Victorians were obsessed with diet and appetite. Discussions about how to provide adequate nutrition to different human bodies spanned specialized scientific practice, domestic cookery, and manufacturers of new food products, not to mention popular culture and discourse.
As part of a British Academy Digital Humanities project – Eating Yourself Young – we have been exploring the relationship between theories and practices of nutrition and health. Beyond scientific papers and newspaper articles on the subject, manuscript recipes from the period reveal how food and health were intimately intertwined in everyday cookery habits. The Cookery Collection at the University of Leeds, recognized by Arts Council England as one of its Designated Collections – a programme which ‘identifies and celebrates outstanding collections’ – includes around 50 manuscript recipe books from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, with a particular concentration in the early-to-mid-Victorian period. Striking in many of these are the claims made about the health benefits of various foodstuffs.
In one anonymous collection of recipes, including regional specialities from Surrey and Yorkshire, we can see the integration of foods described as healthful. In this particular manuscript, amongst a list of 111 recipes for a wide variety of foods from sportsman’s beef and twirligigs to endless variants on plum pudding, the author (or, probably more properly, the compositor) included instructions for preparing restorative jelly and strengthening soup. The former consisted of sago, rice, pearl barley and ginger root, boiled in water until the volume was reduced by half. Strengthening soup, by contrast, consisted of stewing very slowly knuckles of lamb and veal with shin of beef, “mixed with sweet herbs,” in water, before adding “best rose water.” In contrast to all other recipes in the manuscript folio, the author also indicated when and how it should be consumed, “a tea cup-full to be taken every Night & Morning warm.”
Certain dishes could, of course, restore health. But foodstuffs were often incorporated into medical recipes as well. A collection of culinary and medical recipes – co-existing comfortably in the same volume – included “an excellent recipe for sprains.” This involved mixing “old ale” with turpentine and applying it to the skin. Ingredients for one of many preparations designed to treat a cough included lemon juice, “Spanish juice,” “Sugar Candy,” and a freshly-laid egg. The preparation of this particular cough remedy is particularly intriguing; it involved adding the lemon juice to the egg whilst still in its shell and waiting for the shell to dissolve before introducing the remaining ingredients.
Several medical remedies were also supposed to require other dietary and lifestyle changes to be effective. A “Cure for Influenza” required, for example, that the “patient [should be] … careful to keep the feet warm & dry [and subsist] … on a light diet.” Immediately following these clearly medical preparations were instructions for how to clean silk, devise a French polish, and remove grease from cloth fabric.
As much as these recipes were practical, the presentation of recipes was just as often playful as healthful and helpful. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference in a recipe for Paradise Pudding instructed the reader to “take of the same fruit which Eve once did taste, Well pared + well clipped, half a dozen at least.” Remarking on the experience that the diner might expect on eating this divine dish, the author noted that “Adam tasted this Pudding twas wonderous.”
Across all these, we can gain further insight into exactly where the expertise of everyday medicine in Victorian Britain was located. Of the recipes in this collection which were attributed to a particular person, almost all were women. The medical recipes employed much the same modes of preparation as culinary recipes, and many were written in the same hand. This suggests that the intersection of cookery and domestic medical practices were deeply intertwined. Whilst this is scarcely revelatory or unexpected, a more fine-grained analysis of these medical-related recipes in their social, cultural, and scientific context is needed to further highlight the importance and construction of domestic medicine and its practitioners.