Collecting recipes and gifting hand-written recipe books: still a family tradition?

There is a time in everybody’s life when they move out from their parent’s house and start their adult life. Cooking and starting a recipe collection is a key part (for some) of becoming an adult. While reading Elaine Leong’s and Amanda E. Herbert’s articles it struck me that there are many things in common with early modern people and with us – modern people. Family recipes, cookbooks were an essential part of their lives, but from my experience it is still important to many today.

Female alliances

Early modern women’s shared labour, attempt to cooperate/collaborate can be seen in household inventories, guidebooks, prescriptive texts and manuscript recipe books.[1] What I found really interesting is that women did not just get advice from their closer group within their class, but also from below their class. Mary Chantrell is a perfect example to this, as she noted that one of her recipes were from a laundress, and another had been approved by an older woman.[2]They trusted those who had experience and wisdom, no matter their class. According to Herbert, examples such as this one prove that elite women contacted and worked with women of all kinds both within and outside their homes. Recipes allowed them to share their knowledge about ingredients and materials, also about how to negotiate with male shopkeepers, which means seeking other women’s advice was a tool to advance their female independence too.[3]

Manuscript recipe books

The covers of an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY


Manuscript recipe books were handwritten books, including lists of ingredients and step-by-step instructions for making food, cosmetics, handicrafts and medicines.[4] Women shared advice and knowledge within these books to a range of women; it could be to relatives, servants, neighbours. In addition, they defended female education, knowledge and space against the male physicians and authors.[5] Recipes were the main platform for saving information and knowledge for the future in the early modern household.[6] Many gathered recipes alone, but most times they borrowed the recipes from their friends, family members and neighbours (the closer the person the more reliable the recipe was).[7] Some recipes were passed onto next generations. If they lent their book to someone else, they could communicate on the margins of the pages, as that was a place for more information or adaptions to be shared.[8]

Pages from an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.


Women were proud of these collections, and noted which recipe was from whom. Recipe books were worthy enough to mention in inventories, moreover, their value made them to be the perfect gift.[9] Mothers gave them to their children to guide them, especially to help their daughters to become a proper housewife. Recipe books, especially when given as a gift, had a ‘starter’ portion, which was quite helpful from my point of view. This ‘starter’ collection could be inherited or copied by the owner of the book. [10]

Female alliances and recipe sharing in the modern world

Montserrat Cabré’s blog about recipes and emotions made me think about how giving recipe book as a gift was more an act of love, rather than just to a guide to become a housewife. Cabré argues that recipes connect women and generations, furthermore she adds it created a space for conversation. Food and dishes that the whole family loves always brings back nice memories, so passing on this knowledge is not only a help of survival, but an act of love too.

The front page of my mother’s recipe book. The writing means “Miracle of miracles”. This title was given by my mother’s sister, but we do not know the reason behind it. It is sort of a family mystery.


When I was reading the articles by Leong and Herbert, it surprised me how similar early modern recipe book traditions and my family’s traditions are. My mother has been collecting recipes for sixteen-seventeen years at this point. Her collection consists of two notebooks, they have both printed and handwritten material, a mix of everything. Similar to early modern examples, my mother wrote adjustments to her recipes too, especially to the ones which she collected from others. When I decided to move to the UK from Hungary, my mother gifted me a notebook with my favourite recipes inside of it, which is basically the ‘starter’ portion of my collection. I think this is the most interesting similarity, as ‘starter’ collection as a whole was a completely new information to me. I never thought it was a way to gift recipe books, I just thought it was something clever my mother did.

Some random pages from my mother’s recipe book. Similarly to early modern examples, my mother wrote some comments next to recipes too. Here she noted that the recipe on the left is very delicious, and that the right one is from somebody else.


Early modern recipe books were not only useful for everyday life, for example in Anna Cromwell’s situation they came handy when emigrating to the Americas.[11] These recipes helped her to adapt to the new ingredients and dishes. I would like to think that in a way I was in a very similar situation to Anna Cromwell when moving to England, as my mother’s gift helped me adjusting to the new environment and helped me feel like I am home. Using my mother’s gift as a guide I had to adapt to different ingredients and spices. Obviously my situation was not as drastic as back then, but between countries there are very significant differences when it comes to basic ingredients like milk and flour (even salt is less salty here than back home!) and recipes needed to be adapted to achieve a similar result as back home.

To have another example from today’s world, my mother’s friend received a recipe book from her mother too. But this one looked more similar to the early modern ones because it did not only have food recipes, but also tips and tricks when it came to the household. For example it had advice on what to do when someone was expecting guests, what to do when red wine spills on the table and so on. In a sense it is very similar because its purpose was to prepare the daughter to become a knowledgeable ‘housewife’. I think these two examples show that we still have female alliances in a way, as the knowledge sharing/recipe collecting tradition never changed, only the time and space. 

Recipes collected from printed material


Ever since I received my gift I have been adding new recipes and adjustments to it. Early modern wives, daughters even male members of the household did the same thing; they expanded their collections, wrote adjustments next to recipes. It was very interesting to see how similar early modern examples were to my case, because my family never knew about ‘starter’ collections until I read the articles by Leong and Herbert. Hopefully I will be able to carry this tradition, which has been around since the early modern times.

Bibliography

Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Leong, Elaine, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013).

Montserrat Cabré, ‘The Emotional Life of Recipes’, <https://recipes.hypotheses.org/1069> [accessed 21 January 2020]

 

 

[1]Amanda E. Herbert, Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014), p. 116

[2] Ibid, pp. 107-108

[3] Ibid, p. 105

[4] Ibid, p. 102

[5] Ibid, p. 103

[6] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013), p. 83

[7] Herbert, p. 105

[8] Ibid, p. 114

[9] Leong, p. 86

[10] Ibid, p. 91

[11] Herbert, (2014), p. 110


4 thoughts on “Collecting recipes and gifting hand-written recipe books: still a family tradition?

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post and how personal the topic is for you. do you think that the practice of leaving recipe books as a tool for survival changed due to our decreasing reliance to tried and true family knowledge because of social media being a faster and easier medium? what implications do you think the idea of ‘knowledgeable housewife’ on gender roles?

  2. I love how you made a connection to the past and present it shows that even though it was a long time ago there are still things that we do today that they did back then! what sort of recipes are you adding into your own recipe book?

  3. I loved how you made this personal connection to the history, not only linking it to modern times but to yourself! Do you intend on passing your recipe book down to future generations?

    1. I’m glad you liked it, this was one of my favourite blogs to write! My plan is to continue this tradition as it helped me a lot and I’m sure my children in the future would find it helpful too. It is also a nice,personal gift idea, which is always lovely to give. Would you consider giving a home-made recipe book as a gift?

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