Invention twice-over: The use of marginalia in recipe books

Recipe books may not immediately seem particularly inventive. Indeed, their very form— a list of steps to recreate a particular meal—automatically seems more straightforward and scientific in its approach. However, by examining the way receipe books are actually used, I intend to argue that they are repositories of inventive thought. My argument centers on examining two early modern English recipe books in particular—that of Anne Goodenough as well as a collection authored by multiple women. By examining the marginalia in these books, the modern day reader gleans not only how these women were utilizing these books in the kitchen, but in some ways how these books destabilized the domestic spaces they occupied.

Wendy Wall, a prominent scholar in domesticity in early modern England, has written a number of articles and two books that deal directly with cookbooks. Her argument in “Literacy and the Domestic Arts” provides a particular reading of cookbooks as practice spaces for the growing population of literate women. Not only were women compiling information about household chores, they were also using these spaces to practice their handwriting. By tying the act of writing to the act of cooking, these women were practicing what Wall dubs “artisanal literary,” which ties knowledge to experience and labor within these domestic spaces. She further argues that this artisanal literacy is fostered by a “kitchen literacy,” where the idea of “making” ties together writing and cooking (386).

By thinking about cookbooks in this way, it isn’t difficult to extend the concept of making to the actual books themselves. As Wall argues: “Writing recipes and undertaking particular types of manual work trained women in alphabetic literacy and the conventions of book use, but handicrafts in the home also signified in their own right as forms of ‘writing’ within a functional thoery of making” (387). If this idea of the physical act of making can be extended into the theoretical dimension of thought, then the marginalia in addition to the compiled recipe books function as further evidence of the inventive process.

In my review of recipe books digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the few digitized by the University of Pennsylvania Library, I have found what I consider two distinct ways to categorize this marginalia. The first is one of practice: these are usually on the front or back flyleaf and indicate either handwriting practice or other scribbles not necessarily related to the cookbook itself. I would also consider notes of ownership or images as belonging to this category. For an example of this, follow this link to view a page from a recipe book compiled by a few different women from 1675-1750. On the left hand page is a drawing of a face with swirling designs, a piece of marginalia that is actually a practice drawing from a handwriting book of the time (Wall 407). Although the image is simply a facsimile of another’s drawing, it adds a stylish ornamentation to an otherwise practical page. By incorporating these elements, women were augmenting their own knowledge, both for domestic work but also intellectual work. By utilizing the materials available to them, they could practice “invention” of their own, and in turn, as this particular collection shows, share that with other women. Invention works as a social practice, and this drawing bridges individual spheres of knowledge, alongside the cookbook’s function as a piece of collective, accessible memory.

Cookbooks are perhaps one of the best examples of viewing writing/creating as a social practice. Food itself is a tool of shared experience, as ingredients must come from someplace, be prepared by someone, and, in many cases, are shared with another person. This extends to the practice of writing a cookbook. For an example of this, follow the link to see a book digitized by Penn that contains at least two distinct handwriting patterns in the recipe section. Because a reader can easily visualize the differences between the writers, she can physically see the connections between the act of cooking and the act of recording.    

The second category of marginalia I’ve identified is one more directly related to recipes themselves; these include ingredient additions or entire recipe additions pinned in. Original recipe books weren’t systematic in their approach; instead they were written to be enjoyed, and would be considered more like a form of leisure reading. This idea of cookbook as leisure reading, on par with fictional novels, can even be traced to contemporary publications. A more substantive review of the history of cookbooks would be necessary, but based even on my own small collection of cookbooks, as well as my experience with them, it isn’t difficult to see them as artistic objects.

Most recipe books of this time period didn’t include an index, and would not have any recognizable organizational approach to the types of recipes included. Because these cookbooks were typically compiled almost scrapbook-like in their assemblage, it’s tempting to say they don’t count as a more “official” form of creation, in the same way other printed materials are. However, as Wall argues: “When women created their own recipe complilations, they engaged in a type of writing whose formatting was not freighted with the meanings found in printed collections” (395). By stripping the format from the printed material, these women were free to augment and assemble however they saw fit. This freedom extends to the modern day recipe box or online recipe compository, where things can be organized by folders or tabs or completely unorganized at all (much like my own recipe box). Thus, the marginalia in these recipe books function as what I consider an extra layer of invention. For an example of what sort of marginalia I mean, follow this link to see a copy of Anne Goodenough’s cookbook. The particular additions that interest me most are the added pages and notations particular to the recipes on the pages linked above.

The addition, titled something along the lines of “to make a fine [indecipherable; larue perhaps?] good for severall things,” is, I believe, a recipe for a roux (in more modern language), which is essentially a thickening agent for sauces and pies. Because this recipe is added in between the original recipes for sausages, pigeon stew and a pottage (essentially a thick stew popular since medieval time), it logically follows that this addition stems from the author’s own firsthand experiences with the recipes. By adding the page, she is augmenting the functional nature of the recipe, and by extension, crafting her own recipe. She has, then, invented a new dish, as well as a new way of reading this collection.

By tracing these sorts of additions, it can easily be argued that current practices with cookbooks continue this inventive tradition. By tying the making of a dish to the making of a recipe, the maker herself is inventing something new twice-over. By sharing the food created from these recipes along with the recipes themselves, she is again engaging in a social process that encourages others to add their own “flavor” to the product. Thus, the inventive process continues its cycle of reshaping and recycling.

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