A four letter word beginning with F never fails to catch my eye. I think about it with alarming consistency and indulge as often as I can. What is the word in question? FOOD. I blog about it, buy it, pick it, eat it, read about it, hardly ever more than one thought away from it. I even photograph it. I am also an experience junky. A train shuttles me into London at least once a week to visit museums, restaurants, markets, cafes, galleries and festivals. After 7 months of hard-core tourist action you’d think my list had shrunk and the amount of checks increased. No. The more I seem to indulge in my passion for London, the more it reveals to me, like a perfect, and probably mythical, romance.
The Wellcome Collection www.wellcomecollection.org, on the Euston Rd, has been on my ‘to visit’ list for some time. So, when I saw they were hosting a talk by a food historian I was clicking the ‘book here’ button on my laptop faster than you can say apple-and-harvest- berry-crumble.
The museum calls itself the ‘free destination for the incurably curious’. My pleasure upon reading that was akin to discovering I wasn’t the only one with this, at times, exhausting affliction.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES was to discover what the 17th and 18th century recipe collections and contemporary food blogs have in common. We were to ‘Explore the hidden meanings of recipes and remedies, and find out what they reveal about their writers’ status, self-identity, and relationships with others and the world’. The person who was to bring forth her findings on the subject was Dr Sara Pennell, historian of material culture and domesticity, Roehampton University. She was passionate, full of information and was intent on sharing it with her information-hungry audience.
I was fascinated to learn some of the first ever published books (in the UK) were recipe books. Or receipt (meaning to take and to give) books as they were then known. Ladies used gastronomic tomes to pass on information to friends and more importantly (to them) to prospective husbands. Their cooking knowledge added ‘breeding’ and ‘value’ to their dowry. Among the titles published in the 16th C were, The English Housewife and The Perfect Cook, they would usually feature detailed pastry work, some had exotic recipes, with ingredients hitherto never experienced, brought back with international explorers. Though most people couldn’t imagine a life without chocolate it was once a rare ingredient on our shores. The first recorded chocolate and ice-cream recipes were written by Lady Anne Fanshawe in 1651. Historians found the earliest vegetarian cookbook dating back to the 17th C.
In 1710 a young wife understood that she could reach a man through his stomach and penned her cookery book, ‘A receipt (recipe) for a person to make her husband love her’. It was stamped – ‘tried and approved’. We were invited to come and view some of the books and marvel at their 400 yr old scribblings, and pencil drawings of Latin American hot chocolate vessels.
The books were usually handed down through the generations as culinary heirlooms. I loved the wonderful spellings for cowcumbers and to boyle. Pastry was once spelled paiste. Perhaps vocabulary was peculiar to towns, parishes, or class?
I guess blogging is nothing new. Just a new form of compendium sans paper. We humans seem to just love to share our knowledge. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who is obsessed with everything food.
The Wellcome Collection is a fabulous place to be amused, amazed and inspired. When I visited there was also a Mexican miracle Paintings exhibition (paintings on tin sheets of scenes, in which a Saint was given thanks for intervening to transform a terrible fate. A Mexican tradition traced back to the 16th C.) and a fascinating display of lucky amulets, curated by Felicity Powell, including a 19th century, handwritten Lords Prayer only visible under a microscope that the owner had pasted onto a tiny coin.
Open every day, except Mondays and holidays. The recipe books are just part of the collections archives amassed by Henry Wellcome, and you can actually go and request viewings of the dusty old books if it floats your boat.