The British Were in the Kitchen, Too: A List of Books on Food History

On Thanksgiving, early in the morning, for such is the time of day it’s done, I bake a pumpkin pie. I think of England while prepping everything, because the spicing – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger – dates to medieval times in England and beyond. Sure, you find that flavor pattern in many European dishes, a signature of the spice trade. But American cooking owes a tremendous debt to English/British traditions, a fact that’s acknowledged multiple times in a recent book: “… the [enslaved] cook’s role was to produce the sophisticated plantation fare, influenced by British and French cuisines and managed by the plantation’s mistress.”

The pumpkin, a New World gem, inspired pie recipes as early as 1670. In 1672, Hannah Woolley, in her day the closest thing to Martha Stewart, proposed a pie recipe for egg-battered, fried pumpkin slices along with apple slices.

I stir all those once-exotic spices into the mashed pumpkin and pour the orange mixture into a pie shell/crust. That, the crust, hearkens back to European fare as well, especially England with its long-term fondness for crusts and cofins. While the pie bakes, I sort through the massive Black Friday advertisements spilling out from the guts of the morning paper, the size and shape and weight of a hefty suckling pig.

With the thud of that newspaper on my wooden porch, the race begins for the next big winter holidays. Christmas. Hanukkah.

And so, in the spirit of the season, I offer a list of books about British cookery from an historical perspective, some new, some not so new. It’s important to remember that while British cookery now bears a rather sordid reputation, that’s an unfair judgement. Actually, irresponsible when promoted in scholarly works. By reading and delving deeper into the subject, it becomes clear that British cooking was anything but bland and uninteresting and in need of spicing before, during, and after the colonial period in America. British cooking, influenced by French cooking – at the upper levels of society anyway – gave us the jellies, pickles, pies, roasted fowl and meats, cakes, breads, all associated with so-called traditional American cuisine.

Get your wallets out! Or at least your library card.

Note that I have not read through all of these books from start to finish, as some of these are Christmas gifts to myself. Therefore, I am primarily quoting the publishers’ descriptions. Others I’ve mentioned before, but am including them again here because they deserve more attention.

1. William Bartram and the Ghost Plantations of British East Florida, by Daniel L. Schafer (University Press of Florida, 2010)

“Historians have relied upon the integrity of the information in William Bartram’s Travels for centuries, often concluding from it that the British (the colonial power from 1763 to 1783) had not engaged in large-scale land development in Florida. However, the well-documented truth is that the St. Johns riverfront was not in a state of unspoiled nature in 1774; it was instead the scene of drained wetlands and ambitious agricultural developments including numerous successful farms and plantations. Unsuccessful settlements could also be found, William Bartram’s own foundered venture among them.

Evidence for the existence of these settlements can still be found in archives in the United Kingdom and in the family papers of the descendants of British East Florida settlers and absentee landowners. So why did Bartram choose to erase them from history? Was his insistence on a pristine paradise in Travels based on an early expedition that he and his father, the botanist John Bartram, conducted in 1764–65? Was his distaste for development a result of bitterness and shame over his own failed settlement? Daniel Schafer explores all of these questions in this intriguing book, reconstructing the sights and colorful stories of the St. Johns riverfront that Bartram rejected in favor of an illusory wilderness. At last, the full story of William Bartram’s famous journey and the histories of the plantations he ‘ghosted’ are uncovered in this eminently readable, highly informative, and extremely entertaining volume.”

2. The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850, by Sara Pennell (Bloomsbury, 2016)

“Sara Pennell traces the emergence of the domestic kitchen as a distinctive space that helped make houses homes from the 17th century through to the middle of the 19th, and explores how the kitchen and its contents – from the hearth to the contents of the dresser drawer — became a site of specialised activity, sociability and strife. Drawing upon texts, images, surviving structures and objects, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850 opens up the early modern English kitchen as an important historical site in the construction of domestic relations between husband and wife, masters, mistresses and servants and householders and outsiders; and as a crucial resource in contemporary heritage landscapes.”


3. Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760, by Joan Thirsk (Hambledon Continuum, 2006)

“What did ordinary people eat and drink five hundred years ago? How much did they talk about food? Did their eating habits change much? Our knowledge is mostly superficial on such commonplace routines, but this book digs deep and finds surprising answers to these questions. We learn that food fads and fashions resembled those of our own day. Commercial, scientific and intellectual movements were closely entwined with changing attitudes and dealings about food. In short, food holds a mirror to a lively world of cultural change stretching from the Renaissance to the industrial Revolution. This book also strongly challenges the assumption that ordinary folk ate dull and monotonous meals.”

4. The Culture of Food in England, 1200 – 1500, by C. M. Woolgar (Yale, University Press, 2016)

“In this revelatory work of social history, C. M. Woolgar shows that food in late-medieval England was far more complex, varied, and more culturally significant than we imagine today. Drawing on a vast range of sources, he charts how emerging technologies as well as an influx of new flavors and trends from abroad had an impact on eating habits across the social spectrum. From the pauper’s bowl to elite tables, from early fad diets to the perceived moral superiority of certain foods, and from regional folk remedies to luxuries such as lampreys, Woolgar illuminates desire, necessity, daily rituals, and pleasure across four centuries.”


5. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, by Wendy Wall  (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

“For a significant part of the early modern period, England was the most active site of recipe publication in Europe and the only country in which recipes were explicitly addressed to housewives. Recipes for Thought analyzes, for the first time, the full range of English manuscript and printed recipe collections produced over the course of two centuries.

Recipes reveal much more than the history of puddings and pies: they expose the unexpectedly therapeutic, literate, and experimental culture of the English kitchen. Wendy Wall explores ways that recipe writing—like poetry and artisanal culture—wrestled with the physical and metaphysical puzzles at the center of both traditional humanistic and emerging “scientific” cultures. Drawing on the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and others to interpret a reputedly “unlearned” form of literature, she demonstrates that people from across the social spectrum concocted poetic exercises of wit, experimented with unusual and sometimes edible forms of literacy, and tested theories of knowledge as they wrote about healing and baking. Recipe exchange, we discover, invited early modern housewives to contemplate the complex components of being a Renaissance “maker” and thus to reflect on lofty concepts such as figuration, natural philosophy, national identity, status, mortality, memory, epistemology, truth-telling, and matter itself. Kitchen work, recipes tell us, engaged vital creative and intellectual labors.”

6. Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, edited by Kristine Kowalchuk (University of Toronto Press, 2017)

“Welcome to the cookbook Shakespeare would have recognized. Preserving on Paper is a critical edition of three seventeenth-century receipt books–handwritten manuals that included a combination of culinary recipes, medical remedies, and household tips which documented the work of women at home. Kristine Kowalchuk argues that receipt books served as a form of folk writing, where knowledge was shared and passed between generations. These texts played an important role in the history of women’s writing and literacy and contributed greatly to issues of authorship, authority, and book history. Kowalchuk’s revelatory interdisciplinary study offers unique insights into early modern women’s writings and the original sharing economy.”

7. A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries, by Henry Notaker ( University of California Press, 2017)

A History of Cookbooks provides a sweeping literary and historical overview of the cookbook genre, exploring its development as a part of food culture beginning in the Late Middle Ages. Studying cookbooks from various Western cultures and languages, Henry Notaker traces the transformation of recipes from brief notes with ingredients into detailed recipes with a specific structure, grammar, and vocabulary. In addition, he reveals that cookbooks go far beyond offering recipes: they tell us a great deal about nutrition, morals, manners, history, and menus while often providing entertaining reflections and commentaries. This innovative book demonstrates that cookbooks represent an interesting and important branch of nonfiction literature.”

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen. “British Officer’s Coat in Quarters at Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida.

© 2017 C. Bertelsen


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