The Family Recipe Book: Cookbooks as Medical Guides

Our past series examining the field of food studies within and outside of the academy focused on how food history is a growing field whose parameters are still in the process of being defined. Within the historiography, early studies of food typically came out of the field of medical history as medical historians were trained to study the impact of a single material or substance on society and substances, such as sugar, transformed from medicine to food within the cultural imagination. Today’s post is the first of an ongoing series, which will discuss the intersections between food and medical history.
In 1847 the Family Recipe Book, Containing Several Hundred Valuable Recipes on Every Branch of Domestic Economy; Embracing cookery, the Cure of Disease, the Use of Principle Roots and Herbs as Medicine, Making Dyes, Colouring, Cleaning, Cementing, &c. &c., which claimed to be “compiled from the most authentic sources”[i] by H. Pinny, was published in Philadelphia. The book was divided into four sections: the mode of cooking, the medical department, the mode of treating diseases, and the housewife’s department. This piece thus contains cures for cancer alongside recipes for jam and pies and instructions on how to restore cement. In less than one hundred pages, this book attempts to provide a family with a base of knowledge in order to protect their health and livelihoods and help them to become more self-sufficient. This work was produced soon after the death of Samuel Thomson and between two major outbreaks of cholera. In what ways does the time of its production place its creation interestingly into the context of American reactionary movements to disease and the desire for individual control over healthcare? Within this framework of individual’s seeking agency in their healthcare, women played an interesting role as both consumers of this knowledge and producers of medicines. Also the book, itself, was compiled by a man who cited male physicians but provided no references for authors of the recipes.  In what ways does the structure of the book highlight the dynamics of the relationships of physicians to patients, males to females, authors to readers, and producers to consumers and tell the history of medicine as a gendered socioeconomic history?

The historical context of medical sectarianism may have been a possible motivation and influence that led to Pinny’s creation of this book.  We can glean much information about the author’s relationship to medicine and theories on medical practice from Pinny’s personal description of the chapter on medicine in the preface in which he says, “The Medical department will be found to be as valuable as any part of the book. It contains a large number of useful and tried remedies for the various diseases and accidents that occur in almost every family.”[ii] Within this section, there are both elaborate and also short descriptions for cures. While some of the recipes for the medicines would require ingredients that would most likely need to be obtained by an apothecary, such as laudanum in the cure for cholera infantum,[iii] many of the recipes use only ingredients that could likely be readily and locally obtained, such as in the cure for cancer.[iv] The quick availability of most of the ingredients alongside descriptions of easy preparations of the treatments at home, allows for readers to have the ability to have agency and autonomy in their own medical care, while being guaranteed by Pinny that these modes of treatment are “perfectly safe and effective [and that] the best authorities have been consulted, and it is believed that the plan will meet the approbation of the most eminent practitioners of the age.”[v] In producing one’s own medicines, one had the potential to subvert the system of physicians, but one also might receive economic and health benefits of self-production. These benefits of self- production had been mentioned previously by Samuel Thomson as a rational for purchasing the “Family rights”[vi] to the Botanic Society which would give consumers the tools to produce and practice their own treatments apart from the heroic medicines performed by physicians viewed to be dangerous by Thomson.[vii] However by 1836, Thomson had withdrawn support of his Botanic reader because his work had been used in ways that he did not intention[viii] and many of his ideas continued to circulate and were implemented in ways that ended up partially complimenting the medical system that relied upon a professional class from which he had rebelled, such as Curtis founding the Botanic Medical School in 1839.[ix] While Thomsonsonian medicine was only one among many medical sects in the United States,[x] its own creation and transformation puts the production of this book into an interesting perspective. Pinny’s piece affirms established physician medical practices when it references Sir R. Phillips[xi] and Dr. Boerhaave[xii] and makes the claim in the preface that the eminent physicians of the time would approve the medicines and treatments prescribed in this book. However, the ease of self-medical care guaranteed by the book, negates the physician as a necessary part of treatment.
 The production of this book thus simultaneously affirms and undermines the presence of the physician in the medical practice. The physician ends up being only relevant as a source to ironically affirm one’s choices and perhaps partake in the creation of future medical treatments. These American reactionary movements to disease and medical practice are unique in that they in part stem from an identity shaped by an ever-expanding frontier. The lack of a fully established infrastructure like the ones present in nineteenth century Europe, allowed for these complicated medical philosophies to exist, interact, and perpetuate.[xiii]
Social conditions of gender and economics also influenced the type of medical knowledge and health care that Americans would seek. In the preface, H. Pinny writes that, “This work has been compiled with a careful regard to economy. The cook’s department recommends  the attention of those who cook well at a moderate expense.”[xiv] The book targets readers or laborers that worked for families of moderate economic means who wanted to use their resources most cost-effectively for the most beneficial results. Since women did the majority of cooking within the family setting, whether they were the servants or the female head of the household, and since the piece first focuses on the production of food, this book was obviously targeted towards female readers.[xv] While Pinny particularly mentions the benefit of the book to thrifty cooks, the quick shift to the production of one’s own medicine at economic value is also included in the work. After the medical section, Pinny writes another called the “The Housewife’s Department [which] contains a large collection of miscellaneous recipes relative to housekeeping. &c., which will be of great value to every family, many of them never before published.”[xvi] Pinny’s use of the phrase “value to every family” in regards the housewife section is parallel to his use of the phrase “useful and tried remedies for … almost every family.”[xvii] The correlation is that women were responsible for the production of these treatments along with the production of food and the labor associated with the housekeeping. It is relevant to think how in this book the description for the production of white or red current jam[xviii] is written in extremely similar language as the cure for cholera infantum.[xix] Pinny sees women as capable and responsible for the ability to do the work a physician may have. While this inclusion of medical treatments alongside recipes is not rare,[xx] it is important to note the gender dynamics involved. In a way, Pinny could be viewed as giving women a great respect by saying that they can equally do the work of the physician. However, at the same time, he does not respect women as a source of knowledge. In the structure of the book, women are passive in that they only receive the knowledge rather than create it. While he listed specific physicians in his medical section, he does not acknowledge any individual women for their contributions of the recipes and only says that “the recipes are new, having been prepared, or furnished, originally for this work. Selections have also been made from various works on this subject, such as have been proved to be good by use.”[xxi] Furthermore, there exists an interesting power dynamic in which women are entrusted with the care of families and are expected to distribute food and medical treatments, yet the gender of the compiler of the book, Pinny, was male. These economic and sexual dynamics hint at the way the history of medicine may be a gendered and socioeconomic tale.
Pinny’s book highlights many of the issues at hand within American medical history. In order to further investigate these issues, other cookbooks produced from the time period must be analyzed. An investigation of Pinny’s personal history may also provide more insight. As well, a closer look at the histories of the cited physicians may prove useful. I would also like to look at the ingredients in the suggested cures and see how many of them are sourced locally in relation to Philadelphia, where the book was published. Furthermore, if possible, it would be beneficial to find earlier books that provide the same or similar cures that Pinny had and do a comparison. This book leads to so many other questions that I feel that must be explored, especially the role of the influence of the frontier expansionist mentality of Americans[xxii] and gender upon medical practices of the nineteenth century.

[i] Pinny, H. Family Recipe Book, Containing Several Hundred Valuable Recipes on Every Branch of Domestic Economy; Embracing cookery, the Cure of Disease, the Use of Principle Roots and Herbs as Medicine, Making Dyes, Colouring, Cleaning, Cementing, &c. &c. Philadelphia: For the Publisher, 1847. Print.1
[ii] Pinny, H. Family Recipe Book, 2
[iii] Ibid. 39.
[iv] Ibid. 58. “Cure for cancer- take bark of red oak, and burn it to ashes. Apply this to the cancer, til it is eaten out.”
[v] Ibid. 2.
[vi] Alex Berman, “The Thomsonian Movement and Its Relation to American Pharmacy and Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 30 (1956), 416.
[vii] Alex Berman, “The Thomsonian Movement and Its Relation to American Pharmacy and Medicine,” 420.
[viii] Ibid. 426.
[ix] Ibid. 427.
[x] Ibid. 406.  “Shryock states that there were at least nine medical sects in the United States during the nineteenth century.”
[xi] Pinny, H. Family Recipe Book, 34.
[xii] Ibid. 35.
[xiii] Paul Starr makes a related argument in Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Chapter 1: “Medicine in a Democratic Culture” New York: Basic, 1982. Print.
[xiv] Pinny, H. Family Recipe Book, 2.
[xv] Ibid. “the mode of cooking is as is general practiced by good American house-keepers.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ibid.32. “white or red current jam- pick the fruit very nicely, and allow an equal quality of finely pounded loaf sugar; put a layer of each, alternatively, into a preserving pan, and boil for 10 minutes; or they may be boiled the same length of time in sugar previously clarified and boiled like candy.”
[xix] Ibid. 39. “cholera infantum-the stomach and bowels must be evacuated and afterwards give charcoal and magnesia, or the latter alone. When there is much irritability, clusters of flax seed tea, mutton broth, and starch, with a littler laudanum in them, will give ease. Formentatios to the bowels and abdomen are useful. After the worst of the symptoms is over, give Peruvian bark in powder of decoction, adding a little nutmeg or use a tea of arens, or bayberry root, or the leaves of red raspberry. The removing of children to the country, abstaining from fruit, the use of flannel, and cold bath, are the means prescribed for prevention.”
[xx] Ruth Schwartz Cohen describes this in detail in her book Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: the Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic, 1983. Print.
[xxi]Pinny, H. Family Recipe Book, 2.
[xxii] Although Americans were already in California, the Gold Rush would not happen until a year after this book was published. People had indeed reached the other coast, but the west was still fairly wild and uninhabited and lent itself to the imagination of adventurers and homesteaders. The independent survivor mentality, which would include both a need and desire to be self-sufficient would create a market for such products like Pinny’s book.

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