by Julia Skinner, Florida State University
This paper examines what was learned through a historic food blogging project, where recipes from 17th century England were recreated using modern equipment and techniques. It details the project, which included both blogging and recipe creation alongside the use of traditional book arts and calligraphy. It also discusses the successes and areas for future improvement associated with promoting the blog, encouraging comments from visitors, and monitoring site traffic.
In May, I graduated from the University of Iowa with my Master’s in Library and Information Science and Center for the Book graduate certificate. In order to complete the requirements for the Center for my book studies program, I (like everyone else) had to do a final project. I decided I would take a subject I became interested in during a history class and dive further into the study of one of my favorite Early Modern English authors, Gervase Markham.
Markham was a prolific writer, producing dozens of works on running a middling country household for both men and women, along with some works of fiction (Best, xv-xvi). The English Housewife was first published in 1615, with a second edition published in 1623 (Best, xvii). Markham indicated in his introduction that his work is simply a compilation of material from elsewhere, possibly from a noblewoman, rather than a work consisting of entirely new material (Best, xv-xvi). Printed cookbooks like Markham’s were interesting because many people at the time were still using manuscript cookbooks as references. Manuscript cookbooks were often added to over the years (and sometimes generations), while a printed book, authored and published by someone else, is more ‘complete’ upon purchase. Markham’s exploration of new media in his own work was an inspiration for the Modernizing Markham project, which combined social media with more traditional paper-based creative work.
Modernizing Markham was a multi-faceted project created with the aim of making 17th century recipes accessible and placing Markham’s work within the context of culinary history and book history. The first element was a blog, where recipes were posted and where resources were shared with readers. The blog will remain available online, free of charge, at http://modernizingmarkham.wordpress.com. The goal was to reach as wide an audience as possible by writing in a way that avoided jargon or assumed specialist knowledge, which would allow me to share my work with people outside food studies and history. This was facilitated by a project-specific Twitter account (@ModernMarkham) and my own Facebook and Twitter accounts (@BookishJulia).
The project also included a handmade book containing the modernized recipes. This book was pamphlet-bound using historically accurate materials and techniques, and calligraphed in a contemporary hand called secretary script. While many examples of secretary hand exist from the time period, I was unable to find examples of ductus (or diagrams of how the letters are formed.) This gave me the opportunity to interact with historic materials and techniques further by developing the script used in the book. The handmade book was included as another exploration of multiple formats: it is reminiscent of the manuscript books still popular in Markham’s day, but it also bears resemblance to modern handwritten books by Mollie Katzen (author of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest), who writes and illustrates each page before publication. Being able to explore a single topic as it is embodied in different media, while using digital media to increase the topic’s visibility, speaks to my interests as an artist and an editor.
After working with several Open Access journals, I am interested in how we can make scholarly research more accessible and interesting to the public at large. Modernizing Markham was an attempt to make the content of a historic book relevant to modern readers, and put it in an interactive format that would draw a wider audience. The subject matter itself was something I began working with for a class paper, and was later adapted for a journal. After a series of (ongoing) edits to the initial article, I decided I wanted to go in a different direction with the research and use my knowledge both of cooking and of Markham’s work to share what I have learned in a new way.
What I Learned from the Project
Such a project has the potential to produce interaction and discussion on the blog, both about the history of the book but also about the recipes. In addition, it adds to our knowledge of the cookery manual as something that can be relevant today as an instructional text in additional to an object of study. It also shares a printed item from the Szathmary Culinary Collection (at University of Iowa Special Collections) with those who may not otherwise be aware of or interested in older cookery manuals. There has been an uptick in books on healthy eating resulting from a higher demand for homegrown foods, organic produce, and a desire for a healthier lifestyle. While the content of the recipes has changed (Markham’s recipes were filled with sugar, meats, and boiled vegetables), Markham’s book was also a product of a time when food was medicine, and eating well was a way to ensure health and longevity. By placing these recipes in a context modern readers can understand, it becomes easier to engage in a discussion about how our conceptions of health and food’s role in health maintenance have changed (and stayed the same) in cookery manuals.
Testing the recipes gave me a chance to better understand how women in Markham’s time interacted with food. While I have the luxury of modern appliances and indoor plumbing, I tried to keep the recipes as true to the originals as possible. In one instance, after three attempts to create Markham’s Paste of Genoa (see Best, 116) I discovered I was unable to reproduce the recipe. I had purchased apples that were small and firm, in the hopes they would be closer to those available in the seventeenth century. The apples resulted in two failed recipes, as did a later attempt with pears, leading me to believe that there is something about modern fruit that differs enough to make certain recipes more difficult (later discussions with faculty members confirmed this: apples from that time were smaller, contained less water, and were more tart.) The blogging project was also useful for learning about how to use this format to draw in readers.
As someone who is more accustomed to writing for an academic audience, my shift to the blogging world (which began last year with my personal research blog) was a great learning experience for comparing how effective writing takes place in different contexts. For example, I would provide hyperlinks to websites throughout the blog text, but these would not always be the same sorts of sources I would use for an academic paper. In one instance, the best comparison of several eastern European cookies came from About.com, and so I linked to that. Using less research-oriented resources was a good way to give the blog appeal to those outside of academia, and a great way to provide concise and clear definitions.
I also learned that interacting with readers on a food blog was different than interacting with readers on my long-term professional blog. This may be because I have had more time to build up a reader base and connect with people who share my interests through social media, which has resulted in a steadily-increasing readership over the last year. With the Modernizing Markham blog, I had few Twitter followers and only one subscriber, making it harder for my writing to have the reach it otherwise might. I did keep a close eye on the analytics (statistics concerning traffic on the site), which may prove useful for understanding what readers look for in small-scale digital humanities sites like mine.
The number of visitors to the site fluctuated dramatically during the course of the project. June through September 2010 saw less than ten readers a month before the project picked up steam and brought in 158 readers in October. From November to March, site views fluctuated between 100 and 250 views per month. The months with the highest views were those where both recipes and historical information or suggested further readings were published, indicating that readers saw the blog as a source for information beyond the recipes. Many visitors were referred from search engines, with approximately fifty different queries guiding readers to the site. The most frequently used queries were those related to cooking techniques contemporary to Markham (i.e. “wet suckets,” which are a type of candy, or “quince marmalade”), which confirmed my suspicion that historic foods are rising in popularity. Many others were searching for information about Markham (both about his works in general and The English Housewife specifically), indicating that his work is also becoming more popular and that there is demand for more information about his writings.
Readers were also referred through links to my blog from other sources. One was the Indiana Food Review as a result of my interview with Ellen Ireland about the project in January 2011. The other was an article in The Guardian on how to cook the perfect pancake. That author outlined the story of the pancake through history (including an interview with food historian Ken Albala) and used a link to my blog in a discussion of Markham. Readers also clicked on many of the hyperlinks I included in my text. My blog also referred readers elsewhere for additional information. Some of the most-used hyperlinks were those providing historical information about different foods (usually from the site historicfood.com), although the link to the krumkake iron I purchased and the link to the Indiana Food Review article were more frequently visited.
The number of page views is also an important indicator of readership, as this informs me of which posts were most impactful. The home page was the most-viewed page by a very large margin, which was a mistake on the part of the designer that makes the statistics harder to interpret (rather than adding page breaks in posts, entire entries were visible from the homepage, which meant readers did not have to click the post itself to read it in its entirety). Several recipes (wet suckets, wafers, and quince marmalade) were among the most read pages, as were the “About the Project” and “About Markham” pages. While my other posts that provided historical context (i.e. “Class and the English Housewife”) or suggested further readings were well-read when they were first published, they received less views overall.
Readers were not as open to commenting on the blog as I had hoped, although several posts did see strings of comments as readers offered suggestions or shared their experiences. A discussion on my library research blog later informed me that at least one reader and regular food blogger experienced the same problem, and indicated her lack of commentary was mostly due to a lack of time and to not wanting to reiterate what was said in previous comments. I tried an experiment by listing the blog in the Kindle store to see if that would encourage new readers or more commentary, but only ended up with a few subscribers (one of them being me). Despite what might be considered shortfalls in the project, it was a valuable learning experience and an enjoyable way to bring a piece of history back to life for a handful of people.
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife, Michael Best, ed. 1986. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.