When it comes to interpreting 18th century cookbooks, sometimes it pays to go with your instinct when it tells you a recipe may be inaccurate.
Take for instance this recipe from the book “The Universal Cook” by Francis Collingwood and John Woollams (1806):
I’m quite certain even the most robust palette would find a mincemeat pie made with eight ounces each of mace and nutmeg shockingly inedible.
Now, I don’t want to sound overly critical of all the hard work that Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Woollams put into their book. I don’t want to be another Ann Cook, for instance, who started her 1760 cookbook, “Professed Cookery” with a lovely poem followed by nearly 70 pages of scathing criticism of the work, “The Art of Cookery” by her culinary rival, Hannah Glasse. After all, I have made my share of mistakes in life and have even made a few mistakes on behalf of my closet friends. I’m sure the mistake here was a simple one: the word “pound” was innocently used in place of the word “ounce.”
But not all innocence is innocuous. Small amounts of nutmeg and it’s aril companion, mace, are just fine for human consumption (albeit, not so for pets, which is why you should never let your dog drink the leftover eggnog after the party). These are versatile spices, used in both sweet and savory dishes. But unfortunately for all of those inexperienced 18th century cooks who took the above recipe at face value, consuming large amounts of nutmeg can result in myristicin poisoning. Symptoms include convulsions, dehydration, nausea, palpitations, headaches, dizziness, dry mouth, blood-shot eyes, memory disturbances, visual distortions, hallucinations, and paranoia.
I knew when I read the recipe that a full pound of this spice combination had to be erroneous. So I cross-referenced this recipe to others found in some of my favorite 18th century cookbooks. It was then I began to smell something a little more sinister (at least by modern standards) wafting from the kitchen: plagiarism!
The first edition of “The Universal Cook” was published in 1792 — that’s nine years following the original publication of John Farley’s book, “The London Art of Cookery.” Compare Mr. Farley’s mincemeat recipe to the aforementioned version:
Plagiarism was apparently pretty common in the 18th century, that is, if the considerable number of offenses I’ve noticed in the old cookbooks is any indication of that. But in this case, I wonder if it carried dire consequences. Kind of a culinary karma.
The moral of this story is to read twice, bake once — similar to the ol’ carpenter’s mantra, “measure twice, cut once.” Calmly put the whisk down if your instinct tells you something smells fishy. If a recipe calls for eight ounces each of nutmeg and mace, you may want to consider cross referencing the recipe.
And for a broader application of this principle, in the reenactor’s or historical foodie’s endeavor to be historically accurate, one might want to be sure that what he or she is meticulously replicating was accurate in the first place.
One would hate to be the death of a party.