By Mark Sundaram
What is a recipe? How has the definition changed over the years, and how does it connect medicine, diet, makeup, and women’s magazines? Welcome to the Endless Knot, where today we’re exploring the etymology and history of the recipe as part of the Recipe Project’s Virtual Conversation.
Originally a recipe was a medical prescription. The word recipe is the imperative or command form of the Latin verb recipere meaning “take”and that’s how it was first used in English too in the 14th century, as a verb not a noun, the instruction at the beginning of a prescription, sort of like “take two aspirins and call me in the morning” We still sort of have this usage if only in the form of the abbreviation Rx, which was originally an R with a slash through it to indicate it was an abbreviation, which still appears at the start of medical prescriptions. It was only in the 16th century that the word recipe went from being the instruction at the start of a prescription to being a noun that meant the prescription itself, and it was only in the 17th century that the word began to be used to refer not only to medical instructions, but culinary ones, an appropriate transferal if we think of instructions like “take two eggs”and so forth. Interestingly, that Latin verb recipere also gave English, through French, the word receipt, but instead of the imperative this word is formed from the past participle, so meaning “taken” Early on it too could be used to refer to a medical or culinary recipe, first recorded in the culinary sense in reference to a recipe for Hippocras (a kind of sweetened wine) in 1595, so predating the use of the word recipe in this sense. Today of course, the financial sense of receipt dominates and the culinary sense has died out. So a receipt used to be a recipe, a recipe used to be a prescription, and yes, a prescription used to be something else as well. Before the word prescription gained its medical sense in the 16th century, it used to have a legal sense, referring to “the right to something through long use” and before that the Latin word praescriptio meant literally something “written before”from prae- “before”and scribere “to write” so referring to a preface or introduction. But in fact, as we’ll see, the overlap between medical and culinary recipes is tied to historical attitudes to the roles of food and medicine.
Let’s start with ideas of disease in the ancient world, when it really was literally “dis-ease”or discomfort, as Europe and the western world didn’t have the germ theory of disease which only became the standard way of thinking in the 19th century. The word disease, by the way, is not an ancient one, but a medieval one, coming into English from Old French, but appropriate here since the medieval conception of disease was inherited directly from the ancient world. The first element is a negative prefix, and the second element aise, meaning “ease or comfort”and also “opportunity”or “elbow room” is of unknown origin, possibly from a Celtic source, or possibly from Latin ansa “handle”used figuratively in the sense “opportunity or occasion”and maybe also “elbow”because Latin ansatus “furnished with handles”was used to mean “having the arms akimbo”
For the Greeks and Romans, maintaining health and avoiding disease was all about maintaining proper balance, a concept not unique to Europe, but found in different forms in many traditional medicines around the world. This came under the heading of diet, which for the Greeks had a rather broader meaning than our English derivative. Greek diaita meant “way of living or mode of life” including not only what one ate, but also many other factors about one’s life and environment. The word diaita in turn comes ultimately from a root meaning “to take or handle”from an Proto-Indo-European root that means “to give or allot”-note the parallel to the etymology of ‘recipe’-and this root also gives us the word etiology, which in medical circles today means the cause of disease, in other words what gives you a disease. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and later on the medieval physicians, what “gives”you a disease was imbalance in the body, and what cured disease was what you “take”into the body, loosely speaking your diet, hence those recipes, I suppose. The give and take of pre-modern medicine you could say!
Returning to this ancient notion of balance, it can be traced at least as far back as the famous Greek physician Hippocrates and his followers, and came to be called humourism. No, not what’s funny (though we do get the word modern word humour from that), but the bodily humours or four fluids in the body that were thought to regulate everything. The Greek word for humour in this medical sense was khumos meaning literally “juice”and coming from a root that means “to pour” which also gives us words such as gush, gut, funnel, and fondu, along with a host of other words. The four humours were held to be blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These were in turn associated with different seasons, elements, organs, qualities and temperaments —this is where we get the terms sanguine (from the Latin for blood), choleric (from the Greek for bile), melancholic (literally black bile), and phlegmatic (from a root meaning “to burn”). If you were thought to have an imbalance of these humours in your body, you would suffer from one of these temperaments, however this could be treated with a particular food that was thought to share the qualities of the opposing humour: warm and moist for blood, warm and dry for yellow bile, cold and dry for black bile, and cold and moist for phlegm. Thus by eating the right thing you could put your system back into alignment. But of course you had to take into account the time of year, the cooking method, the geography, the climate, and so forth, as these factors would also influence the cure. Remember diet isn’t just food, but a way of living. And the Hippocratic dietary regime would include more than just food, but also sleep, exercise, bathing , and even advice about sex. All these things could influence those essential humoural qualities and thus your health.
The Hippocratic Oath of course is named after Hippocrates. Also named after Hippocrates is that sweetened and spiced wine hippocras that we mentioned earlier because Hippocrates supposedly invented a kind of cloth filter bag, called the Hippocratic sleeve, used to strain off the spices from the wine. Originally it was used for filtering water, but as we’ve seen the line between the medical and the culinary is blurry—demonstrated well by the fact that the first culinary use of the word “receipt”was in a recipe for this drink. And humor, by the way, is the later Latin term used by Roman physicians such as the influential Galen, who in turn transmitted the theory of the humours on to the medieval world. And that’s where that notorious medieval practise of leeching came from. Too much blood making you sanguine? No problem, use leeches! That word leech by the way was also, appropriately enough, an Old English word for doctor. Originally two separate and unrelated words, they seem to have fallen together or at least influenced each other. Where either comes from is a matter of some debate, though the physician word leech may be related to a root that means “to collect”and has derivatives related to speaking and reading. Well doctors do tell you what to do, but their prescriptions are notoriously hard to read! As for the word humor, it comes from a root that means “wet” Ironic etymologically speaking then that we talk about “dry humour” It comes to have the modern sense because the humours were thought to control your temperament, and this then transferred to the sense of “temperament or mood”and from there to “inclination or whim” and that’s where we get that “funny”sense of humour from.
But getting back to the diet, in order for foods to have the right effect on the humours, they had to be grown or produced in the right environment, so ecology was also an important consideration. And as we indicated earlier, they had to be eaten at the right time of year. Ancient and medieval physicians also put stock in astrological and cosmological influences on health. It’s interesting to note that the word cosmological is from Greek cosmos meaning not only “universe”and “order” but also “decoration”and “ornament” and gives us not only the English word cosmos, but also cosmetic. Trust me, this isn’t a merely ornamental digression—we’ll come back to it soon!
So food, and diet more broadly, was the most important element of ancient medicine, but there were two other branches as well that were available to the ancient physician, though both were thought to be more extreme methods. First was pharmacology, which was often just a more concentrated form of food. Certain herbs and spices were used as medicines and culinary ingredients often started out as medicinal. These medicines were thought to have the same sorts of effects on the bodily humours. The words pharmacy and pharmacology come from the Greek pharmakon meaning “drug” “medicine”or even “poison” so obviously you had to be careful with pharmacological interventions. We don’t know for sure where this Greek word comes from, but it might be connected to a root meaning “to cut”from the notion of medicinal plants being cut. But speaking of cutting, the third and most extreme branch of ancient medical practise was surgery, which would only be used in dire circumstances as the chances of survival, in a time before sterilization and antibiotics, were low. The words surgery and surgeon also come from Greek, through Latin and French, literally meaning “hand work” During the middle ages, surgery became divorced from the work of the physicians, who were concerned with all that stuff about the humours and astrology, and instead was performed by, believe it or not, barbers. Well, they did have a lot of practice cutting things! For the most part surgery in the hands of these barber surgeons involved the treatment of wounded soldiers —think amputations and so forth. That red striped barber’s pole you might be familiar with represents the blood involved in the barber’s surgical pursuits. It wasn’t until the 19th century that surgery became firmly part of the realm of the medical professional.
Now, these historical overlaps between food, medicine, cosmetics and even hair-cutting may at first glance seem strange to our modern sensibilities, but when you think about it they never really went away. In the modern drug store or pharmacy we find not only medicines, but also food and cosmetics and hair products and various ornaments. And if we think of the word apothecary, the forerunner of the modern pharmacy, there’s the interesting historical accident that from its Greek root apothecē meaning “storehouse”(literally “put away”) we also get, through French, the word boutique, where we buy fashionable clothing. And what’s more, before they split in 1617 the London guilds representing the apothecaries and the grocers were one and the same.
And of course the prime reading material you’ll find in the modern pharmacy is the women’s magazine—a famous example of which, Cosmo, takes us back to that ‘cosmos’root meaning order & beauty—which covers topics such as fashion and make-up, health, diet, lifestyle, exercise, sex, recipes, and maybe even horoscopes. The overlap in those ancient ideas of diet as a way of living is still encapsulated in the women’s mags of today. And the pharmacy and the women’s magazine also demonstrate the gendered overlap of associations with the home and the body —think home remedies, health, cosmetics, fashion, food and recipes, all things that women are socially conditioned to consider their responsibility. And these associations are already evident in the very earliest women’s magazines such as the 17th century Ladies’Mercury, which gave relationship advice, the 18th century Lady’s Magazine, which covered such topics as fashion and medical advice, and the 19th century Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine which covered topics such as fashion and homemaking —all alongside fiction, poetry, society gossip, sheet music, and other occupations considered appropriate for genteel ladies. This last one by the way was published by Samuel Orchart Beeton, husband of Isabella Beeton of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management fame, who also wrote for her husband’s publication, in addition to being one of the first to establish the standard format of the modern recipe book. It’s not hard to see the foundations of the modern women’s mags in these early magazines.
And now that they’ve become a repository for instructions of all types —recipes, diet plans, makeup tips, fashion rules, medical information, relationship advice, guides to good sex, etc. —women’s magazines are essentially selling a recipe for self-improvement, and holding out the same illusory promise of balance as those ancient and medieval doctors, if their readers can only follow their instructions perfectly. So perhaps then we have returned to that first definition of a recipe, whether it’s for a chocolate cake or a better life: trust me, I know more than you, take what I feed you and all will be well.
For much more discussion of recipes, and for examples of historical and modern cooking, medicine, cosmetics and other types of instructions, follow the link in the description to the Recipe Project’s Virtual Conversation, or search the hashtag #recipesconf.
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