John Partridge’s The Treasurie of Commodious Conceits, and Hidden Secretes (1573) offers, to modern eyes, a bafflingly eclectic collection of what could loosely be called recipes, in the early modern sense of receipts, or texts received: ‘Fine Sauce for a roasted Rabbet: used to king Henry the eight’; ‘To comfort the heart, and take away Melancholy’; ‘To make red sealing Waxe’; ‘Marmalad of Quinces’; ‘To make Oile of Earth wormes … good for the sinews that are cold’; ‘To bake a Capon with yolks of Eggs’; ‘To know whether a Woman shall ever conceive or no’; ‘A Fumigation for a Presse, and clothes that no Moth shall breed therin’; ‘To heale leaperie faces, great swollen legs, or inflamed hands’; ‘A perfect way to cure the loathsome disease of the French Pockes’. The last of these is a labyrinthine, five-page prescription for ‘Chicken, Partridge, Fesant, Hen, Capon, Rabbet, Conie, Veale, Mutton, & none other, nor any salt, nor leavened breade, nor Rie bread’. There are nine different recipes for perfuming gloves (rosewater, musk, ambergreece, almond oil, ‘strewed thinly’ on the stretched leather), and a concluding litany of ‘all the Urines that betoken death’. ‘To strengthen the seed’ the reader is advised to ‘Take Succorie, Endiue, Plantin, Violet flowers & the leaves, Clarie, Sorrel, of each half a handful, with a peece of Mutton, make a good broth, and to eat it euening and morning.’
What looks like a chaos of quinces and swollen limbs was in fact an early modern bestseller, running through 13 editions between 1573 and 1637. (Partridge’s publications in other genres, including long verse romances like Lady Pandavola and The Worthie Hystorie of Plasidas, were nothing like as successful.) The book was a goldmine of domestic instruction, functioning (the title-page claims) as ‘The good Huswives Closet of provision, for the health of her Houshold’. The recipes have a fantastical quality (‘The vertue of the conserve of Succary’), but in early modern England these chunks of wisdom were intended for domestic application: they are, Partridge boasts, ‘not impertinent for every good Huswife to use in her house, amongst her own famelie’. The copy from 1591 I looked at in the Bodleian Library has the name ‘Catherine Playdell’ written in grey fading italic on the title-page, perhaps the name of the owner, who has carefully ticked off many of the recipes listed in the index.
Partridge’s text is doing one of the things that 16th and 17th-century print culture did: that is, collecting and then scattering knowledge that had previously been cloistered, converting coterie texts into things ‘meete and necessarie for the profitable use of all estates’. Many of the early modern recipes that circulated between manuscript and printed collections boasted aristocratic origins as a means to appear credible: thus ‘The Countesse of Lincolns way of makeing pancakes’, or ‘Lady Clement’s cheese’, or ‘Clear Cakes of Gooseberry Lady Barrington’s Way’, or ‘Lady Arundel’s Manchet’ (manchet is white bread made from fine flour). But there is a complicated relationship with social hierarchy here: alongside these over-the-shoulder forms of aristocratic verification jostles a commitment to distribution – a paradox caught neatly in Partridge’s recipe for ‘Marmelade very comfortable and restorative for any Lord or Lady whatsoever’. Many manuscript collections present more intimate, first-hand associations (‘Cousin Mabel’s way of making almond milk’). Partridge’s recipes were (he tells us) ‘gathered out of sundry Experiments, lately practised by men of great knowledge’, but are now offered to ‘teach all maner of persones & Degrees’: ‘wives’, ‘Maydes’, ‘Curteous Gentlewomen, honest Matrons, and virtuous virgins’. And while it is probably best to treat paratextual puffs with a dose of scepticism, it is true that Partridge’s text is a mechanism for redistributing knowledge, particularly across lines of gender and class.
Recipe collections like Partridge’s are arresting in part because they present a mingling of categories of knowledge that later periods would separate out into distinct strands of expertise. Turn successive pages and you find out how to make ink, cure deafness, produce a spinach pudding and restore your ailing horse. Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615) covers ‘Physicke, Cookery, Banquetting-stuffe, Distillation, Perfumes, Wooll, Hemp, Flaxe, Dairies, Brewing, Baking and all other things belonging to an Household’. Manuscript collections often add in poems, notes of family history, financial accounts, aphorisms and prayers. The culinary and the medical were particularly entangled (Partridge’s text is addressed not only to ‘Good Huswives’ but also to Richard Wistow, assistant to the Company of Barbers and Surgeons). According to Galenic humoural theory, health was a matter of balancing the black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm that swam through the body, and food was a crucial means of establishing this equilibrium. Suffering from ‘a hot liver’ due to too much blood? Eat some strawberry jam. Excessive bile? Try chamomile. ‘Flux in the reins’ (or diarrhoea)? Have a roasted leg of mutton. Treatments for a fistula (an abscess on the anus, a condition haunting much early modern drama and associated, to the delight of satirists, with the Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar) include a pulverised onion-and-yeast bandage, the merits of which derive from the balance of heating and cooling ingredients.
‘Food work’, as Wendy Wall calls it, was a subset of the care of the body, and this intertwining is everywhere in the recipe culture Wall describes. Thus the manuscript recipe book of Mary Birkhead from about 1680 now in the British Library (which Wall cites but doesn’t discuss) moves easily between recipes ‘To make Lemmon Cakes’, ‘for a cold a sirup of turnups’, and for ‘aunt whaleys head pill’. This cultural link between health and food was also one reason why Samuel Pepys held an annual, midday, vegetable-light ‘stone feast’ to celebrate the removal of his gallstone in 1658: on 4 April 1663, Pepys and eight friends ‘had a fricasee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content’. With such extensive meals it’s no wonder that early modern dining was a culture of the leftover: on 3 July 1664, Pepys went ‘at noon to dinner, where the remains of yesterday’s venison and a couple of brave green [i.e. young] geese’.
Wall wants to see recipes not only as the beguiling curiosities they evidently are, but also as sites for something like a domestic version of experimental science. One of the defining narratives of the 17th century is the rise of a new kind of science, with origins in Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620), that was built around a commitment to careful observation, empiricism, personal experience, testimony, citation and inductive proof. And just as Gresham College, home of the Royal Society, was buzzing with the stooped mutterings of Robert Boyle, John Aubrey and Robert Hooke, so, Wall suggests, the unknown woman at home, experimenting with endive and plantin, or (in Partridge’s words) trussing woodcocks ‘into the Coffyn with swete larde around them’, was taking part in the same process of probing what Bacon described as nature ‘in bonds’: ‘when by art and the hand of man … [Nature] is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded.’ The kitchen became a kind of lab, full of equipment and objects of study, and the recipe collection something like the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, while John Evelyn’s circle was enriched with new names like Susanna Packe and Ann Glyd. This seems right, and is a way of opening up our conception of experimental science in the period, particularly given the frequency with which recipes in manuscript collections are subscribed probatum est (‘It has been tested’), or ‘the best way’, or ‘I have found this very excellent’, or ‘tried & is good’, or ‘approved by me’. Against her recipe for pickled cucumbers, Lettice Pudsey scribbled ‘this receipt is good for nothing’ – the recipe can be a site for the trial and error of experimentation. The downside of Wall’s argument is that it steals the light from her subject. The narrative (which is here more interested in Bacon than bacon) folds the fresh world of recipes and domestic making into a familiar story of the rise of the new science and, like nutmeg stirred into a syllabub, the original ingredients recede as they constitute a larger dish.
Stranger, to modern readers, and perhaps more compelling, is the way in which recipes present the chance for art, or literariness, or a kind of aestheticised kitchen performance: a ‘literate and brainy domestic culture’, as Wall puts it. Normal meals were made from memory, and so written recipes present a heightened or fantastical version of reality: a sense of the possibility of what Wall calls ‘rare treatments’. George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesy (1589) – a teeming, encyclopedic guide to English verse, possessed, like Partridge’s Treasurie, of a democratising impulse to spread the word – describes how epigrams were once written in marzipan on banqueting dishes for New Year’s gifts, ‘as by the courtesy and custom every guest might carry from a common feast home with him to his own house’. Puttenham locates this practice in the historical past, but books like Partridge’s offer readers comparable techniques for performing a kind of food art: ‘Paste of Sugar’, for example, might be moulded and hardened into ‘all maner of fruites and other fine thinges: as platters, dishes, glasses, cups, and such like thinges, wherewith you may furnish a table: and when you have done, you may eat them up.’ Trying to follow these recipes in 2016 isn’t easy, in part because of the delphic tone of many of the instructions (‘Take gum Dragant, as much as you will, and steepe it in Rose water, untill it bee mollified’), and also because they take for granted the reader’s possession of competencies and techniques that are now obscure. Today the kind of food-letters in Peter Binoit’s Still Life with Letter Pastries (c.1615) – a pretzel-like ‘P’, ‘R’ and ‘B’ next to a silver plate of capon and olives – don’t carry much cultural capital (alphabet spaghetti at your dinner party?), but in the 17th century such delicacies were markers of skill and social distinction.
This sense of the ludic kitchen – the recipe as conceit and the domestic as a sphere of artistic license and expression – has often been obscured by a subsequent emphasis on prudent, economic cooking, the rational over the witty, but Wall piles up examples of culinary invention featuring ‘Genoa pastes’ (jellies made from fruit pulp), comfits (spiced seeds), jumbals (dough twisted into knots), lozenges (almonds candied in rosewater), suckets (hard candies made of roots, spices or citrus peels), leaches (thick creams), candied flowers, and dishes decorated with rainbows made from carefully graded dyes. In doing so, Wall brilliantly restores an unfamiliar version of early modern domesticity. In his Delights for Ladies (1600), Hugh Platt describes how to boil and set quince syrup to make quiddany, which could then be stamped with an image to produce an edible wax seal. Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1685) – ‘Expert and ready Ways for the Dressing of all Sorts of Flesh, Fowl, and Fish’ – includes detailed instructions ‘To Make an Extraordinary Pie, or a Bride Pie’ containing ‘live birds, or a snake’, which, May notes (he has a nice line in understatement), ‘will seem strange to the beholders’.
Cooking, here, is something like writing a Petrarchan sonnet, or painting a Nicholas Hilliard miniature, or dancing a pavane. Wall wants to resist the urge to trivialise what she calls ‘food wit’, preferring instead to take seriously a ‘transmutationalist gastronomy’ in which women took on the skills associated with the kind of expertise attributed, in Ben Jonson’s The Staple of News (1625), to ‘A Master-Cooke’:
he designes, he drawes,
He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies,
Makes Citadels of curious fowle and fish …
He raiseth Ramparts of immortall crust;
And teacheth all the Tacticks, at one dinner.
This is all a long way from the sense of an English cuisine that began to cohere in the 18th century, and that most people will be familiar with today: the roast beef, the plain vegetables, the boiled pigeons, the blandness. This later process of national identity formation can be understood as a forgetting of the spice-laden, pan-European cuisine of the previous century. Thus the popularity of guides like Ann Peckham’s The Complete English Cook, or Prudent Housewife (1771), which proudly offered English fare ‘not stuff’d with a nauseous hodge-podge of French kickshaws’. Wall’s achievement – following recent work such as Sara Pennell and Michelle DiMeo’s Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1500-1800 (2013) and papers by Catherine Field – is to light up this earlier period, when England was the most dynamic site of recipe publication in Europe, and when readers, for a few pence at a St Paul’s bookstall, could enter a world of lemon creams, spinach fritters, gingerbread, boiled carps, almond butter and calves’ foot jellies.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.