Of Knowledge, Labors Lost, and Lemmon Cream

Recently I’ve been reading Natasha Korda’s 2011 Labors Lost, which focuses on identifying the work of women that went into maintaining and legitimizing the early modern English theater. Korda writes that often the record of women’s work comes to us through tiny, seemingly insignificant material or archival traces: “Deciphering these scattered traces often requires laboriously collecting many shards or fragments of evidence that would remain, when viewed in isolation, indecipherable” (3). Furthermore, this invisible labor did not happen naturally: it was produced by a number of intersecting cultural factors, which all lead up to what we now see as a pretty systematic historical invisibility of all kinds of women’s work, from the theater to the work of experimental observation to domestic labor.

A driving question for me (and many others before me) has been: how do we see and access that work, and what happens when we do? I am by no means the first one to realize this (which is why I reference the people who were), but I’m learning that a very different type of data and understanding can be gained from performing and practicing these recipes than we can access from reading them. Both are valuable sorts of knowledge, but the knowledge available through practicing these recipes is constituted in an intriguing way, and a way I don’t think we’re used to thinking of knowledge.

The kind of knowledge one needs to successfully replicate one of these recipes is certainly practical, tangible, and sensory, but it is also a certain relationship to time and memory: one must remember what came before (as in how a recipe ‘ought’ to turn out) as well as think laterally (how does this ingredient interact with others; how did I use this ingredient in other recipes?). It’s also a kind of knowledge that cannot easily be archived for transmission, as Korda and others argue–that’s one part of the reason we see far fewer records of women’s labor in the early modern archive than we would wish. In some sense, the knowledge the recipe imparts can only be accessed by doing it.

Wendy Wall explains it far better than I do in her article “Literacy and the Domestic Arts,” and she also argues that we need to redefine our concept of literacy to include kitchen and artisanal practices.

Once we’ve defined these practices as knowledge (something one can be literate in), we must also think about what their nature is, or how they’re constituted as knowledge. Very often, the methods and knowledge behind the printed recipes are framed through a clear set of absences. What we do not know from reading these recipes points us precisely to what early modern women did know. In other words: where the text assumes familiarity with the reader is where the vectors of practice, memory, and the absent archive intersect. In this way, although the archive resists our desires to access, locate, and understand early modern women’s work, it also makes it visible by leaving knowledge-shaped holes. Unlike other types of archival absences or elisions, the gaps in early modern recipes are productive; they are themselves sources of knowledge. They tell us what we no longer know (but what was once known) by highlighting our own lack of knowledge.

Which brings me to this recipe from Hannah Woolley’s The Cooks Guide. Characteristically, its directions are minimal, except for one very interesting system of measurement:

To make Lemmon Cream

Take a quart of Cream, keep it stirring on the fire till it be blood warm; then take the meat of three Lemmons sweetened well with sugar, and a little Orange flower water, sweeten them so well that they may not turn the Cream; then stir them into the Cream over the fire, with the yolkes of six Eggs; be sure to keep it stirring, and assoon as you see it be thick, take it off, and pour it into a dish, and serve it in cold.

“Until it be blood warm” struck me as a very clever unit of measurement in its ubiquity and simplicity–put your finger on your wrist to feel your body temperature. “Blood warm” is not-quite-boiling, which we know because our blood doesn’t boil in us, but it’s warm enough that in some cases blood steams. It seemed nearly failsafe, and when I was cooking this dish I actually compared the cream to my wrist.

My own labors in recreating this have been lost along with the use of the body as a temperature scale. The cream turned out terribly, unphotographably congealed. I think it’s because I didn’t get the cream hot enough before adding other ingredients. Unlike an early modern housewife, I have no familiarity with blood in the kitchen–my best guesses of “blood warmth” are from general knowledge and approximation, whereas it’s likely someone in an early modern household would have had frequent reminders what temperature blood was. So what I thought was a failsafe, intuitive measurement turned out to be quite tricky as it referenced something not in my kitchen “vocabulary.” In terms of memory, I also had no idea what exactly constituted “thick”–nothing in my repertoire resembled this, and so I had no standard to work toward. My best guess is that this recipe is supposed to produce something in between custard and sauce, because the recipe specifically reminds the cook that the acid in the lemons is not supposed to curdle the cream (as it would in a posset). I think I’ll try this recipe again, although certainly with a thermometer.

Works Cited

Korda, Natasha. Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Wall, Wendy. “Literacy and the Domestic Arts.” Huntington Library Quarterly 73.3 (2010).

An Abundance of Kumquats

The idea of picking citrus fruit off a tree whenever I wish is still something of a marvel to me–growing up in the Midwest, citrus was something you ordered by the box in the winter and paid exorbitant amounts for the other three seasons. I still think of clementines as Christmas oranges (because I’m apparently a Dickens character?)  So when I was invited, recently, to take all the kumquats I wanted, I found myself feeling a little guilty as I filled up a large bowl.

kumquat 2

Never mind that I hadn’t actually ever tasted a kumquat. They were free, and I’m a graduate student, plus it gave me the opportunity to work with a new ingredient.

First I tried it with chicken, on the premise that you can roast chicken with lemon or orange, so why not the spicy tartness of kumquats? A coat of curry spice helped deepen and balance the flavors, and when I took it out of the oven it was wonderfully fragrant. The kumquats lent a slight bergamot-y spice to the curry, and although you couldn’t really taste any tartness the smell was amazing.

kumquat 1

The internet seems to suggest primarily turning kumquats into marmalade, but I’m not a huge fan of marmalade. I am, however, familiar with the endless early modern recipes for candying or preserving fruits: “To Preserve Damsons Whole,” “To Candy Lemmons,” etc., and this seemed a way of testing the waters of preservation while reducing the painful sourness of the fruits.

Candied Kumquats

1 pint kumquats, washed

1 1/2 c sugar

Cut kumquats in half lengthwise and remove pits. Put in saucepan with enough water to cover; bring to a boil. Drain and repeat three more times.

Place sugar and 1 c water in a saucepan and bring to a boil (you’re essentially making simple syrup). Add kumquats, bring heat to low, and simmer for 40-45 minutes until translucent. Allow to cool completely in the pan.

kumquat 3

They turned out surprisingly well for a first attempt! (The recipe I used produces a syrup as well as candied fruit, with the idea that you can add kumquat syrup to cocktails or drinks). It’s actually a little too sugary, so I think I may reduce the sugar next time I make this, to allow the tartness to cut back through. So far, it’s been a great addition to cranberry juice, and I’m told you can also make a whiskey sour with the syrup.

Transmutating Substances: Egg Alchemy

“With her fire going, woman becomes a sorceress; by a simple movement, as in beating eggs, or through the magic of fire, she effects the transmutation of substances: matter becomes food. There is enchantment in these alchemies, there is poetry in making preserves; the housewife has caught duration in the snare of sugar, she has enclosed life in jars. Cooking is revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.”

–Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1952), 453.

How surprised I was to find this passage right in the middle of de Beauvoir’s analysis of the contemporary state of women’s housework and social situation. For de Beauvoir, the daily tasks of women are in themselves productive, creative work–but work that is not afforded any honor, rights, or recognition, and this is particularly evident in the work of the home.

Sixty years later, it’s a reminder that attending to women’s work and its material manifestations opens our eyes to a whole world of wonder–chemical transformations, life preserved, emotions awakened and deftly managed through food. The kitchen is a way to know nature, as myself and many other scholars are beginning to argue and as the farm-to-table enterprises are promoting.

I’ve been thinking about transmutating substances lately; in particular the transmutation of one substance: the egg. Infinitely adaptable under just slight environmental changes, and yet we’re still working out its chemistry–for example, Hervé This’s 65 C egg.

I recently found out about the crispy egg (via Smitten Kitchen) and was instantly fascinated. It produces a shock of egg flavor and texture, and it’s an uneggspected (yup, went there) type of egg to add to dishes–it’s the poached egg’s younger, hipper cousin. What intrigued me most was not that the egg instantly soufflés when it hits the pan, but that you have to cook the top by spooning hot oil over it, and the reaction produces large, paper-thin bubbles of egg meat.

2015-06-29 19.12.27

It made me think of Velazquez’s Old Woman Frying Eggs, and how some techniques don’t change over time. For all our sous-videing and whirlpooling of eggs, some things remain simple and still slightly mysterious, like the simple transformations that occur when an egg is beaten or heated.


Another egg-related mystery is the poached egg, and its fragile existence (ha) in a very short temporal window. I’ve yet to attempt “true” poaching in water, but recently a friend sent me these poaching cups as a surprise. It took a while to figure out what they were, but I’ve now begun my poaching adventures. The cup makes a perfect little egg flotilla and prevents the utter disintegration of egg white that usually happens, and as long as you don’t forget to put the lid on the pot–as I did–the egg will cook in minutes. That’s one thing Hannah Woolley doesn’t have advice on–how to gracefully poach an egg.

2015-07-18 11.21.07

Salad Days: Methods Through Time

To celebrate the end of the quarter, I watched the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” this weekend. In the final episode, Magnus Nilsson narrates his return from a trip throughout Scandanavia researching traditional cooking methods. He says, “The only way for traditions in food to be kept alive is to let them adapt.” For those of us thinking about traditions in food and their survival (or not), Nilsson’s perspective is an intriguing one. To what degree can these traditions adapt before they’re lost entirely? Is it possible to resurrect and then adapt a tradition that has been entirely lost? And conversely, what is the genealogy of the thing I’m cooking now?

So to that end, here’s a post on modernizing techniques rather than recreating an old recipe.

It’s blazing hot in my town, and we’re also at the height of the summer produce, which means an abundance of tasty and sun-warmed ingredients that don’t need to be cooked. I recently attended a lunch hosted by my professor that was entirely composed of various fancy salads, and I’ve taken that as my inspiration—and my justification not to turn the oven on—and made a whole slew of cold salads.

The principles of balance and taste that I’ve been interacting with—for example, what’s the ideal balance of grain to vegetables? What on earth do I do for dressing?—have reminded me of a section in Gervase Markham’s 1653 The English Hous-wife in which Markham discourses on the principles of salads (“sallets”) as a staple of the housewife’s repertoire. Rather than a series of recipes, a salad is a method, a principle, or a template.

“First then to speak of Sallets, there be some simple, and others compounded, some onley to furnish out the Table, and some both for use and adornation….your simple sallets are Chibols pilled, washt clean, and half of the green tops cut clean away, so served on a Fruit-dish, or Chives, Scallions, Radish-roots, boyled Carrets, Skirrets, and Turneps, with such like, served up simply; also all young Lettice, Cabbage-lettice, Purslane, and divers other herbs which may be served simply without any thing but a little Vinegar, Sallet Oyl, and Sugar; Onions boyled, and stript from their rinde, and surved up with Vinegar, Oyl, and Pepper is a good simple Sallat; so is Samphire, Bean-cods, Sparagus, and Cucumbers, served in likewise with Oyl, Vinegar, and Pepper, with a world of others; too tedious to nominate” (E2r-v).

A genre emerges: a variety of greens and herbs or a medley of vegetables, dressed; even a single ingredient prepared to highlight its flavor.  The compound salads are much more complex, although the composition is similar: greens, small exotic flavory bits (capers, olives, currants, figs, almonds) layered attractively and dressed. The compound salads tend to have an astonishing amount of sugar layered into them, directly on top of the greens.

Markham’s cookbook also lists recipes for boiled salads and pickled salads, which seem to be a way to counteract the natural growing cycles and have herbs and vegetables throughout the year. Markham makes especial note that the preserved sallats, whether in a sugar brine or a salt brine, may be “used at pleasure, for they will last all the year” (E3r).

Nilsson’s restaurant, Faviken, similarly capitalizes on traditions of pickling and preserving as well—in a climate where things don’t grow six months out of the year, preserving is a way to “defeat the seasons,” as Nilsson says.

Although I’d like to try preserving a small “sallet” sometime this summer, right now the salads I’m making are all about celebrating what’s in season as well as the marvel of refrigeration (yet another form of artificially extending produce past its season).

Early modern salads, like today’s salads, motivate and highlight creativity; they are endlessly malleable and customizable. They’re also an interesting metaphor for genre: what are the identifying features of a sallet, if almost all of its components can change at the cook’s whim?

With the basic principles communicated, Markham leaves the rest to the housewife’s creativity: “A world of other Sallets there are, which time and experience may bring to our Hous-wifes eye, but the composition of them, and the serving of them differeth nothing from these already rehearsed” (E3v).

Here are three of the salads in that world:

Antipasta Salad (yup, that’s a pun)

Salad 1

1 head butter or red lettuce

small red and yellow tomatoes

fresh mozzarella, torn

Penne or other long pasta, boiled in well-salted water


1/4 c olive oil

1 tsp red wine vinegar (to taste—I don’t like vinegary things so I under-season and then add more vinegar)

drizzle honey

oregano, salt, and pepper

Boil the penne in well-salted water; drain and rinse. Let cool a little; put into large bowl with mozzarella and tomatoes and add dressing. Toss. Add lettuce just before serving.


Carrot-Chickpea Salad

Salad 2_1

2 1/2 c chickpeas, rinsed and drained (about 2 cans)

2 1/2 c peeled & coarsely shredded carrots (about 4 medium carrots)

1 1/4 c cooked quinoa, optional

1/2 c raisins, optional


1 tbsp lemon juice

1 garlic clove, minced

1 c packed cilantro leaves and stems

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp paprika

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

1/4 c olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

Whisk dressing together; pour over all other ingredients combined; toss. Top with roasted pepitas just before serving.

Farro and Cucumber Salad

Salad 3

1 c farro, boiled in salted water

1 cucumber, diced in quarters


3-4 scallions, diced

Avocado, diced


Olive oil

Lemon juice

Salt and pepper

Mix everything together and toss. Add avocado just before serving. It’s also possible to dress the plain farro and leave it in the fridge to rest before adding the other ingredients.

Making Snow in a Blazing World

I’ve always linked the early modern writers Margaret Cavendish and Hannah Woolley in my mind. They were some of the first women to seek publication under their own names, Woolley for her recipe and household books and Cavendish for her scientific Poems and Fancies. In their works also appears a similar and unique perception of the relationship between domestic labor and science: Woolley calls her recipes “experiments,” and Cavendish takes that thread and runs with it to suggest that the epistemic labor of recipes can help order and investigate the workings of Nature. Lately I’ve been reading Cavendish and her contemporary utopia-crafters through the lens of this blog and my ongoing concerns with women’s labor, and I’m finding connections everywhere.

snow cream_woolley

This weekend I was rereading Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 scientific utopia The Description of  New World, Called the Blazing-World, in which she envisions a world of scientific inquiry ruled over by a wise Empress–who of course comes to a fictional “Margaret Cavendish” for advice. I came across the following passage, in which the Empress asks her Bird-men (her Astronomers) how snow is made:

“To which they answered, That according to their observation, Snow was made by a commixture of Water, and some certain extract of the element of Fire that is under the Moon; a small portion of which extract being mixed with Water, and beaten by Air or Wind, made a white froth called Snow, which being after some while dissolved by the heat of the same spirit, turned to Water again. This observation amazed the Emperess very much; for she had hitherto believed, That Snow was made by cold motions…” (168).

It bounced around in my head all weekend until I realized why Cavendish’s language sounded so familiar: recently I read a recipe for Snow-Cream in Hannah Woolley’s 1672 The Ladies Delight, or a Rich Closet of Choice Experiments and Curiosities. There are striking similarities between the method Woolley describes and the process the Bird-men describe:

To make Snow-Cream

Take a pint of Cream, and the whites of three Eggs, one Spoon-full or two of Rose-water, whip it to a Froth with a Birchen Rod, then cast it off the Rod into a Dish, in the which you have first fastened half a Manchet with some Butter on the bottom, and a long Rose-mary sprigg in the middle: When you have cast all the Snow on the dish, then garnish it with severall sorts of Sweet-meats.

Both “recipes” involve mixing a base ingredient with an extract (for Cavendish, the fire under the moon distilled by methods unknown; for Woolley, rose-water an early modern lady would likely have distilled herself) and beating it until it changes texture or transmutes.

It is no wonder the Empress is “amazed” at this method her Bird-men propose for making snow: it resembles closely the process she (if we take her as a figure for the genteel English lady) would use herself to imitate Nature on her own table. In fact, this imitation of the natural world was quite fashionable for early modern housewives, and a number of household/ladies’ delight books feature recipes that result in imitations or preservations of the natural world–extracts of flowers, snow cream, hedgehog pudding (coming soon on this blog!), and little universes in bell jars.* But for kitchen processes to transfer the other direction, from the kitchen into a scientific universe, is less common–and suggests that for Cavendish at least, scientific experimentation and inquiry and the labor of the kitchen mutually constituted a way of understanding the natural world.

*See the introduction to Wendy Wall’s Staging Domesticity for more on these fantastical imitations of nature on the banquet table.

Early Modern Food, Phrase 2

phrase of apples_Woolley

Some of the more famous early modern cookbooks were those published by Hannah Woolley. She was one of the first women to write and publish cookbooks and gentlewomens’ guides. The majority of household guides prior to Woolley were written by men, who relied on a variety of authorizing gestures to transmit women’s knowledge–typically by claiming they were given the knowledge by female servants, while also deferring to the superior experiential knowledge of the housewife. Woolley’s recipes and advice came from her own experience: she worked as a servant to a lady, and learned medicine and physic from her mother. She used her credentials of experience to write a number of books–including her most famous, The Queen-Like Closet (1670) and The Cooks Guide (1664), which is where this recipe is from.

As the authors of Cooking the Archive have beautifully articulated, there are a number of problems in “replicating” early modern recipes, and unless you are very clever or have access to an early modern kitchen (which are uncommon in California), it’s not feasible to achieve complete authenticity. At the level of ingredients, 400 years leads to considerable differences. Produce varieties were much more abundant; people had a much larger working knowledge of herbs and greens, as well as access to greater variety; and of course, no refrigeration meant that you had to either cook what was seasonal or find clever ways to preserve produce.

Since I’m working with the budget and tools of a graduate student, authenticity isn’t my primary concern. I’m more interested in the epistemology of reading a recipe and producing it–what knowledge is assumed, what practices are involved, and what bodies of knowledge are involved? For a first experiment, Woolley’s “A Phrase of Apples” seemed an appropriately entry-level recipe: not too complex, similar to things we still make, and within my own range of experience (desserts). An image from Woolley’s original text is above (thanks EEBO!) and I’ve transcribed the recipe below:

To make a Phrase of apples

Take two pippins, pair them, and cut them in thin slices, then take three eggs, yolks, and whites, beat them very well, then put to it some nutmeg grated, some rose-water, currants and sugar, with some grated bread, as much as will make it thick as batter; then fry your apples very well with sweet butter, and pour it away; then fry them in more butter till they are tender, then lay them in order in the pan, and pour all your batter on them; and when it is fryed a little turn it; when it is enough dish it with the apples downward, strew sugar on it and serve it in.

Apples frying in the pan.
Apples frying in the pan.

After transcribing comes translating, and this is where the epistemological gaps lie. What, for example, is a “pippin”? (A small sweet dessert apple–I used Jonagold, but with the limited apple varieties available to modern cooks, really any sweet cooking apple should work). What is grated bread? After considerable research, I found a blog associated with Plimoth Plantation that has had success translating “grated bread” as breadcrumbs. It makes sense–if I were to grate a loaf of bread, I’d have something resembling breadcrumbs. What about rosewater? You can buy it at most groceries, of course, but it’s not really on the Western palate of seasonings anymore. When paired with nutmeg, what sort of flavors would I be creating? Also, it’s quite common now to pair apples with cinnamon and/or nutmeg, so I was a little surprised by the lack of cinnamon in this dish.

After figuring out the ingredients, then it’s on to the instructions, which can be even more befuddling. It was conventional not to include “standardized” measurements in recipes, which is why you see a large variety even in relative measurements: a handful, a pound, a bit, and most frustratingly, “enough.” This method of conveying a recipe assumes a certain existing literacy on the part of the cook already: either from experience or experiment, the cook was supposed to know how long to beat the eggs, what texture the batter should be, and how long to cook or fry things. There were often some guides like we have today (until brown, until firm, etc) but these recipes pose a challenge to modern cooks used to recipes that detail every step. Most of my own cooking process for this recipe was guesswork, estimation, improvisation, and hoping that I wouldn’t set things on fire. On top of the problem of method, there’s the problem of taste: for example, how much sugar is appropriate? Early moderns loved their sugar (even put it on salads!) but the American sweet tooth might exceed even that. What proportions of nutmeg and rosewater should go in? For these questions, I was able to refer to my own experience: for example, I’ve rarely seen recipes that asked for above 1/2 tsp of nutmeg, because it’s quite strong. By using comparisons with successful modern recipes, I was able to fudge my way through the early modern one–and an early modern cook would likely have followed a similar process, although with actual knowledge backing up her “guesses.” I overdid it on the rosewater, however, precisely because I’ve never used it before and didn’t realize how strong it was. I’ll continue to think about knowledge and labor as I keep trying these recipes, but these are some of the major concerns when attempting to cook food from 400 years ago.

Batter, far too thick. It should be a pourable consistency.
Batter, far too thick. It should be a pourable consistency.

So here’s my best take on the modernized recipe:

2 sweet apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into rounds

3 eggs

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tbsp rose water (I used 1 tbsp and it was overpowering)

1/2 to 2/3 c bread crumbs

1/3 c sugar

6-8 tbsp butter, unsalted and softened to room temperature, and halved

Beat eggs well, until light-colored. Add nutmeg, rose water, currants, and sugar and beat again. Add bread crumbs until the mixture resembles a pourable batter. (It thickens quickly, so let sit between breadcrumb additions). Fry the apples in butter twice, pouring the butter away in between fryings. On the second frying, pour the batter over the apples and keep frying until the tart holds together when you shake the pan. Turn the phrase over in the pan and continue frying. Fry until dough is crisp and light brown.


This did not flip well.
This did not flip well.

To serve: turn the dish out onto a tray or plate and “strew” with white or powdered sugar. Serve warm. (Seriously, this has to be eaten warm. It congeals unpleasantly if you let it sit out. It’s also quite good warmed up on the second day.)

Still not sure why it's called a "phrase."
Still not sure why it’s called a “phrase.”

Results: Surprisingly not awful! Definitely edible, which will come as a surprise to many of my friends (and I’ll admit, surprised me). As I said above, the rosewater lent a very strong flavor to the dish, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Rose and sweet apples do pair well, and the rose water adds back some of the fragrance that modern apples have lost in the breeding. It’s quite hard to flip the dish, which makes me think that it would either be better made on a smaller scale or you’d have to have a very large spatula–and this is also the reason why my version looks less neat than I’d hoped. However, the principle that enough butter, sugar, and frying will make anything edible seems to be as true for early modern recipes as it is today, because this tasted a bit like an apple fritter, and therefore pretty decent and a successful first attempt.