When Jennifer Bastian was invited to cook up an exhibition for UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, where she is a visual resources specialist, she headed to the library’s collection of 17th- and 18th-century English cookbooks.
Bastian hit the books at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library to research her exhibition.
Following months of research, Bastian selected recipes for pottage, syllabub and some dozen other recipes that she then spent several weekends experimenting with in her home kitchen. The result is "An Exhibition in Six Courses: Testing Recipes from the Clark’s Manuscript Collection," representing the preparation and presentation of food and drink 400 years ago — from recipes for feeding a country family or a royal wedding party, to a treatise on the art of brewing beer and ale. The 42-item exhibition, on display through the end of September in glass cases in the Clark’s ornate drawing room, includes the books and manuscripts Bastian consulted alongside transcriptions and photographs of many of the recipes she cooked.
Last week the curator shared her culinary trip through time at an opening-day celebration on the Clark’s lawn. Guests sampled Nottingham ale — home-brewed by UCLA doctoral student Alex Eric Hernandez from a 1688 recipe in the Clark collection — and heard from both Bastian and Hernandez about their hands-on approach to history.
Alex Eric Hernandez and Jennifer Bastian celebrating with glasses of Nottingham ale during a reception on the library lawn.
"One of my personal passions is food. I love to cook," said Bastian, a professional photographer and publisher of several personal blogs, among them the Emergency Food Hotline, "a resource for the slightly challenged cook" that is currently on hiatus. Her interest in the Clark’s cookbooks — particularly its collection of handwritten, one-of-a-kind manuscripts — had been piqued about three years ago, she said, by another exhibition: In Commonplace Collaboration: Inheritance and Reuse in Everyday Documents, Clark manuscripts and archives librarian Rebecca Fenning Marschall had observed how the well-used manuscripts were passed along by women in families, who each added their own recipes through the generations.
The Clark, situated in L.A.’s historic West Adams neighborhood in the former home of its late namesake and administered by UCLA's Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, is renowned for its collection of rare books and manuscripts.
"Seeing that handwriting, seeing what people were making in their homes … was really exciting," said Bastian, who sifted through about 30 books — some of them hundreds of pages long — searching for recipes that were "most emblematic of the times."
Deciphering the antiquated handwriting in the manuscripts proved a challenge, she said, as was translating words like "brooke," which she determined was a type of leek, and "mutchkin," a measure of liquid just under a pint ("Google kept telling me it was ‘munchkin.’").
Preparing vegetable recipes like Green Pease Soop, Bastian said, was relatively easy. Deciphering the antiquated handwriting was not.
When it came to preparing the recipes at home, she said, "I realized I had to set some ground rules for myself: I could only use tools that were found in my own home. I don’t own a sieve. I’m not buying a sieve. And I wasn’t going to seek out ingredients like elderflower that were really difficult to find.
"It was really about translating these recipes into my own home kitchen and seeing how I could make them happen," Bastian said.
Some of them were total failures, she said, most notably the pottage, with a recipe that begins: "Take a large [indecipherable word] of beef, cut it in four or five pieces with a knuckell of veale or any other fresh meat, let it boil five hours or lounger in an indifferent quantity of water about a gallon, putt in a fagett of sweet herbs …"
Pottage starts out looking awful (top, pot of boiling meat). While it looks much better when it's ready to eat, "the flavor is reprehensible," Bastian said.
"It’s really disgusting," she said of the resulting soup. "The flavor is reprehensible," she emphasized with a look of distaste on her face.
A dessert called syllabub — a concoction of wine and whipped cream — failed on Bastian’s first attempt but succeeded with a little adaptation. The recipe reads: "Take a pint of white wine or Claret & as much of sweet milk or cream being warm skink in your wine if you please milk it from the cow in your win & then put in sugar & cannel upon it." Using store-bought whipping cream didn’t work — the dessert didn’t whip — but switching to manufacturer’s cream used by professional cooks did the trick. The result was a "kind of eggnog that you eat with a spoon," Bastian explained. "It was very strange … definitely an acquired taste."
The vegetable recipes were the easiest to follow and most successful, Bastian noted. A short recipe for "Green Pease Soop" begins, "Wipe your peapods and scald ye shells. Strain & pound them in a mortar with scalded parsley, young onions, & a little mint then. …" Best of all was a carrot soup that combined carrots, turnips, onion and butter. "It was excellent," Bastian said. "Actually, I brought it to work one day and a few people tasted it and said it was amazing. It was really the turnips. They added a spicyness to it. I added some chili powder, too."
Joanna Sudell's instructions for brewing a hogshead (48 gallons) of Nottingham ale. Apparently that was an average batch for a 17th-century household, Hernandez said.While Bastian conducted her cooking experiments, Hernandez dug into the Clark collections to research 17th- and 18th-century brewing. Hernandez is not a Clark staff member (he’s a doctoral student who frequents the library to research his dissertation on bourgeois tragedy in English literature), but Bastian enlisted his assistance when she learned that he enjoys home brewing and learning about brewing history. Searching the Clark collection for a representative beer or ale, he came upon a recipe by one Joanna Sudell in manuscript dated 1688.
Nottingham Ale, which is still prepared in England, is linked by name — and possibly origin — to the town of Nottingham, whose history dates back to the 7th century. Digging deeper into the Clark collections, Hernandez also discovered that Nottingham ale was celebrated in ballads like this one, with its tongue-in-cheek insistence that the Roman god Bacchus, "that prince of good fellows," came not from the heavens but "sprang from a barrel of Nottingham Ale."
Hernandez scaled down Sudell’s recipe, which was for a "hogshead" of beer (48 gallons), to a little more than five. "A hogshead was the average household’s batch," said Hernandez. "It gives you a sense of how fast they were turning over beer, 48 gallons.
"We aimed for authenticity," he said of brewing the ale with help from Bastian and Fenning Marschall. "We tried to incorporate era-specific techniques while also using modern sanitation practices." One part of the recipe calls for checking to see if the wert — the unfermented beer — is "blood-warm" or "milk-warm," he noted. "In general, they would have stuck their finger in it, but that’s not sanitary. We had to figure out ways to guesstimate things like this."
"It's potent and delicious," reception guest Myhang Tiffany Le said of the ale.
More complex calculations were required to determine how much hops to use, he said, because modern-day grains used for brewing are engineered and standardized compared to the fresh-from-the-field grains used centuries ago.
Hernandez pronounced the resulting brew, which had fermented in bottles for two months, "a touch too bitter for historical accuracy … but just as alive, unpasteurized, unfiltered and carbonated in the bottle with real yeast" as it would have been in Sudell's day. It also had a higher alcohol "kick" — about 7.2 percent, he determined — than ale in that era would have been. Hernandez's ale had a much shorter fermentation period. But guests at the Clark weren’t complaining. "It’s potent and delicious," offered one.
"An Exhibition in Six Courses," Bastian explained in an introductory note, was curated "with an eye to serving as courses in a visual and intellectual meal. The materials are arranged in an order that one might experience them."
They begin with diagrams of how to properly present a meal, with place settings drawn and described in 1651 by Howard Henry, who describes himself as "late cook to His Grace the Duke of Ormond, and since to the Earl of Salisbury ..." Then come the "courses" of beverages and brewing; breads, biscuits and pastry; vegetables; and meats and mains. Concluding the exhibition are desserts like syllabub and cakes, as well as remedies, from "water against melancholy" to recipes to "kill and destroy all manner of vermin."
"It was a great experience," said Bastian. "I knew that the recipes and cooking process would be quite different than what I am accustomed to, and there was quite a bit to learn when it came to measurements and language. It really felt special to be able to take the recipes and translate them into my own experience, which I think is what cooking is all about — making it your own."
An Exhibition in Six Courses: Testing Recipes from the Clark’s Manuscript Collection runs through the end of September at the Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library. View an online version here. And get a peek of the Clark library in this video about a chamber music series there.