Surely and Good Enough, or Witty Orthography

November 15, 2018

 

Dorothy Shirley and Ann Goodenough’s recipes round out the panoply of inventive applications for and spellings of chocolate in seventeenth-century England.

 

Their countryman, William Hughes, had compiled a list of ways to write the word back in 1672. Hughes' The American Physician takes its cue from the famous mid-century herbal by Nicolas Culpeper, The English Physcian. Culpeper famously believed in the intellectual value of experience and first-hand observation. In that sense, Hughes found a pertinent model.

 

His own experience of chocolate came from his life in the Americas, where he (uncritically) witnessed and documented the work of large-scale slave plantation in Jamaica. He praised their aesthetics, citing the interest of lanes of grass between rows of cacao to facilitate walking, their massive size and efficient methods. In a rare testament to what we now know to be the extensive contributions of enslaved African men and women to the knowledge of farming in the Americas, he recognizes that their methods had been crucial to plantation success. Hughes bore witness to the extraordinary success of trade crops under the growing British Empire.

 

His interest in orthography maps out the spread of chocolate plantations across both the Spanish and British New World. The following spellings, he writes, are common in the Caribbean colonies of Mexico, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Soconusca (present-day Chiapas, Mexico), and Guatemala:

 

Chocolatl, Chocolath, Chocolet, Chocolat, Chocolata, and Succulata. (115)

 

Each place had a pronunciation and corresponding orthography, some closer to and some further from the earliest Spanish transcription, xocolātl, possibly a deformation of the Nahuatl word cacahuatl, drink made from cacao. The term succulata, for its part, did not occur in nature, but was birthed from the Latin succus, juice, for the purposes of naming the liquid confection in the lingua franca of intellectual writing.*

 

Women back in England who learned of recipes in their own travels or from other explorers inventively transcribed what they heard, producing creative letter play in their family books. Dorothy Shirley made ‘biskit’ in 1694 while Ann Goodenough made ‘cakes’ in the early eighteenth century from a substance they called jockolet and jackolet, respectively. Both recipes provide evidence of the way knowledge moved through the society of women, many of whom had probably not read the scientific treatises devoted to chocolate but who knew and shared directions to make it nonetheless: word of mouth.

 

Though it never appears in a publication, the word jo/ackolett or jo/ackolet (spelled it both ways in the books) traveled well into the eighteenth century in the hands of women. As late as the mid-18th century, primers still offered jockolet as the phonetic pronunciation of chocolate.** Both recipes attest also to the use of chocolate in casual foods by the end of the seventeenth century.

 

To make a jockolet biskit

 

Take on part of jockolet and 3 parts sh^u^*gar grater the jockolet and sersse the shuger finly then take the white of a egge & beat it to a froth; take the froth and mixe them by degrees till it comes to be a thick past then rolle it out and lay it upon pappers where shugar is serssed and cut them in shapes as you like so bake them in a cool oven. (#8)

 

To make Jackolett Cakes

 

Take two Eggs beat them well with a litle rose water then beate in as much double-refined sugar as will make it a pritty thicked batter then grate in as much Jackolet as will make it neere the coulor of Jackolett then you must make dripping pans of curds and bake them after the bread comes out. (51)

 

Shirley’s biskit is among the simplest recipes for chocolate from this period and implies that kitchens of the 1690s would stock chocolate tablets for use on a whim. The recipe appears among desserts rather than remedies and calls for a measure of sugar to chocolate, 3:1, that firmly tips the scale of decadence. She adds only the white of the egg to this confection of finely grated chocolate and sifted sugar and suggests a cool oven, which recalls the recently printed French recipe for meringue. This cookie would of course be a good bit heavier than a meringue or macaroon with the proportions favoring the sugar rather than the egg white, but might have a similarly soft consistency because of the baking temperature.

 

Goodenough’s cakes again draw on chocolate tablets as though they would be lying around the kitchen among the flour and sugar waiting to be grated. Both recipes, in fact, grate the chocolate rather than melting it, as was common for the liquid and viscous desserts of earlier books. And, again, the language for gauging the amount of grated chocolate called for—enough to turn the cake the color of…chocolate—holds the color of the baking tablet up as a comparative term. Although by modern culinary standards her directions are vague, in her own kitchen, the deep brown of chocolate tablet made from cacao with very little but spice to alter its hue was right before her eyes. Note that these cakes contain no flour. They would produce something closer to what we now know as a brownie or flourless torte.

 

A ‘must’ follows this generally easy preparation of the cakes that concerns how to cook them. A repurposed “dripping pan,” a pan placed under meat roasting on a spit to catch the drippings, holds the curds. Those “curds,” identified now by a comparative for texture--the batter would be thick and lumpy?--borrowed from the annals of spoiled milk, bake most efficiently if they directly follow the finished bread into the hearth. If the baker times the recipe right, there is no need to worry about how to achieve the optimal heat. Convenient and ecological.

 

The above treats, like many that sit beside them in the books, heighten the pleasure of their primary flavor--in this case chocolate--by spiking it with loads of sugar. Heaping sweeteners onto cacao anticipates a trend that would not fully overtake medical chocolate for another 150 years. These receipt books leave little doubt, however, that the transformation of chocolate from a medical tonic to a confectioners treat was well underway in private English households by 1700.

 

More importantly, what we have here is a contiguous history of knowledge, the type passed from mothers to daughters and women to friends, complete with its own orthography. They demonstrate that thanks to home bakers of a certain means, chocolate tablets, once a rare and expensive luxury, took on the allure of a basic staple of the well-stocked kitchen at the turn of the 18th century. As much as, if not more than elite publications distributed through the coterie of educated men, what women put on the table helped England learn to regard chocolate as their bread and butter.

 

 

*The word appears in Adrian von Mynsicht’s Thesaurus & armamentarium medico-chymicum (1645) and was conserved by John Partridge when he translated that text into English (London: Printed by J.M., 1682).

 

**Cf., James Gough, A practical grammar of the English tongue. Containing the most material rules and observations for understanding the English language well... Dublin, Isaac Jackson, 1760. Second edition. See plate above, p. 46 (emphasis mine).

 

 

Bibliography

 

Goodenough, Ann. Cookery book of Ann Goodenough, c. 1700 – 1775. Folger Library, W.a.332.

 

Hughes, William. The American Physician. or, A Treatise of the Roots, Plants, Trees, Shrubs, Fruit, Herbs, &c. Growing in the English Plantations in America ...Whereunto is Added a Discourse of the Cacao-nut-tree, and the Use of its Fruit; With All the Ways of Making the Chocolate. The like never extant before. London: William Crook, 1672.

 

Shirley, Dorothy. Receipt book, 1694. Folger Library, V.a.681.

 

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