What is a Recipe? DH@Guelph Summer Workshop 2017

Workshop Participants from the DH@Guelph Summer Workshop 2017: Making Manuscripts Digital are taking part of the Recipe Projects 2-month long online conversation/conference about “What is a Recipe.”

Madeline Bassnett who teaches at U. Western Onario wrote:

What a recipe is depends on how you interact with it. In my “Early Modern Food from Shakespeare to Milton” grad class, we approach recipes as texts and as things to be made, discovering in the process how our understanding of recipes depends in part on whether we teach, read, or cook them. As a teacher, I’m often concerned with helping students approach the printed or manuscript book as a whole. One of the first questions I ask my students is “what are your reading strategies for these multidimensional texts”? We think about recipe organization and genre (cookery, medicinal, household, distillation, etc.), about juxtapositions between recipes, about paratextual components such as prefaces, marginalia, and frontispieces. The sense of the whole leads us into a contemplation of parts: we hone in on one or two recipes for a close reading experience. Here, we engage in a more philosophical discussion, considering such topics as violence in the kitchen, the relationship between bodily care and the social body, the concepts of judgement, skill, and knowledge. But while these literary musings are theoretically fruitful, it’s the cooking of recipes that brings theory together with practice, and gets students to think about the recipe less as a textual artefact and more as a vital and often perplexing communication. I assess the cooking assignment through a reflection paper rather than through the success or failure of the student’s dish, and students invariably comment on the struggle to find ingredients, interpret measurements, and imagine results. Because cooking gives us a hands-on relationship with the past, it’s at this stage that students comprehend not only the otherness of the early modern period, but also the way that a recipe is a performance, allowing the past to speak to and act in the present.

Whitney Thompson and Hillary Nunn, meanwhile, decided to test the manuscript’s strange adjustments to egg numbers. Several recipes showed significant changes in the egg count, and that inspired their cooking experiment with Orange Pudding, chronicled on Twitter.


They decided to cook the recipe both ways, with Hillary making the 6-egg version and Whitney committing to the 24.

Both versions worked, but they made drastically different products:

These drastic differences made us ask not just “What is a Recipe?” but also “What is a pudding?” and, most of all, “What is an egg?” As our Twitter conversation (viewable via Storify at https://storify.com/nunnhill/eggperiments-in-orange-pudding ) made clear, eggs have grown in the centuries since this book was abandoned. But did they shrink during the time it was in use? Why so many more eggs in the revised version? Did something in the supply change, suggesting the book’s owner moved? We’re still not sure, but we know that our modern overconfidence about egg size has much to do with our discomfort.

Kathryn Harvey of the University of Guelph Library wrote:

For the past 6 or so years, my job has primarily involved administration, so I found it a real luxury recently to delve unapologetically for a week into the world of manuscript receipt books during a digital humanities workshop at my university on “Making Manuscripts Digital: The Transcribathon Approach.” Led by Hillary Nunn (U of Akron) and Amy Tigner (U of Texas Arlington), workshop participants raised many questions as we worked our way through pages of recipes from a handwritten manuscript dating from the 1750s. How many authors did it have given all the different hands? Why were some recipes amended—some by the same hand and others by different hands, suggesting perhaps changes made by other cooks after trying the recipe?

How does a manuscript evolve when passed from hand to hand or down through the generations?

It is this latter question which made me recall a manuscript receipt book donated a few years back to the University of Guelph’s Archival and Special Collections. Begun in Glasgow in 1822 and added to until the 1920s. Although begun in Scotland, it migrated to Canada with the family, and it is the evolution of this book that interests me most. One owner of the book in the early 1900s clearly had an interest in wedding cakes—pictures as well as recipes—evidenced by all the newspaper clippings pasted on top of beautifully scripted recipes.

Why paste them over the recipes when there were so many blank pages that could have been used? Then later, in the 1920s The manuscript also gives evidence of a wide range of interpretations of what a recipe is. Visible early entries tend to provide both ingredient lists as well as some type of instruction, as in the recipe for Albert Cakes; however, later recipes apparently added in the 1920s provide only lists of ingredients and possibly some commentary (e.g., “all right” as seen in this last image, a recipe for Vanilla Bars). A paleological “excavation” of this intriguing manuscript using multi-spectral imaging would no doubt peel back the various layers and raise even more questions about what is a recipe?


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