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Food, (not so) glorious food!

Antique cookery books can be a bit of fun, especially if you give the recipes a try.

Title page from Lucy Gwynn’s recipe book. From MS 11275

There are probably very few manuscripts repositories (those boasting a fairly eclectic range of materials, at least) which do not have at least one or two cookery books. They frequently show up in family and estate paper collections, hidden in the ‘miscellaneous’ subsection of descriptive lists under the now-revised opinion that anything that wasn’t evidence of war, finance, politics, or estate management was considered unlikely to be of research interest.

It is worth commenting on the relative frequency with which these items survive  alone out of the all the archives of their original family. In this Library section there is a number of such archival ‘stragglers’. It is easy to imagine that the significance of the little books, in the life of the person who compiled and used them, and with whom they were most associated, turned them into a relics, protected from destruction for sentimental reasons, until they had aged sufficiently to prevent the last inheritor from throwing them away.

The most recent addition to our collection of recipe books arrived in 2017 as part of the archives of the Gwynns, a family with a close and enduring association with Trinity. The papers are currently being showcased in an exhibition, in the Long Room of the Old Library, curated by archivist Ellen O’Flaherty who also drew attention to the collection in a recent blog post. One of the artefacts on display is the recipe book of Lucy Josephine Gwynn (1840-1907) mother of the first Lady Registrar in Trinity. When women were first admitted to the College in 1904 the position of Lady Registrar was created to ensure that the new departure worked as well as possible and under Lucy Penelope Gwynn’s careful stewardship it did just that.

Lucy Josephine Gwynn (née O’Brien, 1840-1907). From MS 11571.

The recipe book appears to have been used over an extended period, beginning in 1877, evidenced not only in the changing handwriting, but also in the impressive range of food stains that marks almost every page. The Gwynn book shares the characteristics of the genre insofar as it contains both culinary and medical recipes, as well as domestic tips for cleaning, and it very often gives the name of the person from whom a particular recipe was taken. Some dishes are repeated – for example there are three or four recipes for cheesecake – probably indicating the popularity of the dish and the difficulty in getting a reliable recipe.

Recipe for biscuits and cheesecake. from MS 11571

Your current writer thought it might be interesting to see if any of the recipes would be worth recreating. The notion of recreating food from historical manuscripts is not new. It is done with serious research intent, to get closer to the lived experience of long-dead historical figures. It is also done as a bit of fun because, as everyone familiar with these things will know, the instructions are very unlike those of modern cookbooks, particularly in terms of quantities and exact cooking instructions; in some instances there are no instructions at all. For ‘brown cakes’ in the Gwynn book, having put ‘some butter and sugar’ together (reminding one of the Blackadder ‘some beans’ sketch), with brown flour and buttermilk, the experimenter is left to figure out all the other details on her own.  Some recipes cannot help but make one thankful for the invention of food-processors (‘beat the eggs for ¼ of an hour’; ‘beat the butter before the fire’) and others make one glad not to have to eat them (‘Sago soup’ anyone?). Some of the instructions seem hard to believe even allowing for the vagueries of ancient solid-fuel ovens – one ‘marmalade pudding’, which has a very small quantity of ingredients, is to be boiled for 3 hours.

Watercolour by Gwynn, of her home in Tullyaughnish Rectory, Co Donegal, 1869. From MS 11571

Unless one has a focused research interest in historical cooking, books such as this cannot inspire the modern cook, used as we are to great variety of dishes, to exotic ingredients or a specific dietary or nutritional angle; it is difficult to muster the enthusiasm to attempt something called ‘white pot pudding’. However, in the interests of research, Lucy Gwynn’s ‘small ginger biscuits’ were essayed. The recipe calls for – among other ingredients –  an ounce of powdered ginger, a glass of whiskey and 3 tablespoons of cream; the last item, confusingly, becoming 8 tablespoons in the method instructions. The ‘rather hot’ oven was assumed to be 190 degrees and the biscuits were baked for 10 minutes, in the absence of any specifics on timing apart from ‘when brown they are done’.

Library colleagues, obliged to taste them, overwhelmingly declared them to be ‘OK’.

Jane Maxwell


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