All posts by ebanyai

Collecting recipes and gifting hand-written recipe books: still a family tradition?

There is a time in everybody’s life when they move out from their parent’s house and start their adult life. Cooking and starting a recipe collection is a key part (for some) of becoming an adult. While reading Elaine Leong’s and Amanda E. Herbert’s articles it struck me that there are many things in common with early modern people and with us – modern people. Family recipes, cookbooks were an essential part of their lives, but from my experience it is still important to many today.

Female alliances

Early modern women’s shared labour, attempt to cooperate/collaborate can be seen in household inventories, guidebooks, prescriptive texts and manuscript recipe books.[1] What I found really interesting is that women did not just get advice from their closer group within their class, but also from below their class. Mary Chantrell is a perfect example to this, as she noted that one of her recipes were from a laundress, and another had been approved by an older woman.[2]They trusted those who had experience and wisdom, no matter their class. According to Herbert, examples such as this one prove that elite women contacted and worked with women of all kinds both within and outside their homes. Recipes allowed them to share their knowledge about ingredients and materials, also about how to negotiate with male shopkeepers, which means seeking other women’s advice was a tool to advance their female independence too.[3]

Manuscript recipe books

The covers of an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY


Manuscript recipe books were handwritten books, including lists of ingredients and step-by-step instructions for making food, cosmetics, handicrafts and medicines.[4] Women shared advice and knowledge within these books to a range of women; it could be to relatives, servants, neighbours. In addition, they defended female education, knowledge and space against the male physicians and authors.[5] Recipes were the main platform for saving information and knowledge for the future in the early modern household.[6] Many gathered recipes alone, but most times they borrowed the recipes from their friends, family members and neighbours (the closer the person the more reliable the recipe was).[7] Some recipes were passed onto next generations. If they lent their book to someone else, they could communicate on the margins of the pages, as that was a place for more information or adaptions to be shared.[8]

Pages from an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.


Women were proud of these collections, and noted which recipe was from whom. Recipe books were worthy enough to mention in inventories, moreover, their value made them to be the perfect gift.[9] Mothers gave them to their children to guide them, especially to help their daughters to become a proper housewife. Recipe books, especially when given as a gift, had a ‘starter’ portion, which was quite helpful from my point of view. This ‘starter’ collection could be inherited or copied by the owner of the book. [10]

Female alliances and recipe sharing in the modern world

Montserrat Cabré’s blog about recipes and emotions made me think about how giving recipe book as a gift was more an act of love, rather than just to a guide to become a housewife. Cabré argues that recipes connect women and generations, furthermore she adds it created a space for conversation. Food and dishes that the whole family loves always brings back nice memories, so passing on this knowledge is not only a help of survival, but an act of love too.

The front page of my mother’s recipe book. The writing means “Miracle of miracles”. This title was given by my mother’s sister, but we do not know the reason behind it. It is sort of a family mystery.


When I was reading the articles by Leong and Herbert, it surprised me how similar early modern recipe book traditions and my family’s traditions are. My mother has been collecting recipes for sixteen-seventeen years at this point. Her collection consists of two notebooks, they have both printed and handwritten material, a mix of everything. Similar to early modern examples, my mother wrote adjustments to her recipes too, especially to the ones which she collected from others. When I decided to move to the UK from Hungary, my mother gifted me a notebook with my favourite recipes inside of it, which is basically the ‘starter’ portion of my collection. I think this is the most interesting similarity, as ‘starter’ collection as a whole was a completely new information to me. I never thought it was a way to gift recipe books, I just thought it was something clever my mother did.

Some random pages from my mother’s recipe book. Similarly to early modern examples, my mother wrote some comments next to recipes too. Here she noted that the recipe on the left is very delicious, and that the right one is from somebody else.


Early modern recipe books were not only useful for everyday life, for example in Anna Cromwell’s situation they came handy when emigrating to the Americas.[11] These recipes helped her to adapt to the new ingredients and dishes. I would like to think that in a way I was in a very similar situation to Anna Cromwell when moving to England, as my mother’s gift helped me adjusting to the new environment and helped me feel like I am home. Using my mother’s gift as a guide I had to adapt to different ingredients and spices. Obviously my situation was not as drastic as back then, but between countries there are very significant differences when it comes to basic ingredients like milk and flour (even salt is less salty here than back home!) and recipes needed to be adapted to achieve a similar result as back home.

To have another example from today’s world, my mother’s friend received a recipe book from her mother too. But this one looked more similar to the early modern ones because it did not only have food recipes, but also tips and tricks when it came to the household. For example it had advice on what to do when someone was expecting guests, what to do when red wine spills on the table and so on. In a sense it is very similar because its purpose was to prepare the daughter to become a knowledgeable ‘housewife’. I think these two examples show that we still have female alliances in a way, as the knowledge sharing/recipe collecting tradition never changed, only the time and space. 

Recipes collected from printed material


Ever since I received my gift I have been adding new recipes and adjustments to it. Early modern wives, daughters even male members of the household did the same thing; they expanded their collections, wrote adjustments next to recipes. It was very interesting to see how similar early modern examples were to my case, because my family never knew about ‘starter’ collections until I read the articles by Leong and Herbert. Hopefully I will be able to carry this tradition, which has been around since the early modern times.

Bibliography

Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Leong, Elaine, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013).

Montserrat Cabré, ‘The Emotional Life of Recipes’, <https://recipes.hypotheses.org/1069> [accessed 21 January 2020]

 

 

[1]Amanda E. Herbert, Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014), p. 116

[2] Ibid, pp. 107-108

[3] Ibid, p. 105

[4] Ibid, p. 102

[5] Ibid, p. 103

[6] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013), p. 83

[7] Herbert, p. 105

[8] Ibid, p. 114

[9] Leong, p. 86

[10] Ibid, p. 91

[11] Herbert, (2014), p. 110

Stereotypes about the early modern household and the reality

When people think about the early modern household, most think of the stereotypes regarding to gender roles. Even though I took modules on early modern topics before, taking HR650 allowed me to realise some of my thoughts on the early modern household were not necessarily correct. This blog post will look at the stereotypes about gender roles, the spaces/rooms in the household and their purpose, and household hierarchy. I will try to give an example for certain cases which proves the stereotypes slightly or fully incorrect.

  1. Household hierarchy

The household was seen as the husband’s castle, but the household was not organized “towards a rigorous spatial segregation of the sexes”.[1] Instead the lines between household work was blurred, the tasks overlapped between the spheres. [2] The wife did not have as much power as the husband, but her power within the household was still significant. Mistresses had to overtake as the head of the household when their husbands were away, which meant their authority was respected within the household. In addition as Amanda Flather suggests in Gender and space in Early Modern England, most of the time women had the keys for the house/rooms, which gave them the freedom and power to go wherever and whenever they wanted within the house.[3]

Family picture from early modern England
Picture taken from: https://www.elizabethi.org/contents/essays/marriage.htm


After the husband and wife, their children were next in the household hierarchy. Even though they did not have much power, they were still above the servants. After the children in the hierarchy, the male servants (if there were any) were next and lastly the female servants. Female servants had the least power. (Plus they could be assaulted by their masters too) Servants did not have any privacy as they did not own the keys for their own rooms, which meant their master and mistress could walk into their room if they wanted to.

  1. Gender roles

 The stereotypes of early modern gender roles are usually about how women belonged in the kitchen, mostly working within the household, and not having any power in their marital relationship. Some primary sources suggest the opposite however. As the example of Alice Le Strange’s household records show us, wives could handle money, even sort out some businesses. She noted their financial situation; how much money they earned, what did they spend that money on, basically about the movement of money within their household. She wrote about everything related to the household.[4]

Pages from Alice Le Strange’s record book
Image taken from: https://norfolkwomeninhistory.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/lest-bk15.jpg

Furthermore it was not only Alice Le Strange dealing with the financial situation of the household, since women had the keys, they most likely knew where the money of the household was stored. Women also payed bills and rent, (even sold goods,) which means they did not only do the domestic tasks.[5] This proves the theory of how a marriage in the early modern times was more an economic partnership rather than a love based relationship.
In addition Alice Clark’s research suggests that in the pre-industrial economy when many businesses where operated in the household, women had a chance to take part of the agricultural work and trade.[6] The borderlines between men’s and women’s jobs were blurred, everybody was part of most tasks.

  1. Rooms/spaces of the household

The size and the numbers of the room within a household depended on where the house was located. Houses in towns and on the countryside looked significantly different, especially their layout. Based on the drawing found in The English Husbandman, the kitchen and other food preparation rooms (either for their own consuming or to sell products) were one third of the whole household. These rooms were clearly not open to visitors. But surprisingly not only women and servants went into these rooms, children and husbands went into them as well. From the dining parlor (marked B on the picture below) there was a room for the mistresses’ use (marked D on the picture below). The reason why I am pointing that out is because according to Gender and space in Early Modern England all sexes could enter all rooms.[7] Even though some room names included their owner, it might have been used by everyone living there.

The ideal house plan by Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman (1613)
  1. Spaces within the household and their purpose

As mentioned before there were no gender specific rooms in the household, the lines were blurred. For example when we think of a kitchen, we associate the space with women and servants. Even though it was the place where women and servants actually worked together, everybody in the household could come and go. Moreover, some husbands/men actually were interested in cookery. There was a discussion about this topic in one of the seminars which I found very interesting. The discussion was about how not all elite women kept records of the household, sometimes their husband took over. They could add small changes to some recipes as well. Before taking this module I would never have imagined men taking an interest in cookery or recipe noting in this time period.  Some liked to experiment, which means they were welcome in the kitchen and even used it. Interestingly since medicine making and cookery were similar to the processes of practicing chemistry, at this age women were naturally in the “scientific field”. Even though women most likely had more knowledge on the subject, only men could publish their discovery, such as Henry Baker’s observation of the blackcurrant jelly to cure sore throat. This is another example of how women were associated with medicine and healing, but it was still only men being able to publish their discoveries.

In conclusion it can be said that even though husbands/masters were the head of the household, their mistress/wife had more power than the stereotypes let us believe. Spaces within the household were not gender specific, for example men did go about the kitchen too. In addition men actually took part in cookery and recipe books even though the stereotypes suggest those were female task.

Bibliography

Flather, Amanda, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007).

Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Markham, Gervase, The English Husbandman (1613).

Whittle, Jane and Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and gender in the early seventeenth-century household: the world of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), Chapter 2.

…….

[1] Amanda Flather, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 40

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 75

[4] Jane Whittle, Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and gender in the early seventeenth-century household: the world of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), Chapter 2.

[5] Amanda Flather, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 43