Ready for this Jelly

When people ask about the contents of early modern recipe/household books, I find myself turning first to remedies. The contrast between contemporary medicine and the strange herbal potions is striking and shocking and gets people interested quickly. It often allows us to talk about the types of specialized knowledge early modern women would have had–the chemical and medicinal properties of all sorts of plants; the intimate knowledge of disease symptoms and progression that required careful observational skills, and the willingness to experiment with a frankly astounding range of plants, animals, and substances to cure the human body.

It’s easy to assume, then, that early modern cooking was just as unfamiliar and weird as the remedies are. But I’ve found that’s often not the case. The majority of food recipes look a lot like their contemporary equivalents, especially the desserts. Early moderns figured out pretty quickly that sugar was delicious, and quickly found ways to put it in everything from the expected (a million varieties of jam) to the unexpected (meat dishes. Why does your beef need sugar? Unclear.) Preservational methods also look very similar–either put stuff in vinegar in jars, or dump a bunch of sugar into it and make jam.

Like Elizabeth Sloane’s 1711 “To make Jam of Raspberries.”

This recipe came from a collection of primarily sweets and delicacies in the British Library, very neatly lettered and embellished.

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BL Add MS 29739

To make Jam of Raspberries

Take the raspberries mash them & strain half; put the Juice to the other half that has the seeds in them; boil it fast for a quarter of an hour; then to a pint of raspberries put three quarters of a pound of Sugar; & boil it till it Jellys; put it into potts or glasses.

3/4 of a pound of sugar is 1.4 cups, or a scant 1 1/2 cups. These proportions are higher in sugar than contemporary jam recipes, which usually follow a 1:1

Contemporary recipe:

2 pints raspberries

scant 1 1/2 cups sugar

(lime zest to infuse sugar optional; you may also add the juice of one lime to cut the sugary taste)

Mash one half of the raspberries in a bowl. In another bowl, mash the other pint. Strain this second pint somehow so you have extra-juicy raspberries. Boil the fruit by itself for 15 minutes, then add the sugar and boil for another 2-5 minutes. According to an English nan on the BBC Food community, you’ll know it’s jellied when you drop a bit on a chilled plate, push your finger through it, and it acts like jelly. [This feedback loop assumes that you’re closely familiar with the properties of homemade jelly, which acts differently than storebought jelly.]

Note: it is incredibly difficult to strain raspberries if you doesn’t have muslin or cheesecloth. My makeshift setup involved a tea strainer and lots of pressing. A great arm workout, but not very efficient.

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This is what “boiling fast” looks like.

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Once the sugar’s been added it begins to thicken and take on a more jewel-like color.

Finally, put the jelly into “potts or glasses” to cool. Given how much early modern ladies liked to draw owls, I thought little pots covered in owls would be appropriate. This recipe makes about 2 jam jars’ worth.

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Good on toast, ice cream, or in a birthday cake you make because you miss London.

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The Digestion Question

One thing I’m keeping an eye out for in my manuscript meanderings is early modern theories of digestion. In my qualifying exam, I was asked, “What was the early modern theory of digestion?” It stumped me, because there doesn’t seem to be just one. There are educated and less educated guesses, but from what I can tell the minutae of the digestive system were just beginning to be explored in the 17th century.

In my reading so far, digestion becomes a concern when it’s not working properly–when it’s too slow or fast, has stopped, or someone can’t digest that should be able to. This doesn’t translate into a concern with maintaining the digestive system–which surprises me, maybe because I live in a probiotic world–or understanding the mechanisms by which digestion works.* Many of the recipe/remedy books have a tacit understanding that the stomach is important and vulnerable–they all have at least one, and usually many, remedies that aim to fix “weakness in the stomach. What’s frustratingly absent is why the stomach grows weak, or what makes it so. Is it because the stomach has to deal with stuff that’s outside our body? But since “weakness” is a condition, what determines a “strong” stomach?

This week I found 3 texts that address the digestion question in different ways, and are helping me draw a picture of early modern digestive theorys.

Henry Power, a doctor and natural philosopher, was involved in debates about the nature of the circulatory system, and the papers I read also show that he was interested in understanding the digestive system as well. In an undated set of pages (BL Sloane MS 1393 ff 28r & 28v), Power writes down his thoughts “Of the Chyles motion & its vessels’.” Chyle (is a word I’m sad we no longer use) is an early modern name for digestive liquid, and Power’s best guess is that “Chyliferous vessels” (another great phrase!) originate in the intestines and connect the stomach and the intestines. The “Chyliferous vessels,” Power thinks, allow food & nutrients to cross into the bloodstream.

Where it gets weird: Power then hesitantly agrees with the opinion that the digestive system (he calls it the “chyliferous branch”–at this point I’m just looking for excuses to write “chyliferous”) is possibly connected to the breasts & womb in women. Therefore, breastmilk and digestive liquid “have very little, if any difference between them” (28v).

This is an interesting connection–breastmilk feeds infants, and it brings the mother’s nutrients full circle to the child. [Another popular early modern theory was that breastmilk transferred not only nutrients and tastes to babies but ideas and personalities as well–so beware!] For non-baby humans, there’s a weird kind of logic to this connection: digested food disperses throughout the body, so why might it not become bodily fluids? Of course, we now know that the transfer isn’t that direct–but I see in Power’s notes the beginnings of an answer to questions of how digested food is spread throughout the body, how nourishment is accomplished, and a consideration of a more philosophical question–when does food in the body stop being food?

Another mouth-stomach connection popped up in Lady Ayscough’s receipt book, in her entry “An outward Medicine for the stomack to helpe Digestion” (p. 212, Wellcome MS 1026). That got me wondering: why an outward medicine for an internal system? I actually see quite a bit of this topical healing in remedy books: ie, for a headache put a plaster on your head, etc. [And who doesn’t know our version of this: “HeadOn! Apply directly to the forehead!”?]

But with the stomach it’s a different case: we can access the stomach, and 80% of these recipes are ingested, even remedies for outward or skin-level problems. So why create a topical recipe to help digestion when you could easily toss one back?

Thomas Lodge suggests an answer in his “The Poore Mans Talent” (BL MS 34212), a collection of remedies and medical instruction dedicated to the poet Anne Dacre, Countess of Arundel. He organizes his remedies by region of the body (remedies for the head, the face, etc), and precedes every section with some information about the function of each body part. His vision of the digestive system is one where the stomach is central:

“The stomacke is the store house of the Boddie to receive all necessary nutrients for all the members, and it is sittuated in the midst of the body to digest the said meate and is often troubled with weaknes and want of digestyon” (15v-16r)

There’s a certain kind of logic here again–if the stomach is in the middle of the body, distributing nutrients to everything else through a network of connections, then it kind of makes sense to use the stomach-body or stomach-skin connections to treat what’s hard to access. This vision of digestion is highly intertwined and enmeshed with all other bodily systems, and blurs the lines between our insides and our outsides. This gets me back to my prior question: when does food in the body become no longer food? Are we eating something applied to our skin if it helps the inside of our body? What, exactly, is eating?

Without fully understanding the intricacies of the digestive system as we know them now, these early modern authors still understood the situatedness of the stomach, and that it was connected to the other systems. The stomach can feel; it has agency of its own, and its condition is in a very delicate balance with the rest of the body’s operations.

*in the recipe/remedy books. I’ve not gotten to the anatomical treatises yet.

Degrees of Usefulness: A 17th Century Defense of the Humanities

In the half-year since I thought up my project, I’ve begun discussing it in academic and public circles.* Something I hear fairly often is a variation of “why on earth does that matter?”

As an academic, it’s great to have my ideas tested. Every time an old historian (no names to protect the guilty) tells me “I really don’t see the use of studying manuscript recipes” I get a chance to explain and justify my project. I relish the practice–it allows me to figure out why I’m doing what I’m doing, and where my project fits in a larger conversation or inquiry.

About a month ago, I wrote about my research trip for a web publication. I received a lot of encouragement and interest–someone asked me how a 17th-century cook would have managed their household finances, which I’m now trying to find out! But that lovely and mutually inspirational moment was overshadowed by a far more negative reader.

The article was about planning a trip to London amidst the financial uncertainty of Brexit, but I mentioned my research topic briefly. A reader picked it out and snarked, “That’s a good thing to study…in your spare time.”

I should note: I’m aware that people who write comments on large websites are largely just looking for handy stones on which to grind their unrelated axes. Nonetheless, this comment demonstrates the general skepticism–and in this case, the disdain–with which manuscript recipes are often viewed.

This is the part that baffles me. Secret diaries, personal thoughts, and journals fascinate us. Our culinary preferences today fetishize “heirloom” recipes, Grandma’s kitchen, and getting back to the way things used to be. So it would be logical that cookbooks from the 1600s, in all their weird glory, would also be of interest–right?

Perhaps that’s a naive angle. Perhaps manuscript recipes aren’t seen as frivolous objects of study because they’re recipes, but because they’re women’s writing. Women and the domestic sphere have long been associated and separated from “valuable” thought, action, labor, etc, and I’m not going to address that history except to say that these ideas are certainly at play in the reception of manuscript recipes. But that’s a discussion for another day.

This morning, I found a 17th-century answer to the question I’m asked today:

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Wellcome Library MS 4051, Anonymous recipe book

It was empowering to read an argument for the importance of learning in a 17th-century woman’s hand. The mindset that causes people to tell us that studying these books is a waste of our time is the same mindset that helped label these works as unimportant, illiterate, and frivolous for so long. It was that same mindset that helped ignore and hide this huge archive of women’s writing, thought, and labor for hundreds of years, and continues to devalue it now within and beyond academic circles.

Everything is useful at some point or another. Our fixation on immediate usefulness is what sets up this hierarchy of importance to begin with. But if we disdain some parts of knowledge because we can’t see how they’re immediately useful, we risk not having them at a moment when they might be useful. By ignoring the texts and voices of those deemed not “useful” (and this has implications far beyond English women’s recipe books, as my postcolonial scholars will tell you), we lose parts of our history. There are degrees of usefulness, to be sure. But even those ancient plague recipes solve contemporary problems–everything has a season and an appropriate moment.

And so to read this beautiful assertion of the value of all knowledge and processes of inquiry in one of the very books that’s been devalued for so long…
…well, it makes me feel triumphant and more committed to this course of study than ever.

*It’s a problem that academics are largely not considered to do their thinking in public, and that grad students are even more invisible as thinkers.

Salad Days: Methods Through Time

To celebrate the end of the quarter, I watched the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” this weekend. In the final episode, Magnus Nilsson narrates his return from a trip throughout Scandanavia researching traditional cooking methods. He says, “The only way for traditions in food to be kept alive is to let them adapt.” For those of us thinking about traditions in food and their survival (or not), Nilsson’s perspective is an intriguing one. To what degree can these traditions adapt before they’re lost entirely? Is it possible to resurrect and then adapt a tradition that has been entirely lost? And conversely, what is the genealogy of the thing I’m cooking now?

So to that end, here’s a post on modernizing techniques rather than recreating an old recipe.

It’s blazing hot in my town, and we’re also at the height of the summer produce, which means an abundance of tasty and sun-warmed ingredients that don’t need to be cooked. I recently attended a lunch hosted by my professor that was entirely composed of various fancy salads, and I’ve taken that as my inspiration—and my justification not to turn the oven on—and made a whole slew of cold salads.

The principles of balance and taste that I’ve been interacting with—for example, what’s the ideal balance of grain to vegetables? What on earth do I do for dressing?—have reminded me of a section in Gervase Markham’s 1653 The English Hous-wife in which Markham discourses on the principles of salads (“sallets”) as a staple of the housewife’s repertoire. Rather than a series of recipes, a salad is a method, a principle, or a template.

“First then to speak of Sallets, there be some simple, and others compounded, some onley to furnish out the Table, and some both for use and adornation….your simple sallets are Chibols pilled, washt clean, and half of the green tops cut clean away, so served on a Fruit-dish, or Chives, Scallions, Radish-roots, boyled Carrets, Skirrets, and Turneps, with such like, served up simply; also all young Lettice, Cabbage-lettice, Purslane, and divers other herbs which may be served simply without any thing but a little Vinegar, Sallet Oyl, and Sugar; Onions boyled, and stript from their rinde, and surved up with Vinegar, Oyl, and Pepper is a good simple Sallat; so is Samphire, Bean-cods, Sparagus, and Cucumbers, served in likewise with Oyl, Vinegar, and Pepper, with a world of others; too tedious to nominate” (E2r-v).

A genre emerges: a variety of greens and herbs or a medley of vegetables, dressed; even a single ingredient prepared to highlight its flavor.  The compound salads are much more complex, although the composition is similar: greens, small exotic flavory bits (capers, olives, currants, figs, almonds) layered attractively and dressed. The compound salads tend to have an astonishing amount of sugar layered into them, directly on top of the greens.

Markham’s cookbook also lists recipes for boiled salads and pickled salads, which seem to be a way to counteract the natural growing cycles and have herbs and vegetables throughout the year. Markham makes especial note that the preserved sallats, whether in a sugar brine or a salt brine, may be “used at pleasure, for they will last all the year” (E3r).

Nilsson’s restaurant, Faviken, similarly capitalizes on traditions of pickling and preserving as well—in a climate where things don’t grow six months out of the year, preserving is a way to “defeat the seasons,” as Nilsson says.

Although I’d like to try preserving a small “sallet” sometime this summer, right now the salads I’m making are all about celebrating what’s in season as well as the marvel of refrigeration (yet another form of artificially extending produce past its season).

Early modern salads, like today’s salads, motivate and highlight creativity; they are endlessly malleable and customizable. They’re also an interesting metaphor for genre: what are the identifying features of a sallet, if almost all of its components can change at the cook’s whim?

With the basic principles communicated, Markham leaves the rest to the housewife’s creativity: “A world of other Sallets there are, which time and experience may bring to our Hous-wifes eye, but the composition of them, and the serving of them differeth nothing from these already rehearsed” (E3v).

Here are three of the salads in that world:

Antipasta Salad (yup, that’s a pun)

Salad 1

1 head butter or red lettuce

small red and yellow tomatoes

fresh mozzarella, torn

Penne or other long pasta, boiled in well-salted water

Dressing:

1/4 c olive oil

1 tsp red wine vinegar (to taste—I don’t like vinegary things so I under-season and then add more vinegar)

drizzle honey

oregano, salt, and pepper

Boil the penne in well-salted water; drain and rinse. Let cool a little; put into large bowl with mozzarella and tomatoes and add dressing. Toss. Add lettuce just before serving.

Salad1_1

Carrot-Chickpea Salad

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2 1/2 c chickpeas, rinsed and drained (about 2 cans)

2 1/2 c peeled & coarsely shredded carrots (about 4 medium carrots)

1 1/4 c cooked quinoa, optional

1/2 c raisins, optional

Dressing:

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 garlic clove, minced

1 c packed cilantro leaves and stems

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp paprika

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

1/4 c olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

Whisk dressing together; pour over all other ingredients combined; toss. Top with roasted pepitas just before serving.

Farro and Cucumber Salad

Salad 3

1 c farro, boiled in salted water

1 cucumber, diced in quarters

cranberries

3-4 scallions, diced

Avocado, diced

Dressing:

Olive oil

Lemon juice

Salt and pepper

Mix everything together and toss. Add avocado just before serving. It’s also possible to dress the plain farro and leave it in the fridge to rest before adding the other ingredients.