by Jennie Moran, MA Gastronomy and Food Studies, TU Dublin
Dublin, 15th October 2020
Dear MS 163,
we haven’t met. My name is Jennie Moran, and I am reading your recipes. Well, I am reading them in book form. Your manuscript is safely guarded in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in Connecticut. That is in America, a vast land mass across the Atlantic that the Spanish will find by accident in 1492. It was donated to the library by a man named David Wagstaff. I do not know how he happened upon it.
As I write this, the possibility occurs to me that you may not have (physically) written the manuscript yourself. Perhaps it was the work of a scribe. There were three copies of your recipes made and one of them claims, in the introduction, to be from the hands of the “maysters off fysyke and mayster cokys off Kyng Rycherd the fyrst“. I must admit that this timeline does seem fishy but that you were a cook to the nobility is plausible.
It is quite something to be able to appreciate your cookery style and methodology after all this time. I have been trying to find out more about you, MS 163. Sadly, the book I have does not offer any information at all on the original author so I cannot know your name, whether you are a woman or a man or perhaps nonbinary, where you prepared these dishes or for whom (I sense a tenderness towards the eater. Your food is wholesome and hearty and sensitive to the moral or religious requirements). My most urgent query however is about your intent – what exactly prompted you to write a cookery manuscript? We here in 2020 are very interested in the character of the person writing the recipes. We cook their food because we admire them as people, or we like the look of their lifestyle. I know – it sounds slightly foolish now that I see it from your perspective. “Your perspective,” indeed! But who are you? Your voice is muffled by over 500 years of dust and I can’t see your face.
I will distract myself momentarily from this infuriating mystery by piecing together your imaginary kitchen. My hunch in the early part of the book, being of modest approach, was that the setting was domestic, but as we progress through the recipes, they become more spectacular and involve creatures such as peacocks, and I am picturing a more professional set up. You do not refer much to equipment. I know you employ a knife, a pot, a sieve, a spit and some sort of oven. You undoubtedly possess ample surface space for the elaborate butchering and seem to have easy access to water. You do not usually specify quantities in your ingredients but rather keep things relative to each other and seem to expect the reader to be in possession of common sense here. You are mindful of hygiene with much washing and cleaning of produce and surfaces. I can see to that you take some pride in the appearance of your dishes, often colouring them with herbs or saffron or egg yolks.
Tell me truthfully, MS163, did you really prepare porpoise? It’s just, an American professor, Barbara Ketchum Wheaton, writes about historic cookbooks occasionally having an “uneasy relationship to actuality” (2014, p. 279) and there might be a pressure to include crazy recipes in manuscripts for show. I am reading your recipe for Purpays yn galanteyn, and imagining you attending the large mammal, removing its skin, which must have been messy and blubbery, and slicing the meat into pieces “no more than a fynger” to be boiled up with bread, wine and spices. In your recipe for ‘Bakyn purpays’, a sort of pie, you start by salting the meat before parboiling it. I wonder why? Is it prolonged, for brining porpoises(!)? Or had you cured it beforehand, to keep it from spoiling? It must be said, MS 163, that you do not squander your words. Your instruction is bordering on abrupt, particularly in relation to the more outlandish dishes. Nowadays, if we were being asked to dismember a swan, we might expect some steadying words of support. You offer no such semiotic cushioning in your direction to “take the hert…the geser, and the tharmes; slet hem, shave hem, seth him” (p. 81). We have no way of gauging your own personal level of difficulty with the task, physical or moral. One curious habit you have is the use of the male pronoun, “hym” when referring to special animals. I find this to be quite endearing; perhaps it is your one reveal.
I wonder what you would make of the recipe writers now. There is an American cook, Sarah Britton, which some of your processes remind me of. She grinds a lot of almonds, too, for milk and is also very fond of clarified butter. This kind of cookery is very popular now, even outside of lent. The motivation behind this way of eating is to lessen our reliance upon animals, their milks, their eggs, for our health and planet (I’ll explain another time). Although I understand that it is most likely dictated by the church, I am struck by the number of complex meat-free adaptations to dishes that you offer your reader. Was this in keeping with your own preferences? I wonder what you might prepare for yourself on your day off, or what your favourite dish to make for your friends is, or how you came to be a cook, who taught you, what adventures you must have had in various kitchens, I hope dearly.
Thank you, MS 163, for sharing your knowledge and experience. I am sorry that your biographical information was not preserved with your recipes. I will sign off by sharing a recipe with you. It is from a man called Fergus Henderson who is also adventurous with animals and writes with a lot of sentiment. The reason for this particular choice is because it is at such odds with yours in almost all aspects, and yet there is a strange underlying resemblance.
Grilled Mackerel, by Fergus Henderson
A driftwood fire on a beach in the Hebrides, mackerel caught that day, filleted (put the knife in behind the gills, turn towards its tail, then flip over and repeat on the other side). When the embers are just so, place the mackerel, skin side down, on the griddle. By the time the skin is happy and crispy, the fillets should be done. Pop into a bap with some horseradish, sit on a rock and eat with lots of white wine.
Henderson, F. and Piers Gellatly, J. (2007). Beyond Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking: Part 2. London: Bloomsbury.
Wheaton, B. (2014). ‘Cookbooks as Resources for Social History’. In: Freedman, P., Chaplin, J. and Albala, K., eds. Food in Time and Place. Oakland: University of California Press, pp. 276-303
This article is based on a paper written as part of the coursework for the Module TFCA9000 Reading Historic Cookbooks of the MA Gastronomy and Food Studies at the Technological University Dublin, City Campus.