The Thymes They Are A-Changing: A Few Thoughts on Recipes

A few months ago, I had a Girls’ Night Out with my friends. Digression: for us, “Girls’ Night Out” means three things: wine, food, and pants with elastic waistbands. While not actually going out.

In other words, it’s pretty much this:








On this particular night, we went to my friend Inga’s house and she made dinner, a delicious peanut squash soup. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This soup was everything: a little sweet, a little spicy, just the right consistency to be a comfort food. I asked if I could have the recipe, and Inga said, “Oh, it’s easy to find. Just Google peanut squash soup and it’s the first recipe that pops up.”

(Note: I did, and it was, and here’s the result. TRY IT. You won’t be disappointed.)

I remembered this exchange a few days ago because I was thinking about the ways recipes have adapted and changed over time. I sometimes write posts for the historical blog The Recipes Project, and even a brief perusal of that site shows that old recipes are both surprisingly familiar (quantities, instructions) and shockingly different (recipes for pimple creams and breast cancer cures can be found near recipes for preserving quinces).

That exchange at Inga’s house highlighted that as much as recipes have changed over time, it’s possible that–with the ease of finding things on the internet–the recipe genre may be having its most radical transformation yet.

Not so long ago, if somebody asked you for a recipe, it could feel like an imposition. You’d have  to get an index card and painstakingly handwrite the recipe, making sure it fit on the card, that the measurements were correct (I’ll never forget the time I wrote down 2 TBSP of cayenne instead of 2 tsp), that you hadn’t forgotten any steps.

In short, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But the labor involved meant the recipe itself was a thoughtful and time-consuming gift.

With that gift came individuality. In early modern recipes, that took the form of instructions like “take the amount of rosemary that would fit on a two-pence piece.” And everyone’s heard stories of trying to recreate Aunt So-and-So’s pie or chicken or tamales but never quite getting it right because her ingredients involved “smidges” and “dollops” and “handfuls.”

(My own favorite quirky recipe is from my Grandma Sherman, whose fudge recipe calls for “5 cents worth of Woolworth chocolate.”)

Now, not only can we Google a recipe, we can sort by ingredients, cost, user rating, regional origin…the list goes on. Then, when you locate just the right recipe, you can pin it to your Pinterest board and download it to your phone, which has an app to find a coupon for the ingredients you need. And the quirkiness of those recipes have gone the way of the “update” button on the blog.

Perhaps because it has become so easy to find what you want with so little effort, online recipes themselves have become more personalized and narrative-driven. Some blogs are as much about the voice of the writer as they are about the quality of the recipes. This recipe for “Drunken Chicken Marsala,” for example, reads as though it wasn’t just the chicken that got a little tipsy. And this recipe for masala sauce: can we agree that calling a masala sauce “life-changing” is a wee bit hyperbolic?

Anyway, I’m not trying to be overly nostalgic and romanticize the past. I love the ease of internet browsing as much as the next person. But I do sometimes miss the old recipe box: the serendipity of finding some funny old recipe, that softness at the very edge of the cards that comes from years of thumbing, the memories that come rushing back with the sight of a beloved relative’s handwriting.

So, like the rest of you all, I’ll keep toggling back and forth between the new and the old, Google and the cookbook, the search function and the weathered old index card. And as I say a prayer of thanks to the patron saint of the internet (who IS that by the way?) for making it easy to find instructions for pie crust, I’ll also keep my flour-dusted recipe box near at hand.

Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear

So I wrote this post for The Recipes Project to answer the perennial question “What do John Donne and Taylor Swift have in common?”

(Spoiler #1: no I didn’t–it just worked out that way)

(Spoiler #2: earwigs)

Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear




Scratching “The Itch Infalable” at The Recipes Project

I wrote this blog post for The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine about a 17th-century anti-itching recipe: Scratching “The Itch Infalable”: Johanna St. John’s Anti-Itch Cure

On the downside, you may get psychosomatic itching after reading it, much like in 5th grade when you watched all those educational movies about lice. On the plus side, there is a largely gratuitous picture of an adorable scratching cat.

Pimple post

I have a new post up at The Recipes Project titled “Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical.”

I’m linking to it below, but first a preface: Turning 40 sucks. Within six months of my big 4-0, I developed a case of acid-reflux bad enough to land me in the emergency room (I called it my fake heart attack) and a nasty reappearance of plantar fasciitis that had me rolling frozen water bottles under my feet. But neither of those was as sucky as the newly developed rosacea. Within a week, I once again had the self-confidence of my pizza-faced younger self, examining my chin and nose in the mirror for new eruptions.* Only this time it HURT!

Who knows if I would have been desperate enough to try Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe for “red face and pimples.” I’m just really grateful I have my FDA-approved topical ointment….

*(Okay, maybe more self-confidence because I doubt my 16-year-old self would have written about her pimples so publicly. Or maybe it’s just another case of my having zero gravitas?)

Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical

Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).

Read more…

Great Globs of Glowing Urine

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone (1771). Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Many fields define themselves by specialties. Doctors are not just doctors—they are podiatrists or pediatricians or surgeons. Restaurant workers are baristas or pastry chefs or sommeliers. Writers are novelists or poets or “content providers.” So it is for academics, as well. When I’m wearing that hat, I define myself as an early modernist.

But even within narrow academic confines, we find ways to shrink our focus (for better and for worse). I trained in early modern English literature with an interest in the history of early modern science and medicine. Recently, because of a novel I’ve written, I’ve become a little obsessed with alchemy, as well.

By definition, such a narrow focus means few people are interested in (understatement) what makes my clock tick. So imagine my surprise when, on a long car trip last month, my teenage daughter turned to me, looked up from the book she was reading, and said, “Hey, Mom, this is cool. This is the sort of thing you like.”

And she was absolutely right. She was pointing to a picture of Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist from Germany who spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, that elusive substance capable of turning lead into gold. Brand was a soldier with the valuable talent of marrying well—he burned through (pun intended) two wives’ handsome fortunes in his alchemical pursuits.

While Brand never did find/create/uncover the Philosopher’s Stone (that we know of…), he certainly hit the mother lode by successfully isolating phosphorous. To do so, he, ummm…well….let this video show you first:

Brand collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup. That syrup was distilled and cooked over very high heat. He then took the cooked substance—minus the salts that had formed alongside—and submerged it in water. (Excellent descriptions of the process can be found here and here.) The substance he’d discovered–phosphorous–was chemiluminescent, emitting a soft light that at the time must have seemed magical indeed.

Brand, like most other alchemists, kept his discoveries to himself, but he was able to sell his secret later (and recoup at least some of his wife’s money). Other folks, including Robert Boyle, later discovered the process independent of Brand. (They were tipped off, most likely, that the phosphorous had been made from urine. Boyle made the process more effective by also using the salt that Brand threw away.)

And because I’m deficient in gravitas, I couldn’t resist adding this video. If you can’t get enough of pee puns (or if you love to see Anderson Cooper giggle):

New Post at The Recipes Project: “Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style”

I have a new post up at The Recipes Project about a wickedly beautiful, carnivorous plant and the (mostly useless) cordial that’s made from it: Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style.

Also contains this jaw-droppingly cool artwork by Allison Sommers (check out her other stuff at

Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

A Cure for “The Kink”

Treatment for "chincough" or "the kink" might have included medicinals derived from works like this, an 11th-century copy of the “Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius” (4th century); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 130, fol. 50v: Lily and Spurge (via Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society
Treatment for “chincough” or “the kink” might have included medicinals derived from works like this, an 11th-century copy of the “Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius” (4th century); Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 130, fol. 50v: Lily and Spurge (via Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society)

(Okay, right off the bat, I’m going to admit that the title of this blog post is link bait. But it worked, right? You’re here? Sorry, “the kink” is probably not what you think it is–keep reading to find out more!)


I live in Southern Oregon, a region with the dubious distinction of having dangerously low rates of immunization against childhood diseases.

As a writer/researcher with an interest in the history of science and medicine, I have a hard time listening to anti-vaccination arguments. One only needs to skim the historical record to find gruesome descriptions of childhood diseases like diphtheria, smallpox, and measles to know that vaccinations are one of the great mercies of modern parenting.

One of the most horrific of the childhood diseases, whooping cough (pertussis), is a particular nemesis here in Southern Oregon. While the average rate of vaccination exemptions for kindergarteners in the state is 5%, there are population pockets in my region where the rate is closer to 25%, which effectively decimates any chance of herd immunity to pertussis.

This public health threat in my own region must be why, when one of the main characters in my novel-in-progress encounters a deathly pediatric disease, I thought of whooping cough rather than plague or smallpox. My protagonist’s husband,Will, the son of a non-University-trained doctor in the town of Colchester in the 17th century, sees a young mother seeking help for her infant, who has a distinctive, tortured coughing pattern (you can hear an example here). Will listens in horror as his father gives the dreaded diagnosis: chincough.

In the early modern period, whooping cough (pertussis) went by a variety of names: chincough, hooping cough, the kink, kinkcough, kingcough, and quinta were just a few.

An aside: The word “kinkcough” and its variations derive from the obsolete word “kink” (Middle English origins), which meant convulsive fits of laughing or coughing. Helpful hint: Do NOT wonder if this meaning of “kink” is the root of the word “kinky” and then Google it only to realize that your computer is still logged on to your daughter’s Google account—her SCHOOL Google account. Just don’t. (Although when I ‘fessed up to my middle-school daughter, she laughed and said, “Oh please, Mom, it’s just word origins. I see kids at middle school Google worse stuff than that every day.” Gulp.)

Okay, back to whooping cough.

As for almost every condition in the early modern period, cures for pertussis varied greatly by practitioner, from simply drinking cold water (p. 113), to (from folklore) “begging a piece of bread- and-butter from a married woman who had not changed her surname on marriage.” There are recipes that involve herbs to those involving unfortunate animals, such as this recipe from the recipe book of Jane Jackson (1642), in which the following helpful advice is given:

“Take mice flea them & cut them in halves take out the entrails and fry them in butter to eat them up.”

In the 18th century, some practitioners evidenced a laissez-faire attitude to whooping cough. In his “Animadversions on a late treatise on the kink-cough” Thomas Kirkland references one “Dr. Willis’s” observation that “old women are oftner consulted in this disorder than physicians,” since, as Kirkland explains, “people seldom apply to physicians, on account of the expence, as they do not apprehend danger, and they know the disease will commonly get well of itself in time.” (This does not, however, stop Kirkland recommending the use of hemlock in every single variation of whooping cough he lists.)

In my novel, we never find out what happens to that young child Will’s father treats, but based on primary sources, there was likely a treatment of purges and nasty medicinals followed by months of horrific fits of coughing like this (warning: upsetting):

And that, my friends, is why my children are vaccinated against pertussis. Now if I could only find a way to protect them from middle school Google searches…


Further sources:

Click here for downloadable pdf of Robert Weston’s excellent article on the history of pertussis, “Whooping Cough: A Brief History to the 19th Century.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/ Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine / Volume 29:2 2012 / p. 329-349

Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks

Hello all!

I have a post up at the Recipes Project blog: “Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks.”

The Recipes Project is a fascinating site to browse around in. Here’s the description:

“We are an international group of scholars interested in the history of recipes, ranging from magical charms to veterinary remedies. Old recipes can tell us a lot about the past, such as how medicines were prepared, when certain foods became popular, or why ingredients might be magical. Join us as we explore the weird and wonderful world of recipes!”

What do recipe books, hedgehogs, and tesseracts have in common?

Image result for a wrinkle in time

I just finished a post for another blog (the Historical Recipes Project) about how to cook a hedgehog.

But it’s not what you think. (God, like I’d ever eat a hedgehog–yikes!)

This hedgehog is a sculpted sort of pudding made from cream, eggs, sugar, almonds, and ambergris. You might be familiar with ambergirs If you’ve read Moby Dick (shout out to anybody who took Mrs. Donohue’s AP English class at Eureka High School in 1988—Go Loggers!). Basically, it’s found in the intestines of whales. ‘Nuff said.

An interesting thing happened to me as a writer as a set out to do research for this post. I realized as I was wading through pages of digitalized 16th- and 17th-century cookbooks that I am starting to think of primary sources differently.

As a scholar, I try to place the material in front of me in the historical, social, religious, and cultural practices of its day.

As a writer of fiction, however, I find myself thinking diachronically, trying to see the threads that link another time with ours, to suss out the kinds of issues, obsessions, worries, and joys that we share in common with other cultures and times.

I noticed this first as I was paging (electronically) through the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (1625-80), the wife of the ambassador to Spain. Like other “receipt books” (what cookbooks and recipe books were often called in the early modern period), this was an ecletic collection—some might even say a mish-mash—of recipes for food, medicine, perfumes, and cleaning supplies.
As I read through these recipes, I marveled at how much the recipe book reflected what likely went on in the early modern kitchen. Unlike modern cookbooks, which present an idealized, airbrushed version of reality, with precise measurements, reliable outcomes, and mouthwatering pictures, this recipe book was a working document, with cross-outs, amendations, and commentary.

And unlike modern kitchens, which seem to be exclusively dedicated to the preparation of food and drink (and the occasional batch of playdough), the early modern kitchen was the site of all kinds of cookery: coction, distillation, presentation of food, medicine, and whatever else needed transformation by fire.

Despite these differences–differences that should have made me feel alienated or at least distanced from the text–I felt something tugging at me, some sense of connection to the seeming chaos of this recipe book.

I flashed on a scene from one of my favorite books as a kid, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Meg is home after a miserable day at school, sitting in the cozy kitchen, sharing her worries with her scientist mother. Mrs. Murry, who is making hot cocoa for her on the Bunsen burner.

The only problem with the scene as I’ve described it is that it doesn’t exist. I just looked it up, and it is Meg’s precocious little brother, Charles Wallace, who makes the cocoa for Meg and Mrs. Murry, and the Bunsen burner is in a lab by the back door.

I find it interesting, though, that my younger self conflated the two kinds of cookery: culinary and scientific. There’s a thread that runs between the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe and my memory of that scene in A Wrinkle in Time: the multiple roles women are expected to fill. Mother. Healer. Chef. And, sometimes, scholar.

That Bunsen burner became for me, I think, emblematic of what I felt least comfortable about in this beloved book: Mrs. Murry may have been a scientist, but she was still responsible for the kids, holding down the house, and cooking the food. And while Meg’s father was gallivanting across time and space, Mrs. Murry was signing field-trip permission slips and making phone calls for the PTA while studying tesseracts and mitochondria.

As a scholar, the fact that the scene as I remembered it doesn’t exist would destroy whatever literary argument I was making. As a writer of fiction, the awareness that I had embellished on the scene, molded and shaped it until it reflected my own concerns, provides me with rich fodder for the imagination.