One of my Primary Primary Sources

As one of my primary sources, I will use Approved Receipts, a 1795 manuscript cookbook currently attributed to an unknown author. I chose this work because of what it is—an unpublished collection of household recipes, which opens up a world of discussionARCovers.

At first, this manuscript collection may appear no more significant than any other 18th century cookbook. Similar recipes can be found in this as can be found in many others; it is only important to me because I found it, and held it, and loved it. It may not, in fact, have anything significant to tell us about life in Oxfordshire during the late 18th century, or about women’s authorship. It may just be another cookbook among the many. But—it does have a unique position among cookbooks because it is a manuscript. It was composed intended for household use, rather than publication. This allows it to perform as a pivotal piece used in comparison with other cookbooks composed for publication, and also in comparison with what we know common people were preparing and consuming during the same time period. It bridges the important gap between lower class behavior and prescriptive literature, by offering a comment on what fairly well-off families were accomplishing and aspiring to in the privacy of their homes.

Used in conjunction with other manuscript cookbooks, this cookbook will help to establish a balanced definition of what was practiced, and what was aspired to by individuals of means. Hence, it is an excellent representation of many of the works I will be consulting in my research.


Filed under Research Methods Assignment

9 Responses to One of my Primary Primary Sources

  1. KJ

    Your primary source, in conjunction with the focus statement post suggest that you are going to have to begin confining the cookbooks to a specific place. Which side of the Atlantic do you want to write about? (Are the blogs about US trends? Do you want to study British history?) In the end you may have to let go of this source/old friend that pointed you to the kinds of questions you want to ask and answer. (Treat it as a mentor that helped you at one point, but whose advice you’ve absorbed. Now you need a mentor who can help you take more steps forward.) Doesn’t mean it can’t serve as a representative source, that indicates ways you can and cannot use receipts as historical evidence.
    My guess is that for the MA thesis, a focus on US sources will make life (source finding) easier, but I don’t know what sorts of documents you can find in nearby recipe archives.

    • saraevenson

      I completely agree, Dr. Jones, and have been prepared to let this source go for some time. However, it is a wonderful example of privately produced recipe collections during the 18th century, which is why I opted to use it as a representation of the archive I’ve been compiling. I believe there is a place for Atlantic food history, as there is a distinct Anglo-American tradition of cookbook production and food preparation. It is difficult to restrict something to “American” food history and another to “British” food history, when the former didn’t arguably exist until later in the 18th century. Your point about source availability is well-taken, though, and the scope of this project may force me to restrict my research to just sources produced in America for American use if only because of restricted time and resources.

  2. Laura

    Hi Sara,

    As I read about this particular source and Dr. Jones’s comment, I began to wonder: are there other similar cookbooks as this one? Are many cookbooks from the 18th century unpublished or un-authored? Can we even answer these questions? 🙂 I agree with Dr. Jones that you may be able to use this source as a representative source but perhaps not as the anchor of your thesis. But then again, you may very well prove us wrong!

    I also feel like this could be significant and not just because you have become attached to it. In fact, I think with further research and perhaps by unearthing other similar sources, you may be able to more fully parse out the full significance of this prized source.

    • saraevenson

      Definitely! And, I actually plan to rely more on those other sources than this one. I also completely agree that this source is representative of a body of literature, not one specific source I will use. The manuscript collections of the Van Rennsselaer family and Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, for example, are two likely sources that I will turn to for this project.

  3. davidatkins

    Several questions come to mind as after reading your post:

    You said you do not know who wrote the cookbook but do you know what social/economic class of individuals may have compiled the recipes? or is there no way of being sure about the origins?

    Who was the primary audience for published cookbooks during this time period? Were they mainly for wealthy families or were they available to persons of more modest means?

    Lastly, have you discovered any similar sources to this one?Would individual recipes of the time be helpful in anyway? (even if they are not an entire collection compiled in one place)

    • saraevenson

      Hi David: I’m fairly sure I know who wrote the book, though it’s currently considered to be of anonymous authorship. I think that’s due in part to the fact that no one has properly researched it before! Also, by analyzing the source we can date it, and restrict it to an economic standing and particular place. I’m confident the source has enough information to share all of this. However, I most likely will not be using this source in my research. It is wonderfully indicative of other privately composed recipe collections, though, and is representative of other sources I will be using to fill this void. It was readily available to present, so stands in as a symbol of the types of sources I’ll be working with instead of one specific source I’ll be using. Does that help to answer a few of your questions?

  4. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    I was just curious about the photograph that you use in the header of your page; is this the receipt book that you are researching? If so, I notice the handwriting is very neat and well written, making it easy to read. Is the same handwriting present throughout? Have you considered looking at other known documents from the area, or people that you suspect may be the person that wrote the manuscript? This might give you more leads into who wrote the various portions of the book. Since this book was more than likely intended for home use, do you find that this is a common practice of binding handwritten receipts together into manuscripts? I am looking forward to the end result of your research, as it could be very useful to see if this type of manuscript led to regional culinary dishes or if some of these dishes/receipts may have found their way to the region from other parts of the country. I am also looking forward to seeing and tasting some of your research. Good luck.

    • saraevenson

      It actually is, Tiny, good catch! The source is not of one hand, instead with different recipes attributed to and written in by other individuals. Personally, I believe this collection of recipes is bound because the author reused an older notebook her husband had used during his studies, which is why it is bound. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I will use this particular source in my research–I included it because it is representative of the genre of privately-produced recipe collections that indicate what individuals of a certain economic level hoped to achieve in their homes.

  5. Melanie Kiechle

    If it helps you to let go, Jill Lepore has a wonderful article about micro histories and archival finds called, “Historians who Love Too Much.” You’re not the only one to have fallen in love in the archive–far from it!

    If you are letting go, I’d like to hear more about the cookbooks in VT’s collection. Are there similar manuscript books from the same period? Are they different? In relation to my other comment about structuring elite food culture as taste, it will be important to locate the books you work with–whatever they are–in geographic space so you can think about the ingredients.

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