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?
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.
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.  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.