Physicians Discuss Aphrodisiacs

Ken Albala is Professor of History and Director of Food Studies at the University of the Pacific. He is the author or editor of 24 books on food. He conducted his dissertation research primarily at the New York Academy of Medicine. Dr. Albala will present Aphrodisiacs: The Intimate Connection Between Food and Sex in Renaissance Nutritional Theory and lead the workshop “Hands On” Early Modern Cooking at our Eating Through Time Festival on October 17.

As a scholar sometimes you have ideas that get orphaned that you come back to after many years, very randomly. Such was a paper I first delivered at a Northern California Renaissance conference in 1995 on aphrodisiacs in medical literature. In truth, I had intended to fit the topic into my dissertation and it never made it in. The paper was a way to make use of the pile of notes I had taken at the New York Academy of Medicine just a few years before. And when I say a pile of notes, I mean an entire filing cabinet full of handwritten notes taken in pencil and coded with colored crayons. There was no such thing as a laptop then.

A page of Ken Albala's notes.

A page of Ken Albala’s notes.

These notes cover about 100 books I read at the Academy between 1989 and 1993, practically every dietary text written in Europe between the mid-15th and the mid-17th century. I was a permanent fixture in what was then called the Malloch Room, now the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room. The notes became my dissertation at Columbia University and eventually morphed into my first book Eating Right in the Renaissance (UC Press, 2002). While I always kept an active interest in the history of medicine, my career since then has shifted far more toward culinary history and broader food history. Every now and then I deliver a paper or write an article involving food and medicine, and I still teach a history of medicine course, but I had completely forgotten about the topic of aphrodisiacs. In jest I have often said it would be a really interesting topic for experiential research. Alan Davidson, the late author of the Oxford Companion to food, encouraged me many times to write a serious book on aphrodisiacs, but it never came to pass.

What surprise then, when this past spring, two decades after first giving that paper, I was asked to speak in Miami on aphrodisiacs. I thought, OK, I will just go into my computer and find that paper. No evidence of it. I realized that when I wrote that paper I was still learning to type, had just sent my first email, and had still written out everything by hand. So I needed to dig through the filing cabinets to find the original paper. Then to revise and update it using my original trove of notes taken 25 years earlier. Happily the paper was a success. I also delivered it in Dublin a few weeks later, and then a publisher contacted me asking if I would like to write a book on aphrodisiacs. I think I probably will. Isn’t it funny how every stray idea eventually finds a good home?

The most remarkable thing about the whole experience is that I can still hear the voices of early modern authors after all these years. I can still quote them in half a dozen languages. From the French version of Platina printed in 1507 there is “L’heure que tu sentiras ta viande estre cuite, car…l’heure est bonne pour engendrer enfans…”  (The moment you feel that your meal is digested, the time is good to produce children.) Or Girolamo Manfredi from 1474 “Imperho dicono li philosophi che chi usa molto il cohito vive poco e tosto invechia.” (Therefore philosophers say whoever has a lot of sex lives a short life and ages too soon.) Or there’s Baldassare Pisanelli who tells us that 4 drams of cloves in milk “aumento mirabilmente le forze di Venere” (greatly increase the power of Venus.) There’s also the Fleming Hugo Fridaevallis who tells us that asparagus is great for timid newlyweds “primas coniugii difficultates, et si quid minis in uxore tunc placet, dulce et amabile futurum tandem uxoris contubernium” (whoever…has conjugal difficulties at first, and if you are unable to please your wife, later she will be a sweet and loving mate).

Baldassare Pisanelli's Trattato della natura de' cibi et del bere Nel quale non solo tutte le virtù, & i vitii di quelli minutamente si palesano, 1586. His discussion of the power of cloves in milk appears top right.

Baldassare Pisanelli’s Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere Nel quale non solo tutte le virtù, & i vitii di quelli minutamente si palesano, 1586. His discussion of the power of cloves in milk appears top right. Click to enlarge.

Their opinions are of course very amusing, but they also give us some remarkable insights into the kinds of problems Renaissance people would have taken to their physicians. These kind of frank open discussions of sex gradually become rarer in the 16th century, no doubt under the influence of the Reformations a kind of prudery pervades the later dietaries. It took another few centuries until they discuss the topic again, in the 19th century, but all this is the subject for a book. Stay tuned.

Bee Bread

Today’s guest blog is by Josh Evans, lead researcher with Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. He will lead a workshop on insect eating at our October 17 Eating Through Time Festival. A version of this article was first published on the Nordic Food Lab blog.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) have mastered feats of chemical engineering as various as they are alchemical. Their most well-known substances are of course honey, their concentrated, stable, hive-warming energy source, and wax, their pliable, moisture-proof structural material. Yet there are other substances nowadays known primarily only to beekeepers and practitioners of traditional medicines. Propolis (or ‘bee glue’) is a structural sealant and potent antimicrobial agent within the hive, and it carries a beautiful resinous aroma. Royal jelly is what all brood—the immature larvae and pupae—are first fed before being weaned onto honey (unlike the future queen, who becomes differentiated by being fed only royal jelly). It has remarkable moisturizing, emulsifying, and stabilizing properties. Even the brood are used as food in many cultures around the world and have a delicate savoriness with hints of raw nuts or avocado.

Each substance is fascinating in its own right, though pollen is particularly notable for the transformation it undergoes between its collection and storage. While bees use honey as their primary energy source, pollen is where they derive proteins, vitamins, and other vital nutrients. At first glance, bee pollen seems like quite a straightforward product—in the course of pollinating thousands of flowers every day, worker bees are repeatedly showered with grains of pollen, some of which accumulate into granules on the hairs of their hind legs. This is the pollen most commonly available on the market, largely because it is relatively easy to gather using a small device attached to the hive door that knocks the pollen off the returning bees’ legs.

But bees do not consume their pollen fresh. Instead, they take it into the hive and pack the granules into empty comb cells, mixing them with nectar and digestive fluids and sealing the cell with a drop of honey. Once processed in this way, the pollen remains stable indefinitely. Beekeepers call this form of pollen ‘perga’ or ‘bee bread.’

Bee bread in comb. Image by Chris Tonnesen. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Bee bread in comb. Image by Chris Tonnesen. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Fresh pollen is high in moisture and protein and, especially when brought into the hive—which stays around an internal temperature of 37˚C (98.6˚ F)—becomes an ideal environment for mold growth. The bees’ digestive fluids, however, are rich with lactic acid bacteria (LAB),1 which come to dominate the pollen substrate when it is packed together and sealed from the air with honey. The bacteria metabolize sugars in the pollen, producing lactic acid and lowering the pH from 4.8 to around 4.12—well below the generally recognized threshold for pathogenic microbial growth of 4.6.

Bee bread. Image by Chris Tonnesen. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Bee bread. Image by Chris Tonnesen. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

These LAB come predominantly from the bees themselves, rather than, for example, the plants from which they forage,3,4 and the difference in microbial ecology of fresh pollen vs. stored is great.5 Furthermore, many of the genera which come to dominate fermented pollen are also some of those most common in fermented food products made by humans. In addition to preservation,6 the pollen fermentation process also renders its nutrients more available.2 Some proteins are broken down into amino acids, starches are metabolized into simple sugars, and vitamins become more available.7,8 In this sense, bee bread is even more health-giving than the more commonly available fresh bee pollen.

Yet the sensory transformation of the bee pollen into bee bread might be most remarkable. The floral and herbal notes of individual granules become enhanced; the powdery, sandy texture becomes firmer and moister; the acidity from the lactic acid brightens the flavor and tempers possible bitterness; and the fermentation also produces secondary aromas that generate new flavors of fruit—some, for example, gain the distinct taste of mango. The particularities of the fresh pollen, depending on the season and its plant sources, become enhanced, and new qualities that were not present before are revealed.

We have used the bee bread in different recipes: ‘Peas ‘n’ Bees,’ a soup of fresh pea juice with bee larvae, some fried until crisp and some blanched with lovage, garnished with fresh lovage and bee bread; or ‘The Whole Hive,’ a dessert of beeswax ice cream, sauce of honey kombucha and bee bread, crystallized honey crisp, propolis tincture and apple blossoms. Bee bread is also excellent at initiating the transformation of cream into crème fraîche or butter.

Peas n Bees. Image by Jonas Drotner Mouritsen. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Peas n Bees. Image by Jonas Drotner Mouritsen. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

The Whole Hive. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

The Whole Hive. Image courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Our interaction with Apis mellifera is one of the oldest co-evolutionary relationships between insects and humans—and yet there is still so much we don’t know about the bees. For example, despite the current explosion of interest among scientists to study the complex microbiota of bees, we still do not know exactly which species of microbes drive the transformation of pollen into bee bread, or exactly how.

Bee bread butter. Photo by Josh Evans. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Bee bread butter. Image by Josh Evans. Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab.

Though as fascinating, delicious, and versatile as the bee bread is, my favorite part about it might be the realization that humans are not the only ones who ferment our food. Apis mellifera might have gotten there long before.

Bee bread is typically available to harvest throughout the summer months. Ask a local beekeeper for more information. If you’re lucky, they might be willing to share some of this potent, delicious treat.


Thanks to Annette Bruun Jensen at the University of Copenhagen for sharing with us a wealth of information about bees and their products over the past few years. Also thanks to Oliver Maxwell and the rest of the team at Bybi in Copenhagen, who have been one of our regular suppliers of both bee brood and bee bread and who go out of their way to help us in our research. To the many more beekeepers we have worked with in Denmark, the Nordic region, and the world: we salute you!


1. Vásquez, Alejandra, and Tobias C. Olofsson. 2009. “The Lactic Acid Bacteria Involved in the Production of Bee Pollen and Bee Bread.” Journal of Apicultural Research 48 (3): 189–95. doi:10.3896/IBRA.

2. Mattila, Heather R., Daniela Rios, Victoria E. Walker-Sperling, Guus Roeselers, and Irene L G Newton. 2012. “Characterization of the Active Microbiotas Associated with Honey Bees Reveals Healthier and Broader Communities When Colonies Are Genetically Diverse.” PLoS ONE 7 (3). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032962.

3. Gilliam, Martha. 1979a. “Microbiology of Pollen and Bee Bread: The Genus Bacillus.” Apidologie 10 (3): 269–74.

4. ———. 1979b. “Microbiology of Pollen and Bee Bread: The Yeasts.” Apidologie 10 (1): 43–53. doi:10.1051/apido:19790304.

5. Gilliam, Martha, D. B. Prest, D. B. Prest, B. J. Lorenz, and B. J. Lorenz. 1989. “Microbiology of Pollen and Bee Bread: Taxonomy and Enzymology of Molds.” Apidology 20: 53–68. doi:10.1051/apido:19890106.

6. Anderson, Kirk E, Mark J Carroll, T I M Sheehan, and Brendon M Mott. 2014. “Hive-Stored Pollen of Honey Bees: Many Lines of Evidence Are Consistent with Pollen Preservation , Not Nutrient Conversion.” Molecular Ecology, no. 23: 5904–17. doi:10.1111/mec.12966.

7. Degrandi-Hoffman, Gloria, Bruce J. Eckholm, and Ming Hua Huang. 2013. “A Comparison of Bee Bread Made by Africanized and European Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera) and Its Effects on Hemolymph Protein Titers.” Apidologie 44 (1): 52–63. doi:10.1007/s13592-012-0154-9.

8. Herbert, Elton W, and H Shimanuki. 1978. “Chemical Composition and Nutritive Value of Bee-Collected and Bee-Stored Pollen.” Apidologie 9 (1): 33–40. doi:10.1051/apido:19780103.

Beyond the Pail: The Advent of a Hot School Lunch

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is one of several posts leading up to our day-long Eating Through Time Festival on October 17, 2015, a celebration of food, cookery, and health. View the full program and register for the Festival.

It’s winter in Minnesota, 1916. You have to walk six miles to school (uphill, both ways?). By the time you get there, your lunch is frozen. “In this condition,” explained Nellie Wing Farnsworth in the pamphlet The Rural School Lunch, “it is not very appetizing and it is not much better even if it has thawed out.”1

“Packing the luncheon.” In Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920.

The Rural School Lunch, which focuses on schools in Minnesota in 1916, and The School Lunch, which focuses on schools in Massachusetts circa 1920, both describe the challenges of feeding rural students hot meals long before the advent of the National School Lunch Program in 1946.

As the pamphlets explain, students brought cold lunches from home. The nutritional value of those lunches was a concern, especially as lunch was often the main meal for farm families—one school children missed.1 In contrast, wrote Farnsworth, “Little thought or attention is given to the school lunch in many cases. When the pail or basket is opened it is found to contain cold pancakes, salt pork, cold potatoes, pie and bottles of cold tea or coffee. None of these foods is suited to the needs of the child and, as a rule, they all prove unpalatable and indigestible.”1

A selection of lunchboxes in Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916 (top) and Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920 (bottom).

A selection of lunchboxes in Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916 (top) and Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920 (bottom).

While some schools figured out ways to heat up lunches brought from home—in Wisconsin and elsewhere, students were encouraged to bring lunch in canning jars, which teachers placed in tubs of water atop the schools heater or stove—efforts to provide nutritious hot meals made at school took hold by the 1920s.2

Supplementing the box lunch with a hot dish, wrote The School Lunch author Alzira Wentworth Sandwall, had enormous benefits. Student table manners improved, students and teachers had a forum for conversation (“current events can be discussed and helpful conversation can be encouraged”), and nutrition education became part of the school day.3

“Hot lunch, Russell Mountain School, Hampden County.” In Sandwall, The School Lunch, c1920.

But perhaps most important was that student performance improved. Afternoon discipline became easier once students had enjoyed a nutritious meal. And students who appeared to be lost causes began to shine, like this child in Holyoke, Massachusetts:

One girl in the third grade was especially anemic, and was in the habit of falling asleep every afternoon. She became a regular patron of the canteen, and after two weeks she ceased to fall asleep. She was thought to be mentally deficient until the advent of the canteen, when she began to receive 100 per cent in some of her work.3

But how could schools provide hot meals to students? Programs across the country varied greatly, and only some had public funding.4 In most places, like the schools described by Sandwall and Farnsworth, hot lunches came about through donations of time and labor. Both pamphlets contain ideas for fundraising to pay for ingredients and utensils, such as food sales or a “shower”: a teacher selected utensils at a local store, asked women connected to the school to purchase them, and turned it into an afternoon party.1,3  And both have lists of recommended recipes, a large portion of them simple soups.

“Oil stove and cupboards improvised from packing boxes.” In Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916.

Farnsworth goes into great detail on how to create food and utensil storage areas on a budget. She also breaks down the process of meal management, recommending teachers assign four “housekeepers” each week, boys and girls who will cook, serve, set the table, wash the dishes, clean the storage areas and stove, carry in the water, sweep the floors, and take out the garbage under teacher supervision.1

“Redding up.” In Farnsworth, The Rural School Lunch, 1916.

Providing a hot lunch required enormous effort on the part of teachers, students, and the surrounding community. But as Sandwall stated, “There are very few schools where it is absolutely impossible to serve at least one hot dish, and no better work can be done for the health of the school children than making it possible for every one of them to have a hot, nourishing luncheon.”3


1. Farnsworth NW. The rural school lunch. St. Paul: Webb publishing company,; 1916. Available at:;view=1up;seq=7. Accessed August 27, 2015.

2. Gunderson GW. National School Lunch Program (NSLP)| Early Programs by States. United States Dep Agric Food Nutr Serv. 2014. Available at: Accessed August 26, 2015.

3. Sandwall AW. The School lunch /. s.n.,; 1920. Available at: Accessed August 27, 2015.

4. Levine S. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2008.

Join Us for Our Eating Through Time Festival on October 17

EatingThroughTime-pictureEvery year, our public programs explore a different aspect of our collections, culminating with an all-day Festival. This year’s Festival on October 17 is the highlight of our 2015  Eating Through Time: Food, Health and History celebration of food, cookery, and health.

Join us as we welcome chefs, community activists, historians, and food enthusiasts to discuss the past, present, and future of food in society, culture, and policy. The festival will feature talks, panels, demonstrations, tastings, performances, book signings, food trucks, a pop-up bookstore and marketplace, historic cookbooks on display in The Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room, and more. Food and science writer Evelyn Kim is guest curator for the event.

The program of speakers and presenters includes:

Online registration is available here with discounts for Academy Fellows and Members, Friends of the Rare Book Room, students, and hospital house staff.

The Journey of Dr. Robert Bongout and his Lady, to Bath

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we are sharing poems from our collection throughout April.

Anyone who has read a Jane Austen novel or seen an adaptation knows about taking the waters at Bath for medicinal benefit and societal gain. But Dr. Robert Bongout would not be considered decorous company for the genteel gentlemen and ladies in her works.

Robert Bragg’s 1778 The Journey of Dr. Robert Bongout and his Lady, to Bath. Performed in the Year 177- is a satirical poem about perhaps the most gleefully gluttonous character to ever grace the page (read it online in full). As Phillipa Bishop writes in an article for Bath History, “Dr Bongout’s exploits in the demolition of food, with all their crude natural consequences, are described with the same sort of gusto as the gluttonous orgy depicted by Thomas Rowlandson in his archetypal scene of green, ‘The Gourmet’s Dinner’”1

Comforts of Bath: Gouty Gourmands at Dinner (Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827). Image via Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection,

Comforts of Bath: Gouty Gourmands at Dinner (Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827). Image via Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection,

Bragg (not credited in print) describes the characters thus:

Over the course of their trip, Dr. Bongout spends copious funds on enormous amounts of food behind his wife, Lady Bongout’s, back. At the same time, she attempts to convince him to save money and eat less, but to no avail.

An example of his gluttony: After agreeing to a light supper at his wife’s bidding, he makes the following request to a cook once she is out of sight:

“Friend cook, quoth he, (first half a crown

Pop’d in his hand) are there in town

Such things as ducklings to be got?

The price I value not a jot.”

“Sir, quoth the cook, I have not less

Than ten fine ducklings fit to dress;”

“Then, quoth the Doctor, if you please,

Stew half a dozen down with pease;

And when enough, where I shall lie,

Be sure you send them instantly” (33-34)

He tucks in after his wife has gone to bed; half asleep, she stumbles upon him eating the stewed ducklings, thinks him a ghost, and faints (so true to life).

At first, it seems that Lady Bongout’s maladies—the real reason for the trip to Bath—are psychological effects of her many years of dealing with her husband. But soon after the Bongouts reach their destination, they take physical form. Her illness offers a satirical look into the services of physician and apothecary, who are “well-pleas’d to hear she was not dead; / Such welcome tidings cou’d but please, / (For what, alas! were one day’s fees).”

Her maladies lead to blindness, which does nothing to slow her charming husband: “Then while she’s blind, I wou’d know why / I may not live in jollity” (78). Despite her lack of vision, she still suffers the knowledge of his ever-increasing girth: “For tho’ she could not with her eyes / Distinguish his enormous size; / Yet she cou’d feel to what a bulk / His worship had increas’d his hulk” (80).

Dr. Bongout himself goes through a medical crisis after eating “for dinner half a stone in weight” (93). Be warned, gentle readers: these verses are not for the faint of heart.

Even this incident does nothing to slow Dr. Bongout’s appetite. At the end of the poem, news of his imminent departure from Bath brings tears to the eyes of the local pastry chef and causes him profound worry about the future of his business:

“To lose of customers the chief

Was matter of the greatest grief:

Quoth he, “And must you then depart?

The very thought will break my heart!

But if you must—I cannot stay—

My shop will fail—I’ll run away.” (136-137)

The Journey of Dr. Robert Bongout and his Lady is part of a larger tradition of satirical writings related to gout (though Bragg only refers to Dr. Bongout’s condition through the character’s name). Perhaps because gout was a disease of the wealthy, its merits “have been extolled over the centuries by physicians and laypersons. In the past, gout was regarded as a badge of nobility, a talisman against other afflictions and an aphrodisiac, and these beliefs were preserved in 16th-to 18th-century literature.”2 In addition, writers often approached the painful disease with humor. “Gout was…a diverting disease,” one that inspired new uses of language and playfully coined words.3

Bragg’s playful look at gluttony does not end with a moral, only the expectation that Dr. Bongout’s enormous gut will continue its expansion. Nor does it seem that his gluttony will have tragic consequences, only humorous ones. Clearly, he’s called Dr. Good Gout for a reason.

1. Bishop P. The Sentence of Momus: Satirical verse and prints in eighteenth-century Bath. Bath Hist. 1994;5:51–80. Available at: Images/Vol 05 – 03. Bishop – The Sentence of Momus – Satirical Verse and Prints in Eighteenth-Century Bath.pdf.

2. Scholtens M. The glorification of gout in 16th- to 18th-century literature. Can Med Assoc J. 2008;179(8):804–805. doi:10.1503/cmaj.080312.

3. Porter R, Rousseau GS. Gout: The Patrician Malady. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2000.

Why the Beef? Empire and Cuisine

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Rachel Laudan. Originally trained as a historian of science, Dr. Laudan has taken her historical research into food history. This blog post is inspired by Dr. Laudan’s most recent work, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (University of California Press, 2013), focusing on the movers of gastronomic change from pre-history to the present.

Dr. Laudan will discuss her work on April 12 at the Food Book Fair at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel. The Fair will include two panels presented by the New York Academy of Medicine, Food and Empire and Cookbooks and History. For more information and for tickets, visit

“Where’s the beef?” asked actress Clara Peller of a rival burger in a 1984 Wendy’s advertisement. Within a matter of weeks, her words had become an American catchphrase.


Curious, though, when you think about it, that Americans were so enamored of beef. Through most of history, beef was low on the hierarchy of meats. Chinese preferred pork or fish; people in the Middle East and the Mediterranean relished lamb and goat; and Indians created cuisines in which meat played a secondary role if not avoided altogether. Most people stayed away from the tough stringy meat from old work animals or worn out dairy cattle.

Northwestern Europe and its former colonies are the exceptions. For Americans, for example, not only is beef delicious, but they and others see it as a symbol of American power, particularly when combined with white bread to make a hamburger. On January 31, 1990, 5,000 people waited in the chilly Moscow dawn for the first McDonald’s in the USSR to open its doors; by nightfall, 30,000 had been served. Many commented that the opening of McDonald’s foreshadowed the fall of the USSR.

Because McDonald’s was so symptomatic of American strength, no one took it lightly, whether they liked it or not. The Economist used the price of a Big Mac to value the world’s currencies; the sociologist George Ritzer coined the term McDonaldization to mean efficiency, predictability, and mechanization. In the 1980s, the Slow Food movement took its name as it opposed the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome. In 1999, the French farmer José Bové dismantled a McDonald’s under construction in France, rallying supporters with the call McMerde (McShit).

Beef recipes from pages 38-39 of Ann Peckham's The Complete English Cook, Leeds, 179?. Click to enlarge.

Beef recipes from pages 38-39 of Ann Peckham’s The Complete English Cook, fourth edition, Leeds, 179?. Click to enlarge.

Beef as the symbol of American power was a natural successor to beef as the symbol of British power. Beef, the flesh of the most powerful domesticated animal, its bright red color suggesting strength and masculinity, had been hallowed by the English since at least the 17th century. In song, in quips such as the “roast beef of Old England,” in clubs centered around eating steaks, and in ox roasts distributed to the poor on political occasions, beef became synonymous with Englishness. When Justus Liebig, the leading chemist of the first half of the 19th century, declared that proteins were the crucial nutrients, essential to the building and maintenance of the body, English faith in beef was confirmed.

In fact, steaks and roasts were beyond the means of most English in the 19th century. Sticky brown essence of beef provided, as hamburger offered later, an affordable alternative. Meat extract, according to Liebig, was as nutritious as beef itself. He offered to provide it neatly bottled from his factory in distant Uruguay, which extracted beef essence from cattle carcasses hitherto valuable only for their fat and hides.

Calendar blotter for December 1928 and January 1929 issued by Fairchild Brothers and Foster and their UK agents, Burroughs, Wellcome and Co. advertising 'Panopepton' beef extract, "the pure nutritious substance of beef and wheat in perfect solution". This would have been one of a series of blotters sent out to members of the medical profession every 2 months. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

Calendar blotter for December 1928 and January 1929 issued by Fairchild Brothers and Foster and their UK agents, Burroughs, Wellcome and Co. advertising ‘Panopepton’ beef extract, “the pure nutritious substance of beef and wheat in perfect solution”. This would have been one of a series of blotters sent out to members of the medical profession every 2 months. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

Beef essence was one of the fastest growing areas of the food-processing industry in the 19th century, with entrepreneurs from the American meat packer Armour to the chef Escoffier investing their reputation and money in extracts.

"I hear they want more Bovril. My place is at the front." 1915 advertisement. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters.

“I hear they want more Bovril. My place is at the front.” 1915 advertisement. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters.

One of the most successful companies was Bovril. Its name combined modern theories of race embodied in the bestselling novel The Coming of the Master Race (1871) by the politician Edward Bulwer Lytton, and classical antecedents of empire. The first provided “Vril,” the name for all-penetrating energy harnessed by a subterranean race of super men, and the second “bovis,” Latin for “of the ox.” According to a series of stunning advertisements, this small jar of brown syrupy stuff strengthened men at the front, built up children bursting with health, and averted influenza, no small matter when the 1918 pandemic killed three to five percent of the world’s population.

Meat extract, like hamburgers later, depended on an infrastructure that stretched from the advertising and retailing industries, through the steamships and trains that shipped carcasses to factories and gleaming bottles of extract around the world, to vast areas of land. In 1932, Bovril ran cattle on 1.3 million acres in Argentina and 9 million acres in Canada, over ten times the acreage of the King Ranch in Texas, which claimed to be the biggest in the United States.

Inevitably, the power of beef came to be seen as underpinning the expanding British Empire. To mark the coronation of Edward VII, the major British weekly The Illustrated London News ran an advertisement on February 2, 1902. Titled “How the British Empire Spells Bovril,” it illustrated “the close association of this Imperial British Nourishment with the whole of King Edward’s Dominions at Home and Beyond the Seas” by fitting the national outlines (reduced or expanded as necessary) into the letters of the word Bovril.

Bovril advertisement in The Illustrated London News, February 2, 1902. Courtesy of Rachel Laudan.

Bovril advertisement in The Illustrated London News, February 2, 1902. Courtesy of Rachel Laudan.

Today, although English soccer fans still take hot Bovril broth to games, the idea that it is nourishment for Empire builders is long gone. And even McDonald’s is not the power it was a decade ago. Consumers go instead to Chipotle, Panera, and Starbucks, which offer the promise of healthier, tastier, less mass-market foods. Is this the end of empire? Or a change of direction?

Program Announcement: Interlibrary Snacking

As announced last month, our programming theme for 2015 is Eating Through Time.

We are thrilled to introduce a new pilot program, the Reciprocal Library Snack Cooperative, or Interlibrary Snacking, to go along with this theme. Our library boasts more than 10,000 volumes relating to food and cookery. For this new program, library staff will prepare recipes from the collection and send them to requesting libraries, who will in turn offer prepared recipes from their collections. All service providers will undergo thorough food safety training. In addition to white cotton gloves, cookbook users will receive hairnets.

Library snacks will focus on locally sourced, sustainable items. We are building a bespoke refrigeration unit based on the 1890 volume Mechanical Refrigeration and are taking into consideration cold storage advice from Into the Freezer—And Out (1946).

We are building a refrigeration unit based on his illustration from Mechanical Refrigeration, scheduled for completion in September 2016.

We are building a refrigeration unit, scheduled for completion in September 2016, based on this illustration from Mechanical Refrigeration.

The plan for our cold storage organization closely adheres to that shown in Into the Freezer—And Out.

The plan for our cold storage organization closely adheres to that shown in Into the Freezer—And Out.

Men Like Meat, an undated pamphlet from the American Can Company. Disclaimer on back cover: "We manufacture cans. We do no canning."

Men Like Meat, an undated pamphlet from the American Can Company. Disclaimer on back cover: “We manufacture cans – we do no canning.”

Before we tackle perishables, however, our focus will be on more shelf-stable foodstuff. Our collection includes a selection of items on canning, preserves, canned meats, food drying and dehydration, and other expiration-extending technologies.

The practice of developing new technologies to enable the safe transportation of food from one place to the next is an old story. As early as the 1850s, commercially canned goods—especially sardines, tomatoes, condensed milk, and fruits and vegetables—found an eager consumer audience in the Western United States. Cowboys bought oysters from Baltimore and canned tomatoes in bulk. In the early 20th century, canning facilitated the introduction of regional fruits like the California fig and the pineapple nationwide. Coast to coast, commercial canning introduced Americans to new foods, but often at the expense of freshness and taste.1

After the 1930s, supermarket foods were increasingly packaged: boxed, frozen, canned, dried, bottled, or combined in ready-to-eat forms. Advertisers marketed these in bright colors with catchy names that increased sales and added preservatives to ensure a longer-shelf life. Convenience usually trumped taste, and boredom at the family dinner table led many families increasingly to dine out.1

Our aim will be to use technologies like canning to enhance flavor. Along with the Reciprocal Library Snack Cooperative’s mission to include local, sustainable foods, we will also embrace more traditional methods of preservation. Goodbye chemical preservatives, hello pickling! Here is an example of a recipe currently in the works.

In addition, our program will have a secondary focus on recipes featuring new cooking technologies at the time of their publication. We have already had the soft-launch of the program: Our first item sent was inspired by this recipe from 1911.

The first recipe successfully made and sent as part of the Reciprocal Library Snack Cooperative.

The first recipe successfully made and sent as part of the Reciprocal Library Snack Cooperative.2

Want to know more about food history? Attend our Eating Through Time programming.

1. Hooker RJ. Food and drink in America: A history. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill; 1981.
2. Special thanks to Juan at Sterling Affair for preparing historically accurate toast.

Got Food?

Evelyn J. Kim, today’s guest blogger, is an author and writer working on issues of food and food justice through the lens of science. Trained as a historian of science, her work has been in the The New York TimesScientific American, and The Atlantic. She is our guest curator for this year’s programming, Eating Through Time.

Les Aphorismes de Brillat-Savarin. From the Margaret Barclay Wilson Collection.

Les Aphorismes de Brillat-Savarin. From the Margaret Barclay Wilson Collection.

“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are)

– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), Physiologie du Goût ou: Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” – Attributed to Hippocrates

What do you do every day, beyond sleeping, breathing and thinking? You eat! This year, The New York Academy of Medicine is proud to announce its programming theme for 2015: Eating Through Time.

CHM-ETT-Logo1_VertTop Chef. The Salt. Lucky Peach. Grub Street. Modernist Cuisine. And thousands upon thousands of food blogs. Unless you’ve been living underneath a rock, food seems to be all around us. On television, on the web, in art, in books, in science…Food seems to be having its own “moment” as form of cultural currency. But lest anyone think that this is a new phenomenon, food has always been with us, from pre-history to the present, a basis of our bodily, social, economic, and historical selves.

To that end, we are sponsoring a whole year of activities around food, including guest lectures at the Academy and panel discussions at this year’s Food Book Fair, culminating in a full-day festival at the Academy on October 17, 2015. Based on the Academy’s collection of more than 10,000 volumes on food and health, the festival will include speakers, demonstrations, and performances centered on the topic of food. Featured speakers include our keynote speaker, famed chef Jacques Pépin, food historian Dr. Ken Albala, and Nordic Food Lab’s Joshua Evans, as well as the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives program.

This year’s programming will encompass not only contemporary debates surrounding food, medicine, and culture, but also the historical linkages that undergird much of those discussions. We will ask chefs, historians, writers, and public health experts their perspectives on not only food’s past influence but also what’s in store in the future for us as eaters and as a society.

Marx Rumpolt, Ein new Kochbuch, 1581.

Marx Rumpolt, Ein new Kochbuch, 1581.

To kick off this year’s programming, our inaugural lecture on March 17 will feature historian of science Dr. Steven Shapin from Harvard University. Dr. Shapin has written on several topics, from Dr. Robert Boyle to the role of business in scientific research, and his current interests lie in the history of dietetics. His lecture, entitled “Beef-Eaters: A Cultural History of Food and Identity” exemplifies the complicated nexus between our dietary habits and our social identitiesand is a perfect start to this year’s theme.

We’re excited about this year’s programming and we hope to see you at any or all our events. Visit for event details and registration, and follow this blog for more delicious tidbits on our year in food.

Recipes for Cooking by Electricity (Item of the Month)

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

In 2015, our programming will focus on food, including a day-long festival on October 17. This is part of a series of blogs featuring the theme.

It’s difficult to imagine a modern kitchen without electric appliances. But in the early 1900s, most people had to be persuaded to use them—often unsuccessfully.

As Doreen Yarwood explains in An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology, electric cookers made their debuts in the 1890s and catalogs started selling them by 1900. Still, people found them difficult to use. They were unreliable and often burnt out, they weren’t aesthetically pleasing, they were difficult to clean, and it was easy to burn yourself while using them. As so few people had electric current in their homes at the turn of the century, it’s not surprising that it took three more decades for electric cooking to become commonplace.1

But the New York Edison Company saw an opportunity. In 1911, it published Recipes for Cooking by Electricity, a slim cookbook that not only gave recipes (ranging in cost and complexity from toast to lobster a la Newburg), but also specified the cost of the electric current used. The cookbook also included a page with tips for the care of the electric appliances, such as not immersing the heating elements in water, cleaning a warm stove top with Vaseline, and keeping a coffee percolator “sweet and clean” by rinsing it with cold water after each use and boiling water with a tablespoon of baking soda in it each week. The cookbook concludes, “It is a simple thing to cook with electricity and the cost is surprisingly small.”2

Here are some sample recipes:


1. Yarwood, D. (2002). The Domestic Interior: Technology and the Home. In I. McNeil (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology. London: Routledge.

2. New York Edison Company. (1911). Recipes for cooking by electricity. New York: Edison Company.

NYAM’s Culinary Highlights

On Monday, The Recipes Project featured an interview with Curator Anne Garner about the print and manuscript historical recipe books in our collection. We’re delighted to republish the interview, conducted by Michelle DiMeo, on our blog.

Could you give us an overview of the print and manuscript historical recipe books in NYAM’s collection? Can you offer any search tips for finding them in your catalog?

At the heart of our culinary holdings is the Collection of Books on Foods and Cookery, presented to NYAM by Margaret Barclay Wilson in 1929. Wilson was professor of physiology and honorary librarian at Hunter College; she also advised the city of New York on food economy during wartime.

The Wilson collection includes about 10,000 items, including the Apicius manuscript (see below), menus and pamphlets that demonstrate the way cookery changed over time, and a large collection of printed books, beginning in the 16th century. Included here are works by Scappi, Platina, and Carême as well as many other milestones in culinary printing.  Especially exciting are the wide variety of everyday cookbooks we own that show what daily cooking was like in a range of households, across the world. Using our collections, you can also trace the changes that occur when people have access to new innovations—refrigeration, for example, or the gas range.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

We have strong collections related to diet regimens and cooking for health, as well as cookbooks published during wartime when resources were scarce. More general texts on home economics and household management include much on cooking. Books on farming, viticulture and beer-making round out our strong print holdings.

The centerpiece of our food manuscripts is Apicius’ De re culinaria, one of two existing copies of an early Roman cookbook mixed with medical recipes, agronomical observations, and house-keeping advice. Our copy was penned at the monastery at Fulda (Germany) around 830 AD.

NYAM holds some significant early modern manuscript recipe books. Can you tell us more about these and give a couple of highlights?

Our library holds 36 manuscript receipt books, dating from the late 17th through the 19th century. The bulk of the manuscripts are German and English. The remaining manuscripts are American, Austrian, French, and Dutch. One of my favorites is the Choise Receipt book from 1680, which includes recipes for fruit preserves, baked goods, mead and beer, as well as hearty pudding and meat dishes. You’ll also find here a recipe ensuring a quick childbirth—central ingredient, baked eel livers!—as well as many other medical recipes. A tantalizing recipe for a “gam of cherries” is notable because the OED dates the earliest usage of “jam,” in any form, to 1736, almost sixty years after the date of this manuscript.

Index of late 17th-century manuscript A Collection of Choise Receipts.

Index of late 17th-century manuscript A Collection of Choise Receipts.

Elizabeth Duncombe’s manuscript offers recipes from a later period (1791). Food historian Stephen Schmidt has cooked several of these recipes, with delectable results! Highlights include a fish sauce more French than English in spirit (akin to today’s beurre blanc), and recipes for pigeon, hedgehog and potted mushrooms. References to milking and to cows suggest that this was the cookbook of a farm household, and not a city residence.

Could you tell us a bit more about the Pine Tree Manuscript Receipt Book Project?

The 36 early modern manuscripts described above were all in need of both conservation and cataloging. All items needed basic stabilization and dry cleaning; in some cases, the bindings needed to be replaced with historically and structurally suitable materials. All can now be used by the public without worry of further damage. They’ve also been cataloged, and can be found by searching online here.

Both the conservation work and the cataloging was funded by the Pine Tree Foundation, overseen by Szilvia Szmuk-Tanenbaum. Szilvia is a bibliophile and a culinary enthusiast, and has been wonderfully generous to us.

I heard that “Food” is NYAM’s 2015 programming theme. Do tell us more! How will recipes be included?

We’re thrilled that our 2015 programming will focus on the history of food and food systems, working with historian and writer Evelyn Kim. Throughout the year there will be food-related events, culminating in our October Festival where we will offer a mixture of talks, demonstrations, and workshops, with noted chefs and writers. In April, we will also be participating in the Food Book Fair in Brooklyn. We will be drawing on our historical cookery collection for insights into changing ideas about food and health, nutrition, diets and more. Watch our blog for images, recipes and details of lectures and workshops to come.

NYAM’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health (which includes the Library) hosts the blog Books, Health, and History. Could you give us an overview of some blog posts that were related to historical recipes?

Food historian Stephen Schmidt did a wonderful post for us on a recipe for bread crumb gingerbread. The recipe can be found in a manuscript cookbook from the early 18th century but is adapted from a much older recipe for a contemporary audience. Schmidt writes about the evolution of gingerbread as a stomach settler in the 17th-century to its 18th-century incarnation as a sweet dessert cake, made with molasses. Our manuscript offers recipes for both the old and the new gingerbread. Schmidt speculates that the old was probably made at Christmastime, the new, in everyday cooking.

Another highlight includes a blog featuring a staff member’s photo-documented chronicle of her experiences making Mother Eve’s Pudding, featured in this recipe book, and a post on the recipe itself, which is cleverly—and sometimes cryptically—told in verse. Other highlights include posts offering recipes for an authentic 1914 Thanksgiving dinner and on a pamphlet, the “Canape Parade,” featuring a procession of winsome vegetables.

A recipe in verse for Mother Eve’s Pudding, late 18th-century.

A recipe in verse for Mother Eve’s Pudding, late 18th-century.