The Johnson Family Treasury: Taste of the culinary past

„Had there been internet in the 18th century – the authors of the Johnson Family Treasury definitely would have been food bloggers“, states professor Nathalie Cooke of McGill University in Montreal. But because handwriting was the most efficient way to transmit knowledge and communicate with others at that time, the women of the Johnson family chose to write a recipe book in which they collaboratively gathered information on food and health issues. Two centuries later the hidden treasure has left the dusty shelf of its archive life and has been transcribed, edited and published for modern readers.

The Johnson Family Treasury  – an example for women’s lifewriting

Nathalie Cooke whose research focuses on women’s lifewriting is the driving force behind this project. She takes a close look at the way women’s lives are shaped by stories they hear and tell. In her opinion the way they choose to write about their lives tells us a lot about their status and their role in society. And the Johnson Family Treasury is a perfect example for this.


How did a recipe book written in England dating from 1741 to 1858 end up in the hands of a English professor at McGill? I asked her this question when we met at this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery during a lunch break. I can’t remember the food we ate but I do remember the story, which started in spring 2013. Nathalie Cooke had been having a frustrating research week at the university archive in Guelph. But as it sometimes works, out of frustration new projects are born. On this late spring afternoon she decided to abandon her original project and explore the handwritten manuscripts collection instead. A gut-wrenchingly-vivid story about how toads could reverse the deathly march of breast cancer caught her attention. It was part of the handwritten cookery recipes and remedies by Mrs. Johnson and her family. Nathalie Cooke immediately knew that this hidden treasure had a lot of potential for modern day readers:

„Personally, I think that the Treasury lets us peep through the window of a typical kitchen of the period. In history books we hear about wars and victories. But what happened back home, in everyday life? The women of the Johnson family allow us imagine what life might have been like for a family of their ilk, in their day and their place on the map.“

Today they would be bloggers

The Treasury is remarkable in numerous ways. The recipes and remedies were collected by five main contributors and some occasional authors over the period of a whole century. The book is fully indexed and neatly written. Just as successful food bloggers today establish a tone and goals for the blog, the Johnson Family Treasury was not just a collection of recipes and remedies, but rather the authors had a clear vision in mind that they executed with great care. Nathalie Cooke:

„Think of the Johnson family as a ‚blogging‘ family with ambition. They mastered penmanship, as today’s bloggers master their medium’s logistics. The Johnsons clearly felt strongly about the value of what they were doing. They recorded cookery recipes of the day, and ones that worked.“

Unsolved mystery

The mystery that surrounds the identities of the Johnson women could not be resolved completely. The lines „Written by Mrs. Johnson my Great Great Grandmother“ on the first page of the manuscript suggest that she was the one to start the book. The lion’s share of the manuscript was penned in England, most likely by other members of the Johnson family. Probably one of the later authors of the collection emigrated to the New World and brought the book along. In fact Professor Cooke and her team have mapped out where they think the various contributors lived, based on evidence in the book. They also know that the book ended up with Una Abrahamson, a cookbook collector in Ontario, who gave this manuscript to the University of Guelph along with the rest of her collection.

Team of experts

It took two-and-a-half years and countless hours of detailed work to awaken the Johnson Family Treasury from its sleeping beauty status in the archive. And it took the knowledge of other specialists in order to transcribe the handwritten recipes and remedies for modern readers. Kathryn Harvey, Head of Archival and Special Collections at the University of Guelph, scanned and provided the manuscript pages to the publisher, checking details of the new print edition against original manuscript pages.


Erin Yanota, an undergraduate student in English at McGill helped to gather information to better understand the manuscript. She also transcribed the recipes with the help of software and assembled the new indices.

Lynette Hunter, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Performance at the University of California, Davis supported the project with her expertise on writing in early England and Canada. And others, including Stephen Schmidt, Fiona Lucas and Mary Williamson, helped scrutinize the original recipes to help eradicate transcription errors.

Thanks to the careful transcription modern readers can easily read the typed and transcribed versions of the recipes and remedies and compare it to the original. This was one of the most difficult tasks says Nathalie Cooke. It took countless hours of transcribing, editing and editing again, and could only be managed with the tremendous support of the publisher Rock’s Mills.


Fascinating glimpse into the past

When I browsed though the pages of the manuscript, which Nathalie had sent me a digital copy a couple of months after our encounter in Oxford, I was surprised to find the cure for ague next to a recipe for artichoke pie but obviously it was common in this time to intersperse both medical and food recipes. For me as a food enthusiast, The Johnson Family Treasury offers a fascinating glimpse into the food culture of a time long gone but still present through the recipes. It was obvious that I got tempted to try one of the recipes in my kitchen in order to not only read about kitchen habits of the 19th centrury but also taste them. As Nathalie Cooke states:

„In fact, the whole point of publishing a print edition of an old cookbook, along with typed versions of the recipes, is to get it out there so others can read the manuscript, experiment with the recipes, and brainstorm what further treasures lie in the pages and between the lines. We can’t wait to hear back from everyone!“

Well, Nathalie your wish was my command! Here is my interpretation of the Johnson ladies‘ oyster sausages!

A Collection of Household Recipes and Remedies, 1741 – 1848

Edited by Nathalie Cooke and Kathryn Harvey

Preface by Lynette Hunter

​Transcribed by Erin Yanota

Rock’s Mills Press 2015
Paper • 8 x 10 • ISBN: 978-177244-008-9 • 252 pp. • Price $34.95

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