A Puzzling Field of Research

Nathalie Cooke's discovery of 19th century table setting riddles has her crowdsourcing answers to what was on the table.

When Nathalie Cooke, English Professor and Associate Dean, Archives and Rare Collections at the McGill University Library, first glimpsed a group of manuscript cookbooks purchased from a mansion in Doncaster, England, she had no idea that the accompanying bundle of letters (“probably pulled from a kitchen drawer”) contained something a lot more puzzling than recipes. Cooke’s research focuses on manuscript cookbooks, and when leafing through the new collection, she noticed that some of the books had images of table settings with text denoting various items meant to be put on the table.

“I didn’t thinkmuch of it at first,” Cooke tells me from her bright office overlooking the lower field. But when she invited a visiting specialist in 18th century food to take a look at the books, she was informed that she hadn’t looked closely enough at the table settings. “We discovered they weren’t actually table settings: they were riddles! At that point, we got excited, and started trying to solve the riddles.”

“That took me down the rabbit hole,” she says.

Since Cooke’s fortuitous discovery, she has launched a digital campaign to find the answers to the riddles. Her team has already established connections internationally, with puzzlers from Canada, the US, England, Wales, Ireland and New Zealand all mulling over the table settings and submitting their ideas.

The game is relatively straightforward: deduce the true dish from the word or short phrase used in the table setting image. For example, “What Adam gave Eve” earned a clear consensus of rib or spare rib from Cooke’s riddle solvers. But other dishes have proven more difficult nuts to crack. Diverse guesses for “Satan” include deviled eggs or meats, syllabub (a play on the name Beelzebub) and chocolates (referring to diablotins, a word for early chocolates), while “One of the twelve tribes of Israel” has received a slew of answers derived from various Old Testament verses and 19th century cookbooks.

“Part of the game is to figure out which is the best answer, and that involves figuring out what people really ate in the 1800s,” says Cooke. “We have to look at what is obvious, or what would seem to be right depending on common table foods.”

Cooke’s team has released two courses so far: a main course and the second course, for which they published the solutions at the end of August. For those excited to dig into future courses, the next round will be published on McGill Library Matters later this month. 

So why the fascination with riddles? While today, much of our entertainment comes to us prepackaged and easily digestible, in the 18th and 19th centuries, riddling was a popular pastime, especially for the gentry, and can tell us a lot about the people and their engagement with writing at the time.

“If you’ve read Emma by Jane Austen, that’s a book about riddles,” explains Cooke. “The narrative is structured around it. Emma contains examples of how riddles were used as entertainment. We can actually see the way riddles were performed in the period, in really useful ways.”

As riddles engage audiences, their popularity also shows that our understanding of the modernist period as the time when “difficult” fiction emerges, is incorrect, Cooke tells me. It actually happened much earlier with riddles – which forced people to participate in the creation of meaning.

“Believe it or not, there’s a whole field of literary criticism on riddling,” Cooke says. “There are some very interesting scholars who have identified different kinds of riddles and the way they function as a way of thinking and communicating.”

While riddling may have been popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is surprisingly nothing written about the relationship between food and riddles. Though Cooke has now found a number of table setting riddles in her searches through various libraries and antiquarian booksellers’ catalogues, there is a lack of sources explaining why you would have bill of fare or table setting riddles in the first place.

This is where Cooke’s background and position are an asset. “At the McGill Library we are able to acquire more [table setting riddles], and because we’ve identified this as a particular area of interest, we are going to start cataloging them as such. We’ll be one of the first Rare and Special Collections cataloguing bill of fare table setting riddles as a specific item. If people are looking for them, we will be the go-to place.”

On a more personal level, Cooke plans to research and publish on her recent discoveries.

Her publishers at Rock’s Mills Press have expressed interest, and we can look forward to a book around Christmas 2018. When asked how much the facsimile edition will differ from the original manuscripts, Cooke notes that given the nature of the content, she may depart from her usual format.

“In my previous work, I would have an academic article at the beginning, and that would be followed by the facsimile edition with the transcriptions,” Cooke explains. “In this case we might give the solutions – and explanations at the back.”

When I suggested that she publish the answers separately, so as to force readers to work a bit harder, she laughs. Answers or no, it’s entirely possible that Cooke’s new appetite for food-related riddles will be enticing for academics and puzzlers alike.

“One of the great aspects of these table setting riddles is that they aren’t limited to a single discipline or area of interest. You don’t need to have a deep knowledge of food history to try your hand at them,” she says. “Using social media to promote the riddles has shown that people from all over the world and from different backgrounds have unique insight for solving them.”