I’m sure my mother never imagined that her well used Good Housekeeping’s Cookery Compendium (1952) would ever feature in a blog. I’m equally sure she had absolutely no idea what a blog was or how it had become part of 21st century communication. Suffice to say her cook book, my blog and recipe books of the past are as similar as they are different. Language and its presentation may be the common medium through which their ideas are expressed but what is actually being communicated is potentially exclusive; inclusive; multi-layered; of their period and timeless. That’s a highbrow explanation of a sample of books and blogs I hear you say? Not necessarily. Along with my fellow students, also grappling with the concept of what constitutes a recipe, my ideas, have drastically changed.
Blogs, for example are recognised as cutting edge modern communication and could not be further from an early modern recipe book if they tried. Sure about that? What about both being conversational; making use of speech and language contractions? Similarly, my mother’s 1952 compendium- low on conversation and high on instruction- also finds a parallel in the modern blog where the writer needs to impart information concisely within prescribed word counts. As a firm believer in the idea that history is not a foreign country but the idea of ‘us in retrospect’ constrained only by relatively primitive technologies, it becomes possible to see how we, through texts such as Castleton and Baker are connected irrespective of time. With this in mind transcribing Bakers recipes as part of EMROC becomes a personal experience, especially her medicinal scripts. The realisation that the early modern woman and I have always been synchronised at the point we recognise medicines need to be used means that we are closer than we think. That our ancestral counterparts actually had to produce many of their own prescriptions as opposed to purchasing them, as I do, seems to me a nominal difference. Knowing this, the acceptance of how Baker’s ‘warm musk desolveth wyndynes’ and the importance of being able to identify exactly where a fore-rib of beef is located on a cow, appears less ludicrous, now reimagined as a continuation of family provision and domestic knowledge over time.
Although Baker is our prescribed transcription project when you read around our subject it becomes clear just how much involvement women had in household management, aspiring to both proficiency and accomplishment. As with the 1950’s novice housewife many women upon marriage found themselves charged with the running of a home, wellbeing of a partner and subsequent children and until the present day, where convenience foods and laboursaving devices prevail, these women had to provide largely from scratch. Even early modern gentlewoman Alice Le Strange who married in 1602 and, though not quite cooking and cleaning herself, found she needed to organise those whose labour supported the family estate. By trial and error she perfected her accounting, enabling her to both display agency and sustain control.
Interacting with us on levels beyond that of accounting, the language of the Johnson Recipe Book is both definitive and ambiguous. Culinary and medicinal recipes in different hands are evidence of gendering, with knowledge exchanged by several members of the household or possibly generations over time. Efficacy markings throughout the manuscript, plus text struck through, illustrate how the author interacted and experimented with the text. Inclusion of newspaper cuttings also shows awareness of current ideas which the author is prepared to filter into her own findings. As a repository for personal and collected information perhaps this was both a private and communal workbook? As the latter, inscriptions in Greek speak of possible inclusions by educated men and the mention of a Lady Gresham and Sir Francis Prugen speak of elite social networking or at least social aspirations.
If not social aspirations, then social affirmations appear in the Newdigate family papers. Loose papers kept by what appears to be a dysfunctional family disclose genealogical information plus dark family secrets compounded by the erratic state of mind of its patriarch, who used both carrot and stick to manage a small army of servants. A family with a social position to protect, among recipes to treat ‘obstinate scurvy’ make butter ‘the Essex way,’ prescriptions for vetinary cases’ and ‘directions for making ‘indian glue,’ there are receipts telling of a ‘a method for cementing stone…’ a collection of books in Italian and French, plus a collection of ‘ coins and Italian marble.’
Times may change but a need for remedies, control and the desire to improve are constant. That’s why I include my mother’s Good Housekeeping Compendium alongside the Johnsons and Newdigates of this blog. Never having to use outlandish ingredients or administer an estate the size of a small country, she did however, like them, feel the need to establish her domestic identity. The similarities between herself and mistresses Johnson and Newdigate range over three hundred years the only real difference being that mum was now buying into a growing consumer culture with its own definitive need for effective household management. Among the recipes for rock cakes and how to make lump-less custard Good Housekeeping promoted thrift and economy in the form of buying sturdy kitchen equipment and polishing utensils weekly to prolong their life and so save money.
In her time, and in her own way mum too experimented; physically with ingredients and mentally in her personal assimilation of the knowledge she received, leaving annotations on the pages of the family’s favourite recipes. The precise layout and colour presentation of my mother’s 1952 book is vastly different to those of the early modern housewife, but how to effectively pickle an egg could well have been the result of earlier experimentations perfected by women like mistress Johnson. Alternatively, advice on thrift may have had roots in the accounting processes of Alice Le strange. I too, as a young child, claim involvement with the recipes in mum’s book, notably by scribbling ‘Thes one’ and ‘That one’ (this one/that one) across the pictures of my favourite cakes. I doubt however, my involvement within the conversation of recipes, will ever be going down in history.