All posts by Abbie Burnett

About Abbie Burnett

I'm a final year BA History student at the University of Essex.

The Science and Secrets of Cooking

By Abbie Burnett

In his book Cooking in Europe 1250-1650, Ken Albala includes a guide explaining ‘how to cook from old recipes’. To those unfamiliar with early modern recipes the inclusion of this guide may seem unusual and even unnecessary as recipes today are explicit in detailing how a recipe should be recreated, therefore a guide to aid them is redundant. However, what is apparent to those who have familiarised themselves with early modern recipes is that there is a large amount of assumed knowledge between their lines. 

Albala argues that “modern recipes are written scientifically, even though for the most part cooking is not a science.”[1] While cooking may not be a science, the scientific nature of recipes today can be easily recognised by their list of precise ingredients, exact measurements which are standardised internationally, and their explicit instructions, cooking times and temperatures. A modern recipe can be reproduced by almost anyone who follows its strict instructions, with no previous knowledge or skills necessary. (A blessing to inexperienced chefs of the twenty first century!) In addition, it is likely that due to the clear cut  and explicit nature of modern recipes they will be easily replicated to the same standard in 200 years time as they are today, providing cooking appliances do not drastically change.

In contrast, recipe books from the early modern period are much more difficult to follow. Recipes from this period did not have explicit instructions or standardised measurements, they were characterised by vague instructions and ambiguous guidance which was open to much interpretation by the reader. There was also a high level of implied knowledge in recipe books from this period, to which a contemporary reader would have been expected to have been aware of in order to follow a recipe successfully. Within Margaret Baker’s recipe book the assumed knowledge behind the measurements for ingredients has been highlighted well in Karen’s blog post ‘Methods of measurement and delight.’

A recipe for a powder of tertian feauer in Margaret Bakers Recipe Book, V.a.619 “as much as will lye on a six pence”

But why are modern recipes so explicit while early modern recipes left much to interpretation? It may be because recipes today are globally exchanged, they have the potential to reach thousands of readers and be recreated in many kitchens around the world. For this reason recipes are required to be specific and universal; to allow for anyone to easily cook from them despite cultural or geographical differences. However, in the early modern period recipes were expected to reach a much smaller audience.  Evidence of sociability of recipes can be seen in Margaret Bakers recipe book, she mentions contributors such as Mris FamesSir Walter Rallyes and Mris Denis, among others.  Specific recipes may have been expected to be shared among families or neighbours, but recipes traditionally travelled through lines of inheritance.

Only rarely would a recipe reach fame nationally or internationally if it was especially successful, such as Dr Lucatella’s balame. Margaret Baker claims that she was the first to record Luatella’s recipe, it then appears in many other recipe books from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, as well as being sold seperately. Here it is found as ‘Lucatelles balsam’ in 1669 in a memorandum book contributed to by unknown authors, and as late as 1820 the balme is recorded in John Knowlson’s book The Complete Farrier; Or Horse- doctor; Being the Art of Farriery Made Plain and Easy… With…a Catalogue of Drugs

Mathew Lucatalla’s Balme in Margaret Baker’s recipe book V.a.619

Today, some recipes would be impossible to recreate exactly or simply fail without the level of literal detail that modern recipes include. For example Bearnaise sauce, included in this article as number 3 of the 10 toughest dishes in the world to recreate, is evidence of how precisely a recipe must be followed. A particular temperature must be maintained during the cooking and specialist equipment is required for a Bearnaise sauce to be correctly reproduced; “This sauce is made in a bain-marie (a glass bowl over a pan of boiling water), but if it gets too hot, the eggs will scramble and there is no turning back.” It may be that early modern people used simpler dishes as Bearnaise sauce was not said to be created until the early nineteenth century, however it is more likely that during the early modern period this information was conveyed in other ways than direct instructions within a recipe book. In the early modern period in which Baker wrote, recipes and the methods to recreate them took on secret like qualities. They were passed on verbally, taught by elder family members to their young, from chefs to servants, from neighbours to friends, rather than being shared openly to everyone and anyone.

Implied knowledge in early modern recipes displays the limited reach of recipe books in the early modern period, authors expected their readers to be aware of unsaid rules or at least be close enough to ask them personally if they required more information. While the secret like quality of early modern recipes romanticises early modern cooking, the consequences of the existence of assumed knowledge in recipe books is that we may never be truly able to reconstruct recipes from this period. As Florence’s blog post displays, reconstruction of early modern recipes includes a lot of guess work. Information which was implicit to contemporary readers has not been passed on which has turned recipes from the early modern period into a  truly secret code to be deciphered by historians. As mentioned earlier, Albala takes an optimistic approach to this problem by arguing that “despite changes in ingredients and procedures, what tasted good hundreds of years ago still tastes good today,”[2] and therefore by trial and error we can gradually work to reconstruct near authentic replicas of dishes from early modern recipes. However, I fear that the silences in early modern recipes in which assumed knowledge was meant to fill may remain silent, and true recreations of recipes from this period may therefore be impossible.

[1]  Ken Albala Cooking in Europe 1250- 1650 (Westport, 2006), p. 27.

[2] Ken Albala Cooking in Europe 1250- 1650 (Westport, 2006), p. 28.

Recipe Book Memories

By Abbie Burnett

 The digital recipe book project has opened our minds to recognise that recipe books can include more than just recipes for meals, some posts on this blog explore this topic in more detail (Faye’s post and Sarah’s post). However, even with this in mind, when working on Margret Bakers recipe book I have found it difficult at times to draw these personal connections between her recipes and her lifestyle, relationships, and status in society. Sometimes Baker’s recipes for Tripe Peys are just recipes for tripe pies.

f.101v. and f.102r. from V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker
A recipe of Tripe Peys in Margaret Baker’s recipe book 

On my journey to make a connection between Baker and her recipes I was recommended by Dr Catherine Crawford to read Claudia Roden’s recipe book The Book of Jewish Food [1]. Before opening the book I checked out a few of its reviews online to get a sense of how it has been received by the general public. As a scholar, book reviews are a useful resource not only to gain an approximate judgement of quality of writings; but to find concise summaries, evaluative commentaries, and the position of these books in scholarly literature.[2]  Out of the 693 people who rated Roden’s book out of 5 stars, 86% gave it a 4 or 5 star rating, and only 3% gave The Book of Jewish Food a rating of 2 stars or lower. This overwhelmingly positive response characterising Roden’s book as a “culinary landmark” which was “packed with history and anecdote” ignited my curiosity into this twentieth century recipe book.

Claudia Roden The Book of Jewish Food (New York, 1996)
Claudia Roden The Book of Jewish Food (New York, 1996)

My high expectations were not disappointed upon reading The Book of Jewish Food. In fact, although I was prepared to find it an interesting collection of recipes I was still pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it was as more than just a cookbook, but as an amazing historical narrative of Jewish people and their food. The links made by Claudia Roden between recipes and Jewish history made me abundantly aware of how recipe books have the potential to carry memories and emotion.

The Book of Jewish Food draws the reader into not only a world of food, but also a world of religion, of displacement and persecution, and of festivals and tradition experienced by the Jewish people of the past. Through reading this recipe book I did not only learn how to reproduce many types of different meals I also learnt a significant amount about the Jewish faith, to which I was previously relatively ignorant. Roden presents her dishes in a way that traces Jewish memories and the previous homes they came from. Her personal touch on the book allows the reader to recognise the emotional significance of recipes as well as the feeling of belonging that they can bring.

Other historians of recipes have touched upon the themes of memory and belonging which can be found within a recipe book. Among them are Montserrat Cabré who writes about The Emotional Life of Recipesdiscussing how recipe books can be emotionally charged objects. As well as Lisa Smith, whose blog post touches on the emotional significance of certain family recipes passed down through generations, she questions if these recipes were picked due to their practicality or due the memories that they evoke. Roden’s recipe book is unique in that it displays very clear emotional ties to recipes, however the early modern recipe books I have encountered often do not have this discernible evidence of emotion. Margret Baker seems to be a closed book in that sense.

Claudia Roden’s recipe book has not only furthered my understanding of the emotional depth of recipes, it has also furthered my understanding of the importance of considering religion when reading recipe books. Whilst I have been studying recipe books to decipher the kinds of lives that their owners lived during the early modern period, I have been neglecting a fundamental part of those lives. Religion was not simply a minor element of early modern life, for most people it was central to it and in Europe religious wars raged almost continuously throughout the period.[3]

The Magen David, a Jewish symbol
The Magen David, a Jewish symbol

Roden’s focus on Jewish traditions and the vital influence of religious kosher laws on recipes has highlighted to me the importance of considering religion in the study of recipe books, which are circulated in both religious and non religious communities. Religion has not been ignored by those who study early modern recipe books, the Recipes Project have a number of posts classed under religion, it is not their main focus but still an important consideration in the study of recipes. By neglecting religion in the study of recipes you simplify the lives of their creators and misrepresent them in history.

The Book of Jewish Food is an interesting read even to those with no intention of recreating a dish from its pages. It has opened my eyes to the close relationship of personal history and memory in recipe books, as well as the importance of considering religion when studying recipes.  For Roden, Jewish food brings a sense of religious closeness and personal identity, just as family recipes bring a sense of memory and belonging to many others. While Baker has previously appeared to me to have less of religious or emotional connection with her recipes, she may simply have not felt the need to make this connection explicitly clear in a private family recipe book, unknowing that historians would scrutinise its pages in the twenty-first century. I am sure deeper readings of Baker with these considerations in mind may reveal aspects which I have previously overlooked.

[1] Claudia Roden The Book of Jewish Food (1996)

[2] Franklin Obeng-Odoom ‘Why write book reviews?’ Austrialian Universities’ review 56 (2014).

[3] Mark Konnert Early Modern Europe: The Age of Religious War, 1559-1715 (Ontario, 2008), p. 9.

My first Transcribathon!

By Abbie Burnett

Before I became a student of the Digital Recipe Books Project, six short weeks ago, I was barely aware of what transcription was, let alone how valuable it could be to me as a historian. So maybe you would consider me unqualified to take part in an annual international Transcribathon of an early modern manuscript, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), and yet on the 9th November 2016 that’s precisely what I did! My first Transcribathon was also only my second experience of transcribing historical manuscripts and as a novice I have learned a lot recently about the skills involved, its difficulties, rewards and uses. 

EMROC’s international Transcribathon is in its second year and has proved hugely popular with participants from all over the world logging on to join in with the project, some groups met to collaborate in person in locations across the globe such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Essex, the University of Akron, the University of Texas Arlington and the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Whilst others logged on virtually, joining in for quick lunch breaks or dedicating a whole afternoon to the event. Personally I took part for a couple of hours while I was in my flat; helping transcribe a seventeenth century recipe book while in your pyjamas is not to be scoffed at!

Castleton's signature, from From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.
Castleton’s signature, from From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.

The Transcribathon lasted twelve hours and covered 236 pages from Lady Castleton’s recipe book (V.a.600), and although many participants were those who study early modern history, the history of recipes or who had experience with transcription, the invitation to join in was open to all–no experience necessary! The inclusive nature of the event encouraged an impressive total of 128 transcribers to participate, beating 2015’s Transcribathon total of 93 transcribers, and exceeded in completing a triple-keyed transcription of Lady Castleton’s book. The Transcribathon was a lot of fun and much more exciting than I expected it to be. For me in particular the time limit of twelve hours created excitement as I logged on when it was in its final few hours and so the pressure was on to complete the pages I had selected in that time!

Trying to transcribe accurately but efficiently for an inexperienced transcriber like me was a definitely a hard task, but a challenge I felt I rose to with the help of online courses dedicated to reading old English handwriting, such as a course by the National Archives and one by the University of Cambridge. Especially helpful to me was a website dedicated to apothecaries’ symbols commonly found in medical recipes, which helped familiarise me with the letters and symbols which I found not only in Lady Castleton’s book, but also in Margaret Baker’s recipe book, which we are transcribing in class.

On Twitter and Facebook EMROC was available to offer support and encouragement, and the hashtag #transcribathon was in full effect as virtual transcribers got involved with those on site. This modern edge to history really added to the experience as it gave solitary  transcribers like me an insight of how collaborative and special this event was, I felt like I was part of something unique.

Transcription was first introduced to me in our seminar titled ‘Paleography Lab’, for those who don’t know, paleography is the study of ancient writings and the deciphering and interpreting of historical manuscripts, in class we discussed how paleography and transcription can be used profitably by historians and researchers. At first I had assumed that the main function of transcription was to reproduce a manuscript in a more modern style of handwriting or digitally, thereby making it available to a wider audience and ensuring that information within a manuscript is not lost from history. However within our seminar the group discussion expanded my original views of transcription; it was not simply a reproductive system but also a way for researchers to get a closer reading of a manuscript and understand it or its context on a deeper level than merely paraphrasing it or taking separate random quotes to refer back to.

Transcription, however, like all methods of research, has its flaws. Human errors are common and extremely easy to overlook. I discovered this first-hand; more than twice during the Transcribathon of Lady Grace Castleton’s recipe book, I re-read my completed pages of transcriptions to find that by correcting a letter or a word I changed the whole meaning of the sentence and even the meaning of the recipe.

These revelations brought me a feeling of pride as I knew I was growing more comfortable with Castleton’s handwriting and things were beginning to make sense. For example, when I was on page 74 of her book I corrected  “if some quantity of whitte wine” to “the same quantity of whitte wine“, which made a lot more sense both to me and the recipe. Despite my growing pride and confidence as I found these mistakes and corrected them, I also felt more unsure of myself. How many mistakes had I made and had I corrected them all? I hoped so. Furthermore, transcription can be very time consuming; the close reading of historical manuscripts can be long and drawn out especially when contending with the additional factors of handwritten pieces of work, words spelled phonetically and unstandardised fonts. For historians who take these factors into consideration and make adjustments to deal with them as best as they can with the many online resources available, transcription can be one of the most enjoyable forms of research.

I still consider myself a novice transcriber. However, the experience of the Transcribathon, paired with in class practice of transcription and  seminar discussions, have helped me to take a step in the right direction into becoming an adept transcriber. I have no doubt that it is a skill that needs to be continuously worked on by historians to be able to transcribe almost effortlessly.

If you’re a historian who enjoys getting up close and personal to primary sources, my experiences with transcription tells me it is the method for you–especially for those interested in the study of early modern recipes. As I have learnt from my first Transcribathon, and will continue to discover during my work here on the Digital Recipes Book Project, transcription not only allows you to glean insights into the recipe on the page, but also into the life and times of its author.