Monthly Archives: October 2013

What do Recipe Books, Hedgehogs, and Tesseracts have in Common? Nothing–That’s Kind of the Point.

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.

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In the Image of Dog He Created Them…

We’ve all heard the theory that people look like their pets (or is it vice versa?), and we’ve all seen the uncanny photos, like these featured in the popular listicle website, Buzzfeed (oh dear, number 23…)

(As an aside: I joke that it’s because of this resemblance theory that I adopted a greyhound—it was a weight-loss strategy.  And no, it didn’t work.)

hound

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

This fascination with resemblances between people and animals is nothing new, as we can see in Giambattista della Porta’s De humana physiognomonia libri IIII (1586)

owl

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta (also known as Giovanni Battista Della Porta and John Baptist Porta) (1535-1615) was a scholar and philosopher from Naples, most famous for his work in magic, mathematics, and natural philosophy (among many other things—he was quite the polymath).

Della Porta founded the Accademia dei Segretti (Academy of Secrets), one of the first of the early secret societies devoted to studying natural philosophy and discovering “the secrets of Nature.” These natural secrets were often thought to be perilously close to occult secrets, and della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V to answer for rumors that the Academy had too keen an interest in magic. He was found to be innocent, but the Academy was shut down by the Inquisition.

Della Porta would later go on to co-found the Accademia dei Lincei, the Academy of the Lynxes (or Academy of the Lynx-Eyed: the lynx, thought to have extraordinary vision, symbolized the critical importance of observation in the “new science.”)  A similar institution in England, the Invisible College, would eventually morph into the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Della Porta’s text was influential in the ancient pseudoscience of physiognomy, the study of determining a person’s inner character by her or his outward appearance. For della Porta, this analogous thinking was a product of the doctrine of signatures, the theory that medicinal plants would look like the part of the body they could cure (hence roots like the phallic-looking mandrake were thought to help impotence and fertility). While it may seem strange to modern thinking, terms from physiognomy are common in our daily lexicon. It is from physiognomy, for example, that we get the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow.”

The impulse to judge a person’s inner qualities by their outward appearances is ancient, but the categorization and codification of these aesthetic judgments is relatively modern. In the 18th and 19th century, together with its cousin phrenology, physiognomy enabled pernicious forms of scientific racism.

Strangely enough, physiognomy is making a bit of a comeback, albeit in a modified form. Scientists have taken to studying people’s reaction to different kinds of faces, as profiled in this Economist article . Whether this kind of study is helpful or not is debatable: do these studies counter or reinforce stereotypes when they assert, for example, that men with angular faces are perceived as criminal? That attractive men have an evolutionary advantage because their faces cause women to orgasm more frequently?  When a generalized theory is applied to the individual, does it simply slip into stereotype?

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Completely gratuitous additional note about the greyhound thing: if you were to judge my character (and not my body habitus), the greyhound would actually be an appropriate choice for analogy, as it comes in at #8 on this list of “Top 10 Dogs for Lazy Owners”!)

 

More information on Giambattista della Porta and/or physiognomy:

From the National Library of Medicine, “Historical Anatomies on the Web,” a full version of De humana physiognomonia libri IIII http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/porta_home.html

An article on Giambattista della Porta and “natural magic” from the Folger Shakespeare Library: http://www.folger.edu/html/folger_institute/experience/textures_grabner_porta.htm

More on della Porta (including text, articles, etc.) from Prof. Gary Zabel at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Natural_Magic/jportat3.html

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