- Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen by Wendy Wall
Sweeping in its scope (the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries and manuscript as well as print texts) as it is specific in its narrative trajectory, Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought offers a history of reading and writing recipes in early modern England. Painting with broad strokes the relationship between recipes, reading, and writing, Wall offers a portrait of early modern life in which recipe writing intersected with the era’s literate (and literary) culture, social mobility, and dominant scientific paradigms.
Chapter One, “Taste Acts,” takes up the topic of print recipe (or receipt) books by such writers as John Partridge, Gervase Markham, Robert May, Charles Lamb, Patrick Lamb, William Rabisha, Hannah Woolley, and Catharine Brooks. These books and others like them, Wall argues, increasingly “separated housewifery from cooking [as] recipe writers redefined taste as a marker of social distinction” (39). In this way, Wall’s history of recipes seemingly aligns more with the cultural aspirations of Martha Stewart or Julia Child (for the “servantless” cook who aims to create an exceptional, even exotic edible) than Mark Bittman (whose ready substitutions accommodate those on a budget). Early modern print recipe books, as narrated by Wall, fostered “culinary cults of personality around [End Page 124] individual figures” (47), the author-chefs associated with them, as “the figure of the ‘good housewife,’ which had formerly conjoined gendered labor, reading, and status, was strikingly reimagined in the new recipe environment” (49).
Hence, eating in the early modern household became increasingly, as Wall argues, a matter of taste rather than of the drudgery of harvest and slaughter, as the dirty business of the kitchen receded to make way for a more sanitized self-presentation. In Chapter Two, “Pleasure,” Wall links “receipts” with poetic “conceits,” drawing attention to how what appeared on the table mimicked the actions and product articulated on paper, both modes of creativity and “wit.” With a focus again on print texts, Wall argues that these texts “offered ways for women far from centers of power to create elite kitchen art, [as] they morphed ‘sotelties’ [subtleties] into the imaginative possibilities of print” (82). Household work is here transformed from “arduous labor” to “cookery conceits,” which “were presented as a form of socially prestigious creative play, something akin to literary devices or rhetorical turns of phrase” (109), indicative of a “historical moment when the technical and fanciful shared a home together” (110). Because so few printed texts were written by (or attributed to) women, at least until the later seventeenth century, this emphasis on the aspirational qualities found in these books necessarily generalizes about how women read and used them based on prescriptive behaviors more than practice. At the same time, as scholars like Rebecca Laroche, Michelle DiMeo, and David Goldstein, among others, have shown, even these print books provide countless examples of the mingling of human and nonhuman (plant and nonhuman animal)—the dirty hands gathering plants at the root, the gooey and often brutal confluence of blood, suet, and tissue required to manufacture salves and ointments or put food on the table. In addition, manuscript recipe books offer glimpses into the practices and motivations of domestic life that are arguably broader than Wall’s argument allows. In manuscript books, we find at least some examples of cookery and medicine of the middling sort, and a diverse array of cures and alliances not necessarily vetted for public consumption; and even printed books include numerous recipes from the likes of the authoritative “Mrs.” as well as the “Lady.” Wall’s narrative, that is, tells a particular story that perhaps inadvertently reifies dominant notions of gender and class more than it complicates them; again, including manuscript texts [End Page 125] and the more day-to-day aspects of domestic life readily found in these books would add useful layers to Wall’s analysis.
The chapter that follows, “Literacies: Handwriting and Handiwork,” turns its attention to manuscript texts, to query how handwritten recipe books...