Archives, Food for Thought
Culinary Delights in Lady Anne Percy’s Receipt Book
Around 1650, a teenage Lady Anne Percy compiled a collection of receipts now held in the NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division as part of its Whitney cookery collection. "Whitney MS 2" includes over four hundred medical and cookery recipes from friends, family, and contemporary printed cookbooks. After her untimely death in 1654, her husband conserved the receipt book in his family’s library. He lovingly noted inside the manuscript, "These receits are writ in my dear Wife’s the Lady Ann Pircies own hand and have been long kept as secrets in the Northumberland Family."
As a noblewoman in one of England’s most powerful families, Anne would not have spent time cooking meals; a large household staff conducted such matters. However, she would have prepared confections, such as candies, cookies, and preserves, as well as household medicines. Reflective of this distinction, a vast majority of her receipt book consists of confectionary and medicinal recipes. This clear divide existed between everyday meal preparation and specialized products because confections and medicines included rare, unusual, and expensive ingredients that were less likely to be entrusted to servants. As Ivan Day states in The Art of Confectionary, respectable aristocratic Englishwoman of the period would either directly prepare or supervise the preparation of these specific items. From the esoteric ambergris, unicorn horn, and bezoar stone, as well as the now-commonplace sugar, seventeenth-century luxury ingredients dot the pages of Whitney MS 2. Additionally, these preparations were domestic arts appropriate for refined women. Indeed, the preparation of household medicine was appropriate for women beneath Anne’s social standing as well, though their recipes were less likely to include such extravagant ingredients.
Despite the nature of these recipes, Anne’s receipt book was definitely used in a kitchen. Turning each page reveals a new surprise. Tucked in the binding edge of the manuscript are seeds, stems, and feathers; a few fingerprints appear on the pages; and a stain from a spoon or ladle clearly marks an attempt to hold a page open.
Whitney MS 2 also includes several dishes for everyday dining that are familiar on a modern table. One of my favorite comfort foods and jewels of the Western culinary canon appears: Chicken Fricassee. I was thrilled to discover the recipe in this manuscript.
To make Fricassee of Chickens, Pigeons, or Rabbits Let them first be half-roasted or more and then taken from the spit. Cut them in small pieces and put them in a frying pan, and put to them a little strong broth, a little claret wine, pepper beaten small, nutmeg grated (of each a little), and a little onion. Let them boil a little in the pan, then take the meat of a lemon and some sweet herbs, such a quantity as you please to have it as green or colored as you desire, all minced somewhat small. Then take yolks of 4 or 5 eggs, and beat them with a little good vinegar. So put them into your meat in the pan, and let them be kept tossing till you have gathered all the sauce about the meat. Then put it in a dish and send it up just from the pan.
Nearly four hundred years later, this satisfying dish is prepared today in much the same way. While recent versions usually begin with cutting the meat into pieces and browning it in a skillet, this recipe begins with roasting the chickens (or rabbits, or pigeons) until halfway cooked on a spit before cutting and further cooking the meat. The rest of the recipe is remarkably modern. The amount of liquid and seasoning is left to personal taste, but I encourage you to try making this dish. I recommend starting with a three to four pound chicken, and two egg yolks. Once you master a small batch, it is easy to increase the quantities and cooking times for two birds and four to five yolks. You won’t be disappointed—Bon appétit!
Sarah Peters Kernan is a 2014 Food Studies Fellow at NYPL and PhD candidate in medieval history at The Ohio State University. Her primary research examines the shift from manuscript to print through the lens of cookbooks produced in England and France from 1300 to 1600. The Food Studies Fellowships are funded by the Pine Tree Foundation.