Exploring Food through Famous Chefs—and Unknown Workers
"We wanted to do two things," exhibition curator Amanda Herbert says of First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas. "We wanted to give people a sense of the famous chefs and food creators and food makers in the period, but we also, simultaneously, wanted to recognize that—just like today—most of the work relating to food in early modern Britain was done by people who were and are not recognized."
"One of the things that we were working against was the assumption that the Renaissance was all about banquets and big, pretty engravings," says Herbert's fellow exhibition curator, Heather Wolfe. While First Chefs does include an engraving of James II's vast coronation banquet, it offers far more glimpses of often-hidden workers. "Some of the manuscripts identify people who would otherwise be lost to the historical record," says Wolfe. "We have a legal inventory which includes the names of seven enslaved people." And from a British estate, there is "an account book which includes payments to women and men who are weeding the gardens and doing other garden maintenance," she says. "So much of the strength of the Folger collection is in these manuscripts, which include many traces of non-elite people who were the backbone of English society."
Wolfe and Herbert also take a special interest in the well-published writer Hannah Woolley, another of the first chefs. "We were excited to include her," says Wolfe, "because her audience was not elite women and men, but women coming from a variety of backgrounds, who were aspiring not just to be cooks, but also to do household work or to do embroidery. Hannah Woolley was not just a chef; she was teaching all kinds of domestic arts. She's a super-fascinating character who has that Betty-Crocker-like mystique."
While the exhibition fetes Woolley, Hercules, and the other first chefs, it also exhibits the written work of lesser known, sometimes unnamed, figures. First Chefs pays special attention to the Folger's collection of 17th-century handwritten English recipe books, which is the largest in the world. Ten of the recipe books are on view, with a touchscreen display that allows visitors to "flip through" their pages electronically.