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