The Emotional Life of Recipes

By Montserrat Cabré

Reading Elaine Leong’s January blog entry about technologies of recipe collecting, as well as her New Year’s resolution to start filling a years-long empty recipe box, reminded me of an issue I have been thinking about for some time.

A few years ago, a friend gave me to read an excerpt of The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by cultural journalist Sallie Tisdale; she rightly thought I might enjoy it. It had been published in an anthology of food writing under the familiar title of Recipes from My Mother, a topic certainly dear to my interests.[1] It is a short, very moving text that confronted me with something that my medieval and early modern recipes do not openly show: the fact that the act of writing, keeping, filing, giving, receiving or inheriting recipes may be highly emotionally charged. That is, it made the cultural historian of knowledge in me aware of rich, unexplored qualities of recipes as historical evidence.

Recipes may be the repository of complex subjective experiences. Catherine Field wrote an interesting article on early modern British women’s recipe-writing where she explored the extent in which recipes could be a medium and a witness for the construction of personal identity.[2] I myself have recently discussed Spanish early modern recipes as a source to trace changes in the ways gender was embodied.[3] But, may recipe collections be the material expression of intimate self-identity conflicts? Can they be a source with the power to express the emotion of personal failure or success? The depository of expectation and hope in one’s own worth? The material expression of one’s acknowledgement of feeling awkward? The desire to become someone else? The wish to have been cared for in a certain way?

Fernando Salmón personal recipe collection. Photo: Montserrat Cabré
Fernando Salmón personal recipe collection.
Photo: Montserrat Cabré

Sallie Tisdale’s reflections upon the recipe collections that–to her surprise–had belonged to her mother and grandmother, show us a myriad possibilities to acknowledge meaning to those paper bits written or cut out to be kept over a life time, carefully or negligently held to pass on to heirs. For her, those recipe collections are the material expression to allow memories of significant relationships to emerge; they are a means to establish a dialogue that had previously failed between her own and older women’s generations; they are a way to discover surprising, unexpected aspects of who these women were in relation to whom they wanted to be.

Félix Sangari personal recipe collection. Photo: Montserrat Cabré
Félix Sangari personal recipe collection.
Photo: Montserrat Cabré

A single recipe, endlessly tried or never attempted, may embrace diverse and divergent meanings to different people who relate to it out of chance or out of duty, at different moments in time. Reading the emotional charge that recipes encompass may not be an easy task for the historian; however, it is crucial that we acknowledge and face that recipes have these hidden lives if we are to explore the possibilities they open for us.


[1] Sallie Tisdale,  The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (New York: Riverhead, 2000), pp. 83-88; reprinted as “Recipes from my mother” in Best Food Writing 2000, edited by Molly Hughes and Alice Waters (New York: Marlowe and Company, 2000), pp. 78-82.

[2] Catherine Field, “‘Many hands hands’: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books”, in Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle (eds.), Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 49-63.

 [3] Montserrat Cabré, “Keeping Beauty Secrets in Early Modern Iberia”, in Elaine Leong and Alisa Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp.167-190.

Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.