I just finished a post for another blog (the Historical Recipes Project) about how to cook a hedgehog.
But it’s not what you think. (God, like I’d ever eat a hedgehog—come on, people!)
This hedgehog is a sculpted sort of pudding made from cream, eggs, sugar, almonds, and ambergris. You might be familiar with ambergirs If you’ve read Moby Dick (shout out to anybody who took Mrs. Donohue’s AP English class at Eureka High School in 1988—Go Loggers!). Basically, it’s found in the intestines of whales. ‘Nuff said.
An interesting thing happened to me as a writer as a set out to do research for this post. I realized as I was wading through pages of digitalized 16th- and 17th-century cookbooks that I am starting to think of primary sources differently.
As a scholar, I try to place the material in front of me in the historical, social, religious, and cultural practices of its day.
As a writer of fiction, however, I find myself thinking diachronically, trying to see the threads that link another time with ours, to suss out the kinds of issues, obsessions, worries, and joys that we share in common with other cultures and times.
I noticed this first as I was paging (electronically) through the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (1625-80), the wife of the ambassador to Spain. Like other “receipt books” (what cookbooks and recipe books were often called in the early modern period), this was an ecletic collection—some might even say a mish-mash—of recipes for food, medicine, perfumes, and cleaning supplies.
As I read through these recipes, I marveled at how much the recipe book reflected what likely went on in the early modern kitchen. Unlike modern cookbooks, which present an idealized, airbrushed version of reality, with precise measurements, reliable outcomes, and mouthwatering pictures, this recipe book was a working document, with cross-outs, amendations, and commentary.
And unlike modern kitchens, which seem to be exclusively dedicated to the preparation of food and drink (and the occasional batch of playdough), the early modern kitchen was the site of all kinds of cookery: coction, distillation, presentation of food, medicine, and whatever else needed transformation by fire.
Despite these differences–differences that should have made me feel alienated or at least distanced from the text–I felt something tugging at me, some sense of connection to the seeming chaos of this recipe book.
I flashed on a scene from one of my favorite books as a kid, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Meg is home after a miserable day at school, sitting in the cozy kitchen, sharing her worries with her scientist mother. Mrs. Murry, who is making hot cocoa for her on the Bunsen burner.
The only problem with the scene as I’ve described it is that it doesn’t exist. I just looked it up, and it is Meg’s precocious little brother, Charles Wallace, who makes the cocoa for Meg and Mrs. Murry, and the Bunsen burner is in a lab by the back door.
I find it interesting, though, that my younger self conflated the two kinds of cookery: culinary and scientific. There’s a thread that runs between the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe and my memory of that scene in A Wrinkle in Time: the multiple roles women are expected to fill. Mother. Healer. Chef. And, sometimes, scholar.
That Bunsen burner became for me, I think, emblematic of what I felt least comfortable about in this beloved book: Mrs. Murry may have been a scientist, but she was still responsible for the kids, holding down the house, and cooking the food. And while Meg’s father was gallivanting across time and space, Mrs. Murry was signing field-trip permission slips and making phone calls for the PTA while studying tesseracts and mitochondria.
As a scholar, the fact that the scene as I remembered it doesn’t exist would destroy whatever literary argument I was making. As a writer of fiction, the awareness that I had embellished on the scene, molded and shaped it until it reflected my own concerns, provides me with rich fodder for the imagination.
I think I kind of like this.