Good Housekeeping

 

I’m md15914530033sure 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.

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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.

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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.

 

Sir Richard Newdigate         (1644-1702)

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.

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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.

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About Karen Bowman

At present I am a mature student at the University of Essex studying social and cultural history and keeping my fingers crossed I get a good degree. In my other life I love reenacting, giving talks about the content of my books, archaeology, family history and researching even more things to write about!

3 thoughts on “Good Housekeeping

  1. It is a really interesting thought and not one that I had particularly thought about that the likes of Margaret Baker’s recipes were the basis of the modern recipe book. Obviously I was aware that they were early recipe books but the fact that our recipes today could be from Margaret Baker’s trial and error recipes. The way we cook this or that could have been handed down from our ancestors and not just from the likes of Jamie Oliver.

    My mum too has a favourite recipe book which was a wedding present. I can remember using it with her when I was a child. I doubt that anybody gets a recipe book for a wedding present these days – I certainly didn’t (unless my guests all knew me too well)! I personally do not cook from recipe books and this is quite sad really as in years ahead my children will not be able to look at their own childish handwriting as to what recipe was their favourite.

    1. It is a shame about modern women not necessarily having a recipe book passed down but we could look at it as almost returning to an oral tradition of passing things on. I think we still reproduce what our mothers did and how they did it therefore continuing the process of the transference of knowledge. It may be that we can see a traditional ‘recipe’ in the way we perhaps lay a table in anticipation of a family meal, how we decorate that table or how we serve up that meal. Christmas is a great time for traditions passed down in families and perhaps they are in fact ‘recipes’ also.

    2. I agree it is a little saddening that we may not have these kinds of memories as the developed world moves further into the digital age, I know that when I want to make a new meal I do not call up my mum anymore or search for her old recipe books, but simply google it…unless its the recipe for her famous apple crumble.
      But I’m sure this trend will reveal much about our society to future historians, as it does to us looking into the past. Maybe they will recognise our impatience as a generation, or our constant need for new information to be universally available and easily reachable. They will, I think, have an easier job in tracing the life of individuals but may be restricted by a society who craves privacy in an age of surveillance.

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