- Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen by Wendy Wall
Still Life with Letter Pastries, Peter Binoit’s circa 1615 painting that graces the cover of Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, foregrounds a tumble of letters—B, P, R, O—skillfully formed from dough. Aesthetically pleasing, these letters cleverly point to a central concern of Wall’s monograph—that food and words, recipe books and literature, are not so far apart. While Wall is not the first to present us with the literary potential of recipes, Recipes for Thought is unique as a monograph focusing extensively on a broad range of printed and manuscript recipe books. In showing their contribution to defining and enabling female creativity, literacy, and knowledge, Wall accentuates the multi-dimensionality of these books through a consideration of prefatory material, signatures, marginalia, commonplace entries, and the language of recipes themselves. Recipe books, she suggests, enrich our understanding of the perennial debate between the value of art versus nature, the concept of taste, and the development of domestic epistemologies.
Recipes for Thought continues the work Wall began in Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (2002), and the first two chapters begin with many of the printed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century recipe books that she investigated in that study. Here, though, Wall extends the chronological range of books under consideration, pushing into the mid-eighteenth century to offer a perspective on the recipe book’s development as textual inspiration and advice for women. In chapter one, she draws our attention to the rich variety of prefatory material included in the printed manuals (woodcuts, poems, printers’ prefaces, authorial addresses to the reader) to investigate the concept and meaning of “taste.” Suggesting that pre-1650s manuals imagine taste as an extension of embodied practice, Wall posits in turn that the instructional apparatus of later seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century recipe books increasingly defines taste as purely aesthetic. If Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies, to Adorne Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories (1600) encourages the lady of the house to respond to her reading through domestic creativity, later manuals, such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Ever Yet Published (1747), focus their attention on servants, removing creative [End Page 529] and domestic agency from the housewife herself. Attributable in part to the spread of literacy, this change, Wall suggests, transforms the housewife into an arbiter rather than a creator of taste. Managing appearances rather than creating fanciful and hopefully tasty dishes becomes the norm.
As Wall further emphasizes in chapter two through the idea of pleasure, the acts of making, eating, or viewing can be physically and intellectually enjoyable. Proposing the “conceit”—a literary as well as a culinary term—as a category that celebrates the transformation of the natural (ingredients) into aesthetically and intellectually pleasing dishes, feasts, or court spectacles, Wall explores the ways that recipe books narrativize such pleasures. Part of the enjoyment, she argues, is in the reading, which inspires imaginative responses. Once more positing a divide between pre- and post-1650s books, Wall suggests that the earlier material offers permissive instruction for women, going against the grain of cultural proscriptions demanding moderation and self-control. Just as the later material turns more definitively toward household management, so it distances itself from earlier flights of fancy and foregrounds the serviceable utility of recipes and their books.
In the last three chapters, Wall looks more closely at manuscript material and effectively demonstrates how much is still to be learned from these under-explored texts. In her particularly interesting chapter three, Wall focuses on the recipe book as a locus for developing literacy through the practice of handwriting and penmanship. Perfecting signatures that might redefine identities and relationships and decorating their books with elaborate knotwork and calligraphy, the compilers of recipe manuals...