John Evelyn: Cook, Or, the 17th C. Man Who Would Be a Locavore

Portrait painted by Robert Walker

Omnia explorate; meliora retinete (Explore everything; keep the best.)
~~ Evelyn family motto

Somehow, and how I wish it were so, it would be nice to time-travel, to sit at table with the people I’m meeting through their words, written by long-dead hands with quill pens and India ink.

One of my new “acquaintances,” if such a word be the correct way of putting things, went (goes?) by the name of John Evelyn.

Seventeenth-century English author John Evelyn chronicled upper-class life in his Diary, which eventually ran to 6 volumes when published. Like Samuel Pepys and James Boswell, he’s known primarily for prolific diarying, but his apparent hypergraphia led him to produce a number of other writings, including a cookery manuscript, published by Prospect Press as John Evelyn, Cook: The Manuscript Receipt Book of John Evelyn, edited by Christopher Driver, 1997; a hymn to salads called Acetaria; and a tome about trees and forests — Sylva, or, A Discourse of Forest Trees.

You might say, “Why should I care about a guy who died way back in 1706?”  After all he’s a writer whose books ooze with a rather “hobbledehoy prose”* and, in one of his portraits, he resembles the archetypal noble fop, posed with his hand caressing a human skull.

The old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here. Born in our times, Evelyn, one of the founders of the Royal Society, would be one of today’s biggest advocates for the Earth. A staunch supporter of afforestation, Evelyn also worked to curtail air pollution in the London of his day. Cooks who love gardening will find a kindred soul in John Evelyn. Of vegetarians, he said they are “more acute, subtil, and of deeper penetration” than those who relish meat. And he considered a meal with meat sorely lacking if no salad rested near his fork at the same time.

Evelyn’s cookery manuscript contains 353 receipts, ranging from Wormwood Ale to French Bread.

For me, a person for whom cheesecake beats out all other desserts (except for chocolate, of course),**  John Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake cinches it for me: cheesecake and chess pie really share a common ancestry. After perusing Evelyn’s recipe and delving into the messiness of rennet-making, I think I see a strong kinship between the cheesecakes and lemon chess pies I love so much.

First of all, let’s look at Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake. (I wonder who the “wee” is that he refers to? Him? His wife? His cook or cooks? All of them, merrily stirring the pot while the fire belches choking smoke?)

154. An Excellent receipt for Cheesecakes, which wee make

Take 3 quarts of New Milk ren it pretty cold and when it is tender come drayn it from the whay in a strainer then hang it up till all the whay be drained from it, then change it into dry cloaths till it wett the Cloth no longer then straine it through a course haire sive, mingle it with 3 qrs of a pound of fresh Butter, with yr hands, take halfe a pound of Almonds beaten with rose water as fine as Curd, then mingle them with the yolks of tenne Eggs and neere a Pint of creame. A nutmeg grated sugar and a little salt when yr Coffins [pie crusts] are ready and going to sett into the Oven, then mingle them together, the Oven must be as hot for a pigeon pye lett the scorching be over halfe an houre will be them well, the Coffins must be hardned by setting into oven full of branne, prick them with a bodkin [sharp instrument], which brush out with a wing, then put in the cheesecake stuff, you may leave 2 whites in the eggs if you like it best so.

Homemade Ricotta
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

The word “ren” combined with “it” probably refers to “rennet,” which cookbook author John Nott (Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, 1726, facsimile edited by Elizabeth David, 1980) emphatically mentions in his recipe for cheesecake and Robert May (The Accomplisht Cook, 1660, glossary by Alan Davidson, reprint 1994) writes in a similar passage as “run it pretty cold.” In The Compleat Housewife (1758), Eliza Smith included specific details for extracting rennet:

“Making a Runnet-Bag”

Let the calf suck as much as he will just before he is kill’d, then take the bag out of the calf, and let it lie twelve hours covered over in stinging nettles till it is very red; then take out your curd, wash your bag clean; salt it within-side and without; let it lie sprinkled with salt twenty-four hours; then wash your curd in warm new milk, pick it, and put away all that is yellow and hollow, keep what is white and close; then wash it well, and sprinkle it with salt; when the bag has lain twenty-four hours, put it into the bag again, and put to it three spoonsful of the stroaking of a cow, beat up with the yolk of an egg or two, twelve cloves, and two blades of mace; put a skewer thro’  it, and hang it in a pot; then make the rennet water thus:

Take half a pint of fair water, a little salt, and fix tops of the red buds of black-thorn, as many sprigs of burnet, and two of sweet-marjoram; boil these in the water, and strain it out; when it is cold put one half in the bad, and let the bag lie in the other half, taking it out as you use it, make more runnet, which you may do six or seven times; three spoonsful of this runnet will make a large Cheshire or cheddar-cheese, and half as much to a common cheese.***

The eggs, the milk, and the tartness of the cheese carried over into some of the earliest recipes for pies that traveled to the New World with the British settlers.

Copyright British Library Board

John Evelyn’s epitaph:

Here lies the Body of JOHN EVELYN Esq of this place, second son of RICHARD EVELYN Esq who having served the Publick in several employments of which that Commissioner of the Privy Seal in the reign of King James the 2nd was most Honourable: and perpetuated his fame by far more lasting Monuments than those of Stone, or Brass: his Learned and useful works, fell asleep the 27th day of February 1705/6 being the 86th Year of his age in full hope of a glorious resurrection thro faith in Jesus Christ. Living in an age of extraordinary events, and revolutions he learnt (as himself asserted) this truth which pursuant to his intention is here declared. That all is vanity which is not honest and that there’s no solid Wisdom but in real piety. Of five Sons and three Daughters borne to him from his most vertuous and excellent Wife MARY sole daughter, and heiress of Sir RICHARD BROWNE of Sayes Court near Deptford in Kent onely one Daughter SUSANNA married to WILLIAM DRAPER Esq of Adscomb in this County survived him the two others dying in the flower of their age, and all the sons very young except one nam’d John who deceased 24 March 1698/9 in the 45th year of his age, leaving one son JOHN and one daughter ELIZABETH.

John Evelyn spoke frankly, honestly, and rued those who paraded their food expertise a tad bit untruthfully. Take Receipt #146: A very good cake. (The original annotation.) Then, this, added later, according to the editor: “Mrs. Black[wood?], if it had bin given right which upon triall does not answer.” One senses the sharp tip of the quill pen grinding into paper smudged with a yellow smear (egg yolk?) and the glassy look of a grease stain (butter?) .

Sometimes, frankly, there is nothing new under the sun. Honestly.

* Times Literary Supplement review, 1997, by Helen Simpson.

**Cheesecake literally became mother’s milk when my son was born, as I downed many Sara Lee cheesecakes when 3 a.m. hunger pangs woke both of us up.

***According to Rachel Feild, “ …sorrel, bedstraw, nettles, and many other hedgerow herbs were used to make cheese at almost any time of the year, without the sacrifice of calf, lamb, or piglet.” (Irons in the Fire: A History of Cooking Equipment. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire: CrowoodPress, 1984.) And acids like vinegar and lemon juice curdled milk, too, in a pinch. Acid + Milk = curds, thanks to casein.

For more by and about John Evelyn:

John Evelyn, A Study in Bibliophily with a Bibliography of His Writings, by Sir Geoffery Keynes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. (A bio-bibliography putting Evelyn in the context of his times.)

The Diary of John Evelyn (selected text).

Descriptions of gardens from the Diary.

The Rusticall and Economical Works of John Evelyn: Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets (1699).

© 2010 C. Bertelsen



  • Thank you for your comments, Stephen. I’m not saying that cheesecake = chess pie — I’m suggesting that the tastes and the basic ingredients became the chess pie, with its added acidity whether from vinegar or buttermilk; perhaps some of the knowledge of making the cheese disappeared or whatever. It’s a subject that needs more delving into, I think.


  • How wonderful of you to feature this extremely interesting book, which has has a wealth of information nowhere else available. Evelyn’s cheesecake, it turns out, is a 1/2 recipe of To make Mrs. Leed’s Cheese Cakes, from W. M.’s THE COMPLEAT COOK, , circa 1655, page 83 of the 1983 Prospect Books reprint. You are no doubt correct that Evelyn’s “ren it” refers to rennet, for the phrase in the Leed’s recipe is “renn it.” However, having made the Leed’s recipe twice, I can report that it is standard early English dairy cheesecake, not the sort of cheesecake that evolved, in America, into lemon chess pie. (Evelyn does record two lemon-cheesecake-type recipes in his cookery papers, in Seville-orange iterations, but these recipes take the forms of a tart and a pudding baked in pastry, not “cheesecakes.”)


  • Hi Nancy,

    Thank you, and I know what you mean about the wording found in old recipes. Very unique (to us, anyway!) ways of framing concepts, I think.


  • I became aware of Acetaria when I was once writing a history of salad long ago. Thanks for this incredibly interesting post. I can appreciate the time it probably took to put together. Love the wording of the old recipes as it brings the time alive in a way that other writings cannot, especially things like “with y’hands.” Wonderful!


  • An extraordinary man who lived extraordinary events in a fast-moving period of English history. Thanks for posting this. Thanks for the recipe, too.


  • That is a totally fascinating review. Although I studied that era of English history/literature I learned nothing about John Evelyn — no doubt one more piece of evidence about the narrowness of traditional education. I am putting him on my list of authors to read.



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