Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

"The Delights for Ladies"

Cookery books were among the earliest of printed books to emerge in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Until the advent of the printed cookbook, cooks relied on memory and what they learned from others. Knowledge was passed on orally or in manuscript receipt books, relatively few of which have survived for us to ponder. Spawned by large-scale economic and social change, more printed household books, some of which revealed the secrets of preparing "banquetting stuffe," were written by men or women for ladies, gentlewomen, and, increasingly, for housewives and their servants. 'Banquetting stuffe' served both as medicinal aids to digestion and sweetmeats to satisfy the taste buds. Considered a treasure of the nobility, "banquetting stuffe" carried clear implications of status and wealth, and were thus all the more desirable to the middle classes.

"Banquetting stuffe," eventually associated with the last course in the meal, often emanated from a private place called the still-room, a room either within the house or in a separate building which contained a "still" for distillation. A common practice of concealing both medicinal and sugar recipes lent an air of secrecy to the early still-room. There was also a sense of mystery surrounding the preparation of remedies for good health, beauty, and entertainment. The still-room and its preparations: perfumes, beauty creams, liqueurs, syrups of quince and barbarie, cordials, and other sweet delicacies--as well as remedies for curing the sick--were the provenance of the lady of the house.

Thus, the earliest printed books for use in the still-room describe both the methods of distillation and food preparation and the products to emerge from this cloistered part of the manor. As the secrets of the aristocratic still-room were disclosed in these specialized printed cookery books such as The Delights for Ladies, the books were slowly undergoing transformation. At the same time, the social boundaries of the great estates were being expanded by an economically-rising middle class. Acquiring, among others, the foodstuffs and cooking "secrets" of the rich, middle-class women symbolically helped to reshape the boundaries.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, if not earlier, women helped to introduce luxury goods for domestic use--sugar, tea, coffee, and chocolate--commodities that were first known to Europeans in public gathering-places such as coffee houses, tea rooms, and chocolate parlors. By emulating the upper classes, affluent, socially-mobile women extended the uses of these expensive and scarce items. The increase of sweets in the diets of the middle classes was led--or at least disseminated--in part by cookery book writers who established published culinary standards and created the desire for the sweetmeats which symbolized the high born. Women, as consumers, were therefore instrumental in the spread and consumption of particular luxury items. What was once a rarity soon became a necessity as the sweet and exotic foodstuffs became embedded in the everyday diets of the middle class.

For an aristocratic or a middle-class woman supporting her aspiring husband's efforts in social affairs, it was important to know how to prepare these sugary specialties. Likewise, for the well being of her household, it was necessary to produce home remedies for the health and welfare of her family. Although a woman might purchase them elsewhere, delicacies made at home were still valued gifts and a hallmark of esteem.

In the seventeenth century, a time of social and religious upheaval, it became increasingly risky for women to engage openly in the craft of healing: activities of this sort intensified the belief in women's potential for witchcraft. Gradually then, cookery books separated medicine from confectionery. Women such as Mrs. Eales, who were adept at the art of sugar cookery, could improve their social and economic standing. The eventual deletion of medicinal remedies from cookbooks reflects the changes in society and women's places in it. The older titles which had revealed the "hidden secrets" of the still-room were slowly replaced by those which taught the "art of confectionery."

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