The Early Modern Maritime Recipes Database, Part I: What is a Recipe?

Edith Snook

[This is the first in a series of posts on the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database. The entire series can be found here.]

Early Modern Maritime Recipes is a searchable online database that collects recipes made and circulating before 1800 in what is now defined as Canada’s Maritime provinces.  The project was directed by Dr. Edith Snook (Department of English, UNB) and Dr. Lyn Bennett (English, Dalhousie) and undertaken with the support of The Centre for Digital Scholarship in the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick.

With the assistance of research assistants and archivists and librarians across the region, we have located recipes in print—in newspapers and an almanac—and in manuscript form.  Some recipes were written in notebooks dedicated to recipes but more often they appear alongside other types of records, in a military order book, a church register, account books, a planting journal, diaries, and letters.  Images of these recipes, transcriptions, notes, and contextual essays are included on the Early Modern Maritime Recipe site.

We have excluded from our database recipe books printed elsewhere that were brought to the region (and no recipe books were printed here in this period).

Most of these recipes are in English, with just with one notebook of recipes in French and another collection on German. There are also a few recipes, belonging to the physician William Paine, in Latin.

The linguistic dominance of English in the recipe collection is a result of the political history of the region before 1800—a period defined by war and violence, including the expulsion of the Acadians and the dispossession of the Indigenous populations. The English-language recipes are largely the work of British, Planter, and Loyalist men—part of an English-speaking Settler population that arrived in the region between 1750 and 1800. The ways in which the knowledge of other inhabitants of the region—Acadians, Indigenous people, and enslaved Africans—is included in recipes will be addressed in the next blog post.

The Working Definition

One of the core issues underpinning our research was the question of how to define a recipe. The OED dates the first appearance of the word to 1533 when it was used in reference to a medical prescription; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, recipe also came to refer to a “statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making something,” especially in cookery.[1] Within this broad definition, we generally collected texts with instructions for making things.  Also called receipts or remedies, the recipes in the database have been categorized as medicine (the largest group), cosmetic (skin and teeth care), veterinary medicine, food, drink, household (cleaning, shoe polish), construction (paint, mortar), and miscellaneous (pesticide, fabric waterproofing, tanning).


Features of the Form

Early modern recipes are like poems and novels in being a literary form with certain generic features. They often have titles that describe their end, such as “A Receipt for Worms and Convulsive Fits” and “To Pickle Berwick Salmon.” Titles can also use other procedural words, such as “method,” “directions,” and “how to,” as in “An Approved Method to Catch Rats,” “Directions for Making Cheese,” and “How to Take Ink Spots Out of Linen.” The title can sometimes include a source, as in “Mr. Cook’s Remedy for a Cough,” or an evaluation, “An Admirable Receipt for a Consumption.”

In their instructions, recipes often use imperative forms of verbs—take, put, let, boil, chop—and they often convey measurements of volume, time, and temperature. These are not always familiar. While ingredients might be measured  in pounds, gallons, pints, ounces and spoonfuls, they might also be measured by “as much as will lift upon a shilling.”  Sometimes even less information is provided. A recipe “for making puff paste” begins “sift the flour and cut the butter” (without saying how much of each), recommends the pastry be rolled out “as thin as you can” and baked “in a moderate oven.” These instructions, like those to use “as much […] as you will have occasion for,” all suggest that the maker is already well informed about the process.

Recipes can also construct a creator and an audience, the recipe creator (“I”) and the recipe doer (“you”). With the “you,” recipes accommodate the doer’s own preferences. “To make a rice pudding” concludes by saying “Add sweetmeats, if you please,” while “To make a Hogshead of Good Raisin Wine” instructs “let it ferment for a Fortnight or three Weeks, as you prefer a sweet, or a dry Wine.”  The narrator’s “I” can particularly be deployed to establish the recipe’s efficacy or its status as proven. In “An Approved Method for Making Cider,” the source, named as Mr. Clifford, recounts how he conducted a trial of cider making: “I have found from careful attention and many experiments […].”   The inclusion of such sources and the evidence of experimental trial and effectiveness are a common feature in recipes used to establish the technique as authoritative.

Recipes and Other Genres

The texts in this database illustrate how the recipe—the set of instructions with ingredients and methods—was integrated into other literary forms, such as diaries, botanical descriptions, letters, and narratives, including narratives.  So while a 1793 letter from Dr. William James Almon to Andrew Strange, Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, formally maintains the recipe form, including the title, “Doctor Garthshore’s treatment of Scrophulus swellings,” his wife, Rebecca Almon, more informally sends her regards to her aunt Polly and launches directly into a set of instructions from her husband: “tell her I have consulted the Doctor about her Eyes, & he thinks that about [10] grains of white vitriol dissolved in eight spoonful of clear Water, and to wash her eyes with it occasionally would be of great service to her.” A letter from London from John MacDonald to his sister Nelly in Tracadie integrates recipes into a list, “Directions for Miss McDonald,” which covers her environment, diet, drink, and necessary medicines.

Narratives can also function as recipes when they document a method and its efficacy. To give just one example of this: in the Planter Handley Chipman’s notes is a twelve line account  of a three and a half year old child who in 1765 fell in the water and appeared to drown but was restored by being laid on a bed of ashes impregnated with salt and rubbed with hot cloths for 15 minutes. Such a narrative, whether it appears in print or in a letter or diary, may forego the title and shift the verb form from the imperative (take) to the past tense (s/he took), but the text still contains information on ingredients, methods, efficacy, and source, elements that speak to the technique’s replicability and authority.

Recipes are a complicated genre, if their language is simple. They are part of the histories of domesticity, food, medicine, science, ideas, economies, and empire. Research with early modern Maritime recipes can tell complex stories about the circulation of knowledge, people, and goods in the Atlantic world.

Edith Snook is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.  The Early Modern Maritime Recipes research project has been supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the UNB Harriet Irving Library and a Dalhousie Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Undergraduate Research Assistant Award. You can find her on Twitter at @Pamphilia2.

[1] “recipe, n.”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 05, 2019).

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