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A family group inside their cottage with a meal being served. Wellcome Images No. V0038683.

A family group inside their cottage with a meal being served. Wellcome Images No. V0038683.

Is it just me, or does recipe-swapping seem to be spreading across the media like a benign virus? Every weekend paper worth its salt has a recipe-exchange corner nowadays, while online you’re spoilt for choice, from the reassuring videos on What’s Cooking Grandma? to the erudite and frankly surreal offerings on Ken Albala’s Food Rant.

Recipes have long been a staple of the print media, but perhaps the economic downturn is sharpening our appetite? Recipe-swapping is just so comforting – it gives us a warm glow to imagine ourselves thrifty cooks using up those leftovers, to recall beloved family and friends through meals shared, to enter a virtual community of fellow swappers.

Popular interest in recipes is matched by a growth in academic research into historical recipe collections. You would expect to find food history and material culture on the menu, but recipe collections provide rich pickings for a wider range of themes including women as medical practitioners, cultural and economic trends, and the literary role of recipes in life-writing.

Research by Elaine Leong and Sara Pennell on recipe exchange as a form of currency highlights just how familiar our recipe-swapping would seem in early modern England. 17th century housewives didn’t blog, but their recipe collections were as interactive as any wiki, the frequent amendments and annotations reflecting their compilers’ social, familial and economic networks.

The issue of trust spans the centuries – both manuscript and online swappers need to make judgements about the reliability of the recipe’s source. As Leong and Pennell show, the same criteria came into play then as now – do we know the source personally? If not, do we have a friend in common? Or is the source trustworthy by professional reputation?

Well, I’ve think I’ve talked myself into swapping some recipes. As my cooking is definitely not worth trusting, I’ll share some from the Wellcome Library’s manuscript collection. Digital images of the 17th century recipes are now available online, so to tempt you into exploring this rich resource and to test your kitchen skills to the limit, I’ll be posting 17th century recipes here from time to time. To start things off, I’ll do a little name-dropping with a recipe for ‘Sugar Cakes’ from Lady Ann Fanshawe, the wife of Charles II’s ambassador to Portugal and Madrid:

‘Take 2 pound of Butter, one pound of fine Sugar, ye yolkes of nine Egs, a full Spoonfull of Mace beat & searsed [sifted], as much Flower as this will well wett making them so stiffe as you may rowle it out, then with the Cup of a glasse of what Size you please cutt them into round Cakes & pricke them and bake them.’ (Reference MS.7113, p.286)

Let us know how you get on…

Helen Wakely

Helen Wakely is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library.

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