A Recipe is a Tasty History Lesson: #recipesconf


The #recipesconf asks the question “What is a Recipe?”. To me, a recipe is a tasty way to explore history. Open-hearth craft cooking demonstrations remain popular. The sights, smells and constant movement of a cooking demonstration keeps the visitors’ interest for quite long periods.  I am an open-hearth demonstrator, and a historian, though not all demonstrators are both. I would like to offer a way of approaching the many kinds of historical topics that intersect in the recipes, foods and foodways we portray in our demonstrations that can provide discussion topics with the visitors who choose to stay for extended periods. Research about the book the recipe came from, the author of the book, the ingredients in the recipe, the cooking technology described in the recipe, and how the recipe would have been served, can provide information we can use to turn a cooking demonstration into a complex history lesson for our visitors—and ourselves. “Localizing” a recipe with information about how the local area cooks might have worked with the recipe makes the demonstration more valuable to the site at which we demonstrate. The more information we can bring to our craft, the more interesting our presentations become.

To walk through an example of the information that can be gathered by research about a recipe, I want to look at the first Gingerbread Recipe on page 175 of The Compleat Housewife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by E. Smith, Printed for R. Ware, T. Longman, S. Birt, C. Hitch, J. Hodges, J&J Rivington, J. Ward, W. Johnston & M. Cooper; London, 1753.[i]

To Make Gingerbread

Take a pound and half of treacle, two eggs beaten, half a pound of brown sugar, one ounce of ginger beaten and sifted, 3 of cloves, mace and nutmegs all together half an ounce, beaten very fine, coriander-seeds and carrraway-seeds of each half an ounce, two pounds of butter melted; mix all these together, with as much flour as will knead it into a pretty stiff paste; then roll it out, and cut it into what form you please; bake it in a quick oven on tin-plates; a little time will bake it.


Examination of the recipe starts with examining the book itself. This is a printed cookbook, not a handwritten (manuscript) cookbook. It was published in London. The introduction to Smith’s book indicates she is not writing to teach a cook how to cook for the King, or a fine house. Rather, she offers help to the mistresses of the English Country Estates 18th Century. [ii] Smith includes recipes for medicines in her book, with the expressed hope that “…Gentlewomen, who have a disposition to be serviceable to their poor Country Neighbours,…”[iii] would use her book. Smith’s audience was well-to-do women, who may not have been the ones doing the actual cooking, but rather directing the servants doing the cooking. That would help explain why her book contains diagrams for great table layouts for special occasions. These table settings may not have been the daily norm for this level of gentry. If they were to give a great entertainment, they would need help knowing the most current way to set dishes on a table. Smith says: “I have likewise presented you with Schemes…for the regular Disposition or Placing of the Dishes of Provision on the Table, according to the best manner….”[iv] Smith’s book was not the cheapest cookbook around at the time. “People did not buy The Compleat Housewife because it was cheap, but because it offered the features they were looking for.”[v] We have a plethora of recipes available to us on the Web now. In the world of the 18th Century, there were different recipes available also. Comparison among recipe books can add interest. There are “Gingerbread” recipes that contain black pepper, for example.

A closer look at the at the ingredients in the recipe gives us more history to enliven our presentation. The recipe starts with “Take a pound and a half of treacle…” Treacle is the British word for a molasses that is a made during the sugar refining process. The kind of molasses you choose to use in cooking the recipe is a starting point to discuss the sugar refining process. During the 1700’s, most sugar used was imported from the West Indies, and was produced by enslaved persons. This information opens the opportunity to discuss of the role of enslaved persons in food production and consumption throughout the Empire. The English had the worst sweet tooth in the world, so sugar produced by the enslaved workers an important ingredient in their daily lives.

Several spices are listed in the ingredients. At the time of the publication of the cookery book, these spices had become increasingly inexpensive. “Coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco and a number of spices became commonplace during the eighteenth century, often reaching the tables of even the poorest and remotest Britons.”[vi] Spices, like sugar, were important trade items in the British Empire. Most grocers offered spices for sale.[vii] Discussion of local trade networks, the history of local grocers or local travelling peddlers can localize the cooking demonstration to the area. Spice use may give an opportunity to discuss regional variations in cooking, some of which continue to guide our regional cuisines.

Flour is another major ingredient in our recipe. To focus more on the venue where the demonstration is set, find out if wheat was grown locally or was it imported? If it was grown at the location, who in the household was responsible for getting the wheat milled into flour? If it was a purchased staple, who was responsible for the purchase? Was it purchased at a local market, or ordered by the barrel? If it was imported, how was it transported to the locale? Was the woman of the house the one who purchased it? Women became increasingly important as consumers in the Empire during the 18th Century. The consumer boycotts of the American Revolutionary era asked women to participate in a political act through their lack of shopping.[viii] This has been seen as a first step to female participation in political activities in the American Colonies.[ix] Understanding the consumer role of women is a way to introduce several pertinent areas of women’s history into the cooking demonstration.

Even the butter called for in the recipe gives us the opportunity to intersect with a different area of history: agricultural history. In the region where you are working with this recipe, what kind of dairy cattle were popular? Were farmers producing butter specifically for marketing, or only for self-sufficiency? I work mostly within the 1700’s, and livestock keeping techniques were changing during the 18th Century, as more scientific methods were introduced that lead to increasing production. New cropping patterns introduced large quantities of root crops and more effective winter feeding techniques for newly developed breeds of cattle like the Milking Shorthorn.[x] These changes increased available supplies for town dwellers who purchased butter.

Smith instructs to bake these gingerbreads in a quick oven. What kind of oven was used in your demonstration area? In the Virginia Tidewater where I usually work, “Dutch ovens” were more common that brick ovens for individual households. Dutch ovens require a different management technique than larger brick ovens, which influences how the cook would prioritize work flow. Both kinds of oven required wood for fuel, which opens the potential to discuss more land use and resource management topics with visitors. Tobacco exhausted the soil rapidly in the Tidewater, and new fields needed to be cleared to continue its cultivation. On tobacco plantations, that would mean that wood was plentiful for cooking. However, if wood needed to be purchased (ie in an urban household), from whom was it purchased? In some urban areas, individuals could pay to use the local baker’s oven. Was this available in your area? How would that effect the work patterns in the kitchen?

Gingerbread was a common and often served sweet in the 18th Century. E. Smith’s book boasts several different recipes for gingerbread. Gingerbread was sold on the streets of London, and at Fairs.[xi] Gingerbread could be dressed up by molding and gilding it to make a much costlier confection, but our recipe is for the more common gingerbread. Serving an ungilded sweet cake like gingerbread would not have been a showpiece at a meal. Food and food service demonstrated the host’s aspirations in the 18th Century by showing off his desired social standing and his understanding of fashionable tastes.[xii] By the late 18th Century, even the English poor spent on luxury goods such as sugar, spices and coffee sold throughout the British Empire.[xiii] So unlike earlier time periods when spices were rare and costly, serving a spiced cake may not have aided any social climbing desires simply because of the use or cost of the spices in the cake.

An interesting concept to explore with guests poses gingerbread as a comfort food. Narratives and fiction have characters comforting children with pieces of gingerbread, implying that all children appreciate the sweet cake. Did gingerbread calm children, or did the English associate festivities like fairs with eating gingerbread? The gingerbread offered to children could be a way to encourage the memories of the festivities, making gingerbread a comfort food. Asking guests to share about their comfort foods involves them in the demonstration.

Encouraging comparison between the historic recipe and favorite recipes of today is another way to involve the visitor in the demonstration. Obviously most gingerbread today is not baked in an open hearth! So bring up the differences in the visitor’s recipes. It may be ingredients, mixing methods (using a big electric mixer today versus the traditional wooden spoon), or why the visitors might serve gingerbread today. These kinds of questions serve to increase visitor involvement in the demonstration.

This is not an exhaustive analysis of all the different areas of history that can be integrated into an open-hearth cooking demonstration. Rather this is just a starting point to explore the history that is tied up in cooking. Cooking is not just a craft demonstration. It is a tasty lesson in history.


[i] E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife:  Or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, 15th edition original,  Facsimile edition by Literary Services and Production Limited, London, 1968 (London: R. Ware, T. Longman, S.Birt, C. Hitch, J. Hodges, J. & J. Rivington, J. Ward, W. Johnston, & M. Cooper., 1753).

[ii] Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Tast in England and France from the Middle Agges to the Present (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc, 1985), 95.

[iii] E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife:  Or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Lehman, Gilly, The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Trowbridge, Wiltshire, UK: Cromwell Press, 2003), 99.

[vi] Troy Bickham, “Eating the Empire: Intersections of Food, Cookery and Imperialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Past & Present, no. 198 (2008): 73.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Cynthia A. Kierner, Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1835 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), 75.

[ix] Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 8.

[x] “Shorthorn | Breed of Cattle | Britannica.com,” accessed May 18, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/animal/Shorthorn.

[xi] “Gingerbread | 18th Century Notebook,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://www.larsdatter.com/18c/gingerbread.html.

[xii] Lehman, Gilly, The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain, 378.

[xiii] Bickham, “Eating the Empire: Intersections of Food, Cookery and Imperialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” 76.

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