On a standard weekday morning, I pull myself out of bed at 8:45 AM and drive to my local coffee shop: The Daily Grind. I wait in line, swipe my credit card, and receive my grandee vanilla almond milk latte with one pump of vanilla and an everything bagel with vegan cream cheese. Unlike a breakfast in the mid 1600’s, my modern breakfast is quick and easy to obtain, and I take every notion of its simplicity for granted. Today, breakfast is mainstream, easily procured, sourced from around the world and shared with people of all cultures and traditions. Globalization of products, social media and other mediums of communication have allowed for Japanese, Dutch, English, French, Italian, South American, and numerous other breakfast styles to coexist and create a fusion of elements within countries that would’ve never seen such breakfast diversity otherwise.
I began a project last fall concerning a seventeenth century recipe book kept by a woman named Margarett Baker. Through transcription of her book, I discovered numerous social and economic implications behind the practice of recipe keeping and the recipes themselves. After investigation into the scholarship surrounding the significance of early modern recipe books, my collaborator, Marissa Nicosia, and I put together a paper focusing on medicinal recipes in Baker’s book. However, the methods of analysis of these medicinal recipes are easily translatable to culinary recipes. So, my question is, what does an early modern breakfast recipe say? Let’s take a step back to the seventeenth century version of breakfast creation and globalization – a time when trade was thriving, wealth in England was accumulating, and women were beginning to find their purpose and independence through recipe creating and keeping.
The West Indies sugar trade distributed and maintained by the Dutch East India Trade Company and innumerable other raw goods increased commerce, which allowed for the rise in wealth of the middle and upper classes – this afforded leniency in the use of ingredients that were at first exclusively for the taste of the super elite. In Eating Right in the Renaissance, Ken Albala notes that “diet became one of the most powerful delineators of class” (185). People’s culinary tastes indicated the complexities of their social standing. It is interesting that for us, breakfast is a delicious meal that allows us to communicate and express our aesthetics and tastes with a wide audience via Instagram pictures and blog posts – for the seventeenth century Englishman (or rather more applicably, Englishwoman), it was a curated and intricate portrait of one’s affluence and relevance. The seventeenth century was a time of great “social mobility”, which made the desire to create some sort of order and stratification exponentially stronger; this order was largely imparted by food.
By the seventeenth century, breakfast foods consisted of mostly savory items, save the largely popular fruit preserve trend, thanks to the West Indies sugar. Luckily, we still get to enjoy the various modern offspring of the original jams and marmalades. Fresh meats were exclusively for the wealthy, who did not need to conserve money and salt or cure their meats to increase shelf life. The criteria for what foods were suitable for the privileged were quite strange: as Albala writes, “salted beef, ham, and ‘resty bacon’ are best left to rustical stomachs” and “plants [vegetables] were often assigned social meaning according to their morphology and proximity to earth” (194). Those plants that did not see enough of the sun or grew too close to the ground were deemed suitable for peasants, while fruits and grains that grew far above the soil were fit for the crème de la crème.
Women gained their footing in this period by keeping recipe books; as women were largely told their place was in the house, and most importantly, the kitchen, they took their place and held it well. The increase in the social importance of food allowed the early modern woman to dictate her place in the house via her culinary and medicinal skills (the early modern kitchen is often referred to as the first laboratory). Women perfected their breakfast, and general culinary skills, in the kitchen, and presented their dishes with pride and grace that allowed them to obtain male-like importance and credibility. Women as scientists in the kitchen fforded their connection to strictly male professions of chemistry and science. As breakfast became more socially important, women were able to not only make this food for their families and guests, but gift fine culinary creations to their other female friends. This luxury good gifting paved the way for strong female bonds and gave women a significant purpose and place in the seventeenth century household.
Breakfast for early modern Englishmen and women was so much more than an emblem of wealth; women were using recipe keeping as a method of progressing social feminism. They were simultaneously affirming their class status while staking out their role in a domestic environment. Women like Margarett Baker were bolstering the free market through the use of certain ingredients as well as exercising personal creativity and claiming a professional role in the kitchen As trends changed and global influences entered, affluent women created a fusion of contemporary culinary practices, female independence, and great recipe innovation. The experiences of these early modern women and their breakfast recipes has led us to the beautiful world of global breakfast we have today. So next time you grab your early morning bagel, mid-morning Japanese breakfast tofu, or leisurely morning full English breakfast, think about the hard and revolutionary work women were doing in the early modern kitchen that came, globally, full circle to give you the next trendy post for your Instagram feed – and hopefully, you’ll be able to greater appreciate the feminist commentary from the most important meal of the day.
Rachael Shulman with Marissa Nicosia, Penn State University