Mia Cohen, Jacob Glantz, Faith Rudd, Sarah Scott and William Ward, students studying for a Liberal Arts BA and members of the Food Glorious Food Research Group, write:

In September of 2020, we embarked upon an investigation as part of the Liberal Arts Research Placement, into something that many people have perhaps not given as much consideration as they should: the cooking and eating habits of the Victorians. Over the past year, we have used authentic Victorian recipes from the Special Collections’ Cookery Manuscripts Collection as a means to better understand the historical, political, and social contexts that surrounded them, and therefore not only how eating habits themselves have changed, but how the world at large has too.

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‘To Fry Fish’, from MS 61, f. 49, Cookery book. Image credit Leeds University Library.

We started by selecting our manuscripts, transcribing them, and then working with them to create functioning recipes that we could use to cook the dishes. By cooking, experimenting with, and eating these dishes, we were able to establish the broader historical and political themes around which we would base our research: these were Dietary Practices, Convenience, Food Preservation, and Colonialism. It was this part of our research process that was perhaps most enlightening, as we could investigate not only what the Victorians ate, but why. For example, the manuscript entitled To Fry Fish, from MS 61, f. 49, inspired us to investigate the prevalent Christian practice of eating fish on Fridays.

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Our updated version of the original ‘To Fry Fish’ manuscript recipe, from our cookbook ‘Food Glorious Food’. Image courtesy of the Food Glorious Food Research Group.

We were then able to see not only how the Victorian world impacted its cuisine, but how this cuisine in turn impacted both the worlds of then and now. For example, we discovered that the Eastern-originating spices called for in such recipes as Brisket of Beef Stewed, from MS 62, f. 44, were not only a result of the spice trade as part of the British Empire, but have directly contributed to a pervasive colonial ideology which continues to this day. Using these manuscripts, we have therefore discovered that food is not simply sustenance nor just pleasure. It both contributes to, and is exemplary of, the society from which it originates, wherever and whenever that may be.

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Brisket of Beef Stewed, from MS 62, f. 44. Cookery book. Image credit Leeds University Library.

To communicate our research findings to both academic circles and the wider public, we have created a dual media recipe series, comprised of both a more traditional cookbook, and a video series, wherein we demonstrate how to cook the recipes as well, following in the footsteps of the Julias, Gordons, and Nigellas of this world. For this recipe series, we did not however only use the original manuscript recipes; we created our own adaptations, modernisations, top tips, historical explanations, and annotations, such to make the recipes easier to follow, and the manuscripts therefore more accessible. Our Food Glorious Food research is a piece of marked work and has not been published.

Our transcription of the original Brisket of Beef Stewed manuscript recipe from our cookbook ‘Food Glorious Food’. Image courtesy of the Food Glorious Food Research Group.

These manuscripts act as windows to an often unseen and overlooked facet of the past. Through our recipes, we hope to share with our audience hidden gems the Special Collections archives have to offer.