All of the famous cookbooks emerging in early modern Spain were written by men who worked for the royal court: Libro de guisados (1529) was written by Roberto de Nola, Arte de cocina, pasteleria, vizcocheria, y conserveria (1611) by Francisco Martínez Montiño, and Arte de repostería (1747) by Juan de la Mata. Outside of the palace walls, however, it was generally women —and not men—who were in charge of feeding the family. Even though there is no record of edited cookbooks by female authors during the period, there are some manuscripts authored by nuns and by literate noblewomen that made possible the preservation of knowledge shared through oral traditions. One of these recipe books is Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces written by María Rosa Calvillo de Teruel around 1740.
At first sight, one might consider recipe books to be straightforward texts with instructions, but they can provide the attentive reader with more information than what initially meets the eye. This is the case with Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces. The only biographical information contained in the book is the name of the author, which, interestingly enough, is written by a different hand than the one that writes the recipes in the book. Is María Rosa the author? Was the book passed down to a relative who signed her name to claim it as hers? Even though these questions remain unanswered, a careful reading of this recipe book has allowed me to reconstruct, to a certain extent, the details of María Rosa’s life, the social context in which she lived, and the cooking practices used at the time.
In Libro de apuntaciones, the titles of some recipes —“How to prepare quails as it is done in Seville” or “How to make Utreras’ pastries”[i]— locate the author in Andalusia, the southernmost region of mainland Spain. The ingredients, meanwhile, disclose María Rosa’s social class, or at least the one she interacted with, which was the lower nobility. The book calls for spices such as clove, paprika, cinnamon, and saffron. These are a constant in most of the recipes and were very expensive but essential ingredients in the preparation of most dishes at the time. There is a recipe that even calls for Flemish butter, a special kind of butter mixed with potassium nitrate that kept the product fresh. This butter was imported from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland and was a luxurious and expensive ingredient not available to all.
An exploration of the handwritten recipes in Libro de apuntaciones reveals yet another key detail. Out of the 100 recipes contained in the book, six of them are attributed to other women: Antonia, Mari-quita, tía Felipa, doña Joaquina, María Teresa, and María Manuela. These recipes are considerably longer and more accurate than María Rosa’s recipes. By including these recipes in the book, the author recognizes other members of the food-making community and also acknowledges their skills, abilities, and knowledge. This resonates with Janet Theopano’s concept of “cookbook as community,” which understands recipe books as spaces where women created networks of support and spaces that promoted social interaction and exchange of ideas.
In these six recipes, María Rosa’s own voice gets intertwined with the voices of the six other women. She suggests improvements and variations to the original recipes proposed by her peers and evaluates the quality of the food being prepared. This is proof of experimentation. María Rosa tests and tastes the recipes herself, which is the kind of experimental knowledge and sensorial methodology necessary in the kitchen.
Food making relies on what Sutton defines as the “lower senses.” Take as an example the recipe for “Huevos moles” in which the sense of sight — “both things are whisked until they are very white and they make little bubbles”— and the sense of smell— “ cook until it smells done”— are the ones that determine when the eggs and the sugar are done. In “How to make pork blood sausage,” the sense of touch, and more specifically the hand and its parts, become the unit of measurement: “[add] a handful [of aniseed] with the whole hand,” “as much [cumin as] can be fitted in three fingers,” or “as much [ginger as] can be fitted in four fingers”.
The examples above position María Rosa and her peers as a community of practice that boasts a unique set of knowledge and skills rooted in experimental methodologies and the senses. In turn, this is conducive to the validity and recognition of a field —food-making— and a group of people—women— undervalued and undermined by society. My work helps unveil the potential of a text which, although not very promising at first sight, proves to be a rich source of avenues of inquiry and a way to rescue women’s voices and their knowledge from an unrecognizing past.
[i] Utrera is a town south-east of Seville
Calvillo de Teruel, María Rosa. Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces, 1740.
Sutton, Davis. “Cooking Skill, the Senses, and Memory: The Fate of Practical Knowledge.” Sensible Objects ed. Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, and Ruth Phillips, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.
Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. Palgrave, 2002.
Sara de Blas Hernández is a Ph.D. student specializing in Spanish Linguistics at UC Davis. Even though her main field of research is Second Language Acquisition, she has a keen interest in Food Studies. She is currently working on creating and testing pedagogical materials that develop students’ communicative competence and critical thinking skills while boosting motivation and engagement through multisensory and experiential learning methodologies.