Adapting a recipe written for a 17th-century kitchen for use by a 21st-century home cook is a challenge because the recipes as they appear in diaries and memoirs may simply not be usable. Writer Stephan Schmidt of Manuscript Cookbooks Survey raises the example of author Marie Kimball who wrote “The Martha Washington Cook Book” in 1940; the collection of old recipes are meant to provide insight into the meals Martha and George Washington had enjoyed, but Schmidt notes that Kimbell struggled to turn the purported recipes from the Washingtons’ kitchens into something a 1940s cook could understand.
As Schmidt notes, Kimball offered an explanation in her book that “it has been necessary, of course, to make some adaptation” of the centuries-old recipes as they were meant to turn out much larger quantities and as Kimball put it at the time, “some of the recipes are scarcely in accordance with modern taste or practice.” To this, Schmidt added his belief that some of the recipes might have even been made up by Kimball herself.
Food historian Aurora Clare explained to Tasting Table that the challenge involved with bringing historical recipes into the 21st century has to do with the understanding of what a recipe was meant to be. “Historically, most people cooked with what’s called ’embodied knowledge’: They knew how something needed to feel and taste, and didn’t necessarily have a list of steps and measurements on hand,” she said. As a result, Clare says food historians often find themselves having to “translate” instructions like “cook until it’s done” into a language that the modern cook can understand.