Undergraduate Recipe Research Wins PSU Abington Prize

By Marissa Nicosia

EMROC member Marissa Nicosia was recognized for her teaching and mentorship of undergraduate researchers with the 2018 Abington College Faculty Senate Outstanding Teaching Award. At the Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities poster session her students were awarded the 2018 Blue Ribbon prize for an Arts and Humanities Project and the library’s Information Literacy Award.

Early in the fall 2016 semester, a student approached me after class to ask if I “had an ACURA” project. In the parlance of my home institution, Penn State Abington, “ACURA” is an acronym for the thriving Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities program. This program fosters student and faculty research collaborations that are a hallmark of our small, undergraduate-focused campus. At first I was stumped: I didn’t have an ACURA project planned and the program seemed to be dominated by science and social science research. But I thought about my research process for Cooking in the Archives, the ongoing transcription work of EMROC and Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO), and my colleagues’ stories about working on recipes with undergraduate students in the classroom and beyond. Why couldn’t I run an independent study about recipes that would be useful for students, for me, and for the community at large? I designed and launched a research project entitled “What’s in a Recipe?” which has become a multi-year collaboration with four students.

Here is a link to the syllabus for the 2017-2018 version that I discuss in what follows. At Penn State Abington, this ACURA project counts for one course credit in the fall and two credits in the spring. Students and faculty meet by appointment and projects take radically different shapes depending on the topic and the discipline. I’m planning to redesign this course next year to include more DH instruction through a collaboration with Heather Froehlich and other colleagues at the library.

The first thing I asked students to read was a Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights. We talked about the fact that their labor contributed to an international digital humanities project and that they could (and should) utilize the information that they were generating for their own scholarly pursuits. Then we spent the fall semester reading crucial background articles and a recipe manuscript from the Folger Shakespeare Library collections. Over the past two years we have worked on two seventeenth-century manuscripts of medical and culinary receipts owned and compiled by gentlewomen named, respectively, Margaret Baker and Mrs. Corlyon. Although this might seem like a straightforward activity, as EMROC readers likely know, seventeenth-century handwriting is far more difficult to decipher than modern cursive. After accessing online resources on paleography—the study of historical handwriting—students worked with me and with one another to master the handwriting in the manuscript and type up transcriptions of large sections of the book. In addition to participating in the transcription project and learning about recipe books in general, during the spring semester each student also developed a personal research project. The readings for the second half of the course are tailored to what students were curious about at the end of the fall semester. Students have tested recipes for healthful foods and cosmetics, investigated perfumed gloves and humoral theories of sleep, and considered Baker’s self-fashioning as a healer and collector in her manuscript. You can read what they have to say about their experiences here and here.

I’m pleased that ACURA funding supported a trip from Philadelphia to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC each year so that the students could consult the original manuscript that they had been working with, see other recipe books for comparison, and discuss their research topics with curators and scholars at the library. Turning the pages of the manuscript that they had scrutinized and deciphered online was simply electrifying. Students reported that this experience of handling rare materials and engaging with the broader scholarly community was equal parts transformative and informative.

Working with students on this shared project has forced me to ask questions about recipes that I would never have asked if I had simply continued my research alone. Since my research is focused on food – specifically, recipes for dishes that sounds so tasty that I want to recreate them in my kitchen – I often skim over the recipes for plague water, face cream, salves, perfumes, and restorative broths that fill early modern recipe manuscripts. But my students were curious about these recipes, and drawn in by their questions I became more curious, too. I tried one of Margaret Baker’s possets and I’m planning to make some “sweet bags” of potpourri when the weather turns cooler. As I continue to research manuscript recipes, I’m excited to work alongside my students and see where both my interests lead them and their interests lead me.

“How to make a Mortres good to geue to those​ that be weake.”

As an English major with a passion for cooking, who has worked in restaurants for the past five years, studying this topic interested me instantaneously. I quickly joined Dr. Nicosia’s “What’s in a Recipe?” undergraduate research independent study. We transcribed and researched Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe book from the late 17th century. Excited to cook hundreds-of-years old recipes, possessing the perfect job to fulfill that excitement. Upon joining the project, I asked all my coworkers if they would be interested in trying some of the food I made, with a nearly unanimous willingness. I was ready to cook. I transcribed recipes, hunting for pages that interested me, until I stumbled upon “How to make a Mortres good to geue to those​ that be weake.”

How to make a Mortres good to geue to those​

that be weake​

Take the brawne of a colde Capon or Henn, that hath

been rosted, shridd it very smale, all sauinge the Skinne,

then take a quarter of a Pounde of Almondes, beynge blanched,

grinde them in a Morter very smale, wi​th​ a litle Sacke, if

the partyes stomake be colde, or else wi​th​ white wine, so much

as will serue to make them a litle moiste, and no more, then

putt your meate to them, and so grinde them very smale togea=

ther, then putt thereto the yeolkes of two egges, and 3. or 4.

spoonefulles of redd Rose water, and when you haue tempered

them well togeather, drive it throughe a strayner, then sett

it vppon a chafingdishe of coales, and season it wi​th​ Salte,

and if the partyes stomake be coulde, putt thereto a litle

Sinamonde and Ginger, and so much Sugar, as will make

it pleasant, but if the party be hott, putt onlye Sugar

to it, and so boile it, vntill it be come to be as thicke as

Almonde butter, then geue the party thereof, this will keepe

good three dayes.

The first question that arose was about the word “brawne.” After a quick search on Oxford English Dictionary, I found the word to mean “brain,” usually, however, of a human. I soon after warned my coworkers that they may be agreeing to try highly outlandish ingredients, things that most people do not eat, resulting in mixed feelings. Some grew squeamish at the thought of eating a brain, while others, like myself, became excited, willing to “try anything once.” I scoured the area around me for a week, searching for live-kill poultry shops, butcher shops, delis, and the like, but to no avail; at best, some said “Come in later this week, I might have some,” at worst, a man said in disgusted disdain “Chicken what?! I’ve never heard of using that before.” I was losing hope, unable to find a definite chicken-head-supplier for my mortress. I visited my project advisor, Dr. Marissa Nicosia, to ask for some guidance. Her first step was re-checking OED, which yielded the second definition of “brawne,” which I had not noticed: the body, the meat, the bulk of something. After a swift slap to my head, I laughed, both disappointed and relieved, quick to roast a chicken with my job’s rotisserie, and make the recipe I had been stressed about for a week.

The use of humoral theory is highly significant in this recipe and the act of cooking it. Humoral theory allows for two interpretations of the recipe, two different dishes. It shows people’s dependence on the nuances of recipes, not simply for nutrition, but health. The dish made with red wine for the person with a colder stomach had deeper undertones and aromas, and was consistently rated slightly lower by my coworkers, while the white wine dish was simpler and sharper, and rated slightly higher. Once the chicken was mixed with the almonds, it became extremely doughy, dry, and sticky, so I added more a few more tablespoons of rose water, loosening it and allowing it to have softer formations. Both dishes ended up bland and in need of salt, which was available to and used by all coworkers who tried them.

Roast a chicken.

  1. Season raw with salt and pepper
  2. Place covered in a baking pan for 70 minutes in a 350° F oven, or until the bird’s internal temperature is 185° F.
  1. While the chicken cooks, grind ¼ lb. almonds in a mortar and pestle.
    1. Separate the ¼ lb. into halves, making two piles of ⅛ lb. almonds.
    2. Mix one pile with one tbsp. of red wine, the other with one tbsp of white wine.
      1. If this does not make the almonds paste-like, add more wine.
  2. After cooking, shred the chicken finely, discarding of the skin, bones, and cartilage.
  3. Mix half of the shredded chicken with the red wine almonds, and the other half with the white wine almonds until they are the consistency of dough.
  4. Combine one egg yolk to each pile.
  5. Combine two tbsp. rose water to each pile.
  6. Lightly salt both piles
  7. Add cinnamon, chopped ginger, and sugar to the red wine pile, and only sugar to the white wine pile                                                         .
  8. One may make this dough into any shape preferred—ball, patty, specific shapes—and heat in a pan with a little butter or a fryer.
    1. Since it is already cooked, this heating should be done purely for warmth and not for actual cooking.             

Every person scored every dish in looks, smell, taste, texture, and overall from one to five. The averages were all similar, between high three’s and low four’s for most categories, but the cold stomach’s dish consistently scored lower by less than a full point in every category other than looks, which were equal. When Joie, the shift manager of that night, tasted the cold stomach’s dish, she took an unimaginably slow bite, with her nose subsequently scrunched in near-disgust, eyebrows scowling. Let us remember Walkden’s bonny-clabber, and the “hard-wired” “disgust that feels instinctive.” After registering the actual flavors, her eyebrows perked, eyes widened, face brightened, in shock of the tolerable flavors presented to her. Nobody expected this to be edible, let alone enjoyable. A fellow line-cook, Stephen, genuinely enjoyed it, asking if he could take some home so his wife could try some. He offered no negative comments toward the dish, enjoying both the historical and culinary aspects of it. Everyone who tasted was highly interested in trying food from hundreds of years ago, with not a single negative, unfavorable experience on the whole.

Eric Seamans, a student of Marissa Nicosia at Pennsylvania State University, Abington College