A History Lesson in a Pipkin

(I was unable to attend this event. Erin presented a paper she wrote and was kind enough to procure the rabbit recipe and write about it for DP. –JJF)

Written by Erin Laverty

“Take a pipkin…” the recipe begins. “Hmm,” you wonder, “What is a pipkin? A new hybrid berry? An exotic variety of pepper? And where can I get one? The forest? That bottom shelf of the grocery store?” No. As it turns out, a pipkin is a cooking vessel used in 16th century England. And, as you can imagine, they’re not readily found down at your local Williams-Sonoma. Instead, you might have one made by Ken Albala, Food Historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockfish, California, and have the recipe interpreted by him as well, unless you’re up on your Early Modern English.

As part of the Rural Heritage Institute: Food, Farms and Community at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont that took place June 16 though 18, Ken wanted to demonstrate what cooking and recipes were like from the time New England was settled.

And demonstrate he did. He started by digging two holes in the ground, one for the fire and one to transfer the heated coals into for cooking. Overlooking immaculate, green-rolling hills where Lincoln and Rex, the college’s draft horses, were playing around, Ken prepared a “Smeared Rabbet” from the Good Hous-wives Treasurie, published in England in 1588. This dish would have been prepared inside, over a hearth, but you really can’t beat a warm June day outside in Vermont. The only thing missing was Ken catching and killing the rabbit himself.

Food historians analyze things like old texts and cookbooks to extract clues about the culture at that time – what do they reveal about trade routes, gender roles, or the economy, for example. By looking at the ingredients and how the dish was served, you get a sense of for whom and when these recipes were written, Ken explained. For instance, there isn’t a lot of seasoning in this recipe, which makes it clear it was intended for the home cook. Recipes for royalty, on the other hand, were loaded with exotic, expensive spices as a demonstration of wealth and power. Ken is one of a handful of food historians. Lately, he has been researching and recreating old recipes such as the rabbit in a pipkin, in order to gain insight into the culture of the era.

We were curious who wrote these cookbooks. Ken explained that most authors were chefs to the royal families and noblemen. Robert May — author of The Accomplisht Cook from 1660 — was the Emeril of his time.

But back to the pipkin. Ken, a potter in his spare time, made it at home out of clay, and brought it with him from California. It’s medium-sized, round on the bottom, and sits on three stubby elephant-shaped legs. It also has a long, hollow handle, and a lid that needs to be sealed for cooking. These elements are central to the outcome of the dish. “The shape and material are important, so it won’t explode in the fire, and I know that by first-hand experience,” Ken said. We all took a slight step back from the fire and kept our fingers crossed.

Ken cut up the rabbit; the onions were quartered. Magically, he stuffed them all into the seemingly bottomless pipkin. Ken squeezed in some juice from unripe green grapes (the verjus). Interestingly, verjus, available in bottles, is making a comeback in the gourmet world. Salt and pepper went in, along with a little water, some butter, and a handful of currants. A flour and water paste sealed the lid to the pot. The recipe specified a “soft fire,” so the pipkin went over coals, not direct flame.

Far from the standard ingredient and step-by-step instructional formula of recipes now, these recipes give choices, and are far less precise than today. “Have you ever had a recipe turn out bad?” someone asked. “When you look at a recipe, it doesn’t seem logical. Every time I change something, it doesn’t work. If I follow the recipe exactly, it always turns out well,” Ken said.

And he was right. The smokiness from cooking the pipkin over the coals came through, along with a richness from the caramelized onions and butter. The currants added a sweetness that paired well with the mildness of the rabbit, balanced by the acidity of the verjus.

Learning about history by reading about it is one thing. But being able to experience it a little through recreating a recipe from the past brings it to life and lends a bit of cohesion between the centuries. Not to mention, with the blend of flavors and spot on cookware, the 16th century British cook had something going in the kitchen!

Recipe as taken directly from The Good Hous-wives Treasurie, 1588

How to smeare a Rabbet or a necke of Mutton

Take a pipkin, a porrenger of water, two or three spoonefuls of vergis, ten onions pilled, and if they be great quarter them, mingle as much pepper and salte as will season them, and rub it upon the meat, if it be a rabbit: put in a peece of butter in the bellye and a peece in the broth, and a few currans if you wil, stop your pot close and seeth it with a softe fier but no fier under the bottome, then when it is sodden serve it in upon soppes & lay a few barberies upon the dishe.

21st century version

“Smeared” Rabbit

The pipkin is ideal for making this dish, but if you must substitute, look for a clay pot with a tight-fitting lid, such as a Spanish olla (available at many Spanish food and cookware stores), a French clay pot or covered casserole, or an Italian pignatta. An enameled Dutch oven may also be used, but avoid a metal pot, as it will heat too quickly. Barberries are small, tart red berries that may be sold (dried) at Middle Eastern groceries.


1 rabbit, cut into pieces
5-6 small onions, peeled and quartered
1 cup water
3 tablespoons verjus (or substitute lemon juice or white wine vinegar)
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup currants
Good quality bread, sliced
1 tablespoon barberries (if available)


  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Arrange rabbit pieces in pot. Add onion.
  3. Add water and verjus, and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Add butter and currants, cover tightly with lid, and place in oven. Cook until rabbit is tender and cooked through but not dry, about 45 minutes – 1 hour.
  5. Lightly toast bread. Place in bottom of bowls, and serve rabbit over. Sprinkle on barberries (if available), and serve.

. . .

Erin Laverty is a freelance food writer, researcher and recipe developer. She works with The Creative Kitchen, does freelance research for Food & Wine magazine, and is currently working on a book with food photographer Lou Manna. She has also contributed to Kiwi magazine. Erin holds a Master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University and an Intermediate Certificate-Pass with Distinction from WSET – Wine & Spirit Education Trust. She is also a member of ASFS – The Association for the Study of Food and Society. Erin can be e-mailed at: erinlaverty@yahoo.com

Photos by Ulla Kjarval, author of the blog Goldilocks Finds Manhattan

Ken Albala wrote about the rabbit pipkin highjinks and can read about that at his blog in One Bunny on a Bun

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1 Response to A History Lesson in a Pipkin

  1. Hello Erin Laverty,
    So pleased to have encounterd this richly humourous pipkin history lesson while recipe hunting for tasty fare i recently enjoyed in Cairo. I shall be checking back again, soon.
    Much obliged.
    Clara Mitchell Enns
    Winnipeg ,Canada

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