Just like today, getting food from farm to table in the early modern British world was hard work. And just like today, most of that hard work went unrecognized.
First Chefs tells the stories of the named and unnamed heroes of early modern food culture, and juxtaposes the extravagance of an increasingly cosmopolitan and wealthy upper class against the human cost of its pleasures: the millions of enslaved women, children, and men, servants, gardeners, street criers, and laborers who toiled to feed themselves and many others.
This exhibition includes five “First Chefs,” whose stories are told in the center of the hall:
A choirboy who taught himself to farm, Thomas Tusser wrote an agricultural book entirely in verse, designed for the common man. His book was in print for over two centuries.
Robert May was sent as a teenager to France in order to learn how to cook in a continental style; he went on to compose the first cookbook for professional cooks, adapting French recipes for English palates.
A widowed woman whose name and cooking advice were appropriated by male publishers, Hannah Woolley was the first woman to earn a living as a food writer -- and arguably, the first woman to earn her living by her pen.
A pirate obsessed with plants, William Hughes chronicled the fruits and vegetables of Jamaica, St. Kitts, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands. He was the first English writer to describe cacao and chocolate to British audiences.
Kept in slavery by President George Washington and famed for his expertise in early American cooking, Hercules chose to steal himself to freedom. He subsequently disappeared from the historical record, but his legacy as a celebrated chef and self-liberator survives to this day.
Along the walls of the exhibition, the lives of early modern women and men—rich as well as poor, free and enslaved—who found, made, and ate food are revealed. Through their eyes, the exhibition explores gardens and farms, forests and rivers, plantations and fisheries, markets, kitchens, food stalls, and dining halls. Some of the lives recovered include:
- William Turner, forced to confess to stealing deer at a time when only members of the aristocracy were allowed to hunt and eat game.
- Thomasin Tunstall, a largely forgotten female botanist whose research and samples informed the work of natural scientists and apothecaries.
- A pregnant market crier selling pears on the streets of London.
- A nineteen-year-old boy who agreed to be indentured for nine years of servitude to a Virginia planter.
- Women and men of African origin who were held, sold, traded, and murdered on English plantations due to the British lust for chocolate, sugar, and rum.
- Housewives who made bread using potatoes, root vegetables, and even leaves in order to feed their families during periods of crop-failure, dearth, and famine.
- Lettice Kinnersley, punished by her husband and mother-in-law for failing to provide enough beer for her household.
- Fishermen whose livelihood and survival were threatened by oyster poachers from a neighboring county.
- Hundreds of women who painstakingly created handwritten cook books—which were then passed down from generation to generation—filled with recipes gathered from their family members, friends, servants, neighbors, and acquaintances.
First Chefs combines the Folger's unparalleled collection of food-related manuscripts and books with objects and archaeological finds from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Preservation Virginia's Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, the Library of Congress, and the Frontier Culture Museum.
Join us as we explore eating and drinking in the wide early modern British world.
Pick up recipe cards which will help you “make history tonight” by preparing adaptations of early modern recipes. One recipe is courtesy of Michael Twitty (author of The Cooking Gene) and the others are found in the Folger vaults, updated by Marissa Nicosia (Penn State Abington and Cooking in the Archives).
This exhibition is in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute.
Major support for this exhibition is provided by the Winton and Carolyn Blount Exhibition Fund of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Meet the Curators
Amanda E. Herbert is Associate Director at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, where she runs the Fellowships Program. She holds the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in History from the Johns Hopkins University. She is an historian of the body: gender and sexuality; health and wellness; food, drink, and appetite. Her first book, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain, was published by Yale University Press in 2014, and won the Best Book Award from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. She has published articles in Gender & History, the Journal of Social History, and Early American Studies, and her fellowships include grants from the American Antiquarian Society, the Huntington Library, and the Yale Center for British Art. She is an editor for The Recipes Project, a Digital Humanities effort based out of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, and a co-director for Before Farm to Table: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a $1.5 million Mellon Foundation Initiative in Collaborative Research at the Folger Institute. She is at work on her second book project, Water Works: Faith, Public Health, and Medicine in the British Atlantic, which seeks to refigure and reclaim the early modern spa, not just as a place of elite sociability, but as an important site for the study of the history of public health.
Heather Wolfe is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She received an MLIS from UCLA and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. She is currently principal investigator of Early Modern Manuscripts Online (emmo.folger.edu), co-principal investigator of Shakespeare’s World (shakespearesworld.org), curator of Shakespeare Documented (shakespearedocumented.org) and is co-director of the multi-year, $1.5 million research project Before 'Farm to Table': Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her first book, Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland: Life and Letters (2000) received the Josephine Roberts Scholarly Edition Award from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. She has written widely on the intersections between manuscript and print culture in early modern England, and also edited The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 (2007), The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary (2007), and, with Alan Stewart, Letterwriting in Renaissance England (2004). Her most recent research explores early modern filing systems and the social circulation of writing paper and blank books.
Elizabeth DeBold is the Assistant Curator of Collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As a member of the curatorial team, she has assisted with numerous projects and exhibitions, including Shakespeare Documented (www.shakespearedocumented.org), Shakespeare: Life of an Icon, and Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare. Prior to coming to the Folger, she graduated with her Master’s of Science in Library Science from UNC-Chapel Hill, and held a position as part of an IMLS-funded grant at the Duke University Divinity School Library.