By Cynthia Houng
I’ve been following Marissa Nicosia and her food history/cooking blog, Cooking in the Archives, for a few years now. I was delighted when Marissa graciously consented to an interview with Ars Longa. Marissa is a true polymath: a scholar of Renaissance/Early Modern literature, food history, and political theory, a professor at Penn State Abington, an accomplished baker and cook, and a talented photographer.
Over the years, Cooking in the Archives has received extensive media coverage (the Washington Post ran a piece on the project, and so did CNN). The project began eight years ago, as a collaboration between Marissa and a colleague. These days, Marissa runs the blog solo, weaving together food and cultural history, literature, and lyrical observations on the food at hand–and the world at large. It is a true pleasure to read her work. If you are unfamiliar with Cooking in the Archives, I suggest you hop over there now and explore, and then come back to read this interview.
A typical Cooking in the Archives post begins with a manuscript, like this:
Marissa transcribes the recipe (paleography magic! you can learn to do this too! Marissa shares some useful resources at the end of the interview), and then, from there, she goes in two directions, though I suspect these two pathways braid and mingle throughout her research and cooking processes. On one track, she conducts what one might describe as ‘conventional history’ — looking at other sources from the same time period, engaging with the existing literature on relevant topics (which can be as wide ranging as the etymology of the word “curry,” the history of medicine, and the history of botany). To translate these Early Modern recipes into something workable in a modern kitchen, she draws on another set of skills and another body of knowledge. But these are not re-enactments. In a 2015 essay for Archive Journal, Marissa and her collaborator Alyssa Connell wrote, “In updating these recipes, we are not recreating the experience of early modern cooking; we deliberately use the tools and ingredients readily at hand to twenty-first-century cooks.”
In his essay “Remaking Dürer: Investigating the Master Engravings by Masterful Engraving,” artist Andrew Raftery describes the unique rewards of investigating the past through personal experience and practice: “Research using studio techniques is speculative and imaginative. But it can bring a historical artist’s work to life in the present in a way that is compelling to audiences at all levels, from the conservators and curators at the Met to the casual museum visitors who have never given any thought to engraving. I hope it enhances our understanding and experience of historical art, and builds a kind of bridge—both cognitive and visceral—across the centuries.”
Raftery’s investigations into Dürer’s practice have something in common, I think, with Marissa’s project. Through their own personal practice, they seek a kind of knowledge inaccessible through more traditional modes of historical research. This knowledge is both bodily and embodied. It belongs to the person whose body forged that knowledge. It affords the practitioner a certain kind of time travel–not the type of time travel where one tumbles, headlong, into another time, but rather one where the past folds on the present, a kind of doubling where what we find is both of our time, and also of another.
Don’t just read about the recipes. Get down and dirty, and actually try them. Turn your kitchen into a little time machine. There’s magic in the way that making and tasting opens up windows to other times and other experiences. Marissa’s done the hard work to show us the way. Now, read this interview — and get in the kitchen!
CH: How did the “Cooking in the Archives” project come into being?
MN: I have always loved food. When I was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, I first read sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century recipes as part of my training in paleography (the study of historical handwriting). From the first time I encountered these recipes, I was curious about what they would taste like. I was also growing into an adventurous cook during this time, too. I would take breaks from my research to bake baguettes or make homemade ketchup. Cooking in the Archives formally began when I worked with a collaborator to secure a fellowship for interdisciplinary innovation from UPenn.
What gave you the confidence to begin experimenting with historical recipes?
I don’t know if I ever would have had the confidence to launch this project without funding support. Once I received funding, however, I knew I needed to deliver what I’d promised. That pressure made me brave in the kitchen even though I had never cooked recipes like these before. I very quickly realized how much I enjoyed cooking and writing about historical recipes.
“Cooking in the Archives” started 8 years ago, in 2014. How has the project evolved in that time? How do you keep things exciting and fresh?
It’s just around the 8-year anniversary! Initially I thought the project was only going to run during the summer months of 2014. One big change from the first few years is that I’m now the only author on a project that was initially a collaboration so this has required me to reconsider the pace that I work at and scope of the recipes that I undertake. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed learning how to take better photographs of food – for the site and for social media – and my skills at recipe recreation have vastly improved. Finally, I’ve really enjoyed bringing what I learn from recipe testing into my formal academic research and writing as well as my undergraduate teaching.
How do you choose which manuscripts and recipes to feature?
I only prepare recipes that intrigue me either intellectually or gastronomically. Sometimes I find myself working with a particular manuscript for a period of time, but I’ve never been especially systematic or comprehensive in my approach – for better and perhaps for worse. To your previous question, this is the main way that I keep things fresh and exciting. I let my curiosity and pleasure drive my inquiry for this ongoing project.
Have you incorporated any Early Modern recipes into your regular cooking repertoire?
I’ve prepared Maccarony Cheese for dinner. The eggs mixed in with the cheese make this dish very satisfying and it’s almost as easy to make as a box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese. I’ve also served Jumballs as a dessert at parties alongside other cookies. Lately, I’ve been adding leftover Heartsease Cordial to my glasses of sparkling water and during the current heatwave, I’ve been thinking of making ice cream flavored with rosewater as a treat.
Please tell us about a recipe that you found unexpectedly or surprisingly delightful.
This recipe for Jasmine Butter was so unexpectedly subtle and delicious. I’ve made a few compound butters over the years, but I’d never flavored butter with flowers before. I also think back to this recipe often because I prepared it in Los Angeles when I was in residence at the Clark. It was a special time and place. And I currently do not have access to jasmine flowers in Philadelphia so I can’t make it right now. (It is on my list of things to plant in my tiny garden, but jasmine simply doesn’t thrive here the way that it does in LA.)
Were there certain recipes – either individual dishes or genres of dishes – that you found especially challenging in terms of taste? Is there something that you would really rather never taste again?
Overall, I’ve found texture more challenging than taste in my recipe recreations. Although I enjoy thinking and writing about them, I find the texture of possets very challenging. These recipes mix dairy, alcohol, and spices and they’re usually served warm. I’ve made a few that I’d rather never sip again.
Were you always interested in food and cooking?
Absolutely! I’ve always loved eating, cooking, baking, and talking about food. When I’m not updating historical recipes, I’m baking with my sourdough starter and buying too many interesting fruits and vegetables at the market (especially this time of year!).
How did you learn to cook?
My family instilled in me an appreciation for food and cooking from an early age. I learned the basics of cooking from my mother and my father is an avid baker. When I went to Barnard College and lived in a dorm with a kitchen, I learned so much from cooking with my friends. I still cook many of their recipes regularly.
Here, I’m going to steal some questions from Ed Levine’s Special Sauce interviews: Growing up, what was on your family table? What were your favorite foods as a child? What were some of your family’s culinary traditions? Do you remember any special holiday recipes or menus?
Good questions are worth stealing!
When I was growing up, my family ate dinner together every night. My mother almost always cooked weeknight dinners and we ate healthful and balanced meals that I find it easiest to describe as Mediterranean-influenced American food. The table often featured meals like grilled chicken with a large salad or pasta with a meat or vegetable sauce. The most important culinary tradition was that we were eating together, talking, and spending quality time with one another. That said, we often prepared and shared particular foods for holidays. Special meals – including holiday breakfasts and birthdays – featured dishes like scones, roast leg of lamb, heaping plates of antipasti, fresh tomatoes or figs from the garden, eggplant parm, lemon meringue pie, and chocolate cake. To me, the best thing about holiday dinners was that everyone would linger at the table sipping coffee or digestivo, eating one more cookie or piece of candy, peeling clementines, cracking nuts, and talking and laughing together.
That sounds amazing, Marissa. I want at seat at your family’s holiday table!
If you could time travel and experience any meal, in any place and at any point in history, where would you go and what would you want to experience?
This research has made me want to experience the preparation and serving of a formal Elizabethan banquet. I’d also like to visit a meeting of the radical Levellers in a London tavern in the 1640s. I’m curious about the process of preparing these rather different kinds of meals, what the food would taste like, and the conversations at the table.
I’m sure our readers would love to know what these meals might have been like! What might have been on the table at a gathering of Levellers?
The recipe books that I work from shed much more light on home cooking than on tavern food! A London tavern in the seventeenth century would absolutely have served beer, ale, and wine and substantial dishes such as meat pies and roasted meat.
If you had to choose between experiencing an Elizabethan banquet in spring (around Easter perhaps?) or in winter (during the Christmas season), which would you choose?
I would pick the Christmas season because the celebratory dishes prepared at this time of the year are quite theatrical and showcase the bounty of the recent harvest. Food historian Ivan Day’s recipe recreations really highlight the pageantry of dishes such as gingerbread that were prepared for holiday banquets.
What advice would you give readers interested in diving into the world of early modern cooking? Where should they start? What are some good resources for beginners? What might be a good way for lay people to get into the world of Renaissance and Early Modern manuscripts?
If you want to read about Renaissance cookery, I cannot recommend Ken Albala’s books enough. There’s also great writing about historical recipe manuscripts published on The Recipes Project and The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective website.
If you want to learn to read recipe manuscripts, Kathryn James’s “Quarantine Reading: Learn to Read Secretary Hand” (Beinecke Library, Yale University) is a great place to start.
If you’re ready to dive into cooking historical recipes, there are many available online from libraries and museums. The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey is a great place to search library holdings and see what manuscripts that can be accessed online. I find the Folger’s Early Modern Measurements guide really useful when I’m thinking about measurements in historical recipes and I’m also always using The Oxford English Dictionary to look things up.
I hope you will also find that the updated recipes on Cooking in the Archives are a good place to start cooking.