Tag Archives: recipes

Making Mr. Song’s Cheeses

By Miranda Brown

The subject of this post may strike readers as odd. The combination of “Chinese” and “cheese” brings little to mind: neither memorable textures, nor fragrant flavors. Nothing, not even a single name like Parmesan or cheddar. The reason for the dearth of associations is obvious enough. Cheese is largely absent from the Chinese diet, nowadays found only in the periphery of the Chinese world, in places like Yunnan and Mongolia, where it is regarded as ethnic food for Tibetans and other minorities.

Yet things were different several hundred years ago. Chinese gastronomes once waxed poetic about the taste and texture of cheese, professing their preference for it over elaborate delicacies. One poet, living in the thirteenth century, extolled the flavor of cheese, saying, “No need for fancy morsels when there is cheese!”[1] Another, living a century later, asserted the superiority of dairy to bean curd. “While this old fellow is content with his tofu,” he wrote, “The delight gotten from cheese is double.”[2]  These early foodies related recipes for manufacturing fresh, non-melting cheeses like paneer and the secrets for creating stretched curds like mozzarella.

Over the last several years, I have experimented with recipes for Chinese cheese, attempting to recapture the flavors and textures of centuries past. One recipe, for stretched-curd “milk threads,” proved tricky. Preserved in a 16thc-cookbook, Song’s Instructions for Preserving Life (Songshi yangsheng bu 宋氏養生部), the recipe can be summarized like this:

  1. Heat cow’s milk until hot.
  2. Pour in a souring agent (akin to diluted vinegar), dripping it into the milk gradually.
  3. Once a curd forms, collect it with a cotton wrap and shape into a disc.
  4. Take the curd and place inside of a pot of scalding water.
  5. In a separate vessel of scalding water, press it into the shape of a thin sheet of coarse silk.
  6. Place the curd onto a stick, rolling and pulling.
  7. Put the curd inside the scalding water in the pot, rolling and pulling three to five more times while in the water.
  8. Roll out the resulting thread, placing it on a rack to dry in the sun (oil can be added to make the product smoother).[3]

This recipe assumes a working knowledge of the cheesemaking process. Hence, the omission of precise measurements. Readers must know beforehand the quantities of milk or souring agent, and the temperature of the milk or scalding water. Needless to say, this presents a challenge to a modern cook who is unfamiliar with cheesemaking.

My first attempts to produce the cheese failed, even with un-homogenized milk. The resulting curds, small and grainy, refused to stretch after being immersed in hot water. I sought help from Youtube, watching videos of Indian housewives making kalari, a non-rennet string cheese that was similar to Song’s stretched curd in terms of ingredients (cow’s milk, vinegar, hot water). I noticed that when coagulating the milk, the home cooks would test the temperature of the milk with their fingers, stopping the heating process once they could no longer keep their fingers in the liquid, rather than waiting for the milk to come to a soft boil as one would when making ricotta or paneer. This made me think that control of temperature was key to success, something hinted by Song’s own directions: heat the milk until hot, not boiling. Still, my subsequent efforts to make the cheese failed despite the care taken during the initial curdling process. I wondered if the pasteurization process, which requires that the milk be heated to at least 165° Fahrenheit, had something to do with my lack of success.

My breakthrough came during a trip to California, where I was able to purchase raw or unpasteurized milk. I heated a quart of the raw milk gently until hot (110° F), then poured in a little diluted vinegar and shut off the heat, all the while continuously stirring the milk. Within minutes, the milk transformed into one large curd.

Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar . Image courtesy of the author.

I removed the curd and heated a pot of water to simmering, and immersed the curd into the scalding water for a few moments, removing it from the pot and kneading, repeating the process three times. Voilà, an elastic curd that stretched easily.

Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.

Looking back at the experience with Chinese cheesemaking, I can say that the success of my experiment depended on a variety of factors: knowledge of arcane texts, watching other cheesemakers at work, and many failed experiments in the kitchen.

Miranda Brown teaches the history of Chinese science and food in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Fascinated with recipes of all kinds, she is the author of the Art of Medicine in Early China (2015) and with Yang Yong, “The Wuwei Medical Manuscripts” (2017). She is currently writing a book about the premodern history of dairy in China.

[1] Zhu Xi  朱熹, Zhuzi wenji 朱子文集 (Taipei: Defu wenjiao jijinhui, 2000), 3/110.

[2] Yang, Lian 楊鐮 (chief editor), Quan Yuan shi 全元詩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2013), 109.

[3] For a translation of the whole recipe, see Miranda Brown, “Mr. Song’s Cheeses, South China, 1368-1644.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies (Forthcoming). 

Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.

Favorite Recipes: Social Networks in the Pages of a Regional Community Cookbook

By Rachel A. Snell

Members of the Mount Desert chapter may have attended the ceremonial induction of officers at the neighboring Tremont chapter, as depicted in this undated photograph. Courtesy Southwest Harbor Public Library

In the late 1920s, members of the Mount Desert Chapter No. 20 of the Order of the Eastern Star compiled a cookbook of favorite recipes. During the peak of associational life, from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the Order of the Eastern Star was one of a number of social organizations that shaped civic life and sociability on Mount Desert Island.[i]The recipes collected by the members of this chapter provide windows into the lives of early-twentieth-century women, both within and outside of domestic spaces. A previous post explored the representation of globalized food systems within the compiled recipes, this post will examine social networks within Mount Desert. The Order of the Eastern Star, like other women’s organizations of the early twentieth century, strengthened the social bonds between rural Maine women. The recipes for salads and cakes, which would be appropriate for an informal ladies’ luncheon or tea, suggest the significance of social gatherings to the members of the Mount Desert Chapter and complement the histories we have of this chapter. Additionally, the text of the cookbook can be used as a map and as a spatial analysis of the collected recipes, which reveal the continued importance of familial ties and residential proximity in the lives of rural women of the early twentieth century.

This map, created using census and directory data, provides a spatial analysis of the compilers of Favorite Recipes. A full map of the Island can be viewed here.

Cookbook collections such as Favorite Recipes shift our focus from considering women’s experiences in time, to considering their experiences across physical space. Research into historical and genealogical records permit this cookbook to be mapped, allowing women’s networks to be presented visually, and thereby provide an image of social culture on Mount Desert Island during the period in which these recipes were collected. Of the forty-one women and two men who submitted recipes to the cookbook, thirty-three individuals can be definitively identified and mapped through Census Records and local directories. The map reveals that the majority of the recipe compilers, and likely the majority of the members of the Mount Desert Chapter, resided in Somesville. A few lived further afield in Pretty Marsh, Sound, and Northeast Harbor, but the majority appear to have resided within easy commuting distance to the Masonic Lodge.

This undated photograph shows the two and one-half story Somesville Masonic Hall built in the early 1890s. Courtesy of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society

The clustering of recipe contributors in Somesville affirms the intentions of the founders of the Mount Desert Chapter. According to an undated “Brief History” of the chapter from 1894-1920, “the ladies of Somesville, desirous of enjoying more frequent opportunities of meeting together, held a number of meetings during the fall and winter of 1894, taking preliminary action toward the organization of a chapter of the Order of Eastern Star.”[ii]The creation of the Mount Desert Chapter provided the women of Somesville and surrounding villages with an opportunity to meet regularly at the Masonic Lodge and to attend to chapter business, as well as a chance to socialize outside of domestic spaces and obligations.

Recipes for cake frostings and fillings from Favorite Recipe with a splatter suggesting these recipes were used by the cookbook owner. Courtesy of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society

The recipes themselves also suggest the importance of this social function. While there is no lack of substantial family fare, recipes for cakes, cookies, salads, and other delicacies that may have formed the menu for a ladies’ luncheon or an afternoon tea are well represented in Favorite Recipes. It is quite possible that these recipes provided the foundation for the menus of suppers served at officer appointments and at regular chapter meetings. Newspaper accounts of the Mount Desert Chapter’s activities frequently note the quality of the spread, such as the comment that “delicious refreshments were served at the close of the chapter” meeting in January of 1932.[iii]In this sense, it is a recipe book perfectly suited to the women of the chapter and their increasingly organized network of friends, family, and neighbors. Recipes suitable for quick, hearty, and wholesome family meals and for impressing guests, or fellow attendees of a neighborhood potluck, comingle within the cookbook.

This post is excerpted from “Favorite Recipes: Relationships Past and Present in the Pages of a Regional Cookbook” published in Chebacco, the magazine of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. The full article is available here.

[i]William J. Skocpol, “Fraternal Organization on Mount Desert Island,” Chebacco 9 (2008), 36-59.

[ii]A Brief History of Mount Desert Chapter #20, O.E.S., 1894-1920, 1, Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[iii]“Somesville,” Bar Harbor Record(Jan. 27, 1932): 7.

Old Cookbooks, New Audiences

By Sarah Peters Kernan

In my last post I mentioned that relatively few medieval cookbooks included menus for actual events. The ones that did were typically included in cookeries originally composed for noble households; by the fifteenth century, these cookeries were being used by gentry and professional households as aspirational texts. That is, readers would use these cookbooks to learn about the foods served in the social class to which they aspired.[1] This continued into the early years of printing. In England, Richard Pynson printed the first vernacular cookery in 1500, based on recipes originally circulated in manuscript form.[2] Despite being a printed book, the Book of Cookery is very similar to typical medieval cookeries. The size of the book and appearance of the text mirrors many fifteenth-century manuscript cookeries. The black gothic typeface is unadorned, nary a decorated capital or border in sight. Clearly differentiating the printed text from a manuscript one is the lack of rubrication, which speckles so many handwritten recipes.

Printer's mark of Richard Pynson.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Printer’s mark of Richard Pynson. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Book of Cookery begins with the menus of several fourteenth and fifteenth-century noble feasts: one hosted by Henry IV at a Smithfield joust, the coronation feast of Henry V, a feast of the Earl of Huntingdon at Calais, a feast held for the king in London by the Earl of Warwick, the installation feast of Bishop Clifford in London, and an installation feast for the Archbishop of York in 1465.[3] The author describes several other untitled feasts before discussing dishes appropriate for various seasons. Following this calendar, which also serves as a recipe index, the author provides 275 recipes for dishes familiar to late medieval nobles. The text is filled with high status birds and fish fit for noble tables.

Longleat House. John Edward Jackson, The History of Longleat (Devizes, 1857), 10. Source: The British Library.

The Book of Cookery now exists as a unique copy in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House. It is bound with a fragment of a tract, also printed by Pynson in 1500.[4] This text, Remembraunce for the traduction of the Princesse Kateryne, lists noblemen and women assigned to escort Catherine of Aragon through England upon her arrival from Spain in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur. Only two leaves of the tract are bound with the Book of Cookery. This tract presents an interesting counterpoint to the cookbook, as the list of nobles seems an appropriate way to conclude a book which begins with descriptions of feasts for or hosted by specific nobles in the preceding century.

I have located a reference to one other copy of the 1500 edition of the Book of Cookery in a list of books in the possession of James Morice, a gentleman in the service of Lady Margaret Beaufort.[5] Morice recorded a list of his twenty-three books in his copy of Cicero’s De senectute. His copy was bound with seven other texts, including books on courtesy, carving, and verse.[6] Morice’s books appealed to nobles and gentry refining their manners and intelligence.

Shortly after he printed the Book of Cookery, Pynson moved his printing shop inside the city of London and became the royal printer.[7] He printed a variety of texts and genres within the reading preferences of professionals, gentry, and nobles. His wholesale book prices reflected this range, priced between 20 d and 10 s, with most valued at 2 s.[8] The Book of Cookery was probably priced at 2 s. Given that 2 s was the equivalent of four days wages for a master craftsmen, the Book of Cookery was an expensive book, though still more affordable than manuscript cookeries.[9]

Once printed, the Book of Cookery made a noble manuscript cookery available to a larger number of people. Such a book would appeal to noble households as a tool for planning meals, as well as gentlemen aspiring to be more like their social superiors. The cookery’s incipit specifically targets these higher status readers rather than reaching out to a broad audience. Neither Pynson nor any other hand involved in the printing changed the incipit to reflect a desire to reach a new audience. Pynson’s output also targeted a higher status audience, one that encompassed professionals, gentry, and nobles. The tract fragment bound with the extant Book of Cookery also suggests a gentry or noble reader who wanted or needed information about Catherine of Aragon’s travels. Additionally, the two known copies of the book were housed in the private libraries of noble estates. It is notable that the extant copy of the book was consistently preserved in an estate library, passed down through several generations.

The Book of Cookery is an excellent example of the way readers used cookbooks at the turn of the sixteenth century, devouring menus and recipes to learn how to imitate higher social classes.



[1] Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016).

[2] Here begynneth a noble boke of festes ryalle and Cokery (London: Richard Pynson, 1500). Henceforth I will refer to this book as the Book of Cookery. For the book’s manuscript sources, see Constance Hieatt, “Richard Pynson’s Noble Boke of Festes Ryalle and Cokery and its Relationship to Two Analogous Manuscripts,” Journal of the Early Book Society 1 (1997), 78–95; Robina Napier, ed., A Noble Boke off Cookry ffor a Prynce Houssolde or eny other Estately Houssolde; Reprinted Verbatim from a Rare MS. in the Holkham Collection (Elliot Stock, 1882).

[3] Book of Cookery, fols. aiir–avir.

[4] Kate Harris, “Richard Pynson’s Remembraunce for the Traduction of the Princesse Kateryne: the Printer’s Contribution to the Reception of Catharine of Aragon,” The Library XII, no. 2 (June 1990): 99.

[5] J. C. T. Oates, “English Bokes Concernyng to James Morice,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 3, no. 2 (1960), 124–32.

[6] Oates, 130–31.

[7] Frank Burgoyne, “Printers of England, I.—Richard Pynson,” The Library Assistant: The Official Organ of the Library Assistants’ Association IV (1905): 148.

[8] Henry Plomer, “Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson,” The Library X, no. 38 (April 1909): 126–27. The “d” is an abbreviation for pence. There were twelve pence in one shilling (s), and twenty shillings in one pound.

[9] “Prices & Wages (Munro),” MEMDB: Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank, http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/memdb/.