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Wall, Wendy. 2015. "Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen."

Wall, Wendy. 2015. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. $69.95 he. 312 pp.

Sweeping in its scope (the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries and manuscript as well as print texts) as it is specific in its narrative trajectory, Wendy Wall's Recipes for Thought offers a history of reading and writing recipes in early modern England. Painting with broad strokes the relationship between recipes, reading, and writing, Wall offers a portrait of early modern life in which recipe writing intersected with the era's literate (and literary) culture, social mobility, and dominant scientific paradigms.

Chapter One, "Taste Acts," takes up the topic of print recipe (or receipt) books by such writers as John Partridge, Gervase Markham, Robert May, Charles Lamb, Patrick Lamb, William Rabisha, Hannah Woolley, and Catharine Brooks. These books and others like them, Wall argues, increasingly "separated housewifery from cooking {as} recipe writers redefined taste as a marker of social distinction" (39). In this way, Wall's history of recipes seemingly aligns more with the cultural aspirations of Martha Stewart or Julia Child (for the "servantless" cook who aims to create an exceptional, even exotic edible) than Mark Bittman (whose ready substitutions accommodate those on a budget). Early modern print recipe books, as narrated by Wall, fostered "culinary cults of personality around individual figures" (47), the author-chefs associated with them, as "the figure of the 'good housewife,' which had formerly conjoined gendered labor, reading, and status, was strikingly reimagined in the new recipe environment" (49).

Hence, eating in the early modern household became increasingly, as Wall argues, a matter of taste rather than of the drudgery of harvest and slaughter, as the dirty business of the kitchen receded to make way for a more sanitized self-presentation. In Chapter Two, "Pleasure," Wall links "receipts" with poetic "conceits," drawing attention to how what appeared on the table mimicked the actions and product articulated on paper, both modes of creativity and "wit." With a focus again on print texts, Wall argues that these texts "offered ways for women far from centers of power to create elite kitchen art, [as] they morphed 'sotelties' [subtleties] into the imaginative possibilities of print" (82). Household work is here transformed from "arduous labor" to "cookery conceits," which "were presented as a form of socially prestigious creative play, something akin to literary devices or rhetorical turns of phrase" (109), indicative of a "historical moment when the technical and fanciful shared a home together" (no). Because so few printed texts were written by (or attributed to) women, at least until the later seventeenth century, this emphasis on the aspirational qualities found in these books necessarily generalizes about how women read and used them based on prescriptive behaviors more than practice. At the same time, as scholars like Rebecca Laroche, Michelle DiMeo, and David Goldstein, among others, have shown, even these print books provide countless examples of the mingling of human and nonhuman (plant and nonhuman animal)--the dirty hands gathering plants at the root, the gooey and often brutal confluence of blood, suet, and tissue required to manufacture salves and ointments or put food on the table. In addition, manuscript recipe books offer glimpses into the practices and motivations of domestic life that are arguably broader than Wall's argument allows. In manuscript books, we find at least some examples of cookery and medicine of the middling sort, and a diverse array of cures and alliances not necessarily vetted for public consumption; and even printed books include numerous recipes from the likes of the authoritative "Mrs." as well as the "Lady." Wall's narrative, that is, tells a particular story that perhaps inadvertently reifies dominant notions of gender and class more than it complicates them; again, including manuscript texts and the more day-to-day aspects of domestic life readily found in these books would add useful layers to Wall's analysis.

The chapter that follows, "Literacies: Handwriting and Handiwork," turns its attention to manuscript texts, to query how handwritten recipe books might offer insight into broader questions of literacy, especially women's literacy, in the period. As Wall writes, "Recipe collections thus illuminate ways that women (as well as men) engaged in tactile handiwork in the home across different media, demonstrating a kitchen literacy that is too often invisible in the scholarly record" (117). Wall proceeds to offer numerous examples of women practicing their penmanship in their manuscript recipe collections, how they signed their names with great pride inside their pages and claimed the book (and its written contents) as their own. And while, as Wall admits, "It's not saying anything particularly new to observe that manuscripts in the early modern period served as guides, catalysts, and exercise sheets for the production of writing," she continues, "Recipes were distinctive, however, in being available to women and in being nestled within domestic space and work" (137-38); and, as Wall reminds us, some recipes indeed called for the shaping of sugar paste into letters (149). Wall further makes the connection between kitchen work and writing as she foregrounds the multiple uses of the pen-knife, which might be used both to cut and turn food as well as to groom the writing quill; and she builds on this connection by discussing the inclusion of ink recipes in collections. As she writes, "Almost every respectable collection . . . had to include a good ink recipe" (141), although it is not quite clear what constitutes "respectable," since recipes for making ink were not quite as common as this might suggest.

In Chapter Four, "Temporalities: Preservation, Seasoning, and Memorialization," Wall relates the "material and abstract notions of preservation" in the kitchen to poetic memorialization, as both, she argues, function as a sort of "management of time" (168). "Seasoning" and "preservation" were both practices in the hands of the early modern housewife that depended on seasonal knowledge, the submission to the "flows of time" (171), even as they signaled "a triumphant human mastery of nature" (170). Such terms simultaneously indicate ways both to avert food spoilage and to avert illness, suffering, and death, made possible by putting pen (well, quill) to paper; preservation practices, that is, link the literary, medicinal, and culinary aspects of recipe books. It is in the act of preserving, Wall maintains, where recipes and the literary meet; distillation becomes a way to capture an otherwise expended "spirit"; "compilers" of recipe books "converted the fleeting experiences of cooking, healing, and eating into forms with personal and collective staying power" (189-90); and such compilations served as a form of legacy writing, often passed from one generation to the next. These books, in Wall's estimation, "register different ways that domestic workers placed themselves, their labors, and their written texts in relation to time" (207).

The final chapter, "Knowledge: Recipes and Experimental Cultures," evokes (albeit often more in passing than not) the impressive and growing body of scholarship in the history of medicine and literary work on recipes. However, Wall is especially interested in how "The recipe's status as writing is thus central to its epistemological mode and its place in a culture of experimentation" (212). In this chapter, Wall contends that we might see the veracity and predictability inherent in "truth claims" such as "probatum est" (216) or the "technical operationts]" (218) of and equipment used in the kitchen as elevating domestic work to the level of scientific experimentation. In particular, as Wall writes, "Through their testing and their accumulation of data, recipe users formed diffuse research cooperatives that reflected on questions at the heart of natural philosophy" (225). It is in this chapter that Wall takes up (for the second time, though here with a different focus) Shakespeare's Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. "It is," Wall asserts, "the 'proven' status of the recipe that becomes its salient and signature feature" for Helena, as she relies on the veracity and power of her father's bestowed recipe to cure the King (242). For Helena, and implicitly for the vast number of women the book cites, it would seem that the power of a recipe is not so much the practice of it, but the realization of what might be found in a book. Even though Helena cures the King, she seems merely the conduit of the "proven" quality of the recipe she inherits from her father.

For all its emphasis on domestic practice and the everyday, Recipes for Thought offers readers a quite different version of domestic life than they might find in, say, the materialist scholarship of Natasha Korda, Holly Dugan, Julia Reinhard Lupton, and others. And this is both the book's virtue and its limitation. On the one hand, by featuring a key aspect of women's household work, Recipes for Thought has the potential to complicate the conversation about gender and class that is already in progress in scholarship on textual and reading history. And for those coming to this book wholly unfamiliar with recipe writing, Recipes for Thought might serve as a broad introduction to the topic. On the other, and perhaps ironically given other recent work on the domestic sphere, the narrative Wall produces is one that (even if inadvertently) reiterates dominant paradigms and power structures, especially those related to gender and class. While Wall repeatedly describes her project as elucidating domestic practice, her narrative offers a teleology that ultimately devalues, even displaces, the gritty day-to-day activity of most housewives, whose practice is represented in these books, even if the average housewife may not have been able to write or read about it for herself. For as much as Recipes for Thought might at first glance appear to be about the making of food and medicine, it is much more about the history of writing and reading about recipes rather than working in the kitchen to cook food, the "proof' for Wall being not so much in the pudding as on the page.


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Author:Munroe, Jennifer
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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