Turns out there really are recipes for disaster.
Not only that, but they were bound in books along with recipes for butter cake, for homemade soap, and for growing a full head of hair.
Such books are part of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, a collection of rare books from the mid-1400s through the early 20th century. A typical book held a household’s recipes for daily life, so desserts coexisted with dyes — and with disasters, judging from all the recipes for counteracting a mad dog’s bite.
“Just because there were lots of mad dog recipes doesn’t mean there was lots of rabies, but that people were so worried about it,” said Emily Beck, a doctoral candidate in the program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. “Same with recipes to fight the plague.”
The history of recipes has inspired a collaboration between the library and Gyst Fermentation Bar, a south Minneapolis restaurant that champions fermented products like beer, wine, cheese, chocolate and pickles. Two events in February and March will explore how the use of chocolate evolved, and how and why various foods were fermented. (See event box.)
Recipes provide a sometimes unexpected lens into how communities work over time, said Lois Hendrickson, the library’s curator.
Notes about their provenance — say, “Mrs. Patmore’s Cake” — reveal who was considered trustworthy.
Ingredients could indicate a cook’s economic status. Or not. “We don’t know whether some recipes were collected because they were used regularly, or if some were collected on an aspirational basis,” Hendrickson said. Not unlike how we assemble Pinterest boards of gourmet recipes today, Beck added.
Recipes as mirrors of a kitchen
Historians can track how recipes moved between cultures, between countries.
“We like to look at the social power of recipes, too,” Beck said. “Did people want to share the knowledge or not?” Just as today, medieval cooks were capable of “forgetting” to include an ingredient when asked for a recipe.
Beck noted chocolate recipes that called for scented ingredients such as a gram of musk or ambergris, wondering at using such expensive and precious elements in amounts so minuscule as to have little discernible effect.
“The economic question is, are you sort of showing off, like putting gold leaf on a cake?” Beck asked. Did people then describe the ingredients they could afford to put into their chocolate? She warmed to the topic.
“Or was being silent about it a class thing? People in the know would already be impressed,” she said. “And if you had to explain it to someone, that would show they weren’t in the know.”
Hendrickson laughed: “We have more questions than answers.”
How recipes evolve, and prevail
Recipes are made to be followed, so Hendrickson and Beck re-created one for Portugal Cake, found in an English recipe book from the mid-1800s created by C. Allen. It’s slender, but was well-used, judging from the consistent smudges on the top right corner of each page, a sign of being regularly thumbed.
They weren’t sure what would emerge from the oven, but “we don’t re-create for deliciousness,” Beck said. “We re-create for scholarly value and occasional deliciousness.”
The cake called for 10 eggs, but were eggs the same size as today? It called for currants, but didn’t specify fresh or dried. Wheat flour was called for, but a later note said that almond flour was good, too. So they tried both versions.
Two spoonfuls of rose water were listed, “but is it a big spoon you’d use to stir porridge or a delicate spoon you’d use at tea?” Hendrickson asked.
The directions said to mix the butter and sugar together “until it has the appearance of bread.” Huh?
“There are assumptions that you know how to do this,” Hendrickson said. Consider the final step: “Bake them.”
Today’s recipes, on the other hand, are laid out with more order and detail, so that even a novice might have success.
The resulting cakes were delicious, very much like pound cakes and no wonder, calling for a pound each of flour, sugar and butter. Did the 10 eggs weigh a pound? That could be a clue to their size.
With each bite, a bit of the past was revealed, illuminated. That’s the lure of studying old recipes, although they noted that undergraduate students often need a refresher course in cursive to read the handwriting.
The collection also brings into sharper focus the fact that cooks have created and shared recipes for centuries, that cookbooks go back far longer than Betty Crocker’s familiar red binding.
Beck shared a response she sometimes gets after telling people she studies old food.
“They say, ‘You mean like Jell-O? Ew, with the mayonnaise?’ That’s what people think is old food.”