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Recipes: The Secret World of the Early Modern Housewife

New book reveals women used recipes to practice writing, increase literacy skills

  • Women of Shakespeare’s era used kitchen as arena of debate, invention, experimentation
  • Food is medicine: Some long-forgotten recipes discovered in English medical libraries
  • Women wrote on food; literary evidence was eaten
  • Think Lady Macbeth: Women made ‘scary and interesting concoctions’
  • Joke recipes included ‘How to make a right Presbyterian’

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- Shakespearean-era recipes offer much more than the history of puddings and pies. They also capture a surprisingly creative and intellectually-rich world of the early modern English housewife, according to a new book by Northwestern University’s Wendy Wall.

In “Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen,” Wall explores the subversive, witty and largely undocumented ways that women of the period used recipes and food to do everything from read, write and treat illness to wax philosophic about issues still debated today.

Wall, director of the Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, spent four years pouring over the contents of 150 largely unread recipes manuscripts, many of which she discovered stashed in English medical libraries.

What she found only made her want to dig deeper: signs of culinary wit and family genealogies scrawled among the annotated, grease-stained pages, poems, accounting sums, Bible verses, French lessons, sermons, IOUs, practice artwork and family records.

“Recipes do not merely record practices, but testify to ways of speaking, persuading and thinking,” said Wall, a professor of English and the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities.

Though men like Shakespeare and Francis Bacon were considered the great writers and big thinkers of the time, early modern housewives reflected on lofty concepts such as natural philosophy, national identity, status, mortality, memory and matter itself, Wall said. Kitchen work, recipes tell us, engaged vital creative and intellectual labors.

“The recipes provide evidence that women were taking up the very issues at the center of humanist intellectual thinking of the period,” Wall said. “And they were doing it in the kitchen.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Wall talked about why evidence of literacy has mysteriously vanished, the curious ways women “seasoned” both foodstuffs and human bodies and more.

Q: Why were old recipe books stored in medical libraries?

A: In the early modern period, food was used as medicine; medical and food recipes intermixed freely. Recipe writers would say, ‘This is a lamb dish that’s wonderful with the right lemons, and it also relieves the problems of the “raynes,” which means that it cures diarrhea.” The interchangeability of food and medicine made me think that what women were doing in the home had more scope and creativity than I had first thought: they were managing human bodies and psyches while they cooked.

Q: What did you find in the books?

A: Doodles, marginalia, IOUs, poems, and genealogies. People wrote their family trees and recorded the births and deaths in the family with great care, handing them down from generation to generation in recipe collections, much as they did in family bibles. While recipes were used to preserve food and human bodies, they were also more abstract places of preservation where they could register family meals, rituals, travels, connections and the places that they grew up.

Q: Did you find any jokes?

A: They’d make fun of other family members or satirize politics and faith. One recipe was called ‘How to make a right Presbyterian.’ It read: ‘Combine malice and pride and ambition and mix it up.’

Q: How did Shakespeare use recipes?

A: Lady Macbeth, for example, uses poisoned possets (drinks) to knock out the guards in a plot to kill King Duncan. Would an elite woman in the medieval world know how to make a drug like that? Recipes show us that women had a chemistry set in the kitchen that allowed them to make all kinds of scary and interesting concoctions. Lady Macbeth is just an evil version of ordinary women in the home. “All’s Well That Ends Well” tells the story of a low born woman who uses a recipe to rise up in the world and choose her own husband. And “Merry Wives of Windsor” revels in the creative ways that two women use their domestic authority to establish power in a village.

Q: How did he play with the word ‘seasoning?’

A: In addition to making flavor intense, it also refers to putting things ‘in their season.’ The recipe phrase the ‘season of meats’ refers to knowing when to hunt a certain animal or when deer are tasty, but also pertains to what spices are used to make a dish taste good or to fortify and preserve fruits and vegetables so that they can be conserved over time. Most importantly, it also refers to how to season or temper human bodies so that they endure illness or offset the effects of time. Shakespeare’s plays, such as “All’s Well That Ends Well,” draws out all of these meanings.

Q: Were women part of a literate culture?

A: We’ve thought that the women who cooked generally didn’t know how to read or write, and women who could read were way too elite to get their hands dirty with this kind of work. My research shows that this isn’t true. A healthy number of women across the social spectrum in the kitchen were overseeing details of making medicines, pesticides, preserves and were also quite able to read and write. In fact, they used recipe collecting as a way to practice handwriting styles and to increase literacy skills. If you learned a fancy handwriting, you might move up in the world.

Q: What sort of questions did women discuss?

A: Domestic work gave women a home laboratory where they could experiment with transforming natural entities into artificial products. This raised the question or whether something was still “natural” if it had been chemically changed. These are the very questions that Shakespeare takes up in his sonnets and plays. In “The Winter’s Tale” two characters who talk about gardening debate whether grafting in gardening is immoral and unnatural or simply the manipulation of nature. It touches on the fundamental question of what “nature” was.

Q: Did you find evidence of increased literacy?

A: I found a “stealth” literacy that we don’t know how to measure. One intriguing idea is that the evidence for this literate world has been eaten. It has simply vanished. Recipes show us that people actually wrote on food. They shaped desserts into letters that showed that they were exploring styles of fonts. They even inscribed poems on desserts. I’m intrigued by this idea that there was something that we might call food literacy, a world of wit that has left no record of it. This culinary art was designed to disappear.

Q: You write that they often enjoyed food disguised to be something else. What was the purpose of that?

A: “Sing a Song of Sixpence” had its origins in real medieval banquets where live birds (“four and twenty blackbirds”) might be hidden in a pie. Or they’d offer a sugar-plastered deer; when you stabbed the deer, wine would flow out and people would fill cups with its “blood.” Those kinds of food spectacles raised questions about life and death, about whether animals are meat or real food, about the connection between live beings and food. They also raised religious questions of the day between Protestants and Catholics about whether Communion involved drinking blood. When these court rituals were available in cheap printed forms, the housewife was offered the chance to orchestrate a type of theater that could push on and debate certain issues of the day. I’m fascinated by the idea that there was a political and intellectual dimension to kitchen work.

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