Skip to main content
The Collation

Recipes for Survival

[content note: discussion of pregnancy, and both the intentional and unintentional loss thereof]

Jamaica Kincaid’s well-known short story, “Girl” (1978) presents a recipe of womanhood, concocted by patriarchal and colonial oppression but also inscribed with creative resistance. The knowledge passed from mother to daughter involves instructions on cooking, maintaining one’s social position, and keeping a home, but also includes tips about managing fertility. Like an early modern cookbook, similar to so many in the Folger collection, the mother’s recipes meander from preparing dinner to preparing abortifacient medicines: how to make pepper pot, how to cure a child’s cold, and then finally, “how to throw away a child before it becomes a child.” The realm of domestic medicine involves herbs, healing, reproductive care, and the passing on of information among female circles and family members.

Early modern women’s cookbooks combine culinary, pharmaceutical, botanical, and cultural knowledge through a collective ancestral voice, as if a great aunt or mother has scraped together a commonplace book for a future mother, who will need to feed and cure her family and herself, over and over again. Collated in one handwritten manuscript might be recipes for seed cake, plague water, miscarriage prevention, ease-in-labor, abortion, perfumes, gun powder, french porridge, quince marmalade, and red ink. Most cookbook manuscripts I consulted in the Folger collection include medicinal cures for illnesses, maladies, griefs, torments, and pain ranging from toothaches, bed-wetting, intestinal worms, cancers, wounds, and of course, the stigmatizing, sexist disorders of the uterus such as hysteria, suffocation of the womb, fits of the mother, greensickness, and lovesickness. Many recipes differentiate dosage for a child or include a little violet syrup for the child’s tincture, and indicate whether a recipe is safe for pregnant women.

Cookbooks or receipt books (as they were often called) have embedded within them the survival of our species through midwifery, reproductive healthcare, and the healing properties of food, touch, and aromatherapy. These books, even the male-authored ones, depend upon women practitioners of domestic medicine and midwifery, as well as women’s lived experiences of loss and survival, and everything in between. Women often performed informal clinical trials among their family to test cures, and many took it upon themselves to comment on recipes with a notation that this was “my mother’s recipe” or that a cure saved a family member, a woman’s life, or even the previous owner of the cookbook. One such annotation under a recipe for “the overflowing of them,” a reference to heavy bleeding, in Jane Dawson’s cookbook, notes that Mrs. Warton “saved a woman’s life with this that was given over for dead.”

Rather than the mad scribblings of old wives’ tales, witches, or unlearned housewives, early modern cookbooks testify to the fascinating, caring, and multigenerational female scientific and creative communities whose healing touch is still incalculable. Countless recipes and cures for women facing infertility, miscarriage, breastfeeding difficulties, and what we might call today postpartum anxiety or depression signify the role of women-bonded community, especially around maternal care. I think of myself and my own female friends and relatives and how I would never have survived the challenges of mothering without the conversation, support, and lived experiences of other mothers and sisters, biological and chosen. Although there is a grotesque stigma in cures written for “convulsive fits of the mother,” for instance, I want to highlight the fact that women notice, care about, and help each other with their shared suffering. That is powerful.

However, the sisterhood of women demonstrated in the cookbooks is largely based on social class, status, race, geographic location, and lineage; researching the high cost of saffron, called for in many recipes for easy labor, evidences how health disparities have always existed along lines of race and class. In a post about knot cookies and women’s skill, a scholar comments that while sugary confections denoted status for the baker, the history of sugar production relied on systemic subjugation and exploitation through slavery and colonization. The enslaved women and servant classes are conspicuously buried in the cookbooks I researched, and bring to mind the histories not only of enslaved African women but of black maids and domestics in the 20th Century. It brings to mind Toni Morrison’s novel Tar Baby (1981) which satirizes the ingredient list and culinary skills of a white woman, Margaret Streets, as juxtaposed to a black woman servant in the household, Ondine Childs; set on a Caribbean island, Childs salvages the Christmas Dinner from an upper-class white woman who can’t cook.

Recipes are in an almost secretive language of instructions that exude feelings of belonging, trust, need, hope, comfort, and legacy. The simple instructions, peculiar abbreviations and turns of culinary or pharmaceutical phrasing blur the lines of oral tradition and writing, and exist in the female, domestic spaces of kitchens, cabinets, and gardens. Culinary and medicinal recipes, in their language, visibility, and abundance, acknowledge the conditions and plights of women: remedies are validations of pain, offerings of support, sensory interventions that, despite differences between humoral medical theory and modern medicine, treat the whole person. Differentiating between the experiences of women in the pangs of childbirth, one recipe offers “a good and speedy remedy for women in labor being in danger,” and the next recipe in the book offers a specific cure “for extreme hard labor in child bed of three-days”.

Women’s cookbooks often contained abortifacient recipes, suggestive of a long history of reproductive care and justice, outside the reign of church or government. Although midwives could be prosecuted for perceived involvement in abortion, stillbirth, infanticides, or medical complications, and thus lose their reputations and business, midwives worked in female spaces such as bedchambers, outside of the purview of men. Several recipes I found are coded abortive medicines, offering ways to bring about menstruation, thus terminating a pregnancy: remedies to provoke menses, bring down the desired sickness, or bring down “flowers.” Menstruation, though it may be called flux, terms, courses, the cure, monthly sickness, flooding, the female flood, or the bloody issue, is often referred to in medicinal cookbooks as flowers. The poetic metaphor derives from the observation that after flowers come fruit on a tree; likewise, after menarche, teenage women become fertile. In one cookbook, a recipe promises to “provoke flowers and stanch the swell in the belly” Another recipe “to provoke the flowers” involves horse dung strained in milk and added to ale, to be drunk for three consecutive mornings.

In a culture that passed off a miscarriage or stillbirth as nothing to grieve, minus the “cost of the casket and the winding-sheet” according to one reverend, the cookbooks with their references to pregnancy loss are a record of solidarity and care, a radical acknowledgement and act of grief. The cookbooks are a reminder of what it took to survive as an early modern woman. A reminder of all the things women were responsible for, the immense burdens of staying alive in light of the threats of plague and childbirth, coupled with the emotional labor of being a healer, midwife, othermother. The recipes indicate that women would have been charged to fix everything from their own kitchen cabinets, medicinal gardens, and everyday objects: make a sear-cloth; make a bandage from a cobweb; stimulate hen-laying in winter; make gun-powder; correct a fracture; suture a deep wound; prevent the Plague; ease a mother’s labor pain; treat colds, scurvy, rickets, cancers; deliver a womb of a stillborn birth; terminate a pregnancy; cure a knot in the breast; end all manner of griefs and maladies that beset the human race. Many cures promise so much, testify to the cure’s success when all else failed, or suggest a panacea for good living. Names like “the syrup of long life” invite the college try. While some overpromise, other compilers of recipes say, “By God’s grace may it help.”

Mrs. Mary Granville passed on her family cookbook to her daughter Ann with a dedication that showcases her own coy, guilty confessions and highest hopes for the next generation: “Mrs Ann Granvills Book/ which I hope she will make/ a better use of than her mother”.

Mary’s other daughter, Mary Granville Delany, didn’t inherit the neglected cookbook, but engraved a place for herself in the male-dominated world of botany, and, according to the OED, invented the word botanize. Instead of snipping herbs for a recipe, Delany would snip hand-painted tissue paper to form the most exquisite, scientifically accurate flower collages, glued with egg-whites to a black background. I have seen her work at the British Museum, and her collages look like paintings, the labor of collage invisible. She invented this genre in her seventies, and continued until she lost her eyesight; she bid her beloved flowers that occupied so much of her time and passion a goodbye by poem. Her work, nearly a thousand paper-collages of flowers, received a nod from Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants, though her scissors would be feminized as tenderly plying in her scientific art. Sir Joseph Banks noted that Delany’s flower-mosaics were errorless, and supplied her with flowers from royal gardens to work from. Trained in the feminine arts of shellwork, embroidery, domestic horticulture, and paper cut-out silhouettes, Delany transferred her matrilineal knowledge of gardens and female creativity into science, and well before STEAM was a thing promoted especially to young women. Delany also played an important mentoring role to her protegé, the novelist Fanny Burney, even bequeathing to her a stash of personal letters to entreat the muse, perhaps excited for Burney’s success at a time when few women were authoring novels with that kind of reception.

The cookbook tradition, as with the female midwife manuals, were one of few spaces where early modern women weren’t treated as unlearned amateurs. It is not only a literary form, but one that is collaborative and invitational, encouraging women’s literary production. For this reason, I wasn’t surprised to find recipes for black ink (cited as the trusted recipe of the author’s mother), red sealing wax, and remedies to erase or preserve text.

Cookbooks, diaries, birthday cards, and a self-published miscellany of war memoir and poetry are the only texts I have of my grandmothers (born in the 1920s) and a great-grandmother (born in 1900). Cookbooks, at once small, basic, and prescribed as well as unwieldy, eclectic and capacious, are odd texts that invite questions about what scraps and pieces survive from women’s creative production. The 20th century feminist poet Adrienne Rich thematized velvet scraps, quilts, needlepoint, tattered remnants, bombardments, mermaid-decorated shipwrecks, old houses, and doorframes as proof of survival, of existence, for women. In the poem, “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991), Rich writes, “I don’t want to know/ wreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materials/ and so are the slow drift of the moon’s belly/ over wreckage, dreck and waste, wild treefrogs calling in/ another season, light and music still pouring over/ our fissured, cracked terrain.” Like Alice Walker pointing to women’s creativity in quilts and gardens (“In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,”1983), or Rich turning to domestic shrapnel, women’s creativity has always been necessary to our survival.