The Stories in the Recipe Book

By Lisa Smith

Some time ago, Carla Nappi posed an intriguing series of questions over at The Recipes Project :

Reading through this text, I began to think deeply about these recipes as literary objects. What if we understand a recipe not just as a kind of text, but also as a form of storytelling? If a recipe does tell a story, what kind of story might that be? And how might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them?

Her questions came to mind after our seminar on ‘What is a Recipe?’–a seemingly simple question with a vastly difficult answer. Recipes were more than a set of instructions. They were forms of narration, at their most authoritative within the context of experience or case histories (Gianna Pomata), and a space for translation between people and cultures (Carla Nappi). Recipes included implied knowledge; not everything was written down. When transmitted, words, ingredients and measurements might gain or lose meanings. Expertise came from the ability to interpret recipes for specific situations, not simply to reproduce an outcome.

woolley-supplement-titleThe excerpts from Hannah Woolley’s A Supplement to the Queen-like Closet (1674) further complicated our answer. Alongside recipes for food, medicine and beauty, Woolley included detailed instructions for cleaning chimneys, examples of letter-writing, and an account of how to make a ‘pretty toy’ to catch flies (complete with ingredients, process and usage). The line between recipes and other didactic writing was clearly blurred. They share, after all, a common function of providing instructions.

But… if you took a step back from the individual parts, could you read the whole recipe book as a story—or, maybe even a recipe—in itself? Rachel Rich, for example, suggests that nineteenth-century print recipe books drew readers into narratives by casting them in the role of heroine. Dramatic tension came from the endless potential for the reader’s failure.

The Queen-like Closet also reveals tensions between the recipe’s narrative and instructional functions. Woolley framed her expertise—particularly her medical know-how—in terms of experience. In the foreword, she emphasised that she only included ‘such things as I have had many years Experience of, with good success’. She also provided cases of successful cures, demonstrating her authority and efficacious remedies.

Woolley also put herself in the role of heroine. For example, one case entailed her raising the dead.

A man taken suddenly with an Apoplexy, as he walked the Street, his Neighbours taking him into a house, and as they thought he was quite dead, I being called until him, chanced to come just when they had taken the Pillow from his Head, and were going to strip him.

She forced him to drink a remedy, rubbed and chafed him, opened the window and ‘in a little time he came to himself and knew every one.’ Although he only lived ten hours more, he had enough time to prepare for a good death by making peace with God and putting his affairs in order (14).

Heroism appears in other ways in the Queen-like Closet. Julia Lupton, for example, interprets the book in terms of being a form of ‘shelter writing’—the discourse of housekeeping, particularly in the face of hardships. Many of Woolley’s cases or examples referred to the daily hardships visited upon women: from medical assistance for an abused woman to a sample letter breaking the news of a child’s death. Woolley’s urban middling-sort audience could aspire to becoming heroines—or, at least, excellent, upwardly-mobile housewives… if they followed her instructions.

Therein lies the rub; where judgment was required in more complicated cases, Woolley ‘dare not therefore adventure to teach, but only those things wherein People cannot easily Erre.’ If successful outcomes in using Woolley’s book came purely from reproducing what was written down, rather than exercising good judgment in the interpretion of what was written, were these recipes merely a set of instructions? And to what exactly were the readers aspiring?

Considering the whole, we might read A Supplement to the Queen-like Closet in three ways.

  1. A collection of useful knowledge that could teach women how to keep house. Good judgment was not necessary for success, as each section should be easily reproduced. (Or, according to ‘An Advertisement’ in the book, Woolley’s remedies could even be purchased directly from her!)
  2. One large recipe for the life success of aspirational housewives, in which each ‘recipe’ or recipe-like entry is only one step. In this way, it wouldn’t matter if the individual parts were merely reproducible instructions, as the end goal was to become a housewife who had learned good judgment through her own practice of Woolley’s advice.
  3. A story in which heroines—Woolley, suffering women, or the reader—attained success in re-establishing domestic harmony. Within the story, each recipe performed a particular function: offering the perfect dish, healing neighbours, cleaning dark chimney corners, or putting one’s best cosmetically-enhanced face forward.

woolley-addressPerhaps recognising the tension in her text, Wolley added that ‘for many other things which I cannot in few words relate, if any Person will come to me, I will satisfie them to their content’. Those who wanted a deeper knowledge than instructions could seek it out; their story did not have to end with this book.

Knowledge dispensed, Woolley wished her readers ‘all the happiness I may’ (200). She was clear, though, that the success or failure was entirely up to the reader:

Ladies, I hope your pleas’d, and so shall I be,

If what I’ve Writ, you may be gainers by:

If not, it is your fault, it is not mine,

Your benefit in this I do design.

A fourth narrative, then: the expert passing on her knowledge step-by-step, with the potential for the recipient’s failure. Rachel Rich concludes that recipe books did not always have a happy ending, but at least with the Queen-like Closet, there were a range of possible endings–from the merely useful to the expert with good judgment.


About lisasmith

Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex. Writes on gender, health, and the household in early modern England and France (ca. 1600-1800). Primary investigator for the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence Online Project. Collaborator for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, founding co-editor of The Recipes Project, and blogger at Wonders and Marvels and Shakespeare's World. Tweets as @historybeagle. On Zooniverse as @LWSmith.

One thought on “The Stories in the Recipe Book

  1. As a new mature student to Essex University’s recipe book project it struck me that I have been surrounded by recipes for a long time but never appreciated them as a vehicle for so much more than food preparation. In my cupboard I have the cookbook, Good Housekeeping’s Cookery Compendium which my mother bought as a young bride realizing she was going to have to ‘up her culinary skills’ if she were going to fulfill her new marriage obligations with regards to my father’s stomach as well as his heart. The book is sixty years old and although I do not use it, the book will be handed down to my daughter and perhaps my granddaughter when the appropriate time comes. Sixty years is nothing compared to the age of the books we are studying; the fact they have survived in any quantity proving a treasure trove to the early modern scholar. I doubt, in their day, they were heirlooms in a monetary sense, as they were essentially working books. Yet, their content is priceless. I wonder if Mary Granville (1620-1750) who also inherited her receipt book from her mother before passing it eventually to her daughter realized the ‘stories’ she was telling when she wrote them.

    Not only is there over two hundred years between her inheritance and mine, there is of course the fact these women were instrumental in its construction, themselves an ingredient in the mix. Both our books contain that vital element of exchange; advice by women for women, and the magic – early modern or not – that lay in hands of the receiver. I suspect even the poor illiterate woman would have at least an oral tradition of advice, recipe and ‘good housekeeping’ passed down from other females within the household.

    Off course there is much more than simply ‘how to boil an egg’ or ‘bake blind’ in these historic recipe books and luckily my mother never had to employ unconventional ingredients such as ‘neets tongues’ or ‘cock ale’ (chicken beer) in order to provide my father with his tea. However, the connections are still there, in the exploration, discovery, experimentation and narration of these ‘story’ recipes and the desire to improve and provide will I suspect never change.

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