"Many Hands Hands": Early Modern Englishwomen's Recipe Books and the Writing of Food, Politics, and the Self

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2006

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"Many Hands Hands" is a study of early modern Englishwomen's recipe (or "receipt") books. It traces how women explored and expressed matters of food, politics, and self in culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic recipes. The receipt book genre was closely associated with the work of the early modern house, where women were accepted as authorities in matters of household management; thus, the receipt book was particularly accessible to women as they searched for modes of self-expression. Through recipe practice, the housewife managed her own body, as well as the bodies of those under her care (such as her husband, children, servants, and neighbors); at the same time, she occasionally exerted pressure on the body politic of the state. In this period, domestic activities within the home were often politicized, and I argue that the housewife's role and recipe practice were considered central to definitions of English nationhood. In addition to surveying women's manuscript recipe collections, I also analyze printed representations of their recipe practice from the beginning and middle of the seventeenth century. In Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well (c.1604), the female practitioner is represented as powerful and capable, yet Helen's specialized knowledge about the (royal) male body makes her a troubling and disturbing figure to the other characters in the play, including Bertram of Rossillion, the man she hopes to marry. The play ultimately valorizes Helen's practice, however, and it reinforces an empirical world view, where with the proper "how to" (or recipe), bodies are knowable and healable, in spite of their transgressive (if predictable) desires. By the middle of the seventeenth century, "how to" books of recipes (in print and in manuscript) come to be increasingly influenced by utopian writings. Printed cookbooks attributed to women reveal utopian longings in the form of royalist nostalgia, a desire to reclaim the past as a place of good household management and national economy. Recipes became a mode through much women and men could reflect on the "how to" workings of the body in order to improve the health of the individual and, ultimately, the body politic of the state.

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