Deciphering antique recipes

Old recipes

Reading old recipes (or "receipts" as they are often called) is a fascinating glimpse into history. Sometimes the directions or terms are cryptic and leave you wondering what the writer was trying to say. Enter Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, the duo behind a project called "Cooking in the Archives." In the project, sponsored by a grant from the University of Pennsylvania, Connell and Nicosia dig up interesting recipes from the university's archive of handwritten manuscripts and rewrite them for modern cooks.

Both women specialize in early English literature dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, Connell a sixth year Ph.D. student at Penn and Nicosia a recent graduate. The team's project "is something of a cross between a cooking blog and a public access television history program. The posts are chatty and informative and fall on just the right side of utter nerdiness. (There are frequent references to the Oxford English Dictionary and at least one foray into Shakespeare.)"

Connell and Nicosia are limiting themselves to handwritten recipes (both women are trained in paleography, the study of ancient handwriting). "In academia, the default is print rather than manuscripts because it's more accessible," Connell says. "I like the underdogs of historical literary records. . . . It feels like rescue of some kind." There's also a feminist angle to the project, as printed literary works of the period were mostly written by men. For someone interested in analyzing women's records, "handwritten documents on food and medicine are often the only surviving resource."

While the team precisely transcribes the recipes, when they get into the kitchen, they don't slavishly adhere to the (often quite limited) instructions or tools of the era. When encountering a recipe that instructs the cook to work ingredients by hand "till it all be very soft," Connell chooses to use a modern appliance instead. "I have a Kitchen Aid mixer," she laughs. "Not so authentic, but oh, so helpful.

1 Comment

  • Rinshin  on  1/7/2015 at 2:59 PM

    LOL - I have a huge plastic container full of recipes from the 1960's through 1970's and looking at the above photo, mine could easily be in them.

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