Thursday, 28 September 2017

Brain Food

Food and drink: sustenance for our bodies but also our minds. When you're chowing down on your favourite food the chemical compounds, history or cultural significance probably don't cross your thoughts too often. The fact is there's so much more to the things we put in our bodies than the delicious taste. Just think for example of the way we celebrate birthdays, holidays and religious festivals, new jobs, the birth of a baby; it generally involves a lot of food! The smell of a childhood dish can suddenly transport you back in time sparking memories you didn't realise were there. Food and drink have much significance for cultural and social identity, the negotiation of relationships, not to mention the strange things going on behind the scenes in labs all over the world. There's an endless variety of studies and just dipping your toe in the pool can change the way you see the things you consume.

In this post I will explore some of the books and journals in the Library’s collections with a connection to food and drink. Delicious!


I’ll serve up a starter of anthropology: Adventures in Eating: Anthropological Experiences in Dining from Around the World (EE 4.1 HAI, also available online).  A book born from an incident in Oaxco city; an anthropologist's hunt for a rare and much needed G&T, an unfortunate episode with fried insects and the realisation that regardless of how much training you’ve had there are things you really don’t want to put in your mouth!

What’s it like to eat an animal you think of as a pet? How do you conduct anthropological research with a food allergy? How does coffee cement friendships between humans and their ancestral spirits in Ethiopia? These are some of the questions explored in this fascinating book, which looks at the way anthropologists deal with eating the weird and wonderful during their research and uncovers interesting differences between cultures when it comes to food, table manners, hospitality and ethics.

Main course

Since food, it’s setting, it’s preparation and the act of eating mean so much to us today, the same must be true of the past. There’s no end of ways in which historians and archaeologists have approached the subject. In Food and Drink in Archaeology I: University if Nottingham Postgraduate Conference 2007 (P0.186 FOO) we can see the variety of methods used to explore what people were eating, drinking and trading, which informs theories around the significance these things had to people’s lives. From archaeobotanical evidence for food gathering in Mesolithic wetlands, zooarchaeology of Myceneaen palatial feasts (not suitable for vegetarians), isotope analysis on skeletons from Jordan to literary sources and drinking vessels in Ireland and Wales. 


Teenage drinking, not a new phenomenon. Part of a scene from a 15th/14th century B.C skyphos from Thebes. Was alcohol used in initiation rituals for the Kabeiric mystery cult? Well, “It is in fire experts test gold and silver; it is wine the discloses the soul of a man”! (Bedigan, K. ‘Alcohol and the cult of the Kabeiroi’ in Baker et al (eds) Food and Drink in Archaeology I.)
Religion permeated most aspects of life during the Medieval period, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (C 33.8 BYN) considers the religious significance of food for women. There’s changes afoot in the 18th century in Exotic Brew (EE 4.1 CAM) when fashion, new exotic food (coffee and chocolate!) and influences from China and America start messing with diet and the art of entertainment.

If you’re interested in immersing yourself in history, tasting what your ancestors tasted, you can try your hand at ‘recipes from the Stone Age to the Present’ in Tasting the Past (Z 41 WOO). Almond milk is a medieval staple, who knew?!

History and contemporary culture come together in Food, Morals and Meaning: The pleasure and anxiety of eating (EE 4.1 COV), as John Coveney takes the modern problems of food guilt and the ‘obesity epidemic’ and looks at how these may have stemmed from social, political and religious problems in Western history. Has the past as far back as the ancient Greeks and early Christianity played a part in how we ‘see’ food today?


If you fancy being challenged and maybe even a bit uncomfortable then Fast Food Nation (G 8.1973 SCH) is the book for you. It isn’t for the faint hearted with a chapter on what’s actually in the fast food we eat and another on the safety records of abattoirs.

If you’re a fan of a journal article and want to get your hands on the most recent research, the Library also subscribes to a vast selection of publications. Food, Culture and Society is a multidisciplinary journal with articles such as: ‘The Bushwalkers Diet: The relationship between food, walking practice and identity’, ‘Me in place and place in me: A migrant’s tale of food, home and belonging’, Espresso: A shot of masculinity’. A treasure trove of research for anyone and everyone whatever their palate! If you’re of a more scientific persuasion then Food Chemistry is a smorgasbord of delights with everything from ‘Wild mushroom’s anti-inflammatory properties’ to ‘DNA barcoding for the authentication of fish species to the sensory profile of extra virgin olive oils’.

Anyone for seconds?

I hope I’ve opened your eyes to some delicious examples of food and drink research the Library has to offer. I could serve up a second helping; . . . . Food Gender, Identity and Power (EE 4.1 COU), Food and Feasting in Art (L 4.949E MAL), Journal of Food Technology (online), Food Policy: Integrating Health, Environment and Society (G 8.1942 LAN), Consuming Geographies: We Are What we Eat, (EE 4.1 BEL).

Or maybe a third. . . . . But I think I’ll leave it up to you now. Go on, dig in, get some brain food!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Pigs, Plums and Oyster loaves: Food in the Borthwick Archives

By Rosie Denton

Walking through the strongrooms within the Borthwick, you never know quite what you will find. There is a Crown of Thorns, an ostrich egg, and a box simply labelled ‘Hair cuttings (family).’ So I was not surprised to learn that within the archive of the Wood family (later Earls of Halifax), intermingled with estate records, political journals and family correspondence, are a series of handwritten recipe books. We say ‘books,’ but in fact it is a box full of notebooks and loose sheets on which people have scribbled down recipes. While these are rarely dated, they appear to cover much of the 19th century. However, mixed in with the rest is a large, bound volume, written in by various hands, with a collection of loose sheets tucked inside, that give us a good idea of what the family ate.

As you would expect of 19th century aristocrats, the Wood family indulged in some sumptuous and luxurious meals. One recipe provides the cook with instructions on how to boil a lobster, to be served with a fish sauce made from anchovies, onion, vinegar and horse radish. Pickled walnuts appear to have been a delicacy, as there are three separate recipes for how to prepare them. There is also a straightforward recipe for ‘Oyster Loaves.’ All the cook has to do is hollow out some French rolls, and push the oysters inside. Unfortunately for the cook, not all recipes were so effortless. The recipe for a pork dinner starts with the line: ‘Gett a fatt roasting pigg and cut off its head’!

A page from the Wood family recipe book.

However not all the recipes from this book are for such decadent meals. Served alongside various meats was a combination of boiled cabbage, mashed potato and onion. There are also recipes for macaroni, dumplings, and dried tongue. Those in the mood for a really humble meal would perhaps have chosen ‘Ham Toast.’ As the name suggests, this was ham on toast with a little scrambled egg on top. It may even have been served with their own home-made ‘Cetchup,’ the boiled innards of mushrooms.

A recipe for mashed potato, cabbage and onion, with a drawing of a 'little onion' on top.

Around the same time as the Wood family were eating ham toast and mashed potatoes, the girls of the Grey Coats School in York were enjoying a similar fare. Grey Coats was a charity boarding school for poor girls founded in 1705, and the kitchen account books today survive with the rest of their archive within the Borthwick. Looking through the account book for the period 1827 to 1848, it appears the girls were largely fed on meat and potatoes. Unlike the poor Wood’s cooks, these kitchen staff bought ready-made sausages and bacon, as well as tripe, pressed beef and pork pie. In the winter months, the school would consume around ninety pounds of potatoes a week; nearly two pounds per student! Oatmeal was consumed at a similar rate, and cabbage also frequently appeared on the menu.

A page from the Grey Coats' account book.
In both sets of documents, fruit make a rare appearance. Fruit appears within a few dessert recipes with the Wood’s documents, including ‘sweetened apricots’ (similar to stewed apples), and the particularly delicious sounding ‘French puffs’. These were made from grated apple mixed with sugar, cream, eggs, butter, flour, nutmeg and orange flower water, which was then fried.  Meanwhile, the girls of Grey Coats’ School gained their five a day from gooseberry, apple and rhubarb pies. A similar account book from the 1920s shows that the girls did later eat a wider selection of fruit, including: bananas, Seville oranges, and plums. It’s worth noting, though, that the account books feature regular payments to a gardener, as well as an annual supply of turf. It is entirely possible that the kitchen staff were growing much of the fruit served to the students, meaning it wouldn’t appear in the account book.

In a later account book plums and other fruit start to appear.

As may have been apparent, puddings featured heavily in the menus of both the Wood family and Grey Coats School. The school account books show weekly purchases of yeast, but ‘yeast for bread’ was costed separately to ‘yeast for cakes.’  The account book show purchases of treacle, trifle, custard powder, and a regular supply of butter and eggs specifically ‘for gingerbread’.  The Wood family also enjoyed gingerbread. Their recipes ‘Honeycomb gingerbread’ and the intriguingly named ‘Transparent gingerbread.’ Perhaps, like the fabled emperor’s coat, only those worthy of gingerbread can see it. Within the bound volume of recipes, there is not only a section dedicated to desserts and puddings, but another for cakes and yet another for creams. They flavoured cream with everything from lemon and Seville orange, to almonds and brandy. However, the most prevalent recipe within the book is rice pudding. Not only are there three different rice pudding recipes within bound volume, but multiple recipes tucked in, all written on scraps of paper in different hands, all using slightly different ingredients, and all claiming to be the ‘perfect’ rice pudding.

A page from the Grey Coats' account books showing "yeast for bread"and "yeast for cakes".

Recipes at the time were not solely concerned with food, and neither was the account book of Grey Coats School. Alcohol appears in both sets of records The Halifax book has a whole section dedicate to make special ‘flavours’ of wine (raspberry, gooseberry, spiced cider), while the staff at Grey Coats school were allowed to order alcohol through the kitchen. As such there are entries for ‘ale for Beswick,’ ‘port for Goot’ and ‘ale for the abbot’. Mixed in are also payments for stamps, window cleaning, ‘manure for Matron,’ and ‘cab fare to the hospital’. The very last entries in the later account book are for Morris dancing and a book on folk dancing. The Wood family, meanwhile, were quite concerned with medicine. Their recipes include formulas to cure toothache, rheumatic cramps, and ‘violent discharges,’ among others. At the end of the aforementioned creams section, there is a recipe for ‘Artificial Ape’s Milk’, an indigestion cure that would surely be necessary after all that dessert! Perhaps most touchingly, tucked into the back of the volume is a letter addressed to Sir F.L. Wood (Francis Lindley Wood (1771–1846)). It contains meticulous instructions on how to prepare beef tea, ending with the line “this is an excellent thing instead of broth for a sick person.” 

A recipe for beef tea addressed to Sir F. L Wood.

These are by no means the only food-based records found at the Borthwick, but together they paint a picture of what people at both ends of society were eating in the latter half of the 19th century. On the whole, it seems to have been a diet of meat and root vegetables, but with plenty of pies, cakes and gingerbread to follow. Perhaps not the healthiest way to eat, but delicious nonetheless!