Promoting passion in book collecting

The Myriad Mysteries of Manuscript Cookbooks

It’s easy to dismiss cookbooks as utilitarian documents, in danger of being rendered obsolete by changing trends, tastes, and nutrition advice. But among historians and collectors, cookbooks are irreplaceable time capsules. Manuscript cookbooks, in particular, offer unparalleled insight into numerous aspects of culinary history–if you’re patient enough to decode the clues. Indeed, perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of collecting manuscript cookbooks is discovering the stories they tell. The acquisition of a culinary manuscript often marks the start of extensive research to place it in the correct context.

When was the manuscript written?

Sometimes the creator of the manuscript or a subsequent owner will have dated the manuscript, making it easy to determine time period. But if the document lacks a date, other clues can help you estimate the time period. Language and spelling are often great indicators, as are the recipes themselves; different recipes came into vogue during specific time periods (think Jell-o molds in the 1950’s!), and these trends can help you narrow down a manuscript cookbook’s time frame.

If your manuscript may be particularly valuable, it may be worth consulting an expert about the paper and other materials used to make the manuscript itself. Even the way the book is bound can help determine a date. Note that restoration and repair may give a false impression, so it’s important to work with qualified experts if you’re using these factors to date a manuscript cookbook.

Where was the manuscript written?

Again, sometimes you can answer this question with the help of an inscription. If that’s not available, you can again turn to the recipes in the cookbook. Even dishes that part of a “national cuisine” (itself a pernicious term in the world of culinary history) often have regional variations. For example, barbecue is eaten all over the United States, but Carolina barbecue and Texas barbecue are incredibly different! Thus, even seemingly insignificant details like the proportion of ingredients in a sauce can help you figure out where a cookbook–and its author–originated.

Manuscript cookbook authors would often record the details of a recipe, such as who gave them the recipes and when. These clues can help you construct the author’s heritage or even the migration of the author’s family over time. While the details of an individual household may seem like a microcosm that doesn’t translate into wider history, that single household may illustrate or personify wider social, economic, and political trends.

Who wrote this manuscript cookbook?

Perhaps you have a name. Perhaps you have the names of other women who contributed recipes. Some basic research may reveal interesting details about the cookbook author. You may discover the author’s genealogy or find out more about the location and time of publication. The author may be significant even without this information; earlier this year, for example, we handled the manuscript cookbook from William Heelis’ estate. Heelis was married to none other than legendary children’s author Beatrix Potter!

But more important than finding the author’s name is determining the author’s place in society. You can discern that by looking at what kinds of substitutions the author made: did she frequently switch out expensive ingredients for cheaper ones? You can also look, again, at the recipes themselves. Are they for formal dinners or humble meals? Are there notes about presentation, preservation, or extending recipes? All of these can help you glean the author’s socioeconomic status, which is frequently even more significant to historians than the author’s name.

A Selection of Manuscript Cookbooks

Eighteenth-Century Recipes for Elder Wine, Pig Ears, and More

Manuscript_Recipe_Book_1Eighteenth century cooking manuscripts are scarce and typically found in poor condition due to their heavy use in the kitchens of the day; the current manuscript is in mostly very good condition. It has some spotting and edgewear throughout but is internally quite clean, despite the lack of binding. Recipes include: To make Quince Wine, To make Orange Wine, To make Elder Wine, To make Mead, A Ragone of Hogs Ears, To Frigusea Sheep Trotters, To Stew a Legg of Mutton, To Broyle Pigeons Whole, To Make Mince Pyes, and many more. This cookbook most likely originated from a family of means. Details>>

Helen Weldon’s Dos-a-Dos: Cookery and Physic

Weldon_Manuscript_Cookbook_1778Arranged dos-a-dos with 83 pages recipes running from one end, and 57 pages medical prescriptions/remedies the other, this manuscript cookbook was inscribed, presumably by its first author: “Helen Weldon – Bath, January 29, 1778 – Cookery” on front paste-down endpaper, along with other writing and “1797″ at tail end. There seem to be at least three owners with distinct handwriting. The cookbook includes intriguing recipes such as “To Keep Cheese from Mites,” “Mock Turtle(Calves head),” and “Onion Soop.”At the other end of the book, Weldon’s “Physic” remedies begin with “Teeth Water,” “For Chopd Lips, or hands,” “Poison for Rats & Mice(Arsenic),” “Diuretic Balls for Horses,” “Gout Cordial, Mrs. Peele,” and many more. Details>>

A Magnificent Collection of Recipes and Remedies

Manuscript_Remedies_RecipesA truly remarkable manuscript written in the mid-1700′s by someone with exceptional knowledge of herbs and where they could be found. The author discusses where the “herbs grow which the plague water is made of” and s “In the park that belongs to Tho. Cornwall Esquire are scallions and mugwort…” On the very first page the author describes their holdings: “July 16, 1737 – This day an account was taken of the Linnon wch is as under,” describing all the linens in the house and the amount of each. There are many recipes and remedies including a recipe “To make sauce called Catch up” as well as an assortment of meads, puddings, wine, pancakes, preserves, and remedies “To Take way the marks of the Smallpox,” and many more. Unlike other Receipt/Remedy books of the day, which tend to be “dos-e-dos” style, all the recipes are placed together with an attempt to alphabetize, although that idea seems to loose steam by the middle of the manuscript. One of the most startling remedies is for “Cancer of the Breast,” which uses Blossom of Broom and seems to be very complicated, taking a few days and done only at the time of the year the Blossom of the Broom is in season. Details>>

An Orthographic Curiosity

Drake_Culinary_Manuscript“Mr James Drake” is written on the paste down endpaper, along with other writing. This manuscript has a plethora of recipes all in one hand. What makes this interesting is the spelling: Oringe (Orange), Bisketts (Biscuits), Carrat (Carrot), Apells (Apples), Clarred (Claret), Onyon (Onion), Cenemon (Cinnamon), Colle Flours (Cauliflower), Aprecock (Apricot), Hunney (Honey), and the list goes on. One of the recipes “To Make An Oyster Pye” calls for “half a hondrard or 3 quarters of a hondred oysters,” while another offers a charming take on Kabob: “To Make a Cabbob,” using leg of mutton. Details>>

A Birds-Eye View of Country Life

Headlain_Manuscript_CookbookAn unusual manuscript giving a bird’s eye view of country life in the late 1800′s, this cookbook bears the inscription of its author, Louise Headlain. The volume contains a wide range of handwritten recipes, all by the same author on lined paper with acknowledgment to original authors included. It features recipes for Pommes au Beurre, Falkland Pudding, Curried Potatoes, Claret Jelly, Brazilian Stew, Raspberry Acid, and two Risotto recipes, (plus many more). The author seems to be well traveled and educated. Laid/pasted in, Temples Black Salve; with “Sarsfield Pharmaceutical – Chemist Durham” stamp on verso. Details>>

A Multigenerational Manuscript

Multigenerational_Manuscript_CookbookA  handwritten, amended family manuscript from the areas around New Westminster, British Columbia to Clackamas Promenade, Oregon- south/east of Portland. It bears the inscription “Eats, Nov. 5, 1913,″ plus a comical drawing of a chef with chef’s hat on free front end paper. “Mrs. J. G. Vasey 1915″ is inscribed on paste down endpaper. (We found a Patent for “Shake Spitting Machines” for a John G. Vasey, Portland, Oreg. 1955). Multiple family members added information over the years: Page 42, “Date-Nut Cake” added in in pencil (“Brady 1923″). Page 31 “Overnight Nut Cookies” has added on top of page – (Gave Mary this recipe on 11-8-87 by phone – L.) Page 76 has a Tamale pie recipe plus a similar recipe written on back of Howard Johnson’s coupon from Clackamas Promenade. It’s altogether a fascinating look into a long family history of cooking and sharing recipes. Details>>

Collage or Culinary Manuscript?

Cookery_Manuscript_MaineThis volume contains a large number of hand written recipes and recipes devotedly pasted in, looking at times, very much like a work of art or collage. From the pasted in recipes, it is clear this author resided in Maine. Blue paper wraps with cream paper. Both wraps and paper seem to be hand cut which may indicate this item was completely homemade. Details>>

Poetry with a Side of Recipes

Manuscript_Recipe_BookMost likely authored during the early twentieth century, this handwritten recipe book commences with a poem “…But where is the man who can live without dining?” Owen Meredith: Lucille. It’s chock full of recipes for bread, cake, ice cream & sherbet, cookies, puddings, supper, and salad. In addition to recipes, it includes instructions for canning, pickles, and meat. The manuscript concludes with home remedies for constipation, croup, weak bladder, and white liniment. Handwriting is unchanging, on lined paper, with acknowledgment to original authors. Details>>

What do YOU think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: