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Conference Report

Conference Report:  

Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1600-1800



The conference took place at the University of Warwick on 8-9 August 2008, co-organised by Michelle DiMeo (English, Warwick University) and Sara Pennell (History, Roehampton University). The schedule included four plenary lectures and a further fifteen panel papers, as well as an informal session on using recipe books in teaching and publishing. The conference attracted 49 delegates from Europe and beyond, with participants from New Zealand, North America and Europe.


The conference was fully supported by substantial grants from ASSEC (Warwick University: £5000), Wellcome Trust (£3000) and the Royal Historical Society (£200).

 These monies were crucial to providing a welcoming and supportive environment for delegates. We were able not only to bring three highly influential non-English keynote speakers to Britain to disseminate their work and meet with British scholars, but were also able to waive registration fees for all speakers and provide travel bursaries to all domestic and international speakers who did not have access to other funds. Since over half of the speakers were either in the midst of, or had only recently completed, postgraduate courses of study and were not in permanent academic posts, this support was invaluable in enabling them to attend and present their papers.

 DAY 1:

The conference began with a plenary paper from Professor Janet Theophano (University of Pennsylvania), on ‘Talking with texts: a folklorist’s encounter with culinary manuscripts and cookbooks’. Although Professor Theophano could not be present in person, the paper was read by Sara Pennell, and usefully raised many of the issues which would emerge repeatedly across the subsequent sessions: the nature of ‘authorship’ in print and manuscript recipe collections; the role of recipe books, especially manuscript collections, as a form of life-writing; the uses of their contents; the archival and exhibition afterlife of these texts; and the continuities across time of the meanings of cookery texts and their collection, especially amongst women.


Panel 1, ‘New approaches to reading recipe books’, brought together three young scholars working in different fields who were keen to probe recipe collections in new ways. They offered exciting new methodologies for studying these texts, with paper topics including material culture, ideas of control and order, and cultural and national identities.


Annie Gray (York University) highlighted the interplay between text, material and practice by using eighteenth-century cookery books as a source for archaeological information in the emerging field of ‘experimental archaeology’ (i.e. recreating historic dishes, domestic arrangements, etc.). Gray also stressed the importance of us treating cookery texts as ‘material culture in their own right, tactile objects which themselves contain insights open to archaeological theorising’.


Llio Teleri Lloyd-Jones (Independent Scholar) explored seventeenth- and eighteenth-century recipe books as texts that provide ‘a superb insight into developing and challenging [interpretations] of systems of information’, notably taking on the Foucauldian ‘split’ between Renaissance and classical modes of systematising knowledge. She was particularly concerned to foreground the role of often-overlooked elements in these texts, such as indices, contents pages and diagrams. Though these types of paratext may appear as superficial organising elements, closer examination exposes their role in illuminating the tensions that printed works encompassed, caught between providing the ‘best’ or ‘most complete’ form of knowledge and negotiating interventions from the print trade, which had its own set of requirements.


Stephanie Maroney (Arizona State University) raised the notion of ‘reverse transculturation’ as the process by which dishes and ingredients for those dishes ‘constructed curry’ in eighteenth-century England, in her paper ‘Constructing curry: England’s colonial encounters in eighteenth-century cookbooks’. She unpacked the prevailing idea that English palates wholly anglicised Indian cuisine and instead proposed a more subtle and culturally difficult trajectory for the tastes brought back by returning ‘nabobs’, who themselves were subject to equivocal cultural commentary. Cookbooks were essential sources in her research, documenting how curry was marketed to English audiences as easy to prepare, economical and ‘Indian’.


The second plenary paper was delivered by Professor Margaret Ezell (Texas A&M University). By providing a slice of the publishing activities of one year in her ‘Cooking the books: 1675’, Ezell located cookery texts published in that year (most of which were actually republications of existing editions) in the wider terrain of publishing history, setting them in the context of other publications, and presenting them as products of publishers’ and printers’ marketing strategies. She highlighted the need for scholars to be attentive to these texts as commodities in a lively and dynamic industry: in her words, we do well to remember that ‘printed books are not made by authors’, but have also been shaped by publishers and printers.


The second panel of the day, ‘Early modern women and recipe books’, framed the important matter of gender and domestic knowledge in three papers that explored the literary dimensions of the recipe.


In her paper, ‘The quintessence of wit: poems and receipts in early modern women’s writing’, Jayne Archer (Aberystwyth University) argued for a reconsideration of the textual relationships between recipes and poems. Taking as her starting point a quotation from Pope on bad poetry as being put together like a recipe, Archer explored the connections between contemporary early modern understandings of the recipe or ‘receit’ as a form of storage. She considered how collecting recipes might have served analogous purposes to the writing and collecting of poetry, both being about ‘fancy’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘delight’. In arguing that ‘one of the legacies of recipe books is the woman writer’, she was nevertheless careful to make a distinction between writing and ‘authorship’.


Rebecca Laroche (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), in speaking to ‘Selections from Gerard: women’s remedy books and the question of audience’, explored issues of reading, usage and knowledge formation (and its applications) in a close study of the uses made by various women recipe book compilers of material drawn from Gerard’s Herbal. By considering who owned copies of Gerard, but also the excerpting and epitomising of his text in manuscript compilations, Laroche highlighted how these processes of selection may reveal the practicalities of usage (e.g. one may only select information about the plants growing in one’s own garden or locality). She also considered the contours of knowledge formation in her discussion of the presence of an ‘Epitome of Gerard’ clearly depicted in the famous panel portrait of Anne Clifford.

 Sarah Mueller (Wilfred Laurier University), in ‘Banqueting and women’s work in The Late Lancashire Witches and receipt books for women’, considered the conflicted depictions of women, household skills and domestic order as represented in Brome and Heywood’s 1630s play. Mueller used the genre of early seventeenth-century banqueting recipes to discuss questions of gender and food as they relate specifically to the context of banqueting, such as so-called ‘bewitched foods’. She engaged with current scholarship in the field by considering the links between banqueting and femininity, but also proposed a new methodology that applied Michael Warner’s idea of publics, arguing that banquets may be quasi-public spaces.


Day one concluded with an informal session on recipe books and their dissemination in the 21st century. Drawing on the expertise present amongst the delegates and publishers attending, we heard from Helen Wakely (Wellcome Library) about the Wellcome Library’s new project to digitise their corpus of seventeenth-century manuscript recipe collections, while Tom Jaine (Prospect Books, the leading publisher of modern and facsimile editions of historic food-related texts, as well as specialist secondary literature) gave an overview of the market for hardcopy recipe texts. Delegates shared ideas about presenting their research to both scholarly and broader audiences, as well as their experiences of using recipe texts in their teaching at undergraduate and graduate level.

 DAY 2:

The third keynote lecture, ‘To see the world in a grain of sand … or a single recipe’ was delivered by Professor Mary Fissell (Johns Hopkins University). By discussing the ways in which recipes, especially medicinal recipes, illuminate the larger economic and social histories of the age in which they were written, collected and consumed, Fissell forcefully argued the need for recipes and recipe books to be viewed as equal in status to more conventional canonical texts. She explored a series of seventeenth-century recipes for ‘the bite of a mad dog’ and exposed many that incorporated ideas of sympathetic medicine, leading her to consider how ‘authorised’ medical knowledge encountered older and/or alternative medical traditions in the processes of prescription and recipe collection. She also usefully reminded the audience of the ‘power of words’ in pre-modern societies.


The usefulness of recipes for historians of medicine was explored further in Panel 3, ‘Medicine and Society’.


Lesley Coates (Independent Scholar) presented a summary of her doctoral work on domestic therapeutics in relation to the experience of breast cancer in eighteenth-century England. Focusing in particular on the Arscott family and Rebecca Talamy manuscripts (both held at the Wellcome Library), she pointed to the divergent approaches adopted within the domestic environment and by the emerging medical ‘profession’ in the treatment of such cancers, with the manuscript recipes showing a debt to older, herbal-based approaches.


Anne Stobart (Middlesex University) explored the relationship between diet and medical advice in the circulation and use of recipes, focusing upon recipes for the treatment of the King’s Evil from a number of south-western English manuscripts in the Boscawen and Fortescue families. By considering how one patient’s illness was approached both pharmacologically and dietetically, she concluded that ‘dietary ideas in the later seventeenth century exhibited therapeutic confusion’. She also ably illustrated how we should not be complacent about seeing recipes always in the collective; she pointed to the survival of loose recipes for particular conditions which did not then get copied into the manuscript compilation of the family.


Alun Withey (University of Wales, Swansea) provided an entertaining and thought-provoking insight into the regional study of medicinal recipes and their circulation, in ‘Cymru collections: the importance of domestic remedy collections as sources for Welsh medical history’. He proposed a useful diagrammatic summary of the various influences upon the ‘disease sufferer’ which would influence his/her evaluation and compilation of medicinal remedies. Withey also stressed the specific conditions operating in early modern Wales that might differentiate Welsh collections from their English counterparts (e.g. indigenous language, strongly oral culture, paucity of medical ‘professionals’).


The fourth keynote was delivered by Professor Gilly Lehmann (formerly of the Université de Franche Comté), and gave a thorough overview of ‘Reading and analysing recipe books in 2008: approaches, methods and problems’. Concentrating on published culinary recipe books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Lehmann reiterated the idea of cookbooks as products, with their printers as primary producers. She supported this with examples of plagiarism, indicative of creative recycling, and exposed the consequent difficulty of plotting the ‘invention’ of great dishes by great cooks. Lehmann also used quantitative analysis to show how a close study of English cookery texts and their recipes can counter hypotheses that French cuisine was more advanced than English cuisine in this period.


Panel 4, ‘Reading culture in cookery books’, encompassed papers from an art historian, a social anthropologist and a historian of religion.


In her ‘Visualising early modern Italian culinary culture’ , Kate Heckmann Hanson (University of Southern California) drew on ideas generated by Pamela Smith in her work on artisans of the body to explore the technical images printed as part of Scappi’s Opera, as well as those in carving and stewards’ manuals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By also discussing images such as those painted for the Medici court (which catalogued encyclopaedic quantities of fruits and vegetables) and other ‘high’ art productions, Hanson argued for a closer examination of the relationship between culinary knowledge as expressed in text and that garnered from visual sources.


Raelene Inglis (University of Otago) brought a fresh perspective to eighteenth-century recipes for the condiment piccalilli, in her presentation ‘From pickle Lila to peccadillo: tracking the spread of piccalilli’. Using the technique of recipe microanalysis developed at the University of Otago on nineteenth- and twentieth-century dishes such as the pavlova, she considered the variables which might make superficially similar preparations quite different, from ingredients, to modes of preparation, to identified origins of the dish itself.


Lauren F. Winner (Duke University) sought to identify the traces of religious practice in eighteenth-century Anglican Virginia, in ‘Elizabeth Washington’s fish sauce: cookbooks as a key to “lived religion” in eighteenth-century Virginia’. Although few manuscript cookery books and ancillary domestic papers survive for Anglican families in this period, Winner debated how we might interpret the inclusion of recipes for fast day dishes in such documents, careful to consider shifting interpretations of the religious fast within colonial Anglicanism.


The fifth and final panel, ‘Tracking genre changes’, was also interdisciplinary, offering three unique but complementary approaches to issues surrounding textual form, the question of authorship, and changes in the recipe book genre over time.


Julia Abramson (University of Oklahoma) used mainly continental sources to explore ‘Carving in print, 1600-1800’, and highlighted how these texts are significant to ordering in an Eliasian interpretation of the emergence of civilised society. Yet, as she stressed, such texts also connect very strongly to the military ethos intrinsic to the early modern world, and she emphasised in particular the violence inherent in carving at table, at the same time as its theatrical qualities.


Francisco Alonso Almeida (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) summarised the work he and his team have undertaken on ‘Genre changes in recipes from 1500-1700: a corpus-based study’. Drawing on a database which now contains over one million words drawn from recipes in a number of manuscripts and printed works in English, he discussed the ways in which linguistic analysis of recipe texts has enabled scholars of linguistics to study shifts in language form, use and meaning. Innovations, such as the use of numbers at the beginning of a recipe text (to aid the meta-textual organisation of the single recipe within a group of recipes) illustrated how attention to these linguistic shifts can support and illuminate hypotheses about the changes in perceived audiences and the usage of such texts.


In the final paper of the conference, Amanda E. Herbert (Johns Hopkins University) in ‘I wish Mrs Wooley would put forth some new experiments: printed recipe books and the authoritative female voice 1640-1714’, developed some of the points made by Ezell and others in regards to the significance of late-seventeenth-century cookery books published under the name of, if not actually by, women. Whereas earlier seventeenth-century cookery publications sought to ennoble as well as feminise their contents by association with an aristocratic or royal female (e.g. Henrietta Maria), the appearance of books post-1660 in which the female ‘authors’ profess to actual practice (for example, Woolley, Tillinghast) highlights them as different types of books intended for a different type of consumption, even if their contents bear many similarities with preceding texts.


 Conference impact

The delegates to the conference have been unanimous in their praise of its organisation and its success in bringing together such a diverse group of scholars. It more than achieved its goal of providing an interdisciplinary forum in which to examine these texts, as the following comments drawn from correspondence with participants demonstrates:

 The wide variety of topics in the papers worked really well, but the common themes were also always apparent. I think that the conference amply proved the wide range of uses for these sources, and also the spread of different historians who use them. Equally, there seems to be a genuine enthusiasm surrounding these sources, and I don’t think I’ve been to any other conferences with such an open and constructive atmosphere. The best conferences leave you with new questions to ponder and new contacts to discuss them with, and this was certainly the case for me on Saturday’.

The conference was a model of its kind, bringing multiple interdisciplinary models to bear on a shared topic.  I have pages of notes of things I want to think about.’

I think it was so helpful for all of us working on these topics, to have the chance to really come together - and not just for a panel at a larger conference, but for the full two days.  All the papers were of very high quality, and it is clear that this field is brimming with creative scholarship. The keynote speakers' extended talks were extraordinary - it was a privilege to hear from such distinguished scholars, all of whom paved the way for the work we are all doing.

‘The interdisciplinarity was particularly inspiring, and the overall tone was what every conference should strive for.’

‘I thought the keynote sessions were particularly interesting and complemented by a range of shorter papers, some of which had the power to surprise. I came away wishing I could have got hold there and then of copies of most of the contributions, since my notetaking couldn't keep up.’

‘I was honoured to present a paper in front of such an educated and specialised crowd. … The discipline is at a most interesting stage at the moment, and I think the exciting variety of last weekend reflected that.’


We have received enquiries from a couple of journal and book publishers with regards to publishing the conference proceedings. Most of the speakers involved in the conference would be interested in participating in some form of publication, and we are hopeful that we can find a format that will bring the texts in question, and the vibrant interdisciplinary discussions taking place about them, to a wider academic audience.


Other outcomes are also under discussion, in particular a workshop in conjunction with the Wellcome Library and an invited group of archivists and librarians, on how to present early modern manuscript recipe books to archive users and the wider public. This is being developed by Sara Pennell and Elaine Leong (a conference delegate: Warwick University), in collaboration with Helen Wakely (see above).




Sep. 08