Research, Recipes, and the Transcribathon

By Amy Tigner


Last week, EMROC organized a Transcribathon, in which some 90+ students and scholars in Germany, the UK, Ireland, Canada, the US, and Australia transcribed the 17th century recipe manuscript of Rebeckah Winche, a new acquisition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, over a 12- hour period. We were all connected electronically, communicating which pages we had transcribed and tweeting about interesting discoveries we had made about the manuscript. Though this was a virtual experience globally, it was also brought transcribers together in physical spaces, as in nearly every location students and scholars sat together for this common pursuit.

Being in a room of people transcribing one manuscript is exciting, as we collectively begin to reveal the treasures of the book. I with several other members of EMROC and some of our graduate students sat in the basement board room of the Folger Shakespeare Library transcribing with Folger librarians and other interested paleographers. Througout the day, people would often comment on some strange ingredient or recipe or they had just encountered. And, as the day progressed, more and more scholars and students began to discuss what interested them—what they were in particular trying to find out about this manuscript, about early modern recipes or seventeenth-century culture more generally. What we were experiencing was ground level collaborative research. Our eventual project is to have a searchable database, so that scholars all over the world can do a word search through multiple manuscripts to conduct research. However, building a database takes a great deal time and the colossal effort of many; in the meantime, the transcribathon itself functions a bit like a living, small-scale database.

For example, early on in the transcribathon, Hillary Nunn told me that she was transcribing a recipe for chocolate, or “Chocolet,” as the manuscript spells it. As I have had a long interest tracing in recipes for chocolate as they travel from the Mexico to Spain to England and then back to colonies in the New World, I was very excited to see this recipe. In the seventeenth century, chocolate was something that was a drink rather than something to eat; eating chocolate in solid form in candy or other sweet recipes does not appear until the eighteenth century. Winche’s recipe was interesting, however, because it was not a recipe for a drink per se, but for preparing and storing chocolate that would eventually be ground up into water, milk, or perhaps even wine. According to the recipe, the chocolate would not be fit to use for three months.


Something else interesting in the recipe was the inclusion of seemingly unusual ingredients: ambergris and musk. Both of these were used in perfumes; ambergris comes from the secretion of sperm whales and musk comes from the glandular secretions of musk deer. As strange as it seems, such perfuming of chocolate was not uncommon in the period: recipes both from Earl of Sandwich’s manuscript (c.1668) and from Penelope Jephson’s receipt book, dated 1674, both call for ambergris and Sandwich’s recipe also suggests musk and civit (another perfume from the glandular secretion of the civit cat). Although it seems odd to us to put these exotic perfumes into chocolate, current chocolatiers are also adding seemingly incongruous aromatic ingredients to chocolate: lavender, rose petals, bacon, wasabi, curry powder, and cayenne pepper, to name only a few.

Amy L. Tigner, University of Texas, Arlington