Gervase Markham, Author of the First Documented English Cookbook in America?

by Burnet Reading, published by Thomas Rodd the Elder, after Thomas Cross, line engraving, early 19th century
by Burnet Reading, published by Thomas Rodd the Elder, after Thomas Cross, line engraving, early 19th century

Sweat rolled down his cheeks and blinded him for a minute, as he grabbed for the dirty white cloth around his neck. He wiped his face and cursed, for the day was hotter than any in living memory, London being usually cool and so rainy that black mold bloomed like the flowers of spring, overnight. The last wooden chest lay at his feet, the one that Richard Berkeley ordered  delivered to Mr. Thorpe in Jamestown via the ship Supply, companion to the Mayflower. The letter to George Thorpe said, not that he a mere docker could read it, that the chest contained some precious goods:

Markhams and Goouges* bookℯ of all kynd of English husbandry and huswifry, and others for the orderinge of silk and silkwormes are nowe sent, which take into your owne hands from Thomas Lemis, otherwise you will bee defrauded of them.” (p. 400, Virginia Co. Records, volume III, letter to George Thorpe from Richard Berkeley and John Smyth, September 10, 1620)

In other words, George Thorpe could expect Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615) once the Supply docked at Jamestown, in far away Virginia.

Who was Gervase Markham and why have so few writers about early American cuisine mentioned him, except in passing, if at all?

His quirky, pixy eyes belie his prolificity as a writer, one that some dub the first so-called hack writers in modern history, and possibly the first to import an Arabian horse into England.**

And possibly one of William Shakespeare’s rivals? Some writers such as Robert Gittings, in his tepidly received Shakespeare’s Rival (1960), suggest that Gervase Markham (1568-1637) might have been the man that Will skewered here and there in his sonnets and elsewhere. Markham may have in fact also inspired Shakespeare’s Don Adriano de Armado of “Love’s Labor Lost.” Don Armado, as you might recall, was given to high-falluting words and spoke in long paragraphs, fancying himself a pal of the king’s, when in fact the courtiers surrounding him saw nothing but a joke when they looked at him.

If Shakespeare indeed felt the urge to lampoon Markham, the copious output of this expert on husbandry, cookery, dairying, brewing, and other sundry subjects likely piqued Will’s jealousy. Prior to Markham, rare indeed were books on yeomanry or the skills for successful country life, The Book of St. Albans (printed in1486) being one of very few precursors.

Markham wrote about horses, cattle, and cookery, among many other topics. Here we are most concerned about his two-part tome, Countrey Contentments, of which The English Housewife formed the second part.  His cookery followed the English manner, from first to last. He himself wrote,” … let it be rather to satisfie nature then our affections, and apter to kill hunger then revive new appetites, let it proceed more from the provision of her owne yarde, than the furniture of the markets; and let it be rather esteemed for the familiar acquaintance she hath with it, then for the strangenesse and raritie it bringeth from other Countries.” (p. 8, Chapter 1, Michael best, ed., The English Housewife)

Culinary historian Karen Hess mentioned Markham often in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (1981), a work based on Jane Ludwell Parke’s copy of a seventeenth-century manuscript cookbook that came to Virginia with Jane’s stepmother, Frances Culpeper, wife of Governor Sir William Berkeley, who governed Virginia from 1641-1652 and again from 1660-1677. Two of the recipes – both incomplete – interpreted by Ms. Hess concerned boiled fowl, in this case chicken.

To Boyle Chicken
Pull & draw them, then put parsley & [ in their] bellies; boyle ym with water, & salt, 7 [ ] butter, vinegar, 7 some of ye [ ] in; beat ym together, yn cut [ ] If you can get gooseberries [ ] put in a little sugar, 7 [ ] (p. 55, Hess, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery)

Markham, if his book was indeed in the colony by 1620, could very well have written down the standard procedure for what is best described as stewed hen, or his recipe/technique was adapted and written in manuscript cookbooks of the day:

An Excellent Way to Boil Chickens
If you will boile Chickens, young Turkies, Pea-hens, or any house-Fowle daintily, you shall after you have trimmed them, drawne them, trust them, and washt them, fill their bellies as full of Parsly as they can hold; then boile them with salt and water onely till they be enough: then take a dish and put into it veriuice, and butter, and salt, and when the butter is melted, take the Parsly out of the Chickens bellies, and mince it very small, and put it to the veriuice and butter, and stirre it well together; then lay in the Chickens, and trimme the dish with sippets, and so serve it foorth. (transcribed, p. 79, Best)

Markham’s treatment of chicken appears as late as the eighteenth century in Worcester in England, according to Florence White’s Good Things in England (1932), including the sippets (triangular pieces of toast). In fact, the recipe is somewhat similar to fricassees, to which Markham also devotes some ink, as well as to stewed chicken, a dish very familiar to me from my childhood, based as it was on recipes from my Southern grandmothers.

Gervase Markham’s opus, so broad and so profuse, earned him the reputation of a bit of a hack in his day. His cookery book of 1615 continued to be reprinted until 1683. The lack of attention given to him when looking at early American cookery suggests the possibility that Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) was one of the only cookbooks extant in the colonies.  Glasse’s book was for sale in Williamsburg, VA, as attested by advertisements in The Virginia Gazette. However, aside from Markham’s work, other cookbooks arrived in Virginia, according to fashion and the increasing presence of women’s voices in the genre. Recall, though, that at the time few women could read and write, perhaps 5-10%.

Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook appeared in 1660  and The Closet Of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight, Opened hit the booksellers’s stalls in 1669, very obviously usurping Markham’s work. Both merit a deeper look in the formation of cookery in the New World, as does Markham.

Shakespeare need not have worried, for few now remember Gervase Markham. Which is a shame, because Markham’s work deserves more study and comparison with manuscript cookbooks of the day.

Regardless of what cookbooks influenced early American cookery, Karen Hess was right: “Still [in spite of other influences such as African and Native American, etc.], the way of our [United States] cooking is English, much as common remains the basis of our law.” (p. 5, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery)

Little did that docker know what he held in his hands as he tossed that chest on board the Supply that September day in 1620.

* Barnabe Googe translated Four Bookes of Husbandrie, by Conrad Heresbach. This appears to be the book listed.

**Some of Markham’s opus:

1593: A Discourse of Horsemanship, followed by other popular treatises on horsemanship and blacksmithing
1595: The most Honorable Tragedy of Sir Richard Grinvile
1595: The Poem of Poems, or Syon’s Muse, dedicated to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Philip Sidney
1597: Devoreux, Virtue’s Tears
1600: The Teares of the Beloved and Mary Magdalene’s Tears
1602: A translation of the satires of Lodovico Ariosto
1607: Cavelarice, or The English horseman, featuring secrets of William Bankes, master of the performing horse Marocco
1607: The English Arcadia, part 1. A sequel to Sidney’s Arcadia. Part 2 appeared in 1613
1608: The Dumb Knight, a comedy, with Lewis Machin
1615: Country Contentments, containing The English Housewife
1622: Herod and Antipater, a Tragedy, written with William Sampson
1624: Honor in his Perfection, in praise of the earls of Oxford, Southampton and Essex
1625: Soldier’s Accidence turns his military experiences to account;
1634: The Art of Archerie, Shewing how it is most necessary in these times for this Kingdom, both in Peace and War, and how it may be done without Charge to the Country, Trouble to the People, or any Hindrance to Necessary Occasions. Also, of the Discipline, the Postures, and whatsoever else is necessary for the attaining to the Art (London, Ben Fisher, at the Signe of the Talbot without Alders Gate, 1634)

[Note: Thank to Nancy Carter Crump for passing on information about ships’ manifests that she obtained from Martha McCartney.

English Housewife cover

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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