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  • Consider the Recipe
  • Kyla Tompkins (bio)

The recipe contains grammatical and syntactic conventions that demand an analysis in which attention is paid to form, consistency, and sequence as well as the moments of narrative and poetic defamiliarization that have generally been favored by literary critics. Such attention, I argue, opens a window into the daily intertwining of past, present, and the future, inscribing time as it happens on the local scale of quotidian aesthetic production.

Consider a recipe that begins: "Take 40 or 50 young swallowes wn they be ready to fly out of their nests."1 In the early modern period, as today, recipes—or, "receipts," which are not always associated with food, but also with medicine and other house hold items—often begin with the imperative, understood here as both a tense and a mood.2 In this text, brought from En gland to Massachusetts and found in a box of manuscript cookery books at the American Antiquarian Society, the painstakingly handwritten text conveys a sense of continuity between an authorial voice from the past—a past both temporally and geographically distant—and the performative, the repetitive and active making of, the present and future.

The imperative tense implies both an "I"—the speaker or author of the recipe—and a "you"—the reader—while the imperative tone commands without the social lubrication of the polite invitation. The recipe thus exists as an ongoing command—"you: do this"—implying a hierarchical relationship in which the past—invoked as an eternal present tense—may command the future. At the same time, the recipe evokes a temporality in which the past imagines the future—the quite beautiful "wn swallowes be ready to fly"—as a moment of possible improvisation for the reader and cook. [End Page 439]

Indeed the text, for "Water of Swallowes, an Exelent receipt," does allow for a certain amount of variation. It is thus also a hypothetical, listing as it does a variety of conditions that the water will treat: "good against ye passion of ye heart or passion of ye mother, for ye falling sickness, for a suddain fit, for ye dead palsey, for ye apoplexie leathergie or any other impediment from ye head" and allowing for new versions of itself: "if ye can not get so many swallowes at one time as one have prescribed, then take as many as ye have kill ym & putt ym into an oven."

Scribbled into family bibles or onto envelopes, cut from newspapers and stuffed into other books, recipes (and cookbooks) are often discarded as marginalia and ephemera, left behind as the archival traces of labor that is both minoritized and quotidian.3 A recipe, unlike a poem or a novel, will never be taken as complete unto itself: we assume that other, often entirely orally passed-down, iterations preceded it—other recipes for "waters," infusions, and decoctions—and we assume many other recipes will follow. Recipes are never finished: they morph across time as foodways are handed down and changed, as migration, ecology, technology impact and are impacted by human hunting, farming, cooking and eating cultures. Certainly the recipe references, with pragmatic literalness, a set of objects and actions that are meant to signify unto themselves only; butter is butter, curry powder is only that. And in fact, to ignore the exactness of those references is at times to risk recipe failure. A recipe is thus, on first glance, missing some of the qualities that we have come to associate with, for instance, lyric poetry, the genre whose nonnarrative form the recipe most superficially resembles but whose rhetorical qualities the recipe may not perform: obscurity, metaphor, semantic polyvalence.4

Nonetheless, in the nineteenth century, recipes were often transposed into poetry:

Corn Bread

Two cups Indian; one cup wheat;One cup sour milk; one cup sweet;One good egg that you will beat;One-half cup molasses, too;One-half cup sugar add thereto,With one spoon butter, new,Salt and soda each a teaspoon. [End Page 440] Mix up quick and bake it soon;Then you'll have corn bread complete,Best of all corn bread you meet.5

Or,

Breakfast Dish.

Cut smoothly from a wheaten...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-7438
Print ISSN
2166-742X
Pages
pp. 439-445
Launched on MUSE
2013-09-30
Open Access
No
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