Category Archives: Magic and Religion

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.