First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas

Press Contacts:
Garland Scott,, 202.675.0342

Ben Lauer,, 202.675.3246

On Exhibit

January 19—March 31, 2019

Exhibition images for press use

Washington, DC—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.

The Folger, which has over one hundred 17th-century English manuscript cookbooks, is the largest such collection in the world.

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 (circa 1524–1580) wrote Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, an agricultural book entirely in verse, designed for the common man.  His book—the most popular poetical work of the English Renaissance—was in print for over two centuries.
  • A widowed woman whose name and cooking advice were appropriated by male publishers, Hannah Woolley (circa 1622–circa 1674) was the first British woman to publish a cookbook and earn her living as a food writer—and arguably, the first woman to earn a living as an author.
  • Robert May (1588–1664), after learning how to cook in a continental style in France, wrote The accomplisht cook—the most extensive collection of recipes to appear in print and the first cookbook for professional cooks—adapting French recipes for English palates.
  • A pirate obsessed with plants, William Hughes (active 1665–1683) chronicled the fruits and vegetables of Jamaica, St. Kitts, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands. He was the first English writer to describe chocolate to British audiences.
  • Kept in slavery by President George Washington and famed for his expertise in early American cooking, Hercules (born 1754) chose to steal himself to freedom. He subsequently disappeared from the historical record, but his legacy as a celebrated chef survives to this day.

While cooking methods remained largely unchanged over the three hundred years that mark the early modern period (circa 1450–1750), methods of farming were completely overturned. Small-scale subsistence farmers were pushed off their plots by ambitious landlords hoping to create larger, and supposedly more productive, farms. Millions of women, children, and men of color were enslaved on “plantation” labor camps and forced to grow food. British palates and tastes transformed as access to “new world” foods like chocolate, chiles, potatoes, and especially sugar became key to people’s diets. These changes permanently altered experiences of food and drink.

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.

Visitors can pick up free recipe cards to “make history tonight” by preparing adaptations of early modern recipes found in the Folger vaults; peruse digital copies of cookbooks written hundreds of years ago; and share stories of treasured family recipes and favorite food memories.

The exhibition 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.

First Chefs is associated with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Culture, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger.


Amanda E. Herbert (curator) 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 (curator) 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 (, co-principal investigator of Shakespeare’s World (, curator of Shakespeare Documented ( 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 (assistant curator) 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 (, 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.


Folger website and social media

Learn more about the exhibition at or in social media using the hashtag #FirstChefs.

The Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog is sharing modern adaptations of recipes featured in the exhibition by food historian Marissa Nicosia under the tag First Chefs.


Folger Theatre | Nell Gwynn
January 29–March 10, 2019
Ticket prices vary

An orange seller from the streets of Drury Lane steps onto the stage and becomes the darling of the Restoration theater.

Talks  |  Free Folger Fridays: Cooking in the Archives
Fri, Feb 1, 6m, Free
Join Marissa Nicosia of Cooking the Archives as she delves into her work whipping up early modern recipes in a 21st-century kitchen.

Talks  |    Michael W. Twitty: The Cooking Gene
Mon, Feb 11, 7pm, Free
Culinary historian, food writer, and living history interpreter Michael W. Twitty examines the legacy of enslavement on the social, cultural, and emotional worlds of American food. Book signing to follow, with copies of his book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South available for purchase.

Folger Theatre  |  Confection
March 4 – 24
Third Rail Projects’ newest immersive theatrical experience, Confection uses accounts of the extravagant banquets and sumptuous feasts held by the aristocracy of the late 17th-century as a springboard to  contemplate cultures of consumption and pose the questions: How much does sweetness cost, and what are we willing to devour to satisfy our appetites? Performed in the Folger’s Paster and Sedgwick-Bond Reading Rooms.


Folger Shakespeare Library is located at 201 East Capitol Street, Washington, DC 20003, one block east of the US Capitol. 

Hours and Admission

Monday through Saturday, 10am–5pm
Sunday, noon–5pm

Admission is free.


Monday–Saturday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm

Folger docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge. No advance reservations required.

Group Tours

Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger's national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675–0395.


A Monument to Shakespeare: The Architecture of the Folger Shakespeare Library
April 13, 2019–January 5, 2020
Michael Witmore, curator

Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily wanted to create a monument to Shakespeare in the U.S. Capitol. This would be their gift to the American people, an architectural presence on Capitol Hill, and an anchor to the nation’s cultural mile. This exhibition shows how Henry, and after his death, his wife Emily, worked with architect Paul Philippe Cret to create a marble building that looks like a book, and speaks to the hope that Washington DC would become a cultural center.


Folger Shakespeare Library is the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his world. The Folger welcomes millions of visitors online and in person. We provide unparalleled access to a huge array of resources, from original sources to modern interpretations. With the Folger, you can experience the power of performance, the wonder of exhibitions, and the excitement of pathbreaking research. We offer the opportunity to see and even work with early modern sources, driving discovery and transforming education for students of all ages. Join us online, on the road, or in Washington, DC. 

Press Contacts:
Garland Scott,, 202.675.0342

Ben Lauer,, 202.675.3246