Category Archives: Storytelling

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.

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.