Mr. English Housewife and the Value of Cookbooks

She must not be butter-fingered, sweet toothed, nor faint-hearted; for, the first wil let every thing fall the second will consume what it should encrease, and the last wil loose time with too much nicenesse 
-The English Housewife, 80

People often ask me why the Schlesinger Library, devoted to women’s history, has always collected cookbooks. Behind the question there is usually the assumption that a library that chronicles the progress of women’s rights ought not also to be collecting books that are a testament to women’s traditional role in the kitchen, thought by many feminists to be the epitome of patriarchal oppression.

-Barbara Haber, former head archivist of the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliff Institute of Harvard University

The Historical Cooking Project has so far used books primarily written by women. This choice was never explicitly intentional but is unsurprising. Until the later half of the twentieth century, men’s work dominated the canon of most disciplines. Sure, for literature, we have our Jane Austens and Harriet Beecher Stowes. In theology there are the writings of women saints. Mary Wollsencraft wrote philosophy. It is not a radical statement to say that men, especially upper class white men, were not the only people who wrote until the twentieth century, yet they wrote more and their voices are the ones that controlled most conversations. There is one strong exception to this rule: cookbooks. Although it is important to not over-generalize and stay specific to place and time, within the time frame that the Historical Cooking Project has chosen to focus on (the 17th to 20th centuries), women wrote most cookbooks.

Barbara Haber, above, argues that although women’s relationship to food and the kitchen has been fraught with tension, it is still an important part of women’s history. Elizabeth Driver in “Culinary Landmarks” agrees that cookbooks are useful tools for allowing the historian to understand women’s perspectives in the past. Cookbooks are great source material to understand women’s relationship to the history of food, social history, archeology, folklore, history of agriculture, aquaculture, industry, education, medicine, and publishing.

All of this is to say that despite this month’s book’s title, “The English Housewife,” was written by a man.

Our author was English poet and writer Gervase Markham. He was the third son of Sir Robert Markham of Cotham, Nottinghamshire, and was born around 1568. In addition to his literary works, he was a soldier (stationed in Ireland), a horse breeder, and well practiced in forestry and agriculture. He was highly educated; he knew Latin and several modern languages. By the time he died in 1637 he had authored over a dozen books.

So was Markham a Jack-of-all-trades? Did he also cook and brew medicines? Probably not. 

 In 17th century England, men would compile and publish recipes written down by aristocratic women rather than writing or testing recipes themselves. Frances, the countess of Exeter, to whom Markham dedicated the book, may thus have been responsible for many of the recipes. Frances Brydges Smith Cecil was at the centre of a scandal soon after the book was first published in 1615; she was accused of carrying out an affair with her stepgrandson and trying to poison his wife! Although she was acquitted and her accusers were locked in the Tower of London, it could be that the countess of Exeter did have a talent for making both home remedies and concoctions of a more sinister nature.

Whether or not Frances Brydges Smith Cecil contributed to the text, the book still tells us a lot about women during the time period.

The book itself is divided between recipes for food and recipes for home remedies. It includes information about making medicine; preparing recipes; ordering wine, milk, dairy; working the kiln; and beer making. Part of the housewife's job as described by the book is to make these healing tinctures and other concoctions for aiding ailing family members. From reading "The English Housewife," we can draw the conclusion that women in 1600s England were meant to take care of the health of their families not only through food preparation, but also through recognizing and treating illness. Some of these remedies are best left in the 17th century; one pain remedy involves an ounce each of frankincense, dove’s dung, and wheat-flower, beaten with an egg white and applied as a poultice (33). Although we might not hear the voices of women explicitly, we still know what their daily tasks would be like, the kinds of products with which they would interact, and how men thought they should behave.

According to researchers at the British Library, the book went through several editions from its first edition in 1615 until 1683. Interestingly, the edition we are using, from the Library of Congress archives, was published in 1649, several years after Markham had died. This was the year that Charles I was executed and England and Scotland were run by Cromwell as Lord Protector rather than by the royal family.

Cookbooks such as "The Queen's Closet Opened" were particularly popular at this time as a glimpse into what the aristocracy had been doing prior to the English Civil War. The sheer variety of ingredients called for tells the reader that this was not a cookbook for the poor; after all, cinnamon, oranges and sugar were not grown in England. Anyone who came up with these recipes would have had access to foods from around the world in order to do so.

Cookbooks allow historians to hear voices, especially those of women that are not often present in other texts. However, cookbooks still are a limited source. Only people with certain class and racial privileges would be able to produce these works.

In reflecting on "The English Housewife," some of the goals of this Historical Cooking Project become clearer. Despite their limitations, cookbooks allow us to access stories that would otherwise be lost. Once a month we get to use food as a vehicle of communication across time.

(post by Alex Ketchum and Kathleen Gudmundsson)