This Rough Magic

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"Cooking in the Archives:
A Roundup of Resources and a Review of Cooking in the Archives"

by Dr. Colleen Kennedy, archivist at Iowa City Public Library

(December 2018 Issue / PDF)

Studying historical recipes in the pre-modern classroom allows for a wealth of experiential discovery for various reasons. First, recipes are short documents, allowing for beginning paleography transcriptions with students when using manuscript recipes. Also, printed recipe books allow for opportunities to discuss some of the prevailing issues of the history of the book, such as authorship and publication (for example, the widow Hannah Woolsey and her male publishers) histories, variations in editions, and pirated texts and stolen recipes. If able to work with archival materials, we may also consider the ownership and uses of the book as many recipe books contain marginalia and notes written throughout indicating ownership, preferred recipes, family trees, price and grocery lists, and other domestic notes.

As texts, we can discuss the conventions of the formula of the recipe (i.e. list of ingredients, amounts of ingredients, order of combination, timing, etc.) that is retained over centuries as well as the gaps, fissures, and changes from earlier centuries to now. Asking students to analyze, paraphrase, or update recipes, they may need to do research in the Oxford English Dictionary, dietaries, herbals, and other early modern encyclopedic texts to better understand unfamiliar terms, as well as the sociocultural contexts and historical significance and uses of particular ingredients. For example, students may wish to learn more about the humoral composition of particular ingredients or the curative properties of particular herbs. Students may read and compare several printed or manuscript recipe collections to see continuity of ingredients or variances based on availability, cost, personal or regional preferences, and/or other factors. In the classroom, studying recipes allows for discussions of gendered roles, domestic economies, philosophies about food and diets, and other cultural practices. Finally, asking students to reconstruct a historical recipe moves from the analytical and theoretical to praxis.

There are many wonderful and accessible sources to allow instructors of medieval and early modern history, literature, and culture to incorporate the study of historical recipes as part of their curriculum. Below, I survey a few particular pedagogically focused online projects before turning our attention to Cooking in the Archives.

The scholarly collective The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science and Medicine, offers short blog posts about medicinal, cosmetic, ritualistic, and other historical recipes in addition to culinary techniques. (Disclaimer: I am a collaborator for The Recipes Project, usually writing about perfumes or recipes mentioned in Renaissance literature.) With a broad historical and geographical range and diverse scholarly interests, methodologies, approaches, and applications, The Recipes Project appeals to a wide readership for those interested more generally in cultural histories, as well as to those scholars deeply invested in a microhistoric approach. There is an annual “Teaching Series” each September in which scholars offer reflections on teaching early recipes in the college classroom, and offer a variety of practical strategies, tools, and resources. The site also publishes work by graduate and undergraduate students taking courses with a focus on early food history.

EMROC, the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, is a gathering of early modern scholars who write about the transcription and recreation of early modern recipes, holding an annual “transcribathon” each autumn on a selected Renaissance recipe book. This site also includes a score of syllabi devoted to early modern material culture. The University of Iowa has an ongoing DIY History project, including a crowdsourced effort to transcribe the manuscript recipe books of the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks. While most of the books have been fully transcribed, there are still several hundred pages needing transcription. There are also occasional recipe and pedagogy reflections on The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger.

The above projects highlight the highly collaborative nature of early modern recipe studies, the use of digital tools to make early materials and unfamiliar handwriting more accessible, and the focus on experiential learning to teach early modern cultural studies. Most of the above projects, too, have a consistent social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram. We see many of the same scholars--Amanda E. Herbert, Lisa Smith, Amy Tigner, Rebecca Laroche, Hillary Nunn, Elaine Long, among others--cross-pollinating across these and other websites, sharing their research and teaching with early modern recipes, collaborating with each other on publications, projects, and conferences, and co-teaching courses together from afar. One of these recurring scholars is Marissa Nicosia, an Assistant Professor of Renaissance literature in the English Department at Pennsylvania State Abington.

Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, a project co-founded with Alyssa Connell in 2014, is Marissa Nicosia’s contribution to the growing corpus of popular scholarship and pedagogics of early modern recipe instructions. A Washington Post article published mere months after the launch of the project, lauded their work: “The posts are chatty and informative and fall on just the right side of utter nerdiness.” Indeed, Cooking in the Archives is an exceptionally attractive website. Almost all blog posts are arranged in the same “script”: a short introduction or commentary, “The Recipe,” “Our Recipe,” and “Results” (“To Make bisket”). Her guiding principle for the project is this question: “After all, what are recipes if not instructions for cooking?” Recipes, Nicosia implies, are inherently educational and her project indicates her own research into each recipe, her ability to transcribe the recipes for a modern and broad readership, and her thinking through the pedagogical implications of teaching with recipes.

In these introductions, which usually run 2-3 paragraphs long, Nicosia may muse on current farmers’ market offerings, her own herb garden, seasonal changes, the holidays, or the culinary preferences of loved ones. As with many contemporary online recipe blogs, the tone is warm, engaging, and personal; unlike contemporary blogs, however, she often addresses her “dear readers” and interweaves references to her own research and teaching, such as preparing for a conference or a trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library. There are snippets of academic approaches woven into her light prose to discuss book history, such as various handwriting styles and paleography, the history of women written and owned texts passed throughout generations. There are brief discussions of the medicinal and curative properties of the ingredients, and other historical tidbits throughout these introductions. In the introductions, Nicosia credits her recipe sources, most often, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. We learn which manuscripts Nicosia returns to most often and which are her favorite recipes. That is, depending on Nicosia’s preferences and the conditions of the recipe, Nicosia’s introductions may be more reflective, informal, or academic, but they are always brief, astute, and captivating.

For “The Recipe,” Nicosia provides an image of the manuscript recipe and her accompanying transcription, retaining original spelling and punctuation. In “Our Recipe,” Nicosia offers much fuller instructions than in early modern recipes with exacting measurements, oven temperatures, cooking times, and ordered steps for the process. For those of us who reconstruct early modern recipes, one or more of the above essential information for most modern cooks is usually missing from earlier receipt books. As Connell and Nicosia described in the Archive Journal, “For our project, ‘updating’ culinary instructions from early modernity means making them legible, available, and recognizable to modern readers and cooks.” (Connell and Nicosia “Notes”). Each post ends with “Results,” which usually takes the form of a brief culinary review of the meal, including flavor, color, consistency, and smells. In “Results,” Nicosia may also reflect upon variants and alterations to the recipe (for example, adjustments for vegetarians or comparing modern and early modern ingredients). The mouthwatering and Instagram-worthy photographs (@Rare_Cooking) are taken by Nicosia, and occasionally Carly Storm, whom Nicosia credits with teaching her to best stage shots to counter the effect of “a lot of beige food,” (“Carrot puff”) on iPhone 5 and a point and shoot camera (Canon Powershot Elph115 IS).

Not only does Cooking in the Archives provide clear recipes and interesting essays, but several of her posts more explicitly discuss her process of recipe reconstruction or her discoveries while teaching with recipes. Her project serves appeals to a broad readership of cooks and historians, but is also incredibly friendly for instructors hoping to incorporate recipe projects, paleography, and domestic cultural history into their classrooms. She explained to me that she “bring[s] recipe transcription into most of my advanced undergraduate classes as an in-class activity.” In “Cooking Almond Jumballs at the Folger Shakespeare Library,” Nicosia provides a mini-lesson on paleography, comparing and contrasting secretary and italic hands for her readers. Likewise, she states that she often uses the manuscript recipe “To presarue Aprecokes” in her classes to teach students about non-standard spelling, early modern handwriting, and transcription. Nicosia offers more about her teaching of early modern recipes in a “Teaching Recipes” tab on Cooking in the Archives. Here we may see the syllabus for her two-semester long undergraduate course “What’s in a Recipe?” She reflects upon the course and her students’ emerging interests in non-food recipes in an accompanying essay for EMROC. As she explained in her recent email exchange, she has “revamped” and “will relaunch the course” in 2019, with former students acting as research mentors and giving guest lectures, and in the collaborative spirit of early modern recipe collectives, she will be working more closely with Heather Froehlich (UPark library) and Christina Riehman-Murphy (Abington) in the Penn State University libraries system to more openly teach information literacy and digital humanities approaches.

Although Nicosia’s traditional publications and book project focus on seventeenth-century historical drama, she explained in an email interview that her second book project will be about “about food, literature, and the early modern seasons that is tentatively titled Seasonal Tastes: English Literary and Recipe Culture, 1550-1750. This project grows out of my interest in temporality (in my history play book manuscript) and taste (in my Cooking in the Archives work). This project joins the interdisciplinary conversations happening in environmental studies by examining seasons, climate, and changing weather patterns in works that are conventionally seen as literary and works that are normally categorized as practical.” She has other publications that draw upon her Cooking in the Archives project from an essay on Milton’s banana and colonial foodstuffs in Paradise Lost; she will provide updated historical recipes for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas exhibit (Jan 19 – Mar 31, 2019); she is preparing five updated recipes with commentary for an issue of The Early Modern Studies Journal (forthcoming).

Works Cited

Connell, Alyssa, and Marissa Nicosia.  “Notes: Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen,” Archive Journal July 2015,

--. Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, 16 November 2018.

Kaplan, Sarah. “How two bloggers re-purpose centuries-old recipes for modern cooks.” The Washington Post, 29 December 2014,

Laroche, Rebecca, Elaine Leong, Hillary M. Nunn, Jennifer Munroe, Margaret Simon, and Lisa Smith, editors. EMROC: Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, 10 January 2018,

Leong, Elaine and Lisa Smith, editors. The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science and Medicine, 29 November 2018,

Nicosia, Marissa. “Cooking Almond Jumballs at the Folger Shakespeare Library,” Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, 16 June 2016.

--. "Re: Cooking in the Archives for This Rough Magic." Received by Colleen Kennedy, 30 November 2018. Email Interview.

--. “To Make bisket​, a recipe from the Baumfylde manuscript,” Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, 31 January 2018.

--. “To presarue Aprecokes,” Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, 21 September 2015.

--. “Teaching Recipes,” Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen.

--. “Undergraduate Recipe Research Wins PSU Abington Prize,” EMROC: Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, 7 October 2018,

--. “What’s in a Recipe?,” Marginal Notes, 12 June 2018.

“Penn in Hand: Selected Manuscripts.” Penn Libraries, University of Pennsylvania,

“Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks.” DIY History, The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa Libraries,

Weinberg, Abbie, webmaster. The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger, 27 November 2018,


Social Media Accounts for Cooking in the Archives

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