To make mangoes of melons: Using the evolution of form and senses to understand historical cookbooks

To make mangoes of melons: Using the evolution of form and senses to understand historical cookbooks

Historical recipes: technical manuals?

As a PhD student at the University of Central Florida’s Texts and Technology program, I have primarily been studying historical and modern cookbooks and recipes as technical communication and the household and care labor it aids; historically understood as women’s work. Recipes are procedural instructions that aid people in the process of engaging with the many technologies of cookery and I research these technical documents, often through the lens of user and human centered design theories as well as gender studies.

I study texts mostly from English-speaking countries and primarily from the United States of America in all its different forms of organization including when it formerly was colonies as well as when there was a confederacy. My historical research is primarily conducted on written English language publications such as cookery books and ephemera.

The evolution of meaning in historical recipe books

As the English language of the texts that I study has changed over the centuries, I do run into instances where I’m not quite sure what a recipe is calling for, and to figure this out, I frequently use the OED’s historical record of the evolution of a word’s form and inflections to help me decipher meaning within cookery texts. Often, I find myself working with what is considered to be the first cookbook published in America, by an author claiming to be an American orphan, which is the book American Cookery from 1796.

An example of this is in perusing the text, I came across a recipe that made me question what was being instructed on. The recipe was named, To pickle or make Mangoes of Melons, and it was about brining and then emptying unripe melons and filling them with spices, finally covering them in mustard and vinegar (Simmons). Found in the Preserves section of the book, and based on the recipe’s title it was apparent to me that this was a way to conserve these young melons, but I had questions. Why on earth would the recipe indicate that following these directions would allow the user to turn one fruit into another? Is the word mangoes a misspelling of mangos? If this is a mock recipe, and mangoes means mangos, how would Americans in the late 1700s know what mangos are like and how to accurately mimic them?

To find out how the word mangoe has been used historically, I went to the OED online to do a quick search for this. I found an entry for mango, n.1 and adj. and under extended uses, I found listed,

“Cookery. A pickle resembling that made of green mangoes; (later) spec. a pickle made of whole fruits stuffed with spices; a whole fruit stuffed and pickled in this way. (Also with distinguishing word indicating the type of fruit.) Cf. mango v. Now U.S. regional.”

(“Mango, n.1 and Adj.”)

This definition has a documented technical communication publication of the word mangoe occurring within twenty years of its use in the American Cookery publication which is so important to know because it allows me to be sure that the OED definition is applicable to the specific recipe I was researching. Understanding if certain cookery-related words were used at different times in history is critical for me to understand what the word actually meant during that time.

With further reading of the related OED entries, I found other relevant information to my topic, such as that in the same century the word mango could have been used as a verb related to pickling, and that it can be used to describe muskmelons and, relatively more modernly and regionally within the USA, green bell peppers. (“† Mango, v.”)

I could also see from the entry that there are different spelling variations on the word and those which would be relevant to the time period I’m doing research on included mango, mangoe, and mangho. This gave me a helpful clue on how I can do additional searches of digital archives online using more than just the single spelling version of the word I found in American Cookery. If I didn’t have this information on multiple historical spellings, I wouldn’t know to use any but the version I had found in American Cookery within my other digital archive searches, which would have limited the quantity of my relevant search results; negatively affecting my ability to locate instances of pertinent mentions that could help me find information on the research subject.

Linguistic and cultural connections in the language of food

After gathering this information, I used it to increase my understanding of the recipe by comparing other uses of the word mangoe, in all its spelling variations, which appeared in other sources such as cookery books and encyclopedias published around the same time as American Cookery was published. Through this, my confidence was bolstered that when writing about mangoes in a recipe from the late 1700s in America, I am communicating about pickling and spicing small local fruits as a mock recipe that has the appearance of real pickled mangos once prepared; a recipe influenced by the English dainty dish known from across the pond due to the British East India Company’s trade relations with India.

This information strikes me as ironic; a publication that used the symbolism of the American orphan to appeal to the new nation’s patriotic sensibilities includes a recipe that is so British that its origins lie in trade and eventual political entwining between the British and an entirely different area within the Asian continent. Perhaps America was always a salad bowl of cultures, even as early as the American Revolution. The research I was able to do in this instance exemplifies how food is so multicultural even when it is not always immediately apparent, and it’s insights like these that make my scholarship so interesting to myself and my colleagues.

Without the record of word forms, senses, and quotations exemplifying usage of the OED, it would be much harder for me to make the historical linguistic connections which are so helpful to modernly understanding histories of domestic technical communication, women’s household work, and other topics related to my specialization.


† Mango, v.OED Online. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 20 Aug. 2022.

Mango, n.1 and adj.OED Online. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 20 Aug. 2022.

Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery, or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables : And the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves : And All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to This Country, and All Grades of Life. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796. Web. 20 Aug. 2022.

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