Political Recipes

By Sarah Osho

During my second seminar class for the digital recipes module, we discussed and debated what a recipe was and its conventional functions. My initial and general understanding of what a recipe encompassed was the transmission and exchange of personal knowledge, usually for the use of cooking. During the seminar, we also realised it would depend on the context and how the information is interpreted. This would help determine whether it was indeed a recipe. However, after reading ‘Constructing the Politics of Cookery: Authorial Strategy and Domestic Politics in English Cookery Books, 1655-1670’ by Claire Saffitz, the concept of a recipe is not a straightforward as it seems. I found the possibility of an early modern cookery book being used to spread royalist propaganda very fascinating. Who would have thought that recipes would not only be of a domestic nature but have a political dispute between the comparisons of two Queens too?

Image result for The Queens Closet Opened 1656
The Queens Closet Opened (1668)

The first section of Saffitz’s article looks at The Queen Closet Opened (1656), credited to Henrietta and Maria and The Court & Kitchin of Elizabeth (1664) credited to Elizabeth Cromwell.  Saffitz’s suggests these book illustrate how good housewifery and the strength of nation was seen as connected in the early modern era. Madeline Bassnett and Laura Knoppers point out that they were used as

polemical political tools in the decades before and after Charles II’s restoration to emphasize aristocratic and royalist social networks, promote courtly practices of the early Stuart era, and link the wellbeing of the national household to the monarchy.[21]

This very insightful as this indicates how both the domestic and political spheres have a connection just as the public and private ones do.  This could indicate the popularity and thereby influence it had in the early modern period. However, Saffitz argues that due to “male authorship and female subjectivity,” the attempt to merge political polemic with cookery book genre has resulted in the instability of these two texts.  Additionally, its structure conflicts its function as a practical cookery guide.

Saffitz also suggests there is an anxious tone to these two texts in the exposing and making private feminine spaces public.  The idea that William Montangu has pirated Henrietta Maria recipes, thereby ‘opening the Queen’s closet’, alludes to the idea of making her private hidden secrets, and in this case her political competence, known. As one goes through the recipes, it is apparent that the style is of a detached nature, showing how it does not contain any personal tastes and preferences in recipes and therefore no sense authorship. It reveals

a troubling tension between what is presented as a window into the private life of the Queen and her absenteeism from this space she is supposed to occupy.

This showed me how there were many more ways of reading and interpreting a recipe. If analysed closely, it can be informative in terms of tracing personality traits and the social aspects of a person or family home. Which recipes they used and from what backgrounds they originated from could be relatively useful in making social and political links.

Another aspect of the article was the idea that Henrietta Maria’s portrayal was that of an ideal queen and housewife, whereas Elizabeth is represented as a queen who was as “stingy toward her husband’s table as she is toward the nation”. Her reputation at the time was not a pleasant one amongst the poor.  During her reign 75% for the price of food increase and agricultural labour wages drastically fell as well. Knoppers stated Elizabeth was unwilling or unable to act hospitably in her role as protectoress. [29] The Court & Kitchin of Elizabeth implies Elizabeth’s poor household management indicates and is linked to her incompetency as a wife and ruler, which are both damaging to England. This presents yet another way in which to interpret recipes and the authorship behind the different editions made. This book also shows me how women were conceived and judged by their domestic abilities and if inadequate, can be used against them.

To conclude, clearly recipes cannot be strictly defined in a singular sense. Their uses are never-ending and can be quite informative. Some can be used to just transmit knowledge from one family member to another, and others used to show and support a political statement.

Cite this blog post
sosho (2017, January 17). Political Recipes. The Digital Recipe Books Project. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nwft

One thought on “Political Recipes

  1. It is interesting how politics finds its way into so many things, especially when it is used to discredit. It is one of the less attractive parts of being in the ‘early modern Public Eye as Elizabeth Cromwell found out. I don’t think she ever thought she would be so criticised when she was a young woman being courted by an equally young Oliver Cromwell, when she lived in Essex. I wrote a bit about her in my book ‘Essex Girls’ just thought I’d post this little bit to put some flesh on her bones…,

    ‘…Elizabeth grew up enjoying the privileges that her father’s status afforded her and it’s possible she became acquainted with the young Oliver Cromwell through Essex social circles. As with any love story romantic theories abound. One suggests the couple met through family ties, which later acquainted Oliver with some of the leading puritans in the country. Another is that Oliver fell in love with the daughter of the house when he and his friend, the son of the Earl of Warwick rode out from Rochford Hall, a stone’s throw from Little Stambridge to visit Elizabeth’s brother.

    There is no picture or genuine description of Sir James Bourchier’s eldest daughter but it’s known that the young Elizabeth was two years older than Oliver Cromwell when they married in 1620. The marriage proved to be a long a stable one and one in which Elizabeth lived happily in her husband’s shadow. For this reason, little is known about her character except that she was literate and level headed enough not to be at all phased by her husband’s years as Lord Protector of England especially during their years at Whitehall.

    This made her a target for Royalist propaganda. By comparing her mercilessly with the vivacious Queen Henrietta, she was derided for being a plain housewife. She was called dull and dour. In scandalous pamphlets she was unflatteringly referred to as ‘Protectress Joan’ (a common servant’s name), her thrifty nature despised for that of a miserly woman who kept her husband’s table short of food and denied him comfort.
    In truth. Elizabeth was a modest woman, and far from denying him comfort provided her husband with ‘benefit of the bed’ to the tune of seven children in the first decade of their marriage.

    Elizabeth’s marriage was a strong one, surviving the strain of her husband’s frequent absences whilst he was on military campaigns. The few surviving letters between the couple, reveal a deep and enduring, if measured on Oliver’s part, affection. One letter reveals Cromwell thought his wife… ‘dearer to me than any creature; let that suffice’ continuing ‘My Dearest, I could not satisfy myself to omit this post, although I have not much to write; yet indeed I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart..’ In her one surviving letter to him, written in December 1650, Elizabeth expresses a desire to see her husband again, and admits ‘Truly my lif is but half a lif in your abseinse.’

    Their union also survived scurrilous attacks upon her reputation as her husband’s influence throughout the country grew. By 1650, royalist gossipmongers had sunk to a new low in their scathing attacks on Elizabeth. In a pamphlet called, ‘News from the new Exchange’ they published the obscene claim that she ‘hath run through the most of the regiment, both officers and soldiers’.

    Even after Oliver’s death in 1658 Elizabeth was fair game for adverse public opinion. One publication entitled ‘The court and Kitchin of Elizabeth Wife of Oliver Cromwell’ was written by Randal Taylor six years after Oliver Cromwell’s death, with the express intention of further blackening the Cromwell name. Many were unhappy with the fact that Elizabeth and her family were allowed to escape retribution after her husband’s death and England’s grisly revenge upon his body ( he was exhumed and his head displayed on a pike on London Bridge), Randall’s booklet attacked her mercilessly.

    He accused her of giving herself airs and derided her for being ‘such a person durst presume to take upon herself such a sovereign estate when she was a hundred times fitter for a barn than a palace.’ In the book he makes public the household accounts of the protector’s time in power at Whitehall, decries Elizabeth’s housekeeping referring to her ‘sordid frugality and thrifty baseness’ which he said had her running her own diary and ‘pasturing cows in St James’ Park’ in order to save money.

    The booklet also featured many recipes, taken from cookery books or ‘volumes of receipts’ Elizabeth had produced in her own right. These he used to discredit her further by showing that the food she gave her family was ‘ordinary and vulgar, except some few rarities’.

    In reality it was ill health that prevented Oliver Cromwell from indulging in rich foods. He did drink liberally on occasion to ‘void the gravel in his kidneys’, which suggested perhaps he suffered from kidney stones. Still the diet Elizabeth provided for her husband was ridiculed as ‘spare’ and ‘curious’ and at times when the family went without food Randall had people thinking it was due to Elizabeth’s neglect as opposed to the family fasting for religious reasons…’


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