Early modern English Food

This semester in History of Science to the Age of Newton (HSCI 3013), students worked in groups to research and recreate seven different foods that were eaten (or drunk) by English men and women in the 16th and 17th centuries: chocolate, pumpkin pie, rice pudding, ginger bread, marmalade, syllabub and coffee. The point of this assignment was to make tangible (and edible) the complex networks of global trade and exchange of knowledge about the natural world that characterized the early modern world. The history of food is intimately connected to the history of exploration and trade, the history of slavery and the history of science and medicine. For more on the importance of the history of food, read Benjamin Breen’s post, What did 17th-century food taste like?

Each group researched the following questions about their assigned food:

  • What’s the history of this food? When did English people start eating it? What do early modern recipes look like?
  • Where did the ingredients come from? How did they get onto an English table? (At the end of this post is a link to a map that shows the locations of origin of all ingredients from these recipes.)
  • What medicinal uses (if any) did early modern people believe this food had?

CHOCOLATE (Group 1: Alicia Chavez, Calvin Miller, Christopher Coronado, Ryan Parsons, Dylan Heisey, and Joshua Pearcy)

L0034633 Page of recipes from Lady Fanshawe's book i
Chocolate pot from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book. Image courtesy of The Wellcome Library.

Cacao is from Mexico and parts of Central and South America. Indigenous peoples consumed it as a drink, and believed it had medicinal properties. It was used to stimulate weight gain and for digestive problems. It was not sweetened like modern chocolate, and had a bitter taste. It was often combined with spices like chilies.

Christopher Columbus first came upon cacao aboard a large sea-canoe carrying cacao beans and other various cargo on his 4th visit to the “New World.” The Spanish mixed grounded cacao beans and spices (cloves, cinnamon, chile peppers, etc.) with warm water. The English modified the recipe and mixed milk and eggs or egg yolks with the ground cacao and water. While expensive enough to be considered a luxury, chocolate became widely available in coffee shops around England by the 18th century.

For an overview of the not-so-sweet history of chocolate, watch this TED talk.

Sources and further reading

Amy Tigner, Teaching Chocolate from the Bean to the Drink

Amanda Herbert, Chocolate in the Classroom

PUMPKIN PIE (Group 2:  Brandon Day, Madeleine Stone, Derek Doll, Joseph Teter, and Sarah Rylee)

Pumpkins were first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 B.C. They were one of the earliest foods European explorers brought back from the “New World.” The English writer Hannah Woolley was one of the first to incorporate the pumpkin into the English diet. She published a recipe for pumpkin pie in 1670. By the early 18th century many Americans made pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

The ingredients in Woolley’s pie recipe include pumpkin, which would have been imported from Mexico or South America. Also cinnamon, mostly likely from Sri Lanka or the Philippines; nutmeg and cloves, from Indonesia; sugar from the West Indies; and some local ingredients like apples and butter.

Pumpkin (actually butternut squash) pie baked by Group 2.

The pumpkin pie recipe this group brought to class was based on one made by Amanda Herbert (which in turn was based on one of Hannah Woolley’s recipes), as described in her blog post A pumpkin pie recipe from 17th-century England.

Sources and further reading


RICE PUDDING (Group 3: John Burton, John Gill, Melissa Cunningham, Hudson McGrew, Kaeli Ellison, and Spencer Schweiger)


Rice pudding is not known commonly for any of its medicinal values in today’s day and age, and this is for good reason. Rice pudding was suggested to anyone experiencing digestive issues, as its thickness and cream-like consistency were thought to ease the stomach. Although praised in its infancy as a deterrent for “stomach disfluxions,” the pudding has not seen much more success in this category. Note that first mentions of rice pudding were found in medical documents rather than books of cooking. It is possible that because rice itself was seen as a healthy medicine and a thickening agent, rice pudding would be thought of in a similar vein.

Rice pudding. Photo by Dimitris Siskopoulos (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dimsis/32993702965).


Each region of the world makes rice pudding a little different. In the Middle East, they call their rice pudding “Firni”. It is typically eaten as a dessert and made with cornflour or rice flour and then flavored with rosewater. In Asia, rice pudding goes by the name of “Kheer”. Depending on who is making it, it is made with either rice or very fine noodles or sometimes carrots. It is also eaten as a dessert here. It is common that a variety of ingredients are added such as raisins, cardamom, almonds, cinnamon and pistachios. This rice pudding is believed to be a food of the angels. In both Asia and the Middle East, their variations of rice pudding are typically eaten as a dessert. But in Europe, this is different and it eaten as more of a pottage. Sausage skins are a common ingredient and this pudding was not nearly as sweet as the recipes from Asia or the Middle East.


Rice pudding originally started out as an expensive dish for royalty. In 1390, it was known as “rice pottage” and was made with almond milk, water, and saffron. Later on, rice pudding was called “Ryse of Flesh” and was made with broth and salt instead of water, with all the same other ingredients. Sugar was introduced to rice pudding recipes in the 15th century when it was sweetened with honey and sugar. Then, in 1615, John Murell added currants, cinnamon, eggs, suet, and barberrries to rice pudding, then stuffed it in sausage skins. Then, later on, beef suet, nutmeg, cloves, mace, dates, and powdered coriander seeds were added in by Robert May. All of these recipes required the pudding to be boiled then let out to steep overnight. Today, that is not the case. This is because we can use arborio rice today, which absorbs the ingredients much faster than ordinary rice like that used originally.


The dish’s origin can be traced back to the grain pottages (a thick soup or stew made from boiled grains, vegetables, and meat) made by middle eastern cooks. Rice pudding was also a very popular dish during Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare even references the dish in he writings. In more modern times, rice pudding is still considered a popular dish. In Manhattan, New York there is a restaurant called Rice to Riches that is dedicated entirely to rice pudding and offers many different flavors.


Rice was and still is a product with high demand. Modern day technology has been able to fix that making rice accessible to practically everyone. We have the ability to grow more rice per acre then they could imagine. At the time rice pudding was created sadly that was not the case. Rice was a very expensive product to import. Typically only the wealthy elite could enjoy it. As different dishes with rice pudding came about so did the need for different rice breeds. This lead to even more cost to import.

Sources and further reading

Rise of Rice Pudding

Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, The Exotic Taste of Rice

GINGERBREAD (Group 4: Isaac Wheeler, Brittany Burnham, Taylor Mitchell, Philip Grant, Michelle Nguyen)
Ginger is native to Southeast Asia. Ancient Indians and Chinese used the root as a tonic to cure illness. It was brought to the Mediterranean as early as the 1st century by traders, and it became a popular spice throughout Europe during the Roman Empire. It became a common spice in many delicacies throughout Europe. It was also valued for its

medical properties in Europe. It was thought that ginger helped ailments of the stomach, from chronic indigestion to simple nausea, much as we use ginger ale today.  In addition, it was used to ease menstrual pains in women. Ginger root was also used in China to help with inflammation and headache. King Henry VIII used a mix of ginger to build a resistance to the plague in Europe.

Gingerbread cake. Wikimedia Commons.


Gingerbread was extremely popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. Its popularity began to grow as ginger and other spices became more widely available. Gingerbread was a commodity of medieval fairs, where people would exchange gingerbread with one another. Across England and France, there would be “gingerbread fairs” to showcase these desserts. The first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who would have cookies modeled after visiting dignitaries. The English tradition of making gingerbread men was brought to the United States by English colonists. The gingerbread man became a cultural archetype when a story was published about a gingerbread man in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1875.

Early modern versions of gingerbread were more often in a bread or loaf form. They used things like honey, molasses, and other similar ingredients to increase flavor and sweetness. They weren’t seen as much as a “sweet” food as today. Modern versions of gingerbread are usually in forms of cookies. Americans today usually think about gingerbread houses for Christmas instead of actual loaves of gingerbread. These are seen more as sweet foods rather than savory. Different forms of food revolving around ginger are used in modern times, which is different than the main form in early modern times.

A 17th-century gingerbread recipe:

“Take a pound of flour, a quarter of a pound of sugar, 2 ounce of candied orange peel or Lemon, two shilling of grated white ginger, half a pint of melted butter, 4 spoonful of brandy, a pound or something better of treacle, mix it well & bake it on wafer paper on tin pans in a quick oven.”

Sources and further reading

Amanda Fiegl, A Brief History of Gingerbread

Cooking in the Archives: Gingerbread

MARMALADE (Group 5: Noran Abueisheh, Mike Brown, Jake Scott,Lily Vu, Brenna Hatfield, Sheneka Karim, and Carlos Resendez)

Marmalade is a preserve made from citrus fruit, especially bitter oranges.  The term “marmalade” is not precise, universal nor definitive, but unless otherwise stated, marmalade is generally distinguished from jam by its fruit peel. However, it also may be distinguished from jam by the choice of fruit. Historically, the term was more often used in senses other than justcitrus conserves. Jam typically contains both the juice and flesh of a fruit or vegetable, made of whole fruit cut into pieces or crushed, then heated with water and sugar

Typical fruits used in early modern marmalade recipes:

Orange marmalade. Wikimedia Commons.
  • Quince
  • Kumquats
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Grapefruits
  • Mandarins
  • Sweet oranges
  • Blackberry (see recipe below)

Marmalade was very common back in the 16th century and is still used by many till this day. There is a tale to how marmalade might have been started. It is said that a ship had landed in the Dundee Harbor and had brought the oranges bought for a very fair price by James Keiller. It is said that his wife wanted to preserve the oranges and not let them go to waste so she created marmalade. Yet some others believe that the first person to make marmalade was named Eliza Cholmondeley. Her recipe dates to 1677. She had many different types of marmalade: thin cut, thick cut, flavored, vintage, and black. The first is made with thin cut slices of oranges, the second with thick cuts, the third with lemon flavor, the fourth (vintage) is stored for a couple of weeks before being eaten, the last has black sugar.

Medicinal uses of marmalade:

  • People believed that marmalade made their children smarter.
  • Pregnant women ate mostly orange marmalade in hopes of making their babies more intelligent.
  • John Gerard said, “marmalade is good for the strengthening
    of the stomach.”

Blackberry Marmalade: A simple and sweet recipe


  • 4 cups of blackberries
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon of allspice
  • ½ teaspoon of lemon juice


  1. Place blackberries in a saucepan and mash them over medium low heat
  2. Add sugar and stir in until juices form
  3. After juices form remove some blackberry juice and separately stir in cornstarch and place back into saucepan
  4. Allow mixture to boil for about 15 minutes or until thickened
  5. Once thickened, add cinnamon and allspice
  6. Take mixture off heat and allow to cool, transfer to a jar or container and place in the fridge
  7. Stir in lemon juice before placing in fridge

Sources and further reading

Cooking in the Archives: Marmalade

Medieval fruit

SYLLABUB (Group 6: Sara Kelley, Marie Fawad, Marisha Patel, Reid Roberts, Alec VanCuren, Kealan Muth, and Brody Johnston)

Syllabub glass, United States, probably Pennsylvania, 1770-1790. LA County Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons.

The syllabub is a sweet dessert drink made of cream, sugar, wine and sometimes other seasonings. The syllabub originated in England in the 16th century, as an upper class refreshment after meals. They were served in delicate glass pots, made of milk or cream curdled with alcohol. The liquid of the syllabub could be sipped through a spout and the froth eaten with a spoon. In the 17th century, the recipe evolved to have the whipped cream become more stiff than soft and frothy with more sugar as well. The syllabub glass also changed to narrow bottom with a bell top where it was filled with whipped cream floating on sweet wine. In the 18th century, the quantity of wine was reduced, allowing the syllabub to be whipped up into an even thick lather, rather like modern whipped cream or ice cream type consistency. This was known the “everlasting syllabub.”  They were frequently served on tiers of salvers, often with jellies.


Sources and further reading

Syllabubs and possets

C. Wilson, “Cheesecakes, Junkets, and Syllabubs” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 2.4 (2002): 19-23.
S. Carter, The frugal housewife, or, Complete woman cook wherein the art of dressing all sorts of viands is explained in upwards of five hundred approved receipts: In gravies, sauces, roasting, boiling, frying, broiling, potting, collaring, preserving, drying, pickling, stews, hashes, soups, fricassees, ragouts, pastries, pies, tarts, cakes, puddings, syllabubs, creams, lummery, jellys, giams, custards, &c. : Also the making of English wines (Early American imprints. Second series ; no. 3937). New-York: Printed and sold by
G. & R. Waite, 1803.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1824); facsimile edition with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia SC, 1984), pp. 293-294.
J. Malin, Delightfully Whipped Syllabubs. Savoring The Past, 21 Aug. 2015.
Hyslop Leah, Potted Histories: Syllabub. Telegraph, 26 June 2013.


COFFEE (Group 7: Jacob Finley, Dylan Mcrae, John Civick, Liam Hill, Mckensie Pollock, and Tayler Covault)

One of the first mentions of coffee was by the great Islamic physician Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya El Razi, who lived from 852 to 932. Within his medical textbook, Al-Haiwi, (the Continent), Razi describes the effects of a plant called “bunnand the beverage that came from it buncham. He claimed that, Buncham is hot and dry and very good for the stomach.”

Coffee then disappeared from history, only to resurface in the 1500s, where it was used in Yemen’s Sufi monasteries. The Sufis would use the beverage as an aid in concentration in chants for God, such as “There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.” The Sufis would go home, bringing with them stories of the revitalizing effects the drink had on their being, in which lead to its popularity, and then to the first coffeehouse being born. Coffeehouses sprang up in every major city in the Islamic world, becoming vastly popular within Islamic society. Coffee then traveled to Turkey, in which they would be sold in establishments such as stalls, shops, and coffee houses.

Coffee became popular in Europe in the 16th century. In his book The virtues of coffee, chocolette, and thee or tea, experimentally known in this our climate, the English author Samuel Prince claimed coffee could cure gout, scurvy, blood corruption, and helps to expel wind.

In the early modern period coffee was prepared as follows:
  • First the coffee beans are roasted over an open fire
  • Then they are ground into a fine powder
  • The coffee grounds are then added to a pot of boiling water
  • After fifteen minutes the coffee is ready to be poured
Coffee beans. Wikimedia Commons.

Sources and further reading

Lisa Smith, Coffee: A Remedy Against Plague

Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer, The World of Caffeine: The Science and    Culture of the Worlds Most Popular Drug (New York: Routledge, 2001).


map of ingredients

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