Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen

Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen

Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen

Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen


For a significant part of the early modern period, England was the most active site of recipe publication in Europe and the only country in which recipes were explicitly addressed to housewives. Recipes for Thought analyzes, for the first time, the full range of English manuscript and printed recipe collections produced over the course of two centuries.

Recipes reveal much more than the history of puddings and pies: they expose the unexpectedly therapeutic, literate, and experimental culture of the English kitchen. Wendy Wall explores ways that recipe writing--like poetry and artisanal culture--wrestled with the physical and metaphysical puzzles at the center of both traditional humanistic and emerging "scientific" cultures. Drawing on the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and others to interpret a reputedly "unlearned" form of literature, she demonstrates that people from across the social spectrum concocted poetic exercises of wit, experimented with unusual and sometimes edible forms of literacy, and tested theories of knowledge as they wrote about healing and baking. Recipe exchange, we discover, invited early modern housewives to contemplate the complex components of being a Renaissance "maker" and thus to reflect on lofty concepts such as figuration, natural philosophy, national identity, status, mortality, memory, epistemology, truth-telling, and matter itself. Kitchen work, recipes tell us, engaged vital creative and intellectual labors.


The Italians call the preface La salsa del libro, the sauce of the book,
and if well seasoned it creates an appetite in the reader to devour the
book itself.

—Isaac Disraeli

At dinner parties over the past few years, when I have admitted to writing a book on early modern English recipes, people have been amused if not aghast. But English cooking, with its soggy puddings and dry roast beef, is so notoriously boring, they would exclaim. And given the sophistication of Renaissance writing, why would one choose to investigate inelegant technical writing? Why indeed would anyone on earth devote time to thinking about the mechanics of English culinary writing?

Then, I drop the bombshell. In Shakespeare’s day, English food was not very different from French or Italian cuisine. In fact, all of it was robust and highly seasoned. I have to repeat this point for it to sink in fully. Even the most knowledgeable “foodie” seems to find this information startling, though it is well known to culinary historians. From roughly 1200 to 1650, all European food—including English fare—relied on exotic seasonings to transform the natural flavors and textures of ingredients into dazzling combinations. Indeed, the ability to alter the fundamental character, flavor, and texture of a foodstuff was a marker of civilized society. The basic international (though regionally inflected) European elite cuisine depended on spices imported from southern China, the Moluccas, Malaya, and India (including cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and grains of paradise). Imported by . . .

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