhamshire Organics, an organic farm near Newcastle in the North East of England, focused on creating short sentences on the historic uses of herbs, fruit and vegetables, designed to pique their customers’ interests by examining how their favourite produce was consumed in the past. Within this project, I focused on using domestically-produced receipt books – which were often collaborative family books carefully curated by multiple generations to create unique recipe collections – and horticultural texts, produced as instruction manuals for gardeners, providing information on the multitude of plants that were cultivated by early modern Britons. Admittedly these sources were produced by and for the upper- and middle-classes, however they are a fascinating route to understanding how food was enjoyed in the past, and do provide some insights into the culinary habits of ordinary Britons.

Pages exploring ‘mountayne Radish’ and ‘Carrottes’ in Rembert Dodoens (trans. Henry Lyte Esquyer), A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, (published in England- 1578), pp 600-601


Perhaps especially because our audience for this project was consumers interested in organic, locally-sourced produce, I was struck by the similarities some recipes held to many present-day dishes loved by modern Britons. For example, many recipes including carrots described the vegetable being enjoyed grated and baked with a variety of spices, reminiscent of a modern carrot cake. Similarly, by the 18th century, recipes instructing how tomatoes (a ‘New World’ discovery for many early modern Europeans) could be made into ketchup were more commonplace. It was fascinating to see how some of my favourite and regularly consumed dishes had such long-reaching origins. While early modern recipe books often contained the spectacular, documenting exceptional meals that were not eaten on an everyday basis, I was struck by the variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that were clearly dietary staples. Explorations into the New World expanded the origins of commonly eaten produce: potatoes, the Jerusalem artichoke (named the “potato of Canada”), and peppers (initially viewed with some suspicion, but were quickly cultivated by poor farmers as a cheap alternative of expensive, imported black pepper) were often included in recipe collections, alongside spices from across South and Eastern Asia. Contemporary cooks displayed a clear interest in the presentation and taste of their dishes. A variety of herbs and spices were used – including dill, savory, chillies and sorrel – to add depth of flavour. Recipes describe the various innovative ways produce was used as a garnish, instructing the reader to pickle red cabbage to enhance its purple-red hue, or to finely chop brussels sprouts, to make dishes more visually appealing. I found that my research challenged pre-existing conceptions I myself had about potentially “backwards” culinary habits from the early modern era as the recipes instead showcased the diverse and rich culinary traditions from the period.

Early modern people assigned a fascinating array of medical uses to almost all plants. While some seem to make logical sense to the modern reader, many seem incredulous. (Giant) mustard leaves were often placed like a plaster on a patient’s head to help prevent vertigo. Spring onions were made into an ointment to cure dandruff, and lettuce was eaten after supper to prevent drunkenness, imagined to stop alcohol vapours (widely believed to cause drunkenness) reaching the brain. One early modern writer even used globe artichokes as a deodorant, believing the vegetable helped reduce the smell of his armpits. The huge variety of medical uses assigned to various herbs, fruits and vegetables is a testament to the ingenuous inventions of contemporaries, showcasing how they innovatively used all aspects of different produce to understand the world around them. Many medicinal recipes for common ailments and diseases were passed between generations, adapted and improved through experimentation over time. Much of the way early modern people understood their diet was influenced by humoral theory, often dictating the imagined medicinal cures behind plants and even the combination of ingredients set out in recipes. For example, sorrel was often paired with meats or eggs for its perceived cooling properties, imagined to aid digestion. Similarly, “hot and dry” horseradish was commonly eaten with fish, believed to counteract the negative associations of the “cold and wet” nature of fish. The humoral properties of produce meant some recipes came with warnings for future readers: cooks were advised against serving raw onions, imagined to induce headaches and dull the senses, and readers were warned about the overconsumption of spinach, believed to cause nausea. While sometimes comedic to the modern reader, early modern cooks used commonly consumed produce in innovative ways to understand the world around them, a testament to their ingenuity and invention.

Overall, this was a fascinating project, which taught me a huge amount about early modern recipes, diets, and consumption habits more broadly. While this project focused on highlighting the spectacular and sometimes comedic aspects of early modern food habits, I was struck by the many similarities to modern recipes and gained a deeper understanding of the rich history behind British cuisine. I hope this project will help inform Hexhamshire Organics’ customers on the fascinating interplay between early modern and present-day uses of their favourite produce, and perhaps even provide historic inspiration for unconventional and thrifty ways to make the most of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Grace Palmer is currently studying for her MA in history at Durham University, having recently completed her undergraduate studies there. She is writing her dissertation on poisoning as a method for resistance by enslaved men and women and white fear of poisoning conspiracies in plantation era America. Outside of academia, Grace is a keen foodie and enjoys experimenting with new vegetarian recipes. She is also an avid sports fan and shares a season ticket to her local football club with her brother. 

The Rebirth of Embodiment: Hand-Compiling an Early Modern Recipe Book

By Mackie Black

The early modern family participated in manuscript culture through the collection and trading of recipes among family, friends, and political connections. In this post, I describe how modern scholars can participate in a new manuscript culture through transcription. While digital transcriptions are valuable for accessibility, these projects hide thephysical experience that went into the creation of these texts. Though digital transcription does include physicality, with typing and coding and especially in an emotional sense with the frustration at a difficult word or phrase and the ultimate joy that comes with figuring it out, this is a different embodied experience than that of recreation through rewriting. Hand-writing recreation provides a more in-depth understanding of the messy physical processes of the past, those that leave the writer with ink-stained hands and the paper with scratched out mistakes, rather than the clean processes of the present. The cleanliness of today’s digital interaction with manuscripts removes not only the physical mess of writing with ink but also streamlines our encounters with these manuscripts to the point that their mistakes and quirks can be ignored in favor of analyzing the clean, edited text. My experience reconstructing the compilation of an early modern recipe book by hand-copying recipes using writing technology that closely approximates those of the time, became an act of recovering this messy embodiment. The physical act of transcription raises new questions that can allow us to more fully understand the processes behind the creation of these manuscripts. 

Photo of two sheets of paper with handwriting.
Attempts to copy recipes with a quill (left) and an ink-dipped pen (right).

My project adds to work by scholars including Marissa Nicosia at Cooking the Archives and Margaret Simon by stepping away from the kitchen and into the processes of recipe collection and copying. For this project, I created my own recipe book using manuscripts held by the Folger Shakespeare Library LUNA: Manuscript Transcriptions Collection and the Wellcome Collection as a final project for a graduate seminar. I skimmed through 8 manuscripts and selected 67 recipes that I could see myself making, focusing on those with vegetarian ingredients to fit my own diet, before hand-copying them in a notebook using either a quill or an ink dip pen. I also used cutting to remove unwanted ingredients and paste in recipes, mirroring this tool as it was used in recipe books, commonplace books, and in the literature of George Herbert and the Ferrar family in their Little Gidding Harmonies

Photo of open notebook with sections of handwriting and sections of cut-and-pasted excerpts from other notebooks.
Pages 88 and 89 of the completed recipe book showing two examples of cutting in order to remove non-vegetarian ingredients from recipes.

I experienced a difficult and messy process, one that left me with hand cramps and ink stains. Moving from the keyboard to the quill reconnected me to the methods of the past. While I was unable to fully leave the 21st Century behind thanks to my reliance on digitized manuscripts, I was able to experience the physical processes of writing down a recipe using an inkwell and quill. Digital transcription work is not messy, but this hand-copying was, engaging senses such as smell that get lost in the digital world. At the end of the day, there will be no ink stains left on the hands of the digital transcriber, no ink splotches to frantically clean off the manuscript or the table. It is this messy physical experience that I aimed to explore and through which new questions and avenues for further research arose.

Close-up photo of ink-stained fingers with laptop in the background.
My ink-stained hands.

Through this project, I experienced transcription in a new way that gave me an experiential understanding of the shapes of letters in various hands. As soon as I began copying and writing the letter “w”, for example, I understood it and grew better at recognizing it. It took the experience of hand-copying these recipes to understand that the unique shape of the “w” is a function of the difficulty of doing upstrokes with a quill or ink dip pen. This helped me better understand the rationale for certain writing conventions of the past as more than mere quirks but as features necessitated by technology. This process of realization, this rebirth of knowledge, occurred frequently during this project and improved my transcription abilities, as I had a better understanding of the embodied experience of writing with the technology available in the 17th Century than I had when I had been only transcribing digitally.

Photo of desktop with open recipe notebook, open laptop, ink pen and inkwell, and paper for blotting ink.
My desk as I copied out recipes. Shown are the book in progress, my laptop which I used to pull up the recipes I was copying from, my ink well, my glass dip pen, and my scratch paper used to restart the flow of ink on the pen if it dried out.

This experience also had me asking new questions. Unlike with digital transcription, when hand-writing, I was focused on the processes of copying. I asked myself, what types of editing were the authors using when they copied these recipes? Were they editing as they wrote by removing ingredients like I was? Were they adding ingredients that they thought would work better based on their own experience? Were they fixing mistakes such as removing repeated words and scratched out phrases like I was or were they at times introducing new mistakes? Does this editing count as unique knowledge creation?

A photo of a notebook with writing in black ink.
Pages 57 and 58 of the completed recipe book.

These new questions and this new experience allowed me to better understand why early modern writing looks the way it does. It opened a door for the recovery and rebirth of the physical knowledge hidden behind digital archives and digital transcription. Projects like this one that force modern scholars to rediscover this embodiment for themselves allow us to uncover this hidden knowledge, leading to a better understanding not only of the processes that resulted in the manuscripts we study but also of the people that created them. 

Recipes to Remember: Coriander, Gallyngale, and the Legacies of the Lost

By Lucy Mookerjee

Originally composed for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Beyond Shakespeare blog, this primary source highlight from Lucy Mookerjee, a Research Fellow at the Folger, invites the reader to think beyond the study the recipe as a set of instructions to be performed, and to consider the recipe itself as a generative composition with much to tell us about origin and loss, remembrance and ignorance, revival and rebirth.

A detail of a painting of Ophelia semi-submerged in water with flowers around her.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.

Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,

that’s for thoughts.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5

On learning of her father’s death, Ophelia, the heartbroken heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, falls into a “weeping brook” and quietly allows herself to drown (4.7).  While modern scholarship has tended to construe Ophelia as ‘feminist heroine; critics in the Victorian period perceived Ophelia as a deranged ‘madwoman’; not only has she lost her father and her lover, but she has also lost her mind. In the words of Hamlet’s mother, she is “incapable of her own distress” which is to say: she has forgotten her ‘self’ (4.7). It is curious, then, that the “sweet flowers” – pansies, forget-me-nots, rosemary sprigs –which surround her in the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, and which are frequently referenced in the play, should have a long history as symbols not of loss, but of memory.

The term pansy comes from the French pensée, meaning “thought” or “remembrance”. Legend has it that forget-me-nots are named after a medieval knight who died while picking the delicate flower for his lover and spent his last breath crying out: “Forget me not!” In Ancient Greece, students wore circlets of rosemary to school to increase their capacity to remember their lessons.

While memory-enhancing herbs have a rich legacy in symbolism, the evidence of herbal consumption – though less studied – is well represented in the historical record. Recipes for memory-boosters surface in early modern manuscripts in the form of charms, spells, and medical treatises. Hundreds of these recipe books — digitized and transcribed into Modern English — can be found here.

The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619), compiled in 1675, contains a recipe for a memory-potion called “Confect of Coriander Seed” and provides step-by-step instructions for a brew to “helpe the memorie … by comforting of the braine.”

Manuscript receipt book.
The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619.
To read more of Lucy’s post about remembrance and recipes, visit the Folger Library’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Around the Table: Museum Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table! Today we have a chat about the recipes-related collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., especially the National Museum of American History (NMAH)! I am delighted to speak with Ashley Rose Young, Historian in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry, and Paula Johnson, Curator in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry.

The Smithsonian has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Within the collections at all three museums are impressive holdings of items related to recipes research. Could you provide a brief overview of the Smithsonian’s collections related to recipes?

Paula Johnson: Researching recipes at the Smithsonian Institution is a complex endeavor, but one that has the potential for great rewards. With nineteen museums and research bureaus, plus pan-institutional libraries and archives, a veritable trove of material covering an astonishing array of culinary-related subjects awaits the intrepid researcher. While each museum has its own physical branch library, the consolidated digital catalog contains records for all Smithsonian holdings. A useful overview of the institution’s libraries and archives can be found here

My long experience with Smithsonian collections is based almost entirely on the holdings of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which houses significant collections of artifacts, documents, books, ephemera, and digital material reflecting many broad areas of culinary history. Among the diverse food-related collections are many that contain recipes, although that may not be apparent at a glance. Due to different cataloging protocols for objects, archives, and libraries over the institution’s 175-year-history, researchers need to think broadly about search terms and pack some patience when accessing the collections. While catalogs and finding aids are key to a researcher’s success, there’s always the possibility of serendipity, as in this item we located in the Smithsonian Archives, a “Receipt Book” for medicinal and dietary uses, kept by James Smithson, the British scientist whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. The handwritten receipts are mostly for simple candies and spirits, including “Pate de Jujubes,” “Usquebaugh,” and various cordials. 

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7000, James Smithson Collection. Research photo*

In the NMAH collections, recipes can be found in historic cookbooks that are held by the main research library as well as the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. A significant number of books and pamphlets was donated to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) by the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC, and that collection continues to grow, courtesy of CHOW. The library also holds a large collection of trade literature and product cookbooks that contain recipes and can be accessed here.

The NMAH Archives Center houses many food history-related collections, including some that contain recipes. Although the word “recipe” may not appear in the record title or even the description, it is possible to access recipes (and marvelous related material) via creative searching. Some highlights include the Pillsbury Bake-off Collection and the Nordic Ware Papers, which include recipe pamphlets from the “Maid of Scandinavia” line of cookware, the forerunner to the Nordic Ware brand, most famous for its Bundt cake pans.

As a curator, I collect objects and archival documents for the museum, and over the years I have brought several collections into the museum that include recipes. A recent example is the Mollie Katzen collecting documenting the development of her Moosewood Cookbook. In addition to the original artwork and early, spiral-bound edition of the book (1974), the collection includes Katzen’s detailed estimates of the cost of each ingredient in each recipe and other papers containing recipe notes. My favorite part of the collection are the letters written to Katzen by fans, some of whom were enthusiastic converts to vegetarian cooking. These documents provide both context and texture to the recipes.

The Archives Center also houses documents collected from the recipients of the Julia Child Award, presented annually since 2015 by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. Among them is a journal of field notes kept by Chef Rick Bayless, as he and his wife Deann traveled through Mexico in the early 1980s to research regional ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques.  These field notes became the foundation for Bayless’ first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico (1987).

Rick Bayless field notes, early 1980s. Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Another wonderful and perhaps unexpected document is contained in the Paul Ma Papers, collected from Paul and Linda Ma, a Chinese American couple who operated successful restaurants in the West Chester area of New York, beginning in the 1980s. A well-used, handwritten booklet features recipes for the basic dishes and sauces the Mas remembered from home after migrating to the United States around 1964.  With recipes and notes written in both Chinese and English, and with sauce stains identifying the most favored recipes, the booklet also provides insight into the context of Ma’s restaurant menu and cooking.

Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Paul Ma Paper. Research photo.

Occasionally there are recipes filed as “reference material” associated with accessioned objects and these can sometimes be difficult to find without curatorial staff assistance. An example are the thirty-three recipe cards donated by La Deva Davis, an African American teacher whose 1976 television show, “What’s Cooking?” aired on PBS through station WHYY in Wilmington, DE. Donated along with three aprons La Deva Davis wore on the show, the cards provide a record of the dishes she demonstrated (“low cost, high nutrition cooking”), including “Oriental Beef Stew,” “Liptauer Cheese,” and “Think Thin Salad.”

Finally, a note about beer. Our colleague Theresa McCulla, curator of the museum’s American Brewing History Initiative, has collected beer recipes from the individuals who shaped the modern home brewing and craft beer industries.  A couple of examples are included in the museum’s exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table Theresa’s work has also inspired a great deal of interest in some of the older brewing history collections at the museum and for one beer historian, the Archives Center yielded recipe gold. As he was researching the Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, the researcher found a 1930 recipe for Bock beer that called for corn, rice, and sugar scribbled on a piece of paper. In 2019, brewers at Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, created an American bock from the recipe found in the NMAH Archives Center.   

You have been creating a lot of programming around food culture in recent years at the Smithsonian-could you talk about that and how you have adapted during the COVID-19 closures this year?

Ashley Rose Young: The American Food History Project at NMAH hosts a variety of public programs including Cooking Up History, Deep-Dish Dialogues, Roundtables, Conversation Circles, Brewing History After Hours, Ask a Farmer, and more. Additionally, during our annual Food History Weekend, we invite community leaders, food practitioners, activists, academics, policy makers, and the public to come together to discuss a central theme in American history and in our current moment.

Recently, while planning for the all-virtual 2020 Food History Weekend, “Food Futures: Striving for Justice,” we took inspiration from what we saw in our research and collecting around COVID-19: that people are looking ahead with energy and hope for creating better systems and more innovative and humane solutions that will address long-term needs when we emerge from these unprecedented conditions. That weekend, our Cooking Up History programs featured chefs who each shared and prepared a recipe and spoke about its traditional and contemporary significance to food justice. Chef Nico Albert of the Cherokee Nation, for example, prepared Sumac-Crusted Trout with Sauteed Mushrooms and Greens, and guided audiences through foraging for sumac and greens, while also speaking about the culinary heritage of the Cherokee people. She emphasized that retaining and celebrating traditional foodways was a means of securing food sovereignty for indigenous communities across the U.S.

https://youtu.be/PwUo5m1uQtw
YouTube video of “Cooking Up History: Culinary Traditions within the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma with Chef Nico Albert”

As with Chef Nico’s demonstration, all of our Cooking Up History programs are centered around recipes, the history and traditions behind their ingredients, culinary techniques, and enjoyment. The recipes and descriptions of each event can be found on our website under “Past Demos and Recipes.”

Guest Chefs Aisha Alfadhalah and Iman Alshehab of the Mera Kitchen Collective with Ashley Rose Young during a 2019 “Cooking Up History” program. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

For 2021, we are currently developing new models to bring Cooking Up History and other food history programs to digital audiences throughout the year. Please visit our website this spring for updates.

What tips can you offer to help users find collection items? Is it possible to search all of the Smithsonian’s holdings at once, or do researchers need to look at the individual museums?

Ashley Rose Young: I had a chance to reach out to Alison Oswald, an archivist at the Archives Center at NMAH, for tips on how to navigate the vast collections of the Smithsonian, which, admittedly, can be somewhat daunting given the volume of material available. Alison noted that the data related to our collections are exported into the Collections Search Center (CSC), and the CSC is a good place for researchers to start when they want to search across the Smithsonian including all museums, archives, libraries, and research units.

Researchers can also search finding aids in Smithsonian archives by visiting the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). Some finding aids include digitized content linked at collection, series, and folder level.

Alison also provided a few tips on how to make the best of your searches on CSC and SOVA:

  • It can help to use quotes (“ ”) around the key word/search term and to make use of the facets, which allow you to limit a search. For example, “recipes” in SOVA yields 214 collection level records, but if you wanted to know what kind of recipes the National Museum of Air and Space has, you can limit it by selecting archival repository and you get 4 collections.
  • Researchers should also try a variety of terms when searching. Recipes is a pretty specific term so starting broader with cookbooks, cookery, cooking, baking, etc. can be useful. Most catalogs do something called “stemming” which is when the catalog searches for the “root” of a word and displays all words with that stem. For example, the word “searching” or “search” or “searches” all stem to “search”.

Last but not least, Alison noted that catalogs are works in progress that are constantly evolving, and that the Smithsonian welcomes feedback from researchers to make our catalogs better.

For researchers who have projects and interests spanning multiple museums within the Smithsonian, how do you recommend they go about searching for pertinent materials?

Paula Johnson: This is such an important issue and one we have explored recently through a special collaboration with colleagues in the UK and the US, with support from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. While this initiative has been the subject of previous posts, I’ll simply share that we worked with graduate student researchers from the Boston University Program in Gastronomy to test the ease and challenges of conducting food-related subject searches across the Smithsonian’s consolidated digital collections catalogs. The resulting white paper, “Looking for Food in the New Smithsonian Institution Catalog,” is under review and will help inform how we can improve cataloging to make materials more accessible across subject areas.

How much of the Smithsonian’s holdings are digitized? What other digital resources and events are available?

Ashley Rose Young: I also had the opportunity to touch base with Sherri Berger, the head of NMAH’s Digital Programs Office, about the Smithsonian’s digital offerings. Sherri noted that as of 2019, the Smithsonian holds 155.4 million museum objects and specimens, about 19 million of which have been digitized; 1.2 million library volumes, about 760,000 of which have been either fully or partially digitized; and 163,000 cubic feet of archival material, with 5.6 million digitized items. For ways to learn about and access these materials, please see our answer to question 3.

In addition to these materials, the Smithsonian hosts numerous virtual events. You can learn about NMAH’s food history offering by signing up to our newsletter and selecting “food history” as a topic of interest.

We also have recordings of past events available online. You can watch our 2020 Food History Weekend programming and other food-related events on our YouTube “food history” playlist.

Does the Smithsonian offer any fellowships or grants for researchers?

Ashley Rose Young: The Smithsonian offers research fellowships to graduate students, predoctoral students, and postdoctoral and senior investigators to conduct independent research and to utilize the resources of the Institution with members of the Smithsonian professional research staff serving as advisors and hosts. These fellowships are offered through the Smithsonian’s Office of Fellowships and Internships, and are administered under the charter of the Institution, 20 U.S. Code section 41 et seq. You can learn more about our fellowship program here.

*Several photos in this post were taken by research staff and are not official scans provided by the Smithsonian museums and archives. Because the Smithsonian research facilities have been closed due to the pandemic, we are not able to provide proper scans.

Thanks, Ashley and Paula, for chatting about recipes resources at the Smithsonian Institution! You can find Ashley on Twitter @ashleyroseyoung and Instagram @ashleyroseyoung. Theresa McCulla, brewing history coordinator, is on Twitter @theresamccu. You can also find NMAH on Twitter @amhistorymuseum, Instagram @amhistorymuseum, and Facebook @National Museum of American History. They tag their posts/tweets with #SmithsonianFood. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.