Goode for All Infermitys

Accounting for tastes in a collection of 17th-century recipes and remedies

The curious manuscript texts transcribed and annotated in Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, by the Edmonton-based scholar Kristine Kowalchuk, are bound to raise a lot of questions for the 21st-century reader. For example: What are “musarunes,” which one may pickle and “put oyl upon them if you think fit”? (Mushrooms, the glossary helpfully informs us.) How effective was taking “young Ravens when they are redy to ffly,” baking them “with Browne Bread tell they are Powder,” and mixing the powder with honey as a cure for “the falling Sickness”? Wouldn’t the extremely complex, spicy, floral “Palsie Water”—which is meant to be served “in Crumbs of Bread & Sugar” as a treatment for tremors and muscle ailments—be good mixed with gin? And isn’t it reassuring to know how richly one could subsist on a diet of cakes, pies, and puddings (with the occasional “Surrup of Snailes”)?

But perhaps the first question would be what is a receipt book. For us, the term is likely to conjure a record of financial transactions. But in the 17th century, the receipt book was a handwritten collection of recipes for foods, drinks and medical treatments. (The Oxford English Dictionary shows the term “receipt” giving way to “recipe” around the mid 18th century.) According to Kowalchuk’s introduction, “seventeenth-century Englishwomen developed and dominated the form” of the early modern receipt book; there are more than 200 surviving examples currently held in library archives, suggesting “that these manuscripts were common.” Kowalchuk discusses in detail the ways these manuscripts—which she identifies as “feminist texts”—are distinct from the printed household manuals, mainly written by and for men, from the same historical period.

The distinction may be understood best by comparing the connotations of the terms “receipt” and “recipe.” To call these sets of instructions receipts points to their function, like a brine or a jelly, as a method of preservation. They are a way of remembering something. In her introduction, Kowalchuk shows that the emergence of modern cooking and medicine as separate spheres of professional expertise entailed a certain cultural pressure to preserve forms of folk knowledge that came before. The receipts that make up these books serve as reminders of pre-existing networks of women’s labour and knowledge more than as standardized sets of instructions. A recipe informs a reader how to make something the right way; a receipt documents something that someone has made.

The distinction is subtle, to be sure, but one might say that whereas the recipe gestures toward an abstract ideal of something that can only be created through precise measurement and standard techniques (which is why, as many of us know, the final product so often fails to live up to what we imagined the recipe would yield), the receipt prioritizes viability over concept. The receipt does not tell us how we should aspire to cook and eat so much as how a culture already does these things, and has been doing for a long time. It is a record of how people are living, and of the particular kinds of women’s work, knowledge and ability that are sustaining those lives.

“Receipt books overwhelmingly look back, not forward,” Kowalchuk observes. They represent the accumulation of knowledge over generations of domestic work. Rather than offer useful “life hacks” toward a more efficient future, these books gather the expertise of the past and bring it into the material life of the present. Anyone who reads, makes or eats the results of these receipts becomes a living embodiment of what the past knows. The books are also strikingly collaborative in nature: “Multiple hands, inscriptions, attributions, annotations, and other marginalia, as well as loose recipes tucked between the pages (obtained, presumably, during a visit paid to a relative or a friend or a neighbour), all show that these books were compiled by many women, and a few men, over generations.” Between Kowalchuk’s introduction and glossary, the book contains three receipt books: one attributed to Mary Granville and her daughter, Anne Granville D’Ewes, dated 1640–1750; one attributed to Constance Hall, dated 1672; and one “cookery and medical receipt book” attributed to Lettice Pudsey, dated circa 1675–1700. All these women appear to have lived in the Midlands or southwest England, although the Granville book contains a cluster of recipes in Spanish collected during Mary’s childhood, when her father and grandfather served as the English consuls in Cadiz. Many of the recipes in both the Granville and Hall books are titled after the people who presumably provided them, such as “Goodwife Lawrence her Salue” (a salve of deer and mutton suets mixed with beeswax, spices and rose oil) and “To pickle Walnutts Mrs Mary Hills Way” (“at the beginning of July” before the shells grow hard, in a brine “that will bear an Egg,” with pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mustard and garlic “if you do not dislike the tast”). Receipt books preserve not only lines of traditional knowledge but also active networks of knowledge—they are textual artifacts of deeply established and busily maintained economies of sharing.

The manuscripts thus frustrate modern attempts to interpret them as a kind of “life writing” or the output of a single author who might be retrieved as a historically significant individual. Kowalchuk suggests the books are important not only because they tell us something about the past, but also because they model communal forms of selfhood over individual ones. They speak in a multivalent, collective voice and represent human survival—both animal survival by way of eating and nurturing and healing, and cultural survival by way of textual posterity—as a profoundly shared endeavour that has little use for isolated bursts of genius.

In place of what we might call innovation, receipt books call upon improvisation, leaving plenty of room for a reader to fill in blanks or make substitutions as necessary, given that person’s own material circumstances. Kowalchuk describes her own experience making some of the recipes: “I know the cooks who wrote these recipes also depended on seasonality, local availability, and variable harvest, and they improvised and were economical, so in some sense it was my altering of the recipes that made them true to the experience of the seventeenth-century housewife’s experience.” The books themselves record such improvisation and revision in the kitchen, through crossed out recipes, marginal annotations and alternative options such as the Granvilles’ recipe “To make Orange flower Cakes” followed immediately by one “To make them another way.” They seem to say: take what we know and figure out what makes it work in your situation. The aim of a work like this is not for any one cook to excel over the rest, but for each of us to preserve the viability of what other people have made—to help us reinvent each other’s knowledge so we can live well together.

The receipt books also offer an occasion to rethink the status of everyday writing. Our assumptions about who, historically, spent time reading and writing are based on our culture’s tendency to limit the kind of writing that “counts” to very particular forms, like printed literature. It is only too easy for us to imagine that a 17th-century woman must have been much too burdened with endless household chores even to learn how to read and write; our imaginations thus perpetuate myths about the “backwardness” of the past. But as receipt books show, running a household and writing things down were not at all mutually exclusive activities in 17th-century England. If we broaden our understanding of writing to include genres such as household receipts, what we find is that a lot of people we never imagined as “writers” turn out to have produced a lot of writing. “Consideration of receipt books greatly alters our understanding of early modern Englishwomen’s literacy rates, writing abilities, and education, enabling us to look past traditional, inaccurate research methods,” Kowalchuk insists.

This observation has implications for us in the present, as well. For example, how many of us who write professionally or to heed a calling—poets, scholars, students, aspiring novelists—get to the end of a day full of regret that we “didn’t get any writing done,” when, if one counted the number of words generated in text messages, email, social media, instructions to house- or babysitters, shopping lists, to-do lists, bureaucratic paperwork and so on, one would have to concede that, in fact, the entire day was spent writing? While these fleeting fragments of quotidian life may seem even less valuable than recipes, they are also traces of the ongoing work of household management, caretaking, social networking, and the sharing of thoughts, feelings and information among communities both close and widespread. We continue to write things down for ourselves and others just to get through each day. These remarkable 17th-century books invite us to consider which forms of writing are actually woven into the fabric of how we live, and who is producing them.