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.
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).