A Lesson in English (Receipts)

Exciting news! Thanks to the hard work (and on-going efforts) of our staff and students, a handful of the handwritten recipes books among our collections have gone online! As a group, you can find these items on our online platform, Special Collections Online. We will have more of them going up in the future, as we continue to scan and acquire new collections, but this feels like a great start! As with many of the Civil War diaries we have digitized, we are also working on transcripts of these manuscript receipt (and recipe!) books which we will add to the site as they are completed. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Hertford Receipt Book (Ms2008-027). You can view the whole item online, but we haven’t transcribed it just yet. Here’s the front cover:

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There is a finding aid for this item, but it is, to use a recipe term, a bit scant. Many manuscript receipt books, when separated from original owners for whatever reason, lose context, and leave archivists and researchers with very little provenance (the archival field’s word for “[i’]nformation regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection”). In this case, there are multiple handwritings and a variety of attributed recipes, but no clue as to who collected them or wrote them on the pages. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t learn from it.

This is a soft, marbled cover notebook, and from what we know, it dates from about 1800 to 1833. If you’re expecting recipes for food, you won’t be disappointed, but hopefully you’re open to a bit more. You see, the Hertford Receipt Book is mostly home remedies. Many of them. Have a cough? Toothache? Boots need blackening? Need white paint? Have a rat problem? Worms (there are at least three cures for that one!)? This item can help!

That being said, in true English style, you’ll also find puddings, tarts, and cakes among the pages, along with wines, “devil’s pot” and other pickling options, jams, and the intriguing “to pot pigeons like lampreys.”

One of the things I really like about this receipt book is that it has an index. While not all the ones on our shelves do, I’m surprised at how often there’s a guide at the front or back to what’s in the pages. I shouldn’t be shocked by the organizational skills of these generations of savvy women, but they certainly should get extra credit for hand-indexing! If I had to guess, in this case, it was probably done by one owner (it’s all in the same hand) and probably at a point where new recipes weren’t being added. Still, a lovely, tasty, toxic, strange, and functional labor of love.

As football fever continues around Blacksburg (and elsewhere), keep an eye out for some posts to help with those tailgating days. (Though, as someone who enjoys a number of VT sports, I’m thinking we might need to start volleyball, soccer, or basketball tailgating trends, too.) And as fall has arrived, you can probably also expect some autumnal foods in the future, too!

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