Foalefoote: Defining Ingredients Contextually

Written by Tristan McGuin

It is frequent when transcribing and analyzing older recipes that we come across a word that we do not readily recognize. Whether it be a word that is no longer used frequently, or a word that we know but appears to be used in a seemingly bizarre sense, it is important that we find a solution to the word in order to better understand the recipes and their historical framework that helped construct them. On top of this, some words have multiple definitions and it takes contextual understanding of a recipe to figure out the appropriate definition for the word. Luckily, with continually developing advances in technology, we have many online databases available to us to begin our journey into learning more about specific ingredients.

Such an instance of confusion appears early on in the transcription of Mistress Corlyon’s “A Syropp for the Coughe of the Lounges.” Corlyon’s syrup calls for many different ingredients stating, “of Scabies, three good handfulles, and halfe so much of Foalefoote, and the like quantity of Sinicle, the like of Pennyroyall” (Corlyon, fol. 169). One’s first thought is likely some variation of the question, ‘what are all of these ingredients exactly?’ We surely do not use scabies, foalefoote, sinicle or pennyroyall in modern recipes. Or do we? Let’s take a look at foalefoote.

The first step we need to take in unfolding the mystery of this ingredient would be to look up the definition of the word since we are not readily familiar with it. Often, a simple Google search is not helpful enough as Google has a tendency to show us search results for current, contemporary versions of the words. This is where we can turn to incredibly detailed databases such as the Oxford English Dictionary online to provide further insight. Running the word ‘foalefoote’ through the OED turns up no specific results. However, ‘foalfoot’—for which foalefoote is an obvious variant spelling—turns up three different definitions. Here is where it becomes incredibly important that the reader has a genuine understanding of the context and other details of the recipe in order to begin narrowing down which definition could be the correct one. To begin, because we know Corlyon’s works were published in the 1600’s, we must look for definitions that fit this timeline before moving any further. The very first definition provided fitting this criteria is “coltsfoot, n.” (foalfoot, n.1.) first used in a1400 and the second is “asarabacca, n.” (foalfoot, n.2.) first used in 1538. Obviously, we must dive even deeper as these words still appear foreign and don’t quite give us the answer we are looking for yet.

Upon clicking the links provided for these definitional words, we find even more definitions. We see that asarabacca is a plant, “sometimes called Hazelwort, used formerly as a purgative and emetic, and still as an ingredient of cephalic snuff.” (asarabacca, n.1.) This is interesting because the definition provided clearly states that this is an ingredient for medicines. However, it is used in medicines that are laxatives or that cause vomiting. We can likely already eliminate this as the contextual definition for Corlyon’s syrups as we should know just from reading her recipe that this is a recipe to aid in respiratory issues and not digestive ones.

Asarabacca (left, also known as Hazelwort) and Coltsfoot (right, also known as Tussilago).

Now to look into ‘coltsfoot’ where we can find three additional definitions. The first matching our criteria states that coltsfoot is “a common weed in waste or clayey ground” (coltsfoot n.1.) with leaves and yellow flowers. The second definition tells us that it is “Applied to other plants allied to the preceding, e.g. fragrant coltsfoot n.,  sweet coltsfoot Nardosmia (Petasites) fragrans and palmata. or resembling it in leaf, etc.” (coltsfoot, n.2.). It appears we have hit a dead end in our search. But we have actually failed to look into coltsfoot enough.

Under the first definition of coltsfoot we can find two subdefinitions of n.1. that state the leaves can be smoked or infused as a cure for asthma. Knowing that asthma is a respiratory issue, we can piece together that this is likely what Corlyon used for her respiratory medicine. Eureka! We have found what we are looking for! With this definition, we can return to other general search engines to find further contemporary details on this plant, leading us to a final and deeper understanding of foalfoot as an ingredient in Corlyon’s syrups.


“asarabacca, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2017.
“coltsfoot, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2017.
“coltsfoot, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2017.
Corlyon, Mrs. “A booke of such medicines as have been approved by the speciall practize”         of Mrs. Corlyon [manuscript]. Ca. 1660. Folger MS V.a.388.
“foalfoot, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2017.
“foalfoot, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2017.
Photo 1: N.d. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 10 May 2017        <>.
Photo 2: N.d. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 10 May 2017.<>

Tristan McGuin is a student at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she conducted this research as an assignment in the course “Digital Research Methods with Historical Recipes,” taught by Rebecca Laroche.