If you’ve browsed The Recipes Project in the past several weeks, you may have raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar black and white squiggles that decorate the top of our page (written, by the way, in a cursive form of premodern Japanese). As my October editorial duties slowly draw to a close, I couldn’t let the month go by without spoiling the mystery of this little recipe collection…of sorts…as economical in its prose as in its outlook.
Consisting of a single broadsheet (what you see above is the whole thing), Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice (Daikenyaku meshi no takiyō), was likely produced around the time of Japan’s Great Tenpō Famine in the 1830s as a no-nonsense guide to help households squeeze a little more out of their staple grains. Rice prices could fluctuate wildly from season to season in time of scarcity, and to the extent that ordinary people could afford to eat (usually brown) rice at all, cutting it with cheaper vegetables and coarse grains became a strategy for survival.
Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice was one of many vernacular publications—meant to help regular folks combat famine conditions—that circulated through the vibrant marketplace for commercial print during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). If it wasn’t given away for free, it was available for cheap, meaning a family could likely recoup what little they spent on the pamphlet itself in as little as a single meal. This was no small claim for those in need, and economizing became both a key premise in enduring food shortages and a central feature of every recipe listed here.
What are the Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice? The guide “instructs” readers on how to prepare rice seasoned and combined with a variety of inexpensive beans, roots, grains, and leaves, similar to the contemporary Japanese dish takikomi gohan. Each recipe indicates the proper proportions (five parts rice to four parts barley, for example) and basic directions for foods like barley, sweet potato, tofu lees, fava beans, millet, daikon radish, carrots, cow peas, red beans, as well as two kinds of “very economical” porridge that could stretch rice even further. Based on which ingredient one mixed in, a household could save a hefty thirty to eighty mon (a common denomination of copper coinage) on ten portions, a significant sum worth as much as $10 to $25 in today’s currency.
Yet one thing continues to bug me about these very frugal recipes: why go through the trouble to teach people what they already knew? The directions themselves are so simple and intuitive as to border on obvious: cook beans, mix with rice; cut potatoes into chunks, mix with rice; boil leaves, season, mix. What’s more, families likely prepared such dishes in their homes already, making Very Frugal Ways redundant knowledge that didn’t bear repeating. Barring anything earth shattering within the recipes themselves, communicating frugality was itself the point. In a society where rice was not only the staple food but the basic unit of taxation and exchange, where running out signaled destitution, economizing as a lesson was worth reproducing the same old recipes, even if everyone already knew what was on the menu.
Student Jose Hernandez summed up initial reaction to finding a “recipe assignment” on an Atlantic World History course syllabus: “when you first assigned the Columbian Exchange assignment, I honestly assumed that you were giving us busy work.” Once students dove into the assignment, reactions changed. As Hernandez went on to say, “once I started researching, I realized that this was a legit assignment.”
Legit indeed. The project enhanced student understanding of the Columbian Exchange as a truly transformative global phenomenon. It also provided them with new—and at times surprising— knowledge about their favorite foods.
After Europeans introduced them to the Americas, the meat of pigs and cows became staple features of creolized cuisine. Students worked on a number of such recipes. Bryan Howell researched the empanadilla, or little empanada, a pork-based dish created by culinary exchanges among Portuguese, Spanish, Native American, and Caribbean creoles. As he put it, the empanadilla “had to make a lot of trips back and forth across the Atlantic to be what it is. And what it is is freaking delicious.”
Student Cynthia Vera researched another meat-based recipe, one that she termed “a Latin spin on a European croquette.”
Cook ground meat and drain. Add sofrito mixture and packet of sazon con achote. Stir well over low heat to blend flavors and set aside.
Peel and boil potatoes until tender. Mash potatoes with salt and cornmeal, mix well. Place potato mixture in refrigerator to cool.
Once cool, scoop into balls, make pocket in middle of ball with your finger to place meat. Carefully press mixture back into a ball, thoroughly covering meat mixture. Dust in cornmeal, fry.
While the beef was the result of European colonization, corn and potatoes both were essential to American indigenous peoples’ diets. As Vera aptly put it, both were “ingredients of abundance” for Native Americans. And yet, Vera had never thought of the indigenous roots of what was to her a very familiar dish. As she reflected, “Growing up Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian I did not get the sense that my culture was heavily influenced by anything but other Hispanic cultures.” Researching her chosen dish, she found otherwise, and that recipes like rellenos de papa “speak volumes to the original cultures that did not allow themselves to be swallowed up, but instead were reborn into something else that has become a signature for today’s people.”
Students Jose Hernandez and Madeline Mercado also described their recipes—different variations of rice and beans —as edible reminders of how people retained culinary practices in the face of change. West Africans ate rice and beans, enslaved people of African descent were the laborers who tended rice in places like South Carolina, and West African cultivation practices and knowledge were likely integral to the crop’s success in the Americas.
Other students found that European traditions were behind what they thought were indigenous recipes. Sonia Martinez researched pan dulce or “Mexican sweet bread,” a treat “sold everywhere, from street food stands to elaborate bakeries in the capital.” Pan dulce is an important part of Mexican holidays like the Day of the Dead, when it is eaten in the form of pan de muerto (pan dulce in the shape of crosses, skulls, angels, or tomb effigies).
Martinez was surprised to find that pan dulce “wasn’t made from native ingredients passed down from generation to generation.” Instead, it relies on wheat, a plant Spanish missionaries insisted on importing to make communion wafers.
Another group of students focused on recipes that used ingredients that traveled east, from the Americas to Europe and, eventually, India and Asia. Some had legends attached to them. Student Ashley Olivetti delved into her grandmother’s Italian tomato sauce recipe. She found that Europeans at first feared tomatoes in part because they are part of the family Solanaceae, which includes “deadly nightshades” like belladonna, a poisonous plant that, according to Germanic folklore, witches used to summon werewolves.
Student Thomas Finn looked at vichyssoise, or French potato and leek soup, and was surprised to find that the ordinary potato has legends attached to it. When Incas from Cuzco fled before Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1476-1541), they lightened their load to travel faster under threat of puma attacks, throwing supplies into Lake Pumacocha to prevent the Spanish from using them. Among these supplies was the Incan staple ch’unu, a freeze-dried, dehydrated potato easy to carry over the long distances of the far-flung Incan empire. The Inca were allegedly on their way to the legendary city of Paititi, a never found place rumored to contain hordes of gold and silver.
Other students looked at recipes that arose due to another farflung empire: that of the British. Student Remy Rodney researched his grandmother’s “Jamaican soup,” a dish that reflects the global reach of the British in its chicken, pumpkins, yams, and Korean dumplings. Student Harmon Chan looked at Japanese rice and potato curry. First found in Japanese cookbooks in 1872, this now popular standby in Japan had its beginnings not long before, after American Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 visit began a new era of Japanese trade with western nations including Britain. Among the things the British introduced to Japan were curry from India and potatoes from America.
As one student put it, “food is one way people define their culture.” As students learned by researching recipes of the Columbian Exchange, food is one way people maintain old cultures and create new ones, too.
Harmon Chan is a History major interested in exploring the history of the United States.
Thomas Finn is a senior History major who is interested in colonial American history. His family has lived in America a long time, and in the same house on Staten Island since 1820.
Jose Hernandez is a senior History major, who is minoring in African American Studies. His interests include the Atlantic World and its importance in world history.
Sonia Martinez, born to immigrant parents, is a first generation Mexican American student. She is a senior majoring in English writing and linguistics, and minors in Spanish.
Madeline Mercado majors in Social Work and minors in Spanish. Her family background is Puerto Rican, and she is interested in the history of rice in the Atlantic World.
Ashley Olivetti is a senior American Studies major. Her family is originally from Italy and now resides in Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York. Her interests include researching and writing about history.
Remiah Rodney is a sophomore of Jamaican heritage. Born in London, England, he plays soccer for the College of Staten Island.
Cynthia Vera is a Latin American senior, majoring in Latin American Studies and Psychology.
Rice pudding is simple. Neutral in color and mild in taste, it has a minimal list of ingredients and always pleases a crowd. It’s also familiar. So, when we kept seeing rice pudding recipes in manuscript recipe books from centuries ago, we wondered why. And what, if any, differences were there between past and present versions? In the spirit of our project,Cooking in the Archives, we decided to make two distinct rice pudding recipes. A rice pudding face-off!
While in the twenty-first century the ingredients required to make rice pudding are pantry staples – rice and sugar are readily available, as is dairy – in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English households, rice pudding was probably a more exotic affair. England does not produce any of its own rice, so we asked where did the rice came from.
This sent us on a hunt for early modern England’s rice suppliers. Today, as in the past, the majority of the world’s rice is produced in Asia. Both recipes we cooked come from the eighteenth century. Until the later decades of the seventeenth century, England’s rice came from Asia through overland routes or through overseas trade. The rice that made its way into England’s kitchens in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would likely have come from British colonies in South Carolina. Carolina Gold Rice was developed from African seed stock and is distinct from Asian varieties. It thrived in the Low Country, anchored South Carolina’s economy, and was largely cultivated by African slaves. Scholars of American history and food are currently debating the theory of “Black Rice,” which argues for the centrality of West African women’s agricultural knowledge to the successful cultivation of rice in the Carolinas. The recipes we decided to cook were both included in manuscripts from a particular historical moment: the moment when the rice supply-chain changed and Carolina Gold Rice arrived in England’s kitchens.
Our rice puddings come from LJS 165 and MS Codex 631. Each recipe is just one in a cluster of rice pudding recipes, demonstrating cooks’ variations on a base recipe. (Rice pudding could also be adapted into other recipes; two rice pudding recipes in MS Codex 631 include instructions for adapting them to almond puddings instead.) For contrast, we chose to cook one recipe that started with whole rice and another that used rice flour as a base.
A quart of Creame a pound of Rice 2 Eggs, Orangado a
1/4 of a pound, Cinamon a quarter of an Ounce, a
little Rosewater & Ambergreese some grated bread 3/4 of a
pound of suger some Marrow boyle Salt inthe Creame
Take six ounces of Rice flower a quart of milk set them over [th]e fire & stir them well
together while they are thick, then put in half a pound of Butter six eggs one nutmeg sweeten
it to y[ou]r tast, Buter y[ou]r Dish that you Bake it in /
Our rice pudding-off was a success! These rice puddings couldn’t look or taste more different. The “whole grain” rice pudding from LJS 165 is toothsome, with surprising depth of flavor from the caramelized sugar and rosewater. The cinnamon adds a spicy note, but the orange flavor is harder to identify. This rice pudding is especially thick.
The rice flour pudding from MS Codex 631, on the other hand, is bland. Nutmeg is the primary seasoning; even the strong notes of nutmeg don’t cut just how creamy this pudding tastes. With a very firm custard texture, it would form a good base for other tastes, such as fruit, or with additional flavors added.
In the eighteenth century, rice pudding represented the world in a bowl. Rice from West African seeds was cultivated in American soil by enslaved Africans in the Carolinas and shipped east across the Atlantic to England. The sugar probably came from the Caribbean. Nutmeg and cinnamon from places like the Moluccas made their way west through Asian and European ports. Oranges imported from Seville and other warmer climates scented the dish. The eggs, milk, cream, and bread are the only ingredients early modern cooks would have been able to source locally. These ingredients rely on both trade and labor – their production depended on plantation agriculture and their presence in England came from a highly developed global network. Paying particular attention to this single ingredient, rice, has reminded us to consider how ingredients entered early modern kitchens before they became the recipes in a household manuscript.
What surprised us most about making these dueling rice puddings was the true difference in taste. In both, the taste of the rice remains – even through the single note of nutmeg in the rice flour pudding and the dense combination of flavors in the rice grain pudding. The taste difference, furthermore, is deliberate: the presence of multiple rice pudding recipes within the same manuscript recipe book indicates attempts to explore the versatility of this ingredient, to incorporate other flavors into a recipe that has one umbrella name but many flavorings and techniques. In both cases, we were able to follow the ingredients and techniques fairly closely (minus ambergris and marrow), so what we tasted in our dueling rice puddings seems, to us, a likely descendant of these puddings as they were originally prepared.
 Renee Marton, Rice: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), esp. 35-43; Francesca Bray, “Introduction: Purity and Promiscuity,” in Rice: Global Networks and New Histories, eds. Francesca Bray, Peter A. Coclanis, Edda L. Fields-Black, and Dagmar Schafer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 6-8.
 Bray, “Introduction,” 10. We would like to thank Katie Rawson (UPenn) for telling us more about Carolina Gold Rice.
Alyssa Connell holds a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She studies British literature of the long eighteenth century (1660-1800), specializing in travel writing, book history, cartography, and epistolary fiction. She has taught classes on periodical culture, Jane Austen, eighteenth-century travel narratives, British Romanticism, and nineteenth-century fugitive stories, as well as a monthly community literature seminar in Philadelphia. With Marissa Nicosia, she is the co-founder of Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a public history digital humanities project that curates transcribed and updated recipes from early modern English household manuscripts for an audience of food historians and culinary enthusiasts alike.
Marissa Nicosia is an Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Abington where she teaches, researches, and writes about early modern English literature, book history, and political theory. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania and previously taught at Scripps College. Marissa’s current book project studies the history play in the seventeenth-century to argue that the genre forged speculative political futures. Her work has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon- Rare Book School Fellowship in Critical Bibliography and the Folger Institute. With Alyssa Connell, she is the co-founder of Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a public history digital humanities project that curates transcribed and updated recipes from early modern English household manuscripts for an audience of food historians and culinary enthusiasts alike.
To follow Katherine Allen’s post on tobacco: some thoughts on a different colonial import. Researching in recipe books often presents tempting diversions, and this recipe for ‘Pilau after the East Indian manner’ looks pretty tasty.
Boil half a pound of Butter to a pound of Rice & when the Butter is turn’d to Oil put in some Mace Cloves whole pepper & cinnamon together with the Rice and stir it about & let it fry till the Butter is almost dryd & soak’d away, Let a Fowl at the same time be boiling in Mutton Broth till it be enough & then pour as much Broth upon the Rice as will cover it about three Inches & let that boil away without stirring, only raising it now & then from the bottom for fear of its being burnt, then add by degrees a little & little more Broth until the Rice is boiled th[r]ough and quite Dry, then Dish it, putting the Fowl in the Dish first & pouring the Rice over it with some Salt according to your Taste.
The recipe comes from Sarah Tully’s recipe book which she probably began when she married Sir Richard Hoare, heir to Hoare’s bank and, by 1745, Lord Mayor of London. A portrait of Sarah Tully in the National Trust collection depicts her amid rural scenery, dressed as a shepherdess. Unfortunately, Sarah died only four years after her marriage. She left one son, and other anonymous hands continued her recipe collection.
We have seen in recent posts about chocolate and gingerbread that spices such as cinnamon and cloves were common ingredients in the early modern household, but the Hoare household seemed to have been uncommonly fond of foreign flavours for their time. Recipes include ‘A Loyn of Mutton Kebob’d’, ‘currie powder’ and ‘Indian pickle’, in addition to cosmopolitan European recipes for ‘Parmason cheese’ and ‘Fromage Fondu’. Hoare’s Bank held investments in the South Sea Company, Royal African Company and East India Company. While other investors including Isaac Newton lost a great deal of money when the South Sea bubble burst in 1720, perhaps the fact that Hoare’s Bank made a substantial profit from ‘riding the bubble’, contributed to their culinary as well as financial enthusiasm for the exotic.
Several printed books from the late seventeenth century mention pilau (other spellings include pellow and peelaw). In the 1690s, Simon de La Loubere’s A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam explained that ‘the Levantines, or Eastern People, do sometimes boil Rice with Flesh and Pepper, and then put some Saffron thereunto, and this Dish they call Pilau’ while Antoine Galland described ‘a great Dish of pilau’, made of rice, and dressed with butter, fat or gravy.
Other writers were less than complimentary; according to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s Collections of travels through Turky into Persia (1684) the Turks’ use of three pounds of butter to six of rice (the same ratio as in Sarah Tully’s recipe), made the dish ‘so extraordinary fat, that it disgusts, and is nauseous to those who are not accustom’d thereto, and accordingly would rather have the Rice itself simply boyl’d with Water and Salt’. In 1709, William King dismissed Peter Heylin’s suggestion that the inspiration for European silver forks had originally come from China, scoffing that ‘These sticks are of no use but for their sort of meat, which being Pilau, is all boil’d to Rags’.
It is likely that the pilau recipe in Sarah Tully’s book dates from the middle of the eighteenth century; Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contained what seems to have been the first published curry recipe in England as well as a very similar recipe to Tully’s for ‘a pellow the Indian way’–though in Glasse’s recipe the fowl is also accompanied by bacon, half a dozen hard eggs and a dozen onions ‘fried whole and very brown’. By the nineteenth century, ‘curry’ was commonplace in English households – even if the pre-mixed powder commonly used bore little relation to its ‘authentic’ Indian roots.
Dating recipes is one thing, but understanding their meaning in households is another. In Nabobs (2010), Tillman W. Nechtman argues that hookah pipes, turbans and curry powder exposed Britain as ‘an irretrievably imperial nation’, but, as Troy Bickham has commented, it is difficult to find evidence of how items such as recipes were used in practice. This early pilau recipe copied into a private book suggests that recipe collections might be a good source for understanding the changing ways in which the empire was incorporated into the daily routines of British homes.
I’ll admit, I’m still tempted to make this pilau, though maybe I will leave out some of the butter.