In Charlotte, NC it was 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) yesterday, with a blistering sun that felt more like mid-summer than mid-spring; today it is 50 degrees and raining so hard we are under a flash flood warning. Also yesterday, Earth Day (April 22) was met this year by a “March for Science” around the globe. Somehow, it all seems fitting: such fluctuations in the weather here in North Carolina are a product (at least in part) of human-precipitated global climate change, a phenomenon still denied by too many people (one is too many, to my mind), especially in Western countries who have too much to gain by the continued overuse of earth’s resources. But what has this all to do with early modern recipes?
Early modern recipes remind us that humans are, ultimately, subject to seasonal change, even if our actions might alter the fluctuations and intensity of temperature and precipitation—or, might affect the way we experience the seasons. That is, although it may seem that we have the power, even to act destructively, our presence on this planet is a shared presence, one borne of interdependence and punctuated by the fact that we are, ultimately, locked in an interdependent relationship with the other animals, plants, soil, and climate on the planet we cohabitate.
At a time when we can access produce like strawberries and avocados in the middle of winter, it may seem we have achieved liberation from the shackles of seasonality. But such mid-winter fruits, as any who have tasted them in January would know, are mere specters of their mid-summer relatives: they may look like the real thing, but taste like it they do not. Early moderns were necessarily bound to the sort of seasonality we aim to circumvent today. As they grew or harvested their own fruits and vegetables, they were (even with hothouse technology) generally subject to the natural course of ripening that comes as a result of having spent enough hours on the vine, stalk, or bush basking in the sunshine, or the slow release of ethylene that makes a tomato red or a blackberry soft. Calcium carbide, our modern-day chemical stand-in, may hasten ripening while a fruit is prematurely transported to market today, but it will not make it taste sweet.
I want to turn to a recipe from the manuscript receipt book of Rebeckah Winche (Folger MS v.b.366) to rethink what it (and others like it) tells us about human dependence on the seasons. If you open a manuscript recipe book, you will notice myriad iterations of “pick it when it is ripe” or “gather in midsomer,” as we do in numerous recipes from the Winche book. These books thus note the optimum time for harvest, when the plant material is at its best. A recipe from the Winche book, “To Preserve Wallnuts,” charges, “Take green walnuts about Midsomer” (153); or another, “To Drie Figges,” similarly calls for one to “Take your figges when thay are ripe & new gathred” (152). Gathering a fruit when it is ripe, or a flower when it is newly-budded, is to take that plant when its oil and sugar concentrations (and its very essence) are at their peak. But I think recipes like these do more than indicate the optimum time for gathering; they also underscore a delicate balance between the desire to thwart time (and seasonality as a marker of time) and an awareness of the futility of halting time and its effects on both humans and nonhumans alike. For while the act of food preservation (here, drying figs) is an endeavor that presumes to hold an object in time and space indefinitely, it is also a sort of hubris—after all, the moment a plant is harvested, its mortality is hastened. Take the recipe “To Drie Figges,” for instance:
Take your figges when thay are ripe & new
gathred. set on a skillet of water then take
your figges & prick them up & down wth a pin
& put them in to the water & let them boyle till
thay bee tender. then take them out & to a pound of
take a pound of loafe suger. then take a quart of
water. & one quarter of the suger & set it on the
fire & when you have scumed it put in your figs
& let them boyle a pritty while then put them in an
earthen pan & so doe for 4 days together put ing in
on gr of ye suger every day until all bee in allways
let ing the sirup boyle before you put in the figs
let them stand 2 days in the sirrup & then lay them
upon a sive & when thay are drayned scrape fine
suger on them & set them in an oven where there
is some little heat or in a stove turning them twice
a day serseing suger on them until thay be dry
then put papers between them & keepe them in a dry place.
As interesting as the instructions for preserving the figs (which ripen in summer) so they last indefinitely might sound–to suspend them in time by way of applying sugar and heat over a prolonged period–this recipe articulates protracted time in such a way that underscores flux, not stasis. Or put another way, even in the act of “keeping” (which implies a holding in time and space of an object’s qualities), recipes like this one underscore fluctuation and change. Taking the figs, “when they are ripe and new gathred” prompts this chain of events, but what follows is a process of “prick[ing],” “scum[ing],” “boyle[ing],” “drayn[ing],” “turning,” and “serseing” over the course of days, even weeks, “until thay be dry” (however long that is). The “ings” here outnumber the “eds.”
We might also recall the numerous recipes from the period in which we find alternative storage directions for different seasons: foods and medicines might last longer in storage in the winter than in the summer. And here, in the simple directions to “keepe them [the dried figs] in a dry place,” we see contingencies of seasonality—keeping something dry in the middle of summer is usually an easier enterprise than keeping it dry in the peak of the spring rains, even if your storage is tucked away and sealed. For that matter, starting a fire and keeping it regulated is easier to do during a drier season than it is a wetter one.
This recipe with a deceptively simple title, “To Drie Figges,” then, reveals a complex and ongoing interaction between human (gatherer) and an array of nonhuman things (fig, sugar, fire, sun, rain, knife, skillet, and more) that seems to defy the very premise of preservation. That is, while the notion of “preserving” seems to imply something very unseasonal—to be kept perpetually in a state over time—“To Drie Figges” reminds us of the multiple states of being, of our dependence on the seasons for the fruit’s ripeness and for its preservation (even after the loads of sugar). Moreover, any user of this recipe would need to know the season when figs ripen, as our instructions indicate merely to “take” when ripe. In England, as in the US, figs tend to ripen in summer, but the moment of optimum ripeness is harnessed not by fixing a date on the calendar to gather, but rather by attending to the particulars of the fruit’s appearance, odor, and texture. As anyone who tends a garden in this time of climate change would know, though, that precise moment shifts from year to year, and is coming earlier all the time, thanks to planetary warming. For these and other reasons, then, recipes remind us of what we might otherwise like to forget: so much is depending not so much on us, but on the season.