Recipe feature
Mar 03, 2016 • By

Exhibiting recipes from the distant past

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary we’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the past – how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same.

We’re fascinated with the origin of food and how, for centuries, people have longed to perfect the art of cooking.

So, when we saw that the University of Minnesota’s Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine was hosting an exhibit about “Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation,” we were intrigued.

You might ask, what do health and alcohol have to do with food recipes?

Well, there are a lot more similarities than you might think!

To feed my desire to learn more, I met with Lois Hendrickson, curator of the library, and Emily Beck, a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine program at Minnesota.

(L-R) Lois Hendrickson and Emily Beck

The Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine is a rare book library whose collection focuses on books about medicine and biology from the late 1400s through the mid-twentieth century.

But a subset of the collection is a group of handwritten and printed recipe books ranging from 1540-1820 in English, French, German, Latin and Chinese.

While the books in the collection generally have recipes that relate to combining “ingredients” for curing medical ailments, many of them include food recipes, because diet was a part of health.

Curing a cough

“I think one exciting thing people will learn if they visit the exhibit is how closely connected health can be with lots of other things,” says Beck. “People today are really interested in eating well for their health, but how is beer connected to your health in a way other than that it’s bad? People in the past used it as a tool to deliver medicines to themselves. And how did people use something like Brandy as a medicine?”

Want answers to how booze were used for health purposes? Visit the exhibit!

Since, I truly think everyone should explore the exhibit for themselves – calling all craft beer and wine enthusiasts – I’m only going to share some of the most interesting tidbits I learned about the recipe collection related to food.

Home Brewing

While today’s online recipes are detailed, some even with step-by-step video demonstrations, Hendrickson says recipes of the distant past lacked a lot of detail.


Hendrickson discusses early recipes, here.

“Very early recipes were a list of ingredients,” she says. “They might say boil, and we might ask well how long? A rolling boil? A simmer? They might say bake. Bake at what temperature? Bake for how long? When Emily and I were making a cake from one of the recipes it said put in a tin. A small tin? A big tin? A 9-by-12 cake pan? There’s a lot of assumed knowledge. We think you’d be expected to know how to bake already before you tackled one of these recipes.”

Culinary chemistry

And even the ingredients used in yesteryear’s recipes are quite different than those we commonly use today.


“Today in the U.S. we’re commonly using beef, pork and chicken,” Hendriskson says. “And in Europe in the 1500s we’re using lots of different types of game birds, for example.”

She added that the difference in the size of eggs, texture of flour and availability of spices in the past might make it difficult for someone to accurately recreate some of these old recipes today.

If you’ve ever been passed down a recipe from a grandparent, there have likely been additions and edits written in as the recipe was perfected over time. There’s evidence of this in old recipe manuscripts, too.


“The manuscripts we have are really fun to look at because you can see how people change their minds over time or have different opinions over time,” says Beck. “Some of the manuscripts might have recipes X’ed out because maybe someone later decided that they didn’t like that recipe or it didn’t fit with what they wanted the book to look like.”

Recipe X

Beck adds, “We can’t deny that it’s entertaining to look at the collection. But it’s also important because we want to know where our recipes came from. We’re so used to making particular things, why is that? We can sort of trace the way that different food products have moved. It’s also really important if we want to think about communities and knowledge exchange and authority. So who do we trust for our recipes? Do we trust Betty Crocker? Do we trust our friend down the street? Do we trust our sisters? Our fathers? And you can see in the manuscripts a lot of those communities in the way that people trade secrets with each other.”


Back in November, I wrote a story about how millennials are using their smartphones and tablets to find and save their favorite recipes.

The recipe collection I saw at the exhibit reminded me that in the past, having access to a nice recipe collection was a luxury, because paper, leather and other binding materials were so expensive.


“Some of the books in the exhibit are quite large. Those probably would have been out of reach for a lot of people who were not very wealthy, so we also have very little books – pocket books – that more people would have been able to afford,” says Beck. “Today, when you’re going to the bookstore the book already has a cover on it. But if you were to buy a book from a bookseller in the past it wouldn’t have a cover – you would decide how you wanted to bind it. If you were wealthy you might decide to bind it very nicely in leather and maybe you would guild the edges and make the edges gold. But if you didn’t have as much money or were a student and it was a student textbook, you might just bind it in cardboard and paper.”

Paper cover

In addition to seeing how various social classes utilized books during different periods of time, you can see how  printing technologies evolved over the years.

“The books themselves change in techniques in printing just like any technology changes, book printing is a technology,” says Hendrickson. “And as it evolves and changes over time we see that in the book collection and you would see that if you came to the exhibit, different type faces, different types of printing, different sizes of books, different illustrating things.”


Jessica Faucher, corporate archivist for General Mills, says vintage cookbooks provide an interesting look back at how people learned how to cook and bake. Learn about the five oldest cookbooks we have in our archives from our predecessor company, Washburn Crosby Co., and Pillsbury, here

Subscribe to “A Taste of General Mills” by email – here – and we’ll notify you about our latest posts.