Waste Not Want Not: Leftovers – the Afterlives of Early Modern Food

By Amanda E. Herbert

Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

As part of Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a $1.5 million Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’ll be working on a new book, Leftovers: the Afterlives of Early Modern Food. In this book I aim to explore the instability of food in this period.  This was of course literally true, as it was easy for early modern food to go bad.  But early modern food was also intellectually and philosophically unstable.  What food meant, what it tasted like, where it came from, how to put it to its best use, its moral and cultural symbolism: all of these were in constant flux. The book project will consider things like food preservation, food charity, artificial or faux food, the British colonisation of dishes, and the recycling and reuse of food containers, all of which will offer some insights into the ways that early modern women and men treated and thought about their food, and how these reflected the practical as well as the philosophical food insecurities of the past.

Today I’ll offer a glimpse into the project through one evocative example: faux or artificial foods, which enabled early modern people to reimagine what they ate.  Much has been made over early modern food follies at feasts, and for good reason; some of these, whether they existed in the historical record or only in the imaginative one, were remarkable.  My favourite of these is from Robert May’s Accomplish’t Cook, first printed in London in 1660. 

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).

May, a British chef who trained in France and served in elite British households, designed food entertainments for higher-status women and men.  These edible entertainments worked to manipulate diners’ senses of reality and fantasy. One of May’s most well-known food performances instructed cooks to take a whole deer and roast it, cut a hole in it, and fill ‘his body… up with claret wine’. The hole was then to be stoppered with ‘course paste’ [thick dough] and the cook was to place ‘a broad arrow’ into the dough on the roasted deer’s side. During the dinner entertainment, May explained, ‘order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound’.   

This juxtaposition of what was real and unreal – an animal, which likely had been hunted with bows and arrows, was then butchered, cooked, and presented so that diners could imagine themselves back at the site of the kill, but in such a way that they could then immediately eat the (cooked) deer and drink its (wine) blood – would surely have offered early modern women and men a strange sense of slippage.  Were they valued guests, enjoying an elaborate meal in elite society? Or were they vicious, impulsive, and animalistic? Given the opportunity to reimagine themselves, their meal, and their relationship to it as consumers, May assured his readers that they would evoke not horror or confusion, but senses of ‘admiration to the beholders’.[1]

For home cooks, artificial foods could take on different forms of re-imagination.  Many such acts of culinary creativity were undertaken out of necessity, lack of resources, or thrift.  A recipe in an anonymous c. 1720 manuscript cookbook included instructions for how ‘to keep Mushrooms without Pickle for sauce’, which was really a guide to making mushrooms (common all over Britain) taste like truffles (typically imported). Readers were told to ‘take large Mushrooms peel them & take out all the inside, lay them in Water some hours then stew them in their own liquor…with a little Mace & Peper’. This process was to be repeated ’till they are quite dry’. As a result, the author claimed ‘they eat very well thus & look like Troufles’.[2]  A 1740 recipe book created by a Mrs. Knight explained how to make ‘artificial venison’ by beating ‘a rump of veal or a large shoulder of mutton…[with] a rolling pin’ before seasoning it ‘with peper & nutmeg’ and soaking it for ’24 hours in sheeps blood’.[3] This supposedly produced the richness, gaminess, and flavour that early modern people associated with venison (a food intended only for the elite) but utilised ingredients that would have been available to most middling-sort people (veal, mutton, spices, and sheep’s blood).  

Faux foods – whether they were constructed purely for fun, or purely out of need – changed the ways that early modern people perceived what they ate.  It’s certainly possible to see these substitutions as efforts on the part of middling-sort people to mimic the wealthy, or to pretend to eat beyond their means.  But we should not ignore the imaginative resonances produced by these fantasies. When an early modern person ate fake venison, false truffles, or even took in the spectacle of a roasted deer bleeding wine onto a table, did they know that it was not real? Were they merely enjoying the sensation of the forbidden or unavailable food, or were they truly fooled? What was old food, and what was new?

[1] Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1660).

[2] Anon., Cookbook, W.b.653, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[3] Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Knight’s receipt book, W.b.79, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Waste Not Want Not: Molasses in Colonial America – More than a Waste Product?

By Mimi Goodall

Molasses is the dark brown, sweet, sticky goo that is known today for its robust flavour. It gives a depth of taste to gingerbreads, toffees and fruitcakes. It does not have the immediate tongue-numbing sweetness of powder sugar; rather, it has a denser, fruitier mouthfeel. However, sugar and molasses are related foodstuffs. When sugar cane juice is refined to make powder sugar, it is boiled repeatedly and it crystallises as it cools. The more times the juice goes through this process, the whiter the resulting crystals appear. Molasses is the viscous residue that is the ‘waste product’ of refining.[1] Yet it has historically been left out of the story of the rise of sugar consumption across the Atlantic world.

This story is well-known. Sugar begins life as a rare luxury but with the rise of slavery and the slave trade, the increase in production enables prices to fall and consumption to rise, reaching mass levels sometime towards the end of the 18th century. Before this point, it’s thought that ordinary consumers did not have much access to sugar.

However, there was, in fact, a strong base layer of consumer demand much earlier on. This demand served as encouragement for the industry’s take-off and the concomitant exploitation of thousands of human beings. Molasses is at the heart of it. Understanding the consumption of molasses puts agency back into the hands – or rather the mouths – of ordinary consumers. Molasses wasn’t a waste product, it was a driving force in sugar’s rise to ubiquity.

Molasses. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Molasses as Commodity Money:

Molasses wasn’t expensive. It features often in account books documenting the spending habits of non-elites. Looking at these account books reveals that molasses was often used as a form of payment. Colonial America was dramatically short of coinage and therefore outside of the port, exchange was enacted through a system similar to barter, known as commodity money. Records documenting these instances of barter are what enable us to understand more about who was actually consuming molasses.

Take for example the Clarke Family of New Jersey. The Clarkes emigrated from England to New Jersey in the 1680s. Ann Clarke created a recipe book that her husband and son subsequently repurposed as an account book and diary relating to farm practices, which is now in Princeton University Library. It shows that the Clarkes paid their labourers in commodity money. The most detailed accounts range from 1701-1720, during which time we see payments in sugar, molasses and in a variety of what I call ‘sugar products’ – this included beer, cider and rum. All of these alcoholic drinks were brewed using molasses or sugar. To give one example, in 1714 Benjamin Maple was paid for his weaving – work worth 2 pounds 5 shillings in monetary terms – with 2 gallons of molasses, 2 gallons of cider, hogs fat, turnips, and rye. 

There are more account books in the American Antiquarian Association, including that kept by Robert Gibbs in the 1680s. Gibbs was a Boston merchant and grocery store owner, who had longstanding arrangements with the local people who supplied his shop. The most interesting is Goody Gavate, a cake maker. Gibbs gave her molasses, ginger, sugar and flour in exchange for the cakes that she made out of these ingredients. Gibbs then sold these cakes in his shop and thus molasses continued to circulate within the economic system.

Cakes are especially interesting when we think about people’s proclivity for sweet things. Recently, I spoke to New York Times journalist Anahad O’Connor who writes about contemporary sugar consumption. He explained to me that the current scientific consensus is that sugar is not addictive on its own, but that the combination of sugar and fat create feelings of physical dependency. Human beings seem particularly susceptible to this combination. Breast milk, for instance, contains a uniquely high proportion of fat and sugar. When molasses was combined with fats to make cakes, puddings, biscuits, and breads it created an especially palatable end result – one which consumers sought out.


These examples show that molasses was a form of sugar that was readily available to consumers across the socio-economic spectrum. Sugar products weren’t only goods to be aspired to; rather, they were component parts of many consumers’ diets. Ordinary colonial American men and women developed a taste for sweetness and their reliance on the calories found in sugar early on. Molasses encouraged ordinary consumers’ proclivity for sweetness. By the time tea and coffee arrived and white sugar became cheaper, their palate was already a sweet one.

In detailing this, I’m pushing the story of consumption backwards in time. Sugar and molasses were far more widely available far earlier than has been recognised. There was a strong demand for sugar in the 17th century, which would have served as encouragement for the development of the industry and the rise of slavery in the following one.

William Clark, ‘Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane’, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (London, 1823). Plate IV.

[1] Molasses is vital to the production of rum, which took off after 1720 but elsewhere, and for an earlier time period it has been considered to be a waste product.

Waste Not, Want Not: Transforming Waste into Food – Skimmed Milk

By Lesley Steinitz

Fancy some pig’s wash with your granola? In the late nineteenth century, the ‘pig’s wash’ – a euphemism also for vomit – was skimmed milk. It was so-named because it had been the sour leftovers after the cream was skimmed off milk left out overnight in the dairy. Although some ‘skim’ was used to make cheese and feed poor agricultural workers, it was so disgusting that most of it was fed to pigs. Skimmed milk remained disgusting in the minds of consumers even after dairies were mechanised, from the 1880s, once it had changed materially into a fresh sweet liquid. It sold, at best, for a quarter of the price of whole milk, but philanthropists couldn’t even give it away to the poor.

From the perspective of nutritional chemists, this was a waste of a valuable source of protein at a time when dietary deficiency was a grave political concern, linked to worries about the fitness of the workforce and its implications for industrial productivity and military security. This waste therefore spurred innovation among commercially-oriented engineers and chemists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chemists devised noxious industrial-scale chemical processes which transformed skimmed milk into near-identical protein powders. These contained around 90% milk protein and 5% phosphates, and were off-white, insubstantial, odourless and flavourless. They didn’t resemble food in the slightest. It’s instructive to compare how the two most advertised brands in Britain, Plasmon and Sanatogen, were advertised.

Plasmon’s adverts presented it as a cheap nutritious food, using numbers and pictures to signify its protein’s muscle building power. To persuade people to cook with it, they ran cookery competitions, published recipes, and persuaded famous people – notably the vegetarian health writer and sports champion Eustace Miles – to do so. However, these efforts backfired. Plasmon and Miles were lampooned regularly. The Evening Post derided Plasmon as an uninviting food made by ‘nutrient necromancers’, while the Daily Express declared that this ‘food of the future’ did not satisfy the social and cultural expectations of food as something to enjoy and share.[1] Only Plasmon Oats and Cocoa, where Plasmon was mixed with familiar foods, remained popular.

Although it was near-identical, Sanatogen was positioned primarily as a nerve nutrient thanks to its phosphates (which are present in high concentration in the nerves and brain). Sanatogen therefore addressed another dominant health concern, ‘nerve weakness’, often referred to as the new disease category of neurasthenia. It was therefore not simply a food, but a ‘food-drug’, something that was ‘taken’ like a medicine before meals, rather than as part of them. There were no recipes, simply instructions on how to prepare a dose. With advocates including MPs, doctors, respected writers and aristocrats, and adverts with inspiring quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe, this was an aspirational product which sold for twice the price of Plasmon. You can still buy Sanatogen today.

At much the same time, engineers devised mechanical preservation methods. Their machines sprayed milk, skimmed or whole, onto steam-heated spinning metal rollers where it condensed instantly, forming a powder.[2] (While dried milk had been produced during the nineteenth century, the slow heating methods tended to cook the milk and caramelise its sugars, so it could only be eaten if it was disguised mixed in other foods.) Manufacturers, competing on cost, largely could not afford to advertise their dried skimmed milk. Exceptionally, Cow & Gate published recipes using it, but I’ve yet to find any in ordinary cookbooks, though when fresh milk was scarce in wartime, newspapers suggested using dried instead. Consumers were largely oblivious to the nutritional benefits of this ingredient and to its abundance in industrially manufactured foods such as bread, biscuits and chocolate, and in canteens and institutions. There are few traces before 1920 of people using it domestically other than the full fat versions for infants.

These foods were not popular thanks to their intrinsic palatability, convenience or physiological effects, but instead reflected the cultural characteristics that advertisers linked to their nutritional claims. Expensive Sanatogen was aspirational because it was presented as a respectable medicine-like supplement used by the elites. Cheaper Plasmon was less successful because this peculiar food seemed ridiculous. For consumers, the even cheaper dried milk was an alternative infant food, but was thought to be unsuitable for adults. The positioning of these three similar products demonstrates that food choices are far more than a rational choice relating to nutrition and economy. Now protein powders and skimmed milk are popular commodities. The change in their popularity illustrates how food manufacturers wield considerable power over consumers by leveraging nutritional ‘facts’ alongside cultural values to suit their commercial aims.

[1] Evening Post, 11 July 1900, p. 2; Daily Express, 11 July 1900, p. 4.

[2] A. W. Scott, The Engineering Aspects of the Condensing and Drying of Milk, Bulletin, no. 4 (Glasgow: The Hannah Dairy Research Institute, 1932).

Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package.