In her early eighteenth-century recipe, “A Drink for the Gout,” Mary Kettilby’s list of ingredients contain both homegrown roots and objects of empire “pressed into service” for the recovery of the English subject against “Sharp Humours that occasion that dismal Tormenting Distemper.”1 The availability of spices, in quantity and at more affordable prices in the eighteenth-century, made it possible for men and women up and down the social ladder to take familiar English recipes and add an international twist. Even small village groceries would offer “customers a choice of at least half a dozen types of tea, three types of coffee, various types and qualities of tobacco products, several types of sugar, orange peel, confectionery, chocolate and an assortment of spices that included nutmeg, Jamaica pepper, cinnamon, allspice, ground ginger and black pepper.”2 Cures for gout seem to require a stop in all ports of call, yet housewives only had to walk to their local shopkeepers to acquire the ingredients.
In Kettilby’s gout recipe, we find, direct from the English garden (though “candi’d” with plantation sugar) eryngo root and Angelica-root. Imported from Asia, China root and Sweet flag are added to the brew. American Sarsaparilla, via Spanish-controlled areas in Central and South America, join raisons in the pot—raisons, which came courtesy of the triangular trade. Finally, a hybrid ingredient rears its head (or it would, if all the bits were still attached): harts-horn was often made as complete horns were imported and then shaved in England. Together, the ingredients are steeped in small ale for two weeks, then the sufferer is advised to “drink of it constantly.”
Those who consumed remedies for ailments from books such as Kettilby’s implicated themselves in the British imperial project. As Sydney Mintz argues, “when unfamiliar substances are taken up by new users, they enter into pre-existing social and psychological contexts and acquire—or are given—contextual meanings by those who use them.”3 Consumption and suffering carry much social and political weight that people tried to mystify through culinary wonder.
In her recipe, “For the Gout,” Kettilby describes her concoctions as a miracle antidote: “This alone, without any other Medicine, made a perfect Cure in a Person that had been many Year most grievously afflicted; and is effective in the Scurvy, or Rheumatick Pains.” (p.141) Nothing else could cure gout, she implies, and on top of this, her medicine could cure scurvy and rheumatic pains. The “cure,” though, is a placebo effect, or the patients’ belief in the treatment and exotic goods.
By the early 1700s, Britain was importing a range of raw materials, refining them and then exporting them. This even includes items like hartshorn, which one might expect to be utterly homegrown, but portbooks and account books show evidence of the actual deer horn as an import, that was sent to be shaven in England.4 There was also significant experimentation with growing spices on plantations in the West Indies and American colonies, in an attempt to domesticate the exotic. On the homefront, Kettilby does something that takes these physical acts of possession and transformation and brings them into the minds of her readers as “incomparable” cures.
Mary Kettilby’s receipts were widely reproduced by women who kept commonplace books or submitted her receipts to other published cookbooks throughout the eighteenth century. Kettilby herself asserts in her preface: “I can assure you, that a Number of very Curious and Delicate House-wives Clubb’d to furnish out this Collection, for the Service of Young and Unexperienc’d Dames, who may from hence be Instructed in the Polite Management of their Kitchins, and the Art of Adorning their Tables with Splendid Frugality.” (leaf A7r) She insinuates that this collection was created and passed down by “a Number of very Curious and Delicate House-wives.” However, most of Kettilby’s ingredients are internationally sourced: many would not have been economically available for the middling class until the late seventeenth century.
Homecooks looked to recreate her recipes’ wondrous effects; some still attempt to recreate her recipes today.5 Did these well meaning angels of mercy understand what they were stirring up when attempting these cures? Kettilby elides the consequences of her recipes. If one is to take her at her word, her aim is to expose to expose “the World [to] Such invaluable Secrets, as hers of a less generous Temper would have taken a Pride, and made almost a Merit, of Concealing,” leading to a kind of “Heavenly Charity.” (Preface, leaf A4r)
Examining her words closely, though (as seen in the image above), Kettilby’s preface contains a martial tone, one that evokes the flavor of empire that her ingredients exude: “There is nothing so easie, as the raising whole Regiments of Nostrums and Recipes, if we will be admit all the Voluntiers of this kind, as fast as they croud in to be listed; but these forward Ones are generally found to fail us in the Time of Trial, and the Success of the Day most commonly to depend upon such, as with great Trouble and Expence are pres’d and dragg’d into service.” (leaf A4r-v) Kettilby’s language might reflect the imagery of taking men into military service without notice, compelling them to serve. It might also refer to a need for enforced labor on the plantations or in conquered colonies which supply many of her ingredients. Food and medicine are rooted in violence here. Kettilby exemplifies the wonder of her “Heavenly Charity,” while creating a need for brute force to acquire cures—perhaps from the nostrums themselves, more likely from abused and violated people around the globe. Receipts themselves are humanized even as their ingredients represent the dehumanization of people around the globe.
The rhetoric and language of these texts require the readers to believe in the wondrous qualities of the recipes and that their “English” cures are the key to society’s health issues. Wonder was, and perhaps still is, bound to foodstuffs, especially exotic rarities, and many authors of the period blurred the boundaries between English and foreign goods. Does their homeland cure them of voyages of the palate, or do the exotic foods that created their illnesses heal them? Medicinal texts bring domestic and foreign ingredients into strange intimacy with each other, reinforcing the dichotomy between wonder and horror in the marketplace.
“Drink of it constantly” is the final instruction in Kettilby’s gout recipe, a clear call to use foreign ingredients daily to imbue the body with English remedies. Kettilby’s preface and recipes reinforce a need for force and luxury as a part of the daily required activity of eating: developing the flavors of new internationally sourced staples in the British diet. Lines are constantly blurred between what is foreign and English, with such complicated histories entrenched in the colonial project. Studying these recipe books opens up further questions about identity and embodiment as relates to actual ingredients. Do “foreign” ingredients become “British” at the moment of purchase? In the act of consumption? When they appear in popular publications? Do those same ingredients become alien again when overindulging leads to pain and discomfort? And is there ever a point where a consumer can acknowledge the pain and degradation that such ingredients demand(ed)? Whether suffering or salivating over ingredients in hand, are we always ignoring the people “pressed into service” who make such embodied experiences possible?
- Mary Kettilby, Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick, and Surgery, 2nd edition, 1719, Folger TX705.K5 Cage; we keep to Kettilby’s original spelling and capitalization.
- Bickham, Troy. “Eating the Empire: Intersections of Food, Cookery and Imperialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Past and Present, no. 198, 2008, pp. 76-77.
- Mintz, Sydney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986, p. 6.
- See, for example, household account books such as Folger MS V.b.147 and Z.d.20.
- See the website Colonial Table for blog posts about women experimenting from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cookbooks, including Mary Kettilby’s. This website details recent open hearth experiments with Kettilby’s recipes.
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