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Behind the Scenes: Finding Food in Rare Books

Posted On May 01, 2020 | 13:14 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Folger Before “Farm to Table” team visits the Plant Humanities Initiative

By Julia Ostmann

Curious about what happens at Dumbarton Oaks when the museum closes and the garden gates lock? Recently relaunched series Behind the Scenes” uncovers the hidden activities, surprising jobs, and remarkable discoveries that make a home of the humanities. 

From the cold and icy North American coastline to the sumptuous palace gardens of the French kings, one plant inspired curiosity of travelers, doctors, and scholars: the “tree of life.”

“What do you have to do to earn that name? You have to be a really special tree!” says Ashley Buchanan, postdoctoral fellow in Plant Humanities, to scholars assembled in the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Reading Room.

On this morning, Buchanan and her colleagues from the Plant Humanities Initiative—a Dumbarton Oaks collaboration with JSTOR Labs supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—share their research with a group from the Folger Institute, whose Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures is another Mellon-funded project.

   

In Search of the “Tree of Life”

For several centuries, European naturalists were mystified by the “tree of life,” or arbor vitæ, unable even to account for its unusual name. Buchanan came across this plant while working on the Dumbarton Oaks collection of herbals, early modern books that compile plant descriptions and uses. “While we were cross-referencing these herbals with each other, as was done historically, we began to find very interesting plants,” she says.

After spotting a reference to arbor vitæ in an Italian herbal, she found the name again in the English Theatrum botanicvm: the theater of plants, written 100 years later. Buchanan gestures to the hefty book that rests open on a table, whose author could not explain how the “tree of life” got its name.

Her curiosity piqued, she started looking for further clues. The plant appeared to be an evergreen. Flemish naturalist Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) referred to it as a New World plant that he had seen in the French royal garden of Fontainebleau. Botanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continued to debate what kind of tree arbor vitæ was.

Folger Institute Executive Director Kathleen Lynch and members of the Before “Farm to Table” team, including postdoctoral research fellow Elisa Tersigni, codirector Heather Wolfe, and postdoctoral research fellow Michael Walkden, gather in the Rare Book Reading Room
Folger Institute Executive Director Kathleen Lynch and members of the Before “Farm to Table” team, including postdoctoral research fellow Elisa Tersigni, codirector Heather Wolfe, and postdoctoral research fellow Michael Walkden, gather in the Rare Book Reading Room.

At long last, Buchanan found the record of a sixteenth-century French expedition to the Atlantic coast of what is now Canada, led by Jacques Cartier. After getting iced in, the crew started showing the alarming symptoms of scurvy. The indigenous people also suffered, but they recovered, as Cartier learned, thanks to a drink made from the local ameda tree. Today, researchers believe that ameda was, in fact, arbor vitæ: the only tree known in early modern Europe whose needles likely contained triple the vitamin C of citrus fruit, certainly enough to cure scurvy.

But why did the story of the “tree of life” remain unknown for centuries, leaving an unsolved puzzle and a cryptic name? “Because Cartier didn’t come home with gold or riches, just this tree, his voyages were deemed a failure,” explains Buchanan. “No one was really interested in his account.”

“It’s such a great way of showing how indigenous knowledge can be effaced from Western European records,” comments Amanda Herbert, codirector of Before “Farm to Table” and associate director at the Folger Institute.

 

Plants That Move and Heal

The conversation turns to cacao. Plant Humanities fellow Rebecca Friedel, a paleoethnobotanist working on Mesoamerica, describes finding depictions of this plant in several herbals, including one created by Mexica (Aztec) physicians in the 1550s. But cacao was often missing from other publications, such as a sixteenth-century book of New World plants grown in Spain. Intrigued, Friedel started looking into the transportation of live cacao seeds and discovered that they did not travel easily.

“When we see chocolate in our recipes, what do we think about that, given the difficulty of transporting cacao to Europe?” intervenes Kathleen Lynch, executive director of the Folger Institute, referring to the extensive Folger collection of early modern recipe books. Indeed, these recipes usually list preprocessed chocolate as an ingredient, rather than calling for raw components from live cacao plants.

The story gets even more complicated. Friedel points to a lavishly illustrated album of Asian fruits from the early nineteenth century, most likely painted by Chinese artists living in Southeast Asia.

From the “Album of Chinese watercolors of Asian fruits,” held in the Rare Book Collection.
From the “Album of Chinese watercolors of Asian fruits,” held in the Rare Book Collection.

In these illustrations, cacao appears among the pineapples and durians, some 10,000 miles from its home. “It’s not just from the Atlantic to Europe to the Pacific, it’s much more complicated than that,” says Herbert, codirector of the Folger initiative. Mentioning a similar trajectory of chili pepper, she adds that “there are likewise contradictory stories about where it’s coming from and how it gets to Asia.” Plants certainly move in unpredictable directions.

The two teams work on areas that are mutually beneficial. Julia Fine, a humanities fellow who divides her time between Dumbarton Oaks and the Folger, talks about poring through both collections in search of references to turmeric. Besides recipes that prize this plant for its bright golden color in cooking, she noticed suggested medical uses: obstructing the menses, preventing yellow jaundice, offering antiseptic properties, and more.

“It’s so fascinating how our teams work in ways that go back and forth,” exclaims Herbert. “I would never have asked whether this had antiseptic properties!”

  

Rediscovering Mint and Kudzu

Both Mellon-funded projects seek to bring public awareness to the histories of familiar plants and foods. Mint is one example.

“Mint has so many different stories,” says Plant Humanities fellow Victoria Pickering, pointing out another illustration in Theatrum botanicvm, the herbal that mentions arbor vitæ. “Mint is one of the most common plants in our recipe books,” confirms Michael Walkden, Before “Farm to Table” postdoctoral research fellow.

But behind the everyday herb is a tale of transatlantic exchange. Pickering recounts unearthing countless advertisements for American peppermint oil, reflecting a major shift in mint production from Britain to the United States in the nineteenth century.

An annotated illustration of kudzu in the nineteenth-century Japanese treatise “Seikatsu roku” sits on a foam block above a painting from the 1891 book “Gyokusen shūgajō,” both in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. 
An annotated illustration of kudzu in the nineteenth-century Japanese treatise “Seikatsu roku” sits on a foam block above a painting from the 1891 book “Gyokusen shūgajō,” both in the Dumbarton Oaks collection.

Another plant with an unexpected economic potential is, surprisingly, kudzu. Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks and Plant Humanities principal investigator, shows a recently acquired Japanese illustrated book from the nineteenth century, which promotes kudzu both as a food staple and a plant for the textile industry.

“Kudzu came into the American South as a solution for soil erosion, but without the accompanying knowledge of its uses in East Asia. And so it became primarily an invasive,” says Batsaki.

One way the Plant Humanities team shares such unexpected stories of plants is through public outreach. Batsaki recently cowrote a blog post for Scientific American on kudzu, and mint and turmeric are two recent installments in a Plant of the Month series for JSTOR Daily.

 

A Wonderful Experiment

In collaboration with JSTOR Labs, the Plant Humanities team is developing a digital platform that explores how plants have shaped human culture. This open-access resource brings together diverse special collections materials to generate more stories of plants and pose new research questions.

Translating their work into a digital tool is certainly a challenge to humanists. “One thing is to have an idea like disease or indigenous knowledge,” says Buchanan. “But how do you make that computer-readable?”

Buchanan describes how each plant needs to be assigned a unique identifier, while their names need to include both historical and contemporary versions. “That’s something we could use, too,” says Heather Wolfe, codirector of Before “Farm to Table” and curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. “That’s a perfect way to connect the herbals to the recipe books.”

Building such bridges helps the Plant Humanities and Before “Farm to Table” teams share their knowledge of special collections with the widest possible audience. Conversations between the two teams encourage them to look at their collections in new ways, making connections about such shared themes as indigenous knowledge and plant mobility, and bringing awareness to the unparalleled significance of both plants and food to human culture.

“You’ve got a wonderful experiment underway,” says Lynch, the Folger executive director. “It reminds me how much we need to keep talking across projects.”

 

Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photos by Ashley Buchanan, postdoctoral fellow in Plant Humanities, and Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.