University Of Wyoming Professor Analyzes 17th Century "Recipe Book"

Feb 26, 2021

A 17th-century book known as the Baumfylde Manuscript is giving insight into the lives and priorities of people of the past. Wyoming Public Radio's Ivy Engel spoke to UW professor Peter Parolin who analyzed the manuscript.

Peter Parolin: It's one of a large number of surviving manuscripts of this sort from the 17th, 18th century. They were kept within a household, they were clearly passed down over generations, where different members of the household would write in them. Primarily, I think it's fair to say they wrote recipes for dishes, culinary recipes, and they wrote recipes for medicinal remedies. So now, we already have a problem, because in our times, we don't publish books that have a recipe for Baked Alaska alongside a recipe for what to do if you have an open sore on your knee, right? That's kind of gross to think about putting those things together. So we're clearly looking at a world of household wisdom in which different kinds of recipes were thought worth recording. Those two primary kinds of entries are culinary and medicinal recipes. But also you get all kinds of other bits of information. People write poems and put them in these books, people will write lists of almost like laundry lists of to-do lists, financial charts, all kinds of things like that. They'll record births and deaths in the family. When I started doing this kind of scholarship, I thought, 'I'm looking at early modern cookbooks.' But it's not right to say that that's what we're looking at. We're looking at something different that does have cookery recipes, yes, but it's a genre that we don't have a precise equivalent for in our world. And that makes it fascinating.

Ivy Engel: That's very cool. It does seem a little scatterbrained, though.

PP: I think because realms that we have separated out when we think about what it means to live a life in 2021, they hadn't separated out. They aren't separate realms, it's, say, the realm of the early modern kitchen was the place where you cooked your chicken dinner, and it was also the place when somebody was bleeding or when somebody had an internal ailment, that was the place where the remedy was put together. You didn't pull somebody to the local doctor's office or hospital, you did it at home if you at all could support it by the expertise that lay beneath your roof. So when a Mary Baumfylde, or a Catherine Thatcher, or an Abraham Sommers, which is another name in the manuscript, when they are contributing these recipes, they're imagining themselves as putting down wisdom for how to take care of the household, whether that's your bodily health or your appetite for food. They're putting down, 'How do you take care of this household today?' And also, 'How do I share my wisdom from today, with maybe the next generation or two generations down the road?' These books are amazing because you can see them travel through the generations of a family.

IE: So do you think that that traveling and handing it down, do you think that kind of speaks to them thinking about the future? Or why would they hand it down versus not have their own recipe book for each generation of the family?

PP: Oh, that's a good question. Here's a place where I think we can still make modern connections. We pass recipes down in our own families. We share them in friend networks. If you go to a potluck, and somebody brings a dish that you love, you say, 'Please give me that recipe'. I have recipes in my kitchen that are written in my mother's handwriting, or my grandmother's, and it's very meaningful to me if I'm making my mother's recipe for Nanaimo bars, which is a West Coast Canadian delicacy that I always loved when I was a kid. So I feel like she's with me, even though she's not alive anymore when I'm working with her recipe. So I feel like that's part of what's going on in these early modern manuscripts. And then there's also, you don't have computers, you don't have the internet, you don't have smittenkitten.com to find wonderful recipes, right? You have to build your own database of recipes in the early modern kitchen. And it is a way, especially for the women who had the kitchen as a central realm, it's a way of writing themselves into being, of saying, 'I matter,' 'I have something to offer,' 'I have information that my family will like and that some future reader who may not even be born yet will benefit from.' I don't want to overstate that. I don't think these writers thought of themselves as great literary producers. But I do think when you write down instructions for somebody to follow in the kitchen, you are asserting yourself a little bit. In fact, that's kind of the central thing that I was interested in, in the article that I wrote on the Baumfylde Manuscript was to investigate how these manuscripts allow the individual voice to emerge when clearly they're collective manuscripts. Lots of different voices put them together, the collective wisdom of the household goes into them, the generic things that anybody knows or should know are in these manuscripts. But at the same time, you get these eruptions of distinctive, interesting individual voices, where you think, 'Oh, here's a young girl who's trying something out for the first time. And she's figuring out who she can be, and maybe how she's gonna follow in her mother's footsteps, but carve a slightly different role for herself in the household than her mother carved.' So I do think that the manuscripts give us these beautiful glimpses into early modern personalities.

IE: Yeah, well, and kind of along with that. So you had said, recipes?

PP: mhmm

IE: In your essay it said receipts.

PP: Yes.

IE: What is the difference and which is technically correct?

PP: I love that you asked that question. When I say recipes, I'm using the modern term recipes. Here are the ingredients, here are the steps that you take, here's what you're going to ultimately produce. The early modern term that shows up in the manuscript is receipt. And they can be synonymous. But there's also, I think, there's an interesting difference of emphasis in the term receipt. It means something that you have received. And I love the term receipt because that puts the recipes into networks of circulation. I received this recipe from my mother. It's a recipe, but it's also a receipt, and it shows this relationship that has happened. And if I share it with somebody else who's received it from me, it's a receipt and the line that starts with my mother, or maybe it starts with whoever gave her the recipe to start with, now goes through me to this other person. And these networks expand. So when we talk about receipt, we're talking about movement, we're talking about kinetic communities. And I think that's really, really cool. Receipt talks about transmission, movement, energy, and that's a nice way to think about those earlier worlds as well as our own.

Parolin's essay and other analyses on the Baumfylde Manuscript can be found in the Early Modern Studies Journal.