By now, you may have read about—or participated in—several activities linked to the project Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures. They have included food-related pop-up exhibitions at Folger public programs (the next one is for A Christmas Messe); Frances Dolan’s “Digging the Past: Writing and Agriculture in the Seventeenth Century” weekend seminar, which included a field trip to Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Virginia; a Material Witness seminar on readings about coffee and tea; sessions with distinguished scholars like Ken Albala, known for his food recreation research, and Craig Muldrew, whose numbers-based research assesses early modern food costs, caloric intakes, and more; and even a Thanksgiving-themed adapted recipe for early modern biscuits.
Early in 2019, you’ll also have the opportunity to enjoy three major Folger public programs linked to Before ‘Farm to Table’: the exhibition First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas, a Folger Theatre production of Nell Gwynn, and an immersive experience, Confection, commissioned by Folger Theatre.
Even so, the bulk of the work for Before ‘Farm to Table,’ which continues until 2021, still lies ahead. There are many more activities and programs to come, including some that have not yet been imagined, a number of planned journal articles and books, and work toward a searchable database of early modern recipes at the Folger that will be freely available online.
But what does all of this have in common? What draws it together?
Coming Together Collaboratively
Funded by the Mellon Initiative in Collaborative Research, a $1.5 million grant that is based at the Folger Institute, the four-year Before ‘Farm to Table’ project is fundamentally a collaborative project that explores early modern food history and culture in myriad ways.
“Food is a brilliant choice, really,” for this initial collaborative project, says Kathleen Lynch, director of the Mellon initiative and of the Folger Institute. “We were looking for a topic that would benefit from multiple perspectives, that was textual, practical, and well-supported by the collection. We all eat and we’re all interested in the culture of the table and the pressing questions about this.”
As if to underline the project’s collaborative approach, it is led jointly by three co-directors: Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts; Amanda Herbert, Associate Director for Fellowships at the Folger Institute; and David Goldstein, Associate Professor of English at York University in Toronto, a poet, critic, and food writer.
The project title is a “riff on the current ‘farm-to-table’ movement, and we’re calling it Before ‘Farm to Table’ because we want to explore how food was grown, harvested, marketed, and eaten in the early modern period, and see what connections we can make, historically, between then and now,” says Wolfe. “Our collection is of interest not just to scholars in the humanities, but to bioarchaeologists and chefs and farmers and others. Already, we can feel the differences between the way a literary scholar and a historian look at the same text. Imagine how an archaeologist and a chef look at it,” she says. “There’s so many silences in the text, and there’s so many ways you can read the text. No single person has that full skill set.”
As Goldstein describes it, “food won’t stay put. It’s always connecting to someone in another discipline and can always be taken in another direction.”
“Food is not a narrow topic, not in one genre or one discipline,” says Herbert. Its study focuses on “different kinds of knowledge, from curators and digital humanists to students of social and cultural dynamics and class and race,” since enslavement and colonialism are key parts of the story.
The “Crown Jewel” of the Food Collection
At the same time, Before ‘Farm to Table’ is also deeply rooted in the food-related aspects of the Folger’s “incredible collection,” says Wolfe. “We have the world’s largest collection of early modern English 17th-century recipe book manuscripts,” with more than 100 recipe books. “We also have account books, and inventories, and letters, and prints and engravings, and printed books” and much more.
“We have an unparalleled collection of food-related objects,” says Herbert, a historian who has focused in part on food within the texture of early modern women’s lives, “the crown jewel of which is our recipe book collection.” The Folger has “got such a rich collection of recipes, some of which haven’t even been studied at all yet,” says Goldstein. “One of our purposes is to get those out into the world.”
The recipes are a focus for Elisa Tersigni, the project’s postdoctoral digital research fellow, who is working with Wolfe on the searchable database of recipes. “My specialty is in early modern English women’s writing,” says Tersigni, who has worked on “authorship attribution studies, where women’s writing might have been ventriloquized by a male editor, or they might have collaborated with men.” With recipes, “there are very interesting authorship issues” as well, she says, “because you can get a recipe book that was handed down over generations, you can get multiple people writing in a recipe book, so we might not know who has written each recipe, but we can see that different handwritings appear.”
Work on the recipes also includes network analysis and visualizations, including maps of people or places. Once the text is encoded, says Tersigni, you could ask, “which ingredients go together—and why? Are those ingredients available in the same season? Is it due to geography? Do they simply go well together? Or is it a medical protocol?” Once we have the data, she says, “let’s see how the recipes support that.”
New Questions, New Connections, and Folger Tradition
The Before ‘Farm to Table’ project is deliberately open-ended, with a team that’s eager to find new avenues, too. “It’s a group effort to really explore everything we can about food culture,” says Jack Bouchard, a historian of early modern northern Atlantic fisheries who is a postdoctoral research fellow on the project. “We’re very interested in the global scale. In England, you might be eating dry wheat from the continent, including Poland; you’d be eating sugar from the Caribbean and spices from Indonesia. We’re trying to trace in the recipe books where ingredients might pop up that would be shipped from markets on the other side of the world.”
Bouchard focuses in part on foodways, which include both the economics of the food trade and its cultural aspects, too. “You’re in the marketplace in a French city in 1550,” he says. “What does it mean that you’re thinking about buying salted cod that comes from the other side of the ocean? How much is it costing you? How does it fit into the wider picture of what you are consuming? Why is it so important to get this big chunk of oceanic protein, which is heavily salted, into your body?”
Food also plays a role in early modern literature, including the drama and Shakespeare’s plays. People once saw Shakespeare as attuned to “nobler,” more abstract ideas, rather than food, says Goldstein. In reality, “Shakespeare is extremely interested in food, both as a metaphor and as an onstage event,” he says. “And, although he doesn’t stage scenes of eating as often as many of his contemporaries do, when he does, those scenes are often crucial to the play: the final cannibal banquet in Titus Andronicus, the meal that Petruchio denies Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, or the ghost of Banquo spoiling the Macbeths’ banquet. Meals in Shakespeare can bring people together or drive them apart, creating and challenging ideas of community that give us insight into what eating meant in the Renaissance and what it means to us today.”
While its emphasis on food may be relatively new, the project’s focus on collaboration has a long-standing resonance at the Folger, says Herbert. “Henry and Emily Folger were not only interested in Shakespeare, but in Shakespeare’s world,” she says. “They recognized from the outset that that involved not just the plays and the sonnets and other things that Shakespeare himself wrote, but the history, and the music, and the theater culture, and the material that surrounded that. So it’s always been, from the very beginning, a collection that can be used by scholars from many different disciplines. Implicit in that interest in Shakespeare’s world is the recognition that in order to understand anyone’s world, you have to come at it from a variety of different perspectives.”
[Editor’s Note: many thanks to Esther Ferington for interviewing the people involved with Before ‘Farm to Table’ and for writing this.]