Swapping Recipes (On How to Study Recipes): A Conversation


Elaine Leong, Gianna Pomata, Marta Hanson
Elaine Leong, Gianna Pomata, Marta Hanson

Editor’s note: Scholarship via recipes of all sorts lies at the center of this article featuring a Q&A between the authors of two prize-winning pieces of writing. They are: Marta Hanson and Gianna Pomata, winners of the 2019 Derek Price/Rod Webster Prize for the best article in Isis for “Medicinal Formulas and Experiential Knowledge in the Seventeenth-Century Epistemic Exchange between China and Europe” in v.108, n1 (2017) of the journal; and Elaine Leong, winner of the 2019 Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize for her book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England (University of Chicago Press, 2018). It is a wonderful, meaty, conversation, and without further ado, I’ll let you get to it. For details about the article and book follow the links provided above.

Elaine:  Your erudite article brings together the expertise of scholars working on medicine in early modern Europe and late Imperial China. I’m sure that everyone is intrigued about the “origin” story. Could you tell us a little about how this collaboration began and perhaps the motivations behind it?

Gianna: Well, at first it was just about having some fun together. Marta and I had been toying with the idea that she was going to teach me some Chinese and I, in turn, was going to teach her some Latin. We jokingly referred to this plan by a grand name, the “Academia Latino-Sinica.” It was overambitious, of course, given that we were both desperately busy, but it was the seed of our collaboration. 

One afternoon in the fall of 2012 I happened to be in the Public Library in Geneva, reading sixteenth century European medical case collections. After the tenth case collection or so, I got rather bored and somnolent, so I decided to shake off my drowsiness by taking a look at something different. This, by the way, is my personal recipe for research ennui, which is a well-known scholarly malady. I knew that the Bibliothèque de Genève owned a copy of a rare book that I’d long wished to see—Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (1682), the first important text on Chinese medicine to be published in Europe. Leafing through Specimen woke me up all right. It is a truly fascinating volume, with intriguing illustrations, correspondence from China, and much more. What especially caught my attention, that afternoon, was a section that contained formulas. These recipes looked just like those I had routinely seen in the European case collections I was studying. Exactly the same format: vertical lists of ingredients, highlighted in cursive font. But the ingredients and the names of the recipes were in Romanized Chinese, which had a remarkable defamiliarizing effect on me. Suddenly, the recipe structure, which had always seemed something ordinary and commonplace, looked baffling, unfamiliar. Defamiliarization, or estrangement, which happens when we are made to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, can have important cognitive consequences: it may jolt us into realizing that what we took for granted is more complex and thought-provoking than we ever assumed. That’s what happened to me that afternoon.

When I was back in Baltimore, I showed the book to Marta and she was intrigued. She immediately got into trying to identify the Chinese original of the translation, while I did the same for the translator. Previous scholars had not settled satisfactorily either of these two questions: what was the Chinese original of the texts assembled in Specimen? Who had translated them into Latin? We got very excited at the idea of solving these puzzles. It was “a Sherlock Holmes moment”—one of those special times when historical research feels as exciting as detective work. 

Marta: At first, I thought this was a simple question to answer. Yes, as Gianna said, it was during the spring when she invited me to her house, that, over a shared pot of tea, she told me about this interesting Latin translation of Chinese medical texts she had seen while researching at the University of Geneva library. 

Gianna, I think you chose the “recipes” section because you thought that the Latin was basic enough for me to start with, and the Chinese straightforward enough for you to begin to learn. We started by reading through the first recipe together: Gianna explained the Latin to me from title to final instruction; I considered what the Romanized names of Chinese herbs could be. The translated commentary also contained Romanized names of people that required my reference books. By the end of that afternoon, we each had a list of research questions to pursue. 

Gianna: Yes, that’s true, I had forgotten. But at the back of my mind there definitely was also the idea that recipes were such a fascinating—and at that time understudied—epistemic genre. I had been interested in epistemic genres for a while, ever since studying medical case histories. I had noticed the connection between recipes and case histories long before, in an article that I published in 1996 in Quaderni Storici (“Observatio ovvero Historia”). And at the time of my research in Geneva, I was writing an essay that specifically focused on the issue (“The Recipe and the Case,” 2013). So, recipes were very much on my mind, as a topic of study. I’d add to Marta’s point that we decided to start from the formulas in Specimen because recipes are a very interesting epistemic genre, for all the reasons that Elaine and The Recipe Project have brought to our attention.    

Marta: I should add that this first meeting of our “Sino-Latin Academy of Two” was preceded by countless exchanges, beginning in 2009, related to two graduate-level courses that we subsequently co-taught. Looking back I can see that was a happy moment in our History of Medicine Department at Hopkins, when we had the luxury to co-teach graduate courses. Not long afterwards, however, things changed, unfortunately. The doubling of our original course load, to meet new teaching demands, now makes highly unlikely comparable opportunities for collaborative graduate-level teaching. I thus write this response all the more grateful for a not-so-distant past when Gianna and I were not only in the same department but were encouraged to teach graduate-level courses together. It was while we were fully immersed in teaching our new Cross-cultural Histories of Medicine course that Gianna figured out how we could collaborate over research, not just teaching. After only a few more pots of tea in her living room, we realized that we had a research project that could possibly contribute to the growing field of cross-cultural medical history.

Gianna: Yes, I confirm. Marta is right that without this favorable teaching context our research collaboration could not have happened. 

Gianna: Elaine, I’d like you to give us your own “origin story.” How was your book conceived, and what were your main motivations in researching and writing it?

Elaine: Gosh, mine is a fairly long story too, stretching back to my undergraduate days; but I think that the short answer is that it was one of those archival moments. Very early on in my research career, I spent a few amazing days in the Wellcome Library looking at their handwritten recipe books and was hooked! These manuscript sources are fascinating but challenging historical sources. Most contain only hundreds of recipes with little theoretical framing or introduction, and, in many cases, we have little biographical information about the makers and users. As such, I had a ton of questions during those first few encounters with the sources, many of which became central themes in the book. For example, my initial curiosity about how these books were created and used became the first chapter, and how the know-how contained in the books was tried and tested was developed into chapters 3 and 4. 

As for my motivations—as a historian, I’ve always been fascinated by the everyday. As such, for me, recovering the knowledge practices of the household is crucial, especially because it pushes us to recognize that exploration of the natural world can happen in the humblest circumstances and conducted by a wide range of actors. 

Marta: Did working on recipes in the early modern world as “everyday knowledge” change how you use or think about recipes in your everyday life?

Elaine: Yes, most definitely! Like many scholars, my research interests spill over into my everyday life. I often pick-up all kinds of cookbooks for leisure reading and the gathering, and discussion of recipes occupy quite some space in my daily life. After spending so much time thinking about early modern recipes, I am definitely more attentive to the social resonances of recipe exchange amongst my own circle of family and friends. A number of the practices I outline in the book, such as the creation of a “family” book of recipes and the exchange of recipes amongst kin as ways to strengthen family ties, are still practiced today. For example, years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a small booklet of xeroxed recipes, bound by hand (Figure 1). Titled “Our Family Cookbook,” it contains recipes from my husband’s immediate and extended family and was circulated as a gift for Christmas in 1980. Prompted by your question, I recently revisited this slim volume and was immediately taken to American life in the late 1970s. Predictably, some of the recipes contain now oft-mocked ingredients such as Lipton Onion Soup Mix in marinades or canned mushroom soup in casseroles, reflecting how cooks in that period were keen to test out the various “kitchen helpers” new to the market. One particular recipe for a “very special dessert”—a “Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake”—involving mixing sugar, flour, baking soda, cocoa, water, vanilla extract and 2 cups of “Kraft Miracle Whip”—is perhaps a recipe which not many of us will be brave enough to test nowadays. But the volume also opens with a lengthy section on bread making and offers of sourdough starters, reminding us that baking experiments actually have a long history amongst home cooks and are not just an activity for the “Instagram-age.” A recipe for a “Summer Squash Chicken Casserole” donated by my husband’s grandmother ends with the note that they used to grow their own summer squash and raise their own chickens praising this process of land-to-table as the “height” of “fresh, homemade cooking.” 

Figure 1:  Elaine Leong’s husband’s Family Cookbook.  Image provided by Leong.

Figure 1:  Elaine Leong’s husband’s Family Cookbook.  Image provided by Leong

I originally received this book of family recipes in the final throes of completing my dissertation and as I gained additional insight about recipe writing from my seventeenth century sources, my appreciation of “Our Family Cookbook” also deepened. I now treasure these recipes and their accompanying stories not so much for use in the kitchen, but for the engaging picture they paint of my husband’s family and the social habits and aspirations of men and women across America in the late 1970s. 

Gianna: Adding to Marta’s question, one of the most exciting aspects of current research on recipes is that we have finally tackled, as you do in your book, a vast body of sources, mostly manuscript, that had been understudied, if not ignored, for too long. I’d like to ask you: do you think that there are other sources and topics to which we could extend our research—sources that have been considered marginal to the history of science, as recipes were considered of little interest until a while ago? To what other areas of the history of science and medicine could we fruitfully apply what we have learned by studying recipes?

Elaine: Thank you for this really exciting question. For me, two important themes emerge from our collective study of recipes. First is the investigation of what we might call “margins” of the textual world, that is, texts or text fragments which are appended to longer, more well-studied genres. One of my current interests is to look at medical glossaries and dictionaries. In the early modern English context, such compilations accompany a variety of texts in both handwritten medical notes and vernacular printed medical manuals. Compilers of medical notebooks often include lists of “hard words” to guide future readers, along with lists of apothecaries’ weights and symbols. These kinds of lists not only sharpen our view of what historical actors considered important information, but also serve to standardize terms and measurements. Similarly, glossaries and early medical dictionaries emerge in English vernacular print around the 1650s and reveal how knowledge travelled across linguistic, temporal, geographical and cultural boundaries. For example, Peter Cole included a physical dictionary with his translation of the Montpellier professor Lazare Rivière’s Practica and Observationes. The kinds of terms and words included in the dictionary reveal the needs and anxieties of the period, about bringing university-based knowledge from France to a largely urban English readership.  

Of course, medical glossaries are in all sorts of texts across the premodern textual world and I’m lucky to be in good company in my study of these texts. For example, I’ve very much enjoyed conversations with Shireen Hamza, (Harvard University) who has been analyzing cognate texts in the medieval Indian Ocean World. Our fruitful exchanges led me to my second theme—the immense possibilities opened up by studying textual genres across time and place, as so wonderfully exemplified by your article. Within recipe studies, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a particularly rich period and our archive of recipe writing is continually extended with new sources from different contexts. Collectively, I think that we have much to learn by in-depth study and analysis of sources, practices and stories from different cultures across the premodern world and, perhaps, through studies of common epistemic practices we can forge together a “braided” story, to use Projit Bihari Mukharji’s term, while concurrently retaining the integrity and uniqueness of each separate strand. 

Elaine: My turn again to ask a question: What were some of the most surprising connections that you both found whilst writing this article?

Gianna: I’d say that finding out a working model for the comparative history of epistemic genres across cultures was perhaps the most exciting discovery that we made together. Thanks to Marta, I had already pursued this research model even before tackling recipes, when I was working on the medical case narrative. Marta told me I should read a book edited by Charlotte Furth and other scholars, Thinking with Cases: Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History (2007), which turned out to be an incredibly useful suggestion. It set me thinking about how to compare the parallel histories of the medical case narrative in Europe and China. What was especially surprising was to find how many similarities were there between the two histories—a result I did not expect at all, as I had been conditioned by a wide consensus that emphasized difference and even incommensurability of concepts and intellectual tools in different cultures. Well, that did not turn out to be the case, as I argued in my essay “The medical case narrative in pre-modern Europe and China” (2018). And similarly, for the history of the recipe, we found interesting parallels that allowed the attempt of the Jesuit translators to transfer pharmacological knowledge from China to Europe. 

Marta: From start to finish, our collaboration was very different from any I’ve had before. The underlying challenge was to find scholarship on East Asia that not only measured up to the best in European and US historiography, but also could offer something analytically new. It was as much a challenging, inquisitive two-way conversation with Gianna as it was a journey of rediscovery within myself of the history of science and medicine in China. Thinking through how recipes functioned as a commensurable epistemic genre in Europe and China alike, has completely reoriented how I approach Chinese medical history through the range of specific narrative forms, many also epistemic genres, that collectively constituted its vast archive over more than two millennia. 

In fact, my next publication within Chinese medical history is the direct result of engaging, not only with Gianna’s groundbreaking work on epistemic genres—especially her comparative history of medical case records in China and Europe—but also with questions that arose from our collaborative research. For example, in order to write “From Under the Elbow to Pointing to the Palm: Chinese Metaphors for Learning Medicine by the Book (4th-14th Centuries),” for the special issue of the British Journal of History of Science: Themes—which you helped edit Elaine—I had to first understand the earliest genre terms from roughly the fourth century BCE to the fourteenth century CE for the narrative forms within which Chinese scholars recorded medical knowledge. Only with this foundation could I begin to examine the range of metaphors in medical titles used to convey narrative and material innovations, and how these changed over the longue durée. Basically, the collaborative work with Gianna has inspired me to pursue my own new research questions in Chinese medical history, which are independent of her and yet integral to the broader intellectual synergy we fortunately share. 

Marta: Speaking of connections, Elaine, do you have any thoughts on how recipes as ways of reasoning are comparable to but different from medical cases?

Elaine: First-hand observations are certainly key ways of reasoning in both genres and, in many ways, both claim authority and validation from practical experience. However, I think that recipes might be slightly more open and malleable, particularly if they are circulating in manuscript rather than print. By the seventeenth century, lay recipe exchange was deeply embedded in social networks and strategies for construction and consolidation of familial wealth and power. As such, while lived experience was frequently used as a claim to authority, many writers and users of recipes also factored in social concerns. After all, if a recipe was donated by a beloved aunt holding the purse strings, one might think twice before rejecting the knowhow. Within the books themselves, we see householders annotating, writing over and scrawling out recipes. I use these very material practices to tease out the multi-step assessment processes used in recipe trials. The cheesecake recipe in the Godfrey family collection is a particular favorite that shows how the family tried over and over again to test and modify the ingredient proportions and baking instructions, only to declare it “not to be write,” i.e. not to be added to the family’s go-to recipe book (Figure 2). This eagerness to preserve or salvage the recipe is due to the fact that the knowhow was afforded both social and epistemic value. If recipe exchange was a way to strengthen social relationships and build networks, it makes sense that householders thought twice (or three times) before discarding the gifted recipe. 

Figure 2:  A recipe to make cheese cakes from the household book of Elizabeth Godfrey, Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

Figure 2:  A recipe to make cheese cakes from the household book of Elizabeth Godfrey, Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

This practice of “recipes salvage,” as I term it, had a significant impact on household recipe trials, leading some actors to repeatedly rework and revise recipes as a way to keep it in the family book. As far as I know, this kind of practice isn’t so prevalent in the writing of medical cases but here I defer to Gianna as the expert, to confirm and comment. 

Gianna: I think that Elaine is right in pointing out a significant difference between recipe and case history in this respect. The case history is definitely much less “malleable” than the recipe, which is constantly subject to processes of revision and adaptation. This has to do, I think, with the fact, that the recipe straddles the worlds of everyday knowhow and professional knowledge to a higher extent than other genres. Medical cases are a more specialized, more technical and therefore tendentially more rigidly structured kind of writing. And yet, having seen Hippocratic case histories read, used, interpreted and reinterpreted again and again over two millennia of history, I’d say that something like “case salvage”, to use Elaine’s metaphor, happens also in the transmission of medical case narratives.  That’s not surprising. After all, constant adaptation and transformation by their users is a key feature of textual forms, epistemic genres included.

Elaine: As you know, the study of recipes has become a vibrant and interdisciplinary subfield over the past two decades and your research extends this conversation in multiple ways. What do you see as your most significant interventions?

Marta: I think our most significant intervention has been to demonstrate how much a close analysis of a simple recipe can reveal about the cultural, intellectual, social, and economic world within which it was recorded, including the meaning and distilled empirical experience it contains. Beyond that, I hope that our collaborative work on the earliest translations of Chinese recipes into Latin offers some useful methods for other scholars working on cross-cultural medical history well beyond the Chinese-European encounter.

Gianna: To elaborate on this point, I’d say that recipes are deceptively simple texts. Their apparent simplicity has confined them for a long time to the periphery of the history of medicine, as they were perceived as something that belonged to applied science (or technology) rather than science proper. I think that our article shows that in fact the knowledge going into recipes has great complexity, so that transferring it across cultures is a real challenge. In fact, as you show beautifully in your book, Elaine, recipe-knowledge circulates most smoothly and effectively within limited spheres—households, networks of relative and friends, tight professional networks—all milieus that share a lot of implicit or tacit knowledge. For Marta and me the question was: if this is the case, how can recipes cross boundaries and travel to wider communities of use? I thought of this issue again lately, reading a fascinating article by anthropologist Barbara Gerke on what she calls the “signature of recipes” (Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 2018). She shows that in the context of Tibetan traditional medicine or Sowa Rigpa (= “Science of Healing”), as still practiced today, formulas require constant interpretation, reformulation, and personal “signatures” by the healer. She argues that this poses a challenge for the codification of formulas into a standardized pharmacopeia, as currently required in India for traditional medical traditions, including Sowa Rigpa, which was officially recognized as a medical system in 2010. So Tibetan recipes are posed between issues of individualization (they need to be validated by a healer’s “signature”) and standardization for a wider market. How knowledge is created, activated, translated and sometimes mistranslated, found and lost in this process is an extremely relevant issue for the history of knowledge. Our article’s most significant contribution, I think, was to provide a detailed case study of this much wider and general process. 

Gianna: At this point I’d like to acknowledge, Elaine, that all of us working on recipes are very indebted to the Recipe Project that you have coordinated at the Max Planck in Berlin. Could you tell us how the Project has helped your own work and conversely, how your own research has shaped your contribution to the Project? And what is the future of the Project at this point?

Elaine: I’m so glad that you brought up the Recipes Project, as I am hugely indebted to the “recipes” community. Launched in 2012, The Recipes Project is an academic blog and virtual research platform dedicated to the study of historical recipes. Curating and editing the blog pushed me to think more broadly about a long view and geographically broad history of recipe writing, attending to similarities and differences across diverse contexts and knowledge fields. It offered opportunities to informally interrogate particular themes. For example, in 2018 Marta joined a group of us to explore notions of heat in histories of food, medicine, science and art and earlier this year, a group of PhD students at Cambridge edited a series on the theme of thrift. Due to the enthusiasm and support of our editorial team and readers, the blog continues to grow, and we hope that it will serve as a platform for fresh perspectives on recipe studies for years to come.  

Gianna: I have one more question for Elaine. Re-reading your book, what I find most fascinating is the issue of the relationship between household knowledge and more formalized, professional knowledge. In conventional history & philosophy of science, this used to be formulated as the problem of the relationship between “pre-scientific” and “scientific” knowledge. How would you re-frame this issue, based on your own research work? It seems to me that one of the most significant contributions of your book is that you show the continuity between the “pre-scientific” and the “scientific,” whereas most classic histories of science underscored the discontinuities between the two. I find this issue really intriguing. What are your thoughts about it?

Elaine: Yes, underlining and amplifying continuities between different kinds of knowledge practices is definitely one of the main goals of my book. I wanted to dig deep into the nitty gritty of these collaborative knowledge practices and recover the voices of these “invisible technicians.”

I was lucky to find a very long and detailed series of letters between Lady Johanna St. John (1631–1705) and her steward, Thomas Hardyman. Johanna was quite the micro-manager and so it made it possible to understand the various tasks taken on by dairy maids, gardeners, herb women and cheese makers, and the complex web of obligations and expectations held by both parties. Another series of letters, this time about beer brewing and water boiling, between Edward Conway second Viscount Conway and Killultagh (bap. 1594, d. 1655) and his nephew Sir Edward Harley (1624–1700) further revealed how Conway viewed the Petworth brewers in incredibly high regard, refusing to conduct recipe trials on their advice. These letters pushed me to consider early modern households as collectives of knowers and makers and to tease out dynamic relations within these communities.

By focusing on recipe collections and letters created by these little-known actors, I reconstructed home-based knowledge practices from the ground up, attending to their work and agency as knowledge makers. The central chapters of my book demonstrate how practices of trial and testing (on paper and in practice) formed the core of household science. Historical actors such as Conway first gathered knowledge from experts, assessed the know-how on paper by consulting works by ancient and contemporary authors in their library, conducted hands-on experiments with the recipes and continued to adjust the trials based on experiential knowledge. Much like “work diaries” or laboratory books, household recipe notebooks are the record of these multi-stepped trials. In that sense, the emerging picture of household science has significant resonances with the more studied “scientific” practices—the “formalized professional knowledge” you describe above. The focus on continuities across different sites of knowledge, I think, enables us to further understand knowledge production in key moments in the history of science as it encourages us to recognize that our historical actors functioned within entangled webs of knowledge practices. Openness to the far-reaching extension of these webs—often across social, cultural, temporal and geographical boundaries – can enrich our narratives of knowledge production and transfer, no matter whose or which story we choose to tell. 

Elaine: One last question: your collaboration is clearly incredibly rich and fruitful and I’m sure that many colleagues are inspired by it and might want to follow suit. What advice do you have for those of us who might want to embark on similarly ambitious collaborations? 

Marta: When I accepted the Price/Webster prize on behalf of Gianna and myself, I said that our collaboration, which started as something more playful than serious, has deeply reoriented both of our research trajectories. And far from being episodic, it has become ongoing. My main advice for anyone wanting to collaborate with a colleague is to trust the intellectual synergy you share with someone else. Give yourselves the luxury of time to just talk with each other, and if possible, teach together.  Be open to wherever that synergy leads you. Once you’ve determined a path forward, find an appropriate venue to present your work in progress. There is nothing like an upcoming workshop or conference to focus one’s mind and polish one’s prose!  

Gianna: I would add the following, which is a caveat, as well as an encouragement. Have a clear research plan with an extra clear division of labor. We discussed everything together, but we had from the start clearly distinct assignments for each of us. As already said, Marta’s job was to identify the original Chinese text of the translation, mine was to identify the translator. This was easy enough because of our linguistic skills: Marta knows Chinese and I know Latin. But even if that had not been the case, I think having distinct though complementary tasks really helps collaboration. I’m quite sure it helped ours. 

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