a question of “updating”

Recently, I’ve found myself in the middle of an internet maelstrom. Since June, my colleague Alyssa and I have been working on a project called “Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen.” The instigation for this project was twofold: We love to cook together and Penn has a phenomenal collection of manuscript recipe books that are fully digitized. If these digital archives are for the general public, as well as researchers, we wondered if the recipes they contain might work in a modern kitchen. And many of them do, beautifully and deliciously.

A few weeks ago, our small, amateur, side-project was featured on HuffPost Taste and brought a flood of new readers to our site. Tons of new people are following the blog, which is incredibly cool, but we were also inundated with critical commentators, some with incredibly negative things to say.

The most prevalent critique has been our choice to “update” the recipes rather than reproduce them authentically. These comments have mostly come from trained cooks, but also from readers that are harder to classify by training or background. To be honest, this strand of comments surprised me: How on earth could we possibly cook these recipes authentically in a modern kitchen? What on earth does it mean to be “authentic” anyway?

So in the aftermath of this firestorm I want to think more about “updating.” What does it really mean to update culinary instructions from early modernity? How is this updating analogous to or dissimilar from other ways in which scholars of early modernity update materials through interpretation and teaching?

In what follows, I describe some of the practices and principles Alyssa and I have employed in our project thus far. I also discuss a few aspects of updating that I see at work in our practices as they stand. I’m posting these thoughts on this blog first because I believe its primary readership consists of early modern literary scholars and bookish types and I’m curious to hear what you think. As an early modern literary scholar / book historian / historian, does this sound on-point to you? Alyssa and I have been discussing this topic for a while and I’m thinking about this post as the start of the updates we plan to make to the description of our project. I’m also amassing a small library of historical cookbooks through inter-library loan to consult and compare with this draft, but as it stands these thoughts are my own.


Best Practices

The archive of manuscript recipes we’re working with is completely public and available to anyone with internet access, but that does not mean that there are no obstacles to accessing it. In the spirit of removing barriers of access to this archive, each of our posts include these key elements: clear citations to the digitized manuscript and cataloging information, a facsimile of the recipe in manuscript, a diplomatic transcription completed to academic standards (ie. the ones I learned Heather Wolfe’s paleography course at Rare Book School), definitional comments relating to ingredients, an updated recipe in modern format, notes and images from our cooking attempt.

The project opens up an archive of recipes to the general public in four important ways: we alert the public to the existence of this archive, our transcriptions render often incomprehensible early modern handwriting legible, our lexical and contextual information helps decipher unfamiliar and complex English, and our updated recipes follow a modern layout to render them immediately useable.

Aspects of Updating?

1 – Transcription: Producing a diplomatic transcription of an early modern manuscript is an act of updating.

2 – Context: Defining early modern words and concepts by reference to twenty-first-century analogs is kind of updating. When Sauory becomes savory and cittern becomes citron updating is at work, even when it reveals something we might also think of as authentic. This updating allows cooks to match early modern and twenty-first-century ingredients.

3 – Format: Early modern recipes most frequently take the form of a narrative prose paragraph that includes ingredients, amounts, and method intermixed. Writing out an early modern recipe in a twenty-first-century format — ingredients with amounts first, method second — is an act of updating. It reveals a different set of priorities about supply and practice, and even space on a written page.

4 – Authenticity Problem: It is at worst, impossible, or at best, difficult and expensive, to cook recipes in the twenty-first century using authentic early modern ingredients. For example, traditionally-made, unpasteurized, raw-milk cheese is sometimes available, but its a prohibitively expensive cheese to use for Maccarony Cheese. Wine and spirits of the same style, region, and name tasted very different (in general, wine was sweeter). I could go on.

5 – Another Authenticity Problem: It is impossible to produce a recipe using authentic methods in a modern kitchen. Cooks trained in historic methods with access to the proper tools, spaces, ovens, and ingredients might be able to pull this off and quite a few well-funded, historical reenactment projects do. But working with our apartment kitchens I (and we) never believed authentic methods were possible or desirable.

Because of these two problems (among others) we were never interested in reproducing these recipes authentically. Additionally, the idea of authenticity erects another kind of access barrier between this archive of recipes and cooks that I would rather break-down instead.

6 – Method: We cook in modern kitchens and therefore some of our methods are necessarily different. For example, in July in Philadelphia I keep my butter in the refrigerator most of the time, so this means any treatment of butter in the recipe has to be adjusted. I leave the butter out to get soft before I use it. A modern oven/range is inherently different than an early modern hearth and we have to adjust cooking instructions by following our instincts. When a recipe says “cook after Brown bread” Alyssa and I have guessed an oven temperature that approximates what we would use for a similar twenty-first century recipe (usually 350 F for baked goods). When it’s more convenient to do, we take out all the toys and use a kitchen aid mixer, a food processor, a plastic kitchen scale, a microwave, a freezer, a hand-held mixer.

7 – Taste: Perhaps the most ambiguous and subjective of these principles, taste is at the heart of the project. I want to cook things I want to eat: I want to cook recipes from the archives that I would still want to cook and eat if I’d found the recipes in a modern cookbook or on a food blog.

Alyssa and I didn’t only set out to cook things that were familiar, but our modern tastes may have led us to the recipes that we could relate to. This is not necessarily in the same affective way by which, for examples, students might “relate to” a Shakespearean character, but we noticed from the start that we might be more ready to cook recipes that looked familiar than ones that didn’t. I’d easily say yes to pickled green beans (coming soon) because I make them at home already. But it was harder to imaging making turnip cordial water. But we’re adventurous eaters, too. We pushed one anther to try the recipes that did not feel or seem relatable. This worked well in the case of Carrot Pudding and far less well in the case of Fish Custard.

In all cases, we’ve updated recipes to our taste. Taste guided our selection and in many cases our execution as we’ve adjusted spices, salt, and method to make something taste good to us. Truth be told, despite the differences we’ve discovered, I’ve been surprised by the similarities of some dishes from shortbread cookies and braised meats to flavored brandy and puff pastry tarts. And these recipes do taste good. With some careful updating they work in a modern kitchen and delight a modern palate. Isn’t that what updating should accomplish?


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