Snails, Hedgehog Heads and Stale Beer

A peek inside premodern cookbooks.

Early modern cookbooks were about far more than just cooking. They instructed their readers how to make an enormous range of items, from soaps, dyes and perfumes to beer, gin, and even cures for smallpox and solutions for counteracting curses. What they all had in common was a format: the recipe.

These books meant business. The goal of each entry was to describe the most effective possible course of action for a given problem in the briefest possible terms. In the case of recipes for food, this brevity can be maddening for readers more accustomed to the Julia Child approach. The books offer no details about degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius or precise cooking times. Sometimes the ingredients themselves are unclear—when a recipe for a “snaill water” intended to treat tuberculosis calls for a “handfull” of “Ivery” to be thrown into the boiling “red cows-milk,” are we to imagine the reader reaching for her jar of ground-up elephant tusks?

These seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ‘receipt’ books, as they were known, offer a rare peek into the households of a vanished world. The handwritten texts were usually passed down by female heads of household—women who controlled not only the cooking of food, but also the preservation of their families’ physical health. But unlike the works of great artists or musicians, the recipes of ordinary people were rarely thought of as something worth preserving, and so haven’t tended to make their way into printed texts. This is why the cookbook collection held by the University of Pennsylvania Rare Books and Manuscripts Library is so fascinating, and so valuable.

The texts in Penn’s collection tell us about far more than how eighteenth century people fricasseed chicken (although there are many that do). They also reveal a vast and vanished world of disease and healing in early modern times. Last month, I wrote about a letter from a colonial-era woman suffering from a prolapsed uterus, sent to an alchemist and physician who would later become one of the earliest governors of Connecticut. This was an unusual case. For the vast majority of ailments—not just ordinary fractures or cuts, but even serious diseases like typhoid, syphilis or smallpox—the primary medical caregiver in a colonial American household would not have been an outside doctor, but rather a member of the family. Mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts drew upon their receipt books for guidance.

One of the main things that comes across in the Penn collection is the diversity of diseases being cured. Recipes for smallpox and plague cures abound. But even more common are treatments for diseases that no longer exist.

As an example, let’s look at a pair of recipes for curing “convolution fits.” They happen to map fairly closely onto the “elite” medical practices of their day. But because these homemade recipes were constantly being improved based on feedback from patients, their ingredient lists show quite a bit of variation from the period’s more standard cures.

The first cure for “convoltion-fitts,” circa 1700, from Penn MS Codex 388 [Account book and recipe book], England, 1699-1703

To make powder for convoltion-fitts dry 3 ravensculls and the head of a he[dge]-hog to powder and take as much every morning as will hang one a shilling.

The second cure for “convoltion-fitts” from Penn MS Codex 388, folio 47r

To cure convoltion-fitts a surrop take a handfull of single-pyeany roots 2 handfull white lilly-rootes, Pallopodiam rootes, mugwort roots, and leaves of horehound of each a handfull, 2 ounces annyseeds, a handfull fennel rootes, 3 ounces lickerish, one handfull pelitary of the wall, boyl all together in 3 quarts of water tell it comes to 3 pints, then take a pound of suger, boyl it a quarter of an hour, put it to coole, and bottell it, take a quarter of a pint the furst thing in the morning, fast 2 hours after it, then an hour after breckfast, take 25 drops of sallamoneck [salamoniac], in a glass of beere, take 25 more at four a clock in the afternoone, and the last thing at night, take half a quarter of a pint of the surrop, and this course continue every day for a week. At the full of the moon, if the fits be bad, put a blistring plaister one the neck, and as soon as that is well, put on another, before begin to take these things: take a cardias vomet, with 2 papers of salt [of] vittrell [vitriol] to make it work, and then let blood, if you take Stron[g]-Ale a fortnight after you have done takeing thes things, and continue the takeing 3 weeks, takeing 2 purges after, it will be of great use to make a perfect cure, but this course must be repeated every spring and fall. If the person finds anny return of the fitts, take sum times a spoonfull of assafettita watter. You must take powder of raven-scull or dead mans scull in the surrop every morning or night as will fit on a six-pence.

What did “convolution-fitts” mean circa 1700? We might be tempted to link the phrase with the disease now known as epilepsy, which induces seizures. But convulsions can also be caused by nutrient deficiencies, meningitis, St. Vitus Dance, or even forms of poisoning like ergotism.

When reading a premodern cookbook, it’s usually easy to draw a clear line between the ingredients of 300 years ago and those of today. But it’s much harder to make clear judgments about the modern correlates of premodern recipes in the case of diseases, which were typically known under several different names and were often attributed to curses, poisons, or evil airs. To make matters even more confusing, in some cases, diseases like the plague or leprosy are believed to have actually mutated in the recent past.

Another thing that emerges from the convulsion syrup ‘receipt’ is the lack of any clear line dividing medicine and food. In a world where risk of starvation was still a basic fact of life for the majority of all humans and nutrition was poorly understood, it is conceivable that many cures worked simply by providing nutrients to the sick patients who consumed them. The syrup recipe calls for a massive amount of sugar (one pound) to be dissolved in a relatively small amount of water and then drunk in quarter-pint increments. This would have delivered a fairly substantial amount of calories via sugar and beer alone. The addition of alchemical ingredients like sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride) may also have played a role in balancing the body’s electrolytes, which the frequent bleedings and purgings of early modern medicine probably depleted.

As for the “dead mans scull”? You read that correctly, and no, it was not a euphemism for a plant or mineral. Colonial Americans and early modern Europeans really did consume ground-up human skulls as medicines.

For readers looking for something a bit more appetizing, here is a collection of culinary recipes from early nineteenth-century Baltimore:

From MS Codex 797, here’s a recipe for a low-alcohol beer:

To Brew small Beer To 15 Gallons of water put a sifter full of bran. A sifter not quite full of hops 3 quarts of molasses, boil it very fast for three hours, then strain it and put in a quart of yeast, when it is when it is [sic] milk warm put it in the beer, in winter let it stay a week before you use it, in summer 4 days.

And here’s a method for removing the bitterness from coffee, seemingly an early example of the “egg coffee” now associated with Scandinavian communities in the Midwest:

How to make coffe Grind the coffee well put the white of an egg and shell in, put water enough to mix it well, then put it in the pot, put boiling water o it and let it boil one hour.

And finally, an early version of what would become Philadelphia cream cheese:

Philadelphia receipt for Cream Cheese Take 1/2 Gallons of mornings milk while warm mix with it the Cream from two gallons of [illegible] milk and two quarts of water bring 1/8 part the quantity of new milk turn it with rennet drain of the whey lay a small cloth within the hoop and fill it with curds place the fourth corner of the cloth over it and press down the board cover and place a stone of one pound weight upon it let it remain one hour take it out rub it with salt and let it stay til evening turn it twice a day and in hot weather three times, the board cover should have holes in it.

Anyone looking to cook these or other historical recipes for the holidays would do well to start with the Cooking the Archives blog, in which two literature PhDs walk their readers through the challenges of interpreting antique recipes in modern kitchens. But you can also dive right into the primary sources and browse through the thousands of recipes preserved in the Kislak Center for Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of these manuscripts have been digitized, and you can peruse them here in search of the perfect recipe for lobster loaves, cock ale, and Portugal cakes.

Further reading: