A Recipe To Life

By Faye Glover

Before The Digital Recipe Books Project I had always considered a recipe as just a set of instructions to make a food dish. How naïve! I have now realised how recipes are invaluable primary sources to studying the domestic sphere in the early modern period. Whilst food recipes from the period give historians more specific information, for instance which ingredients were favoured, for which I am sure culinary historians are grateful. Most recipe books from the early modern period include instructions for beauty regimes, medical prescriptions and household management. So besides telling us all the weird and wonderful foods contemporaries liked to make it give us a real insight in to their world.

The Johnson family recipe book is a great example of an early modern working recipe book. It contains an abundance of recipes, added between the years of 1694 and 1831. The Johnson family record numerous recipes for different foods, wines, medical prescriptions and also instructions for good housekeeping. The large volume of recipes alone tells us immediately that the Johnson family have a keen interest in note taking and passing on knowledge on such topics.

It is clear that this recipe book is a working book from the indications in the margins on most pages. Most recipes were tried and tested and this marked in the margins with either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or in some cases crossing out the recipe all together.

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The Johnson family recipe book incorporates recipes from those they took recommendations from. For example, the some recipes are titled ‘Mrs Gardlands Way,’ showing that they family have taken advice from somebody else, although it is not clear who Mrs Gardland is. In addition, the Johnson family have a recipe titled ‘Lady Herons Plumcake.’ Although it is again unclear if Lady Heron is a friend of the family or if the recipe has even come from the Lady herself, this could indicate to the social status of the Johnson family to have such correspondences.

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The recipes within the Newdigate family records differ from those in the Johnson Family’s recipe book. In class on the 17 November 2016 we looked at Lisa Smith’s transcriptions of the Newdigate family papers from the Warwickshire County Record Office. These papers included family births, deaths and correspondences as well as recipes for the household. From these recipes it would seem that the Newdigate family were not as interested in keeping notes on recipes as much as the Johnson family. There recipes were less as part of a working recipe book and instead noted down for a practical reason.

The Newdigate family records include many recipes for the garden and keeping the home, such as poisoning vermin and foxes, making ink and cementing stone. This may be because Sir Richard Newdigate the younger wrote and kept these, whereas it was a mix of men and women writing the Johnson family recipes. Lisa Smith has an interesting blog titled Tracing Recipes to Kill Vermin which explores recipes from the early modern period which deal with the issue of vermin.

The Newdigate family records do have a few interesting food recipes as well, such as the Essex method of making butter. This recipe highlights key regional differences in the preference of butter making as ‘the famous Epping Butter is all made in this manner and is more esteemed in London than any other.’

To see the extent to which women had to go to in order to prepare and preserve foods is eye opening as today we take it for granted that you can buy food already prepared and cooked. Similarly, to see how women made ointments and creams is interesting as it shows the interest they had, even two hundred years ago, in beauty regimes. The recipes for household management show the huge amount of hard work and thought which went into housekeeping in the early modern period. For this I have a newly found respect for the women keeping these recipe books.

In addition to those written by the everyday woman, some recipe books were published for the masses. Mrs Beaton’s Book of Household Management is probably the most famous example of this. Her book contains advice on almost everything, from assigning duties to domestic servants to recipes for hundreds of food dishes. Likewise Hannah Wooley’s A Supplement to the Queen-like Closet includes instructions for letter writing and for beauty regimes alongside her recipes for food!

Every recipe book tells a story. Whilst today we may think of recipe books as a guide to cooking in the early modern period they offered an extensive guide to the management of the household and professed the importance of good domesticity.


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