Kitchen Wisdom

Review of Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, by Wendy Wall (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

We constantly try to cook in the past. Whether it is a recipe for lemon meringue from your grandmother or a fish pie from the Early Modern era, we search for tried and true methods of creating pleasurable tastes. Wendy Wall—a professor of English at Northwestern University—unlatches a door to the historical tradition of recipe writing in Early Modern England, recognizing its importance as a mechanism for creating knowledge of all kinds.

In Recipes for Thought, Wall demonstrates that between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, recipe books became a popular form of print which should not be underestimated as a genre: “reading and writing recipes…offered practitioners the occasion for undertaking and scrutinizing nothing less than world making” (3). The recipe archive, she argues, offers a historian entrance into a valued domestic workplace, produced by a literary tradition. 

Wall reveals a vast culture of recipe writing that went beyond producing basic dishes for the table. Instead, published recipe books offered ways of creating pleasure, remembering ancestors, establishing one’s legacy and identity, verifying truth, and even forging community. Recipes were not only for the creation of tasty dishes, but also for the practice of medicine, keeping house, and entertainment.

Recipes were not new to England in the 1500s, but printing transformed them into a mass product that could be published, sold, and possessed. Amid the birth of new marketplaces, the recipe book became an object of importance, establishing status for its owner. The secrets contained within these books were well-guarded and placed in the private sphere of the household, at first addressed only to the nobility and the gentry. Wall notes that by the 1660s, recipe books trickled down to the kitchen and became a professional tome for practical knowledge. With increasing rates of literacy, recipes became less often the prized possession of noble families and instead engaged servants and housewives in sensible conversations.

This painting by Jean-Baptiste de Saive (1562) portrays the environment of the kitchen as a place of making.
This painting by Jean-Baptiste de Saive (1562) portrays the environment of the kitchen as a place of making. As Wall argues, the kitchen was one of the main spaces for women to create and experiment. 

The recipe archive reveals that pleasure was created not only through eating, but also through making. The kitchen was a laboratory in which people, frequently women, could experiment. Rather than simply creating delicious dishes, many books suggested elaborate strategies of presentation to entertain guests. For instance, Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife advised to arrange boiled vegetables into a variety of shapes including knots, escutcheons, birds, and wild animals (95). The presentation of a dish opened up a category of artistry that provided women with a way to engage in comedy and performance at the table.

The production of a recipe book itself involved women in a practice of writing that goes in the face of traditional notions of domestic illiteracy. Not only did women draft recipes, but they also practiced an expressive world of penmanship and letter-writing within the recipe genre. By analyzing personal recipe books, fashioned through individual hands—rather than the printing press—Wall explores a world where women literally dotted their ‘i’s and crossed their ‘t’s. Through writing, women like Lettice Pudsey formed a legacy and identity by owning and personally crafting recipe volumes (125).

Like today, early modern recipe books were linked to the past. They served a dual purpose: memorializing both the recipe’s author and food.  Recipes survived their writers, preserving their thoughts and instructions in an encoded text long after their death. At the same time, a recipe retained instructions for food already cooked and long ago eaten, allowing for its continued reproduction. A practical form of necromancy, recipes allowed for the creation of food from the past and thus a relationship with the dead. Yet, they also could become memorials to lost members of the family, as in the case of Ann Glyd, who recorded the births and deaths of all of her children within her recipe book (204-5).

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplisht Lady's Delight.
One such recipe collection was Hannah Woolley's The Accomplisht Lady's Delight (1675). This cover demonstrates several ways recipes could be used that did not involve cooking, like medicine and beauty. 

This medium also offered women the opportunity to verify and improve knowledge. Wall draws many connections between circulating recipe culture and “the rise of experimental science” (211). The knowledge presented by these books testifies to lived experience, such as the work of herbalist Elizabeth Okeover whose recipe book reflected trial and error to find cures for a variety of maladies (215-6). Authors of these texts wrote down their observations, willing to question the wisdom of their own approaches if a recipe provided insufficient results. Such a domestic world employed a serious method of inquiry to establish and legitimize knowledge.

As such, Recipes for Thought is not a history of food itself. If the reader seeks knowledge about early modern cuisine, look elsewhere. Food is not the primary element of Wall’s story. Instead, she examines the people making food and the place of food in a discourse of scientific investigation. The creative world behind cooking interests her, not necessarily the product.

One challenge she faces is the notion of lived experience. Wall sets out to use a group of texts in order to understand the domestic and everyday life of the average person. Yet, even from the outset this provides a tension: early published works represent an elite culture of cooking, while later texts give her a window into the everyday. And we must face the reality—not all recipe books are equal. There is only so much that a text can tell us about actual experience in the past; and there will always be that which we will never know.

Yet, Wall’s book is still an important contribution for understanding how domestic communities functioned during the early modern period. She traces conversations between domestic households, illustrating the communal nature of these texts. Rather than being the original creation of a single author, most recipes borrowed ideas from other writers, neighbors, friends, and family members. Through the voices of the recipe archive, Wall portrays an erudite community of women and men who tested, verified, and produced knowledge.

With the publication of Recipes for Thought, Wendy Wall exposes the creative worlds of the kitchen. She begs us to consider how recipes help us fashion community and identity through exotic and familiar cuisines. She reminds us that the kitchen is a crucible, where everyday experience allows us to verify the past and create the future. And she prompts us to consider that the domestic world of early modern England was not as stifling as it appears, but could be a space of invention and joy.