Dishes for the Sickroom: Invalid Recipes from Glasgow’s Culinary Collections

Guest blog by Lindsay Middleton, fourth year PhD researcher across the University of Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow.

The connections between food and health are even more longstanding than the formal use of medicine. In previous centuries, there were no distinctions between food and remedies, and the kitchen and culinary preparations that could be prepared there (or by a physic) were vital when it came to the treatment of illnesses. From minor ailments to more serious complaints, the importance of food to health can be traced in the Latin roots of the word recipe, ‘recipere’ meaning ‘to give’ or ‘receive’ a cure or treatment. For as long as recipes have been recorded in writing, be that in manuscript recipe collections or printed cookbooks, we can see the links between food and illness. Indeed, up until the mid-twentieth century printed cookbooks typically contained a chapter or section on ‘Invalid Recipes’. While today there is a wealth of food writing that ties into ideas of illness and health, from ‘clean eating’ and fad dieting to ‘superfoods’, it is no longer common for cookbooks to address ‘Invalid Recipes’.

Dishes for the Sickroom logo, shoing a spilled cup of tea and a mould of jelly with the subtitle 'Glasgow's invalid recipes'

Dishes for the Sick Room is a project which investigates historical invalid recipes from Scotland. In my PhD thesis, ‘The Technical Recipe: A Formal Analysis of Nineteenth-century Food Writing’, I investigate how recipes were used by authors to interpret material technologies and to situate themselves in history. Throughout my work, I have recognised the power that recipes have as literary texts that are used by authors to do far more that instruct readers in how to cook food. They can be educational, political, personal, technical, controversial, or entertaining, and typically fulfil a few of these purposes at once. When it comes to health, recipes can be used to understand how attitudes towards bodily systems, the causes of illness, and different treatments and ingredients changed or proliferated over time.

Title page of Mrs McLintock's receipts for cookery and astry work, ref: Ferguson Ag-f.64.
Title page of Mrs McLintock’s receipts for cookery and astry work, ref: Ferguson Ag-f.64.

Funded by an Early Career Foundation Award from the Glasgow Medical Humanities Network and Wellcome Trust, Dishes for the Sick Room was born out of my growing interest in the relationship between food writing and health. Initially, the project was conceptualised to take place using the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Glasgow. ASC has some excellent historical resources when it comes to food. For instance, they are the only holders of the first cookbook to be printed in Scotland, Mrs McLintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry Work (1736), as well as a wealth of nineteenth-century cookbooks. As my research developed, however, Moira Rankin (Senior Archivist at the University of Glasgow) pointed me in the direction of a collection that I’m ashamed to say I knew very little about until beginning this project: the archival collections held at Glasgow Caledonian University.

As an institution, GCU has a rich history when it comes to food. In 1993, the University was formed through the merging of Queen’s College Glasgow and Glasgow Polytechnic. Before this, in 1975 Queen’s College was born out of the Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science (GWSCDS). Even earlier, the GWSCDS came to be after the merging of two cookery schools in 1908: the Glasgow School of Cookery and the West End School of Cookery. There is thus a longstanding relationship between cookery and education in GCU’s history, and more than that, between cookery, education and health. In the 1920s, the ‘Sister Tutors and Dietetics’ course was established at GWSCDS. It was the first course of its kind in the UK outside of London, and so was trailblazing when it came to recognising that culinary education should be merged with health. The course taught the women who attended the school, both trained nurses and women who already had a diploma in a subject like housewifery or cookery, how to treat the ill. Food and diet were integral to these teachings, and so the archival collections at GCU can provide key insight into how food, health, and education were linked in Glasgow’s history.

When I started Dishes for the Sick Room, I was taken aback by the richness of the culinary collections in the GCU archive centre. From multiple editions of the Glasgow Cookery Book (a key resource when it comes to Glasgow’s food history), to records of GWSCDS’s meeting minutes, student notes, and printed cookbooks that belonged to the women who taught at and attended the college. Dishes for the Sick Room explores these collections. For the project, I wanted to capture a tangible impression of the resources at GCU. In collaboration with Archives and Special Collections at the University of Glasgow, I used visualiser technology to film and photograph the materials I consider, both bringing attention to the collections and emphasising their materiality. UofG’s Archives & Special Collections department is set up with numerous visualisers – both large overhead ones and smaller desk ones – and I had previously attended a workshop which demonstrated how they could be used to give people a sense of archival texts, even if they weren’t able to handle them. The ASC department helped me to design a methodology which relied on a desktop visualiser to capture the texts I was researching. After learning how to operate it with the help of UofG ASC staff, I took the visualiser to the GCU archive centre, creating a collaboration between both libraries so that the resources at UofG supported my work in the GCU collections.

From this, I created the Dishes for the Sick Room website. This online resource presents my research, in a way that I hope illuminates how important these collections are for understanding links between food, health and education. I chart how invalid recipes changed over numerous editions of the Glasgow Cookery Book, look at the influence of scientific and medical thought on the cookbooks written by women with connections to the GWSCDS, and trace international ingredients through these Scottish invalid recipes. While the online resource is a work in progress, I hope that it stimulates interest in Glasgow’s collections on multiple levels: as a powerful record of Scottish food history, a cultural collection influenced by numerous personal stories, an insight into past attitudes towards health, and an unexplored source of information that can inspire a wealth of interdisciplinary research.

On Friday the 26th of August, I am hosting an event at Archives and Special Collections at the University of Glasgow to launch Dishes for the Sick Room. During the event I will present my research, provide samples from historical invalid recipes, and be joined by Carole McCallum, university archivist at GCU, who will talk about the history of the Glasgow Cookery Book. Information and registration for attendance can be found here. What this project and my wider research has shown, is that conversations about food can lead to some very interesting and unexpected places. I look forward to seeing what directions Dishes for the Sick Room goes in, as a project that demonstrates the rich interdisciplinary nature of food. 


Lindsay Middleton is a fourth year PhD researcher across the University of Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow. Her interdisciplinary SGSAH-funded project, ‘The Technical Recipe: A Formal Analysis of Nineteenth-Century Food Writing’, straddles English Literature and the History of Technology. Using a structural analysis of the recipe genre, Lindsay investigates how food writers in the nineteenth century used material food technologies as a way of situating themselves in culinary histories. She has written and presented on food adulteration, narrative cookbooks, the ideology of food and thrift, and tinned foods. Lindsay has presented and published on tinned foods as a disruptive technology, broiling and culinary imagination, and has a publication in progress addressing food adulteration in the 1820s. She has also engaged in internship work with the National Trust for Scotland that reimagines the way food features in historical properties.   

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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