Food is ephemeral; it disappears when consumed. Food rituals and food writing, however, do not vanish so easily. In recipes from the past, we glimpse the way that individuals in many ages have attempted to offset the transitory nature of eating -- both by emphasizing how kitchen work can intervene in cycles of time and by creating recipe collections that record the bonds of kinship and community for posterity. In this talk, I unearth a set of original primary sources—recipe books from Renaissance England- to show how the age-old problem of combating time was expressed through the mundane labors of the kitchen. Cookbooks, it seems, took up the vexed task of commemoration, a dilemma of central concern to intellectuals in Shakespeare's day.
It is no coincidence that one of the most popular subjects in early English cookbooks was the making of preserves, jams, jellies, and conserves. Preserve-making exhibited a housewife's commitment to thrift, but had the added bonus of displaying elite social status and wealth. As such, preserving presented a paradox: a moral indulgence that hinted at one's monumental power to transform the natural world.
When women created handwritten recipe books, they extended their practical interest in preserving foodstuffs to the more abstract task of preserving family traditions and rituals. They inscribed their identities and family genealogies onto the pages of collections that were passed down through generations. Recipe books written in England between 1600 and 1750 thus provide us a fascinating window onto how household labor formed the basis for a particularly tasty brand of memory-work.
Wendy Wall, Professor of English Literature at Northwestern University, specializes in Renaissance literature and culture She is author of The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (1993) and Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (2002), which was a finalist for the James Russell Lowell prize awarded by the MLA and a 2002 Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award Winner. Professor Wall has published on topics as wide-ranging as Renaissance poetry, cookbooks, domesticity, editorial theory, Shakespeare, the history of authorship, women's writing, theatrical practice and Jell-O. She gives public lectures in conjunction with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and with the Newberry Library in Chicago, and has served as a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. She is currently working on a book entitled Strange Kitchens: Knowledge and Taste in Early English Recipe Books.