As a student of Early Modern Recipes the process of discovering Margaret Baker and her contemporaries has been an unexpected delight on so many levels. Should we ladies ever meet , I’m sure we would connect; if not in the detail of our lives, then at least in the shared experience of being wives, mothers and caregivers. Early modern cruelty to animals, where ‘whelps are drowned’ and chickens plucked alive (Tracey’s post) would, of course repulse my twenty first century sensibilities, but then the speed at which we live today, our secular lifestyles and modern individualism would perhaps appear quite alien to her.
Baker’s world was one of extended social networks emanating, not from a mobile phone, but from her home and family. Cooperation and collaboration by women within the domestic sphere strengthened familial bonds as well as alliences between mitresses and servants and made for the smooth running of a household. Collaboration and connection are also inherent within recipes, the following remark in the recipe book of Philip Stanhope, ‘my daughter-in-law taught it me/ Mrs Phillips taught it her’, an example of the transmission of knowledge, and sociability.
Yet recipes themselves remain inanimate if not accompanied by instructions for their use. Returning to the concept of meeting Baker I suspect this would be something we would have talked about. Possibly, we would also have reflected upon the importance of both measurement and precision in the preparation and execution of our recipes.
Today, ‘precision’ is something we take for granted, regulated by micro measurements, global positioning instruments, and digital apparatus. Unfortunately, it is not something we automatically attribute to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a domestic context. Instead, we see an England as yet untouched by the Industrial Revolution and so still tied into agrarian rhythms.
This became evident when Baker herself recommended a tonic to be taken in Spring and the ‘fall’, and, although I knew otherwise, the phrasing of her instruction led me to reimagine her as a colonial American. I double-checked. Biographical information on ‘EMROC – The Baker Project’ confirmed her as English, and the Oxford Dictionary Online explained that ‘fall’ derived from the old English, ‘at leafs fall’, a centuries old phrase denoting the third quarter of the year. Latterly it was simply referred to as ‘fall’ and so in common usage , was then taken to the new world by puritan migrants. In England, as urban societies grew and ties with the countryside diminished the less rustic sounding ‘autumn’ was adopted to describe the season.
Precision, we must accept was no less accurate in the past if we do not judge the concept by modern standards. Then, accuracy, at least enough for people to rely upon, was achieved by constancy: by using the same instruments, weights and measurement whatever they were.
Today recipes will sometimes make use of phrases such as a ‘cup’ of rice but usually it is 30 grammes of this or 450 grammes of that. Very precise. By contrast early modern methods of quantifying items appear strange to us, almost haphazard? Consequently, we can easily dismiss women like Baker, Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard as having inadequate tools with which to standardise amounts. Not so. In the absence of digital scales their constants were ‘handfuls’, ‘pennies’, ‘pecks’, and nuts.
Take, for example Grey’s, ointment to break a sore. She takes a handful of gentian, stamps it, straines it and puts it to half a pint of may butter, and as much virgin wax as a walnut’. 1 Nutmegs as a unit of measurement also feature regularly in her recipes, e.g, ‘Take the quantitie of one nutmeg out of your tin pot’, alternatively, ‘take the bigness of a nutmeg. 2 In one script she uses a combination of measuring methods all at once,
‘A handful of red sage, a quantitie of rustie bacon as big as a walnut, bay salt 2 ounces, sowr leaven as much as an egg…’3
Amazingly, coins frequently appear, both as a unit of weight and of measurement, a pennyworth of saffron suggesting a particular and standardised quantitie. 5 Interestingly women also used ‘a penny weight, the latter being easily multiplied to achieve the desired outcome. For example, ‘the weight of five pence’, 6 ‘the weight of two shillings,’ 7 or ‘a 4 penny weight of spikenard.’ 8 A pennyworth may also have been a liquid measurement as per this instruction for a plaister for ‘the collick’, in so much as it may refer to a small round amount of oil only as big as a penny.
Returning to the possibility of ever meeting up with either, Howard, Grey or Baker, amidst the myriad of topics we would explore and engage in, I would of course, have to share with them my utter delight in their early modern methods of measurement.
Spiller, Elizabeth, (ed) Seventeenth-Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard: Library of Essential Works. Routledge. 2008
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