February 18, 2015

The Objective Evaluation of Pig Breeds in the Netherlands

Today's post is by Steven van der Laan (MSc), one of our Dutch colleagues affiliated with the Descartes Center and whom the blog editors met at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society! Steven is a PhD-candidate from Utrecht University (Netherlands) who is working on the history of pig breeding. His main interests in this research is the relation between scientific research and the practice of pig breeders.

Before the turn of the nineteenth century, grading of breeding pigs in the Netherlands was mostly done in an unofficial way: a breeder went to the market or to the farm of a colleague, and by using his ‘breeders’ eye’, an embodied skill he had developed through years of experience in breeding pigs, he chose a boar or sow which he thought would improve his own breeding stock. With the establishment of the herdbooks around 1900, it became necessary to quantify the grading process because all pigs had to be evaluated according to the same criteria. The quantification of breed characteristics however turned out to be difficult and, as it eventually turned out, the best way to grade pigs could not do without the breeders’ eye.

Fig. 1. The Yorkshire. (Notice erect ears, low shoulders.)
 The first attempts at quantification consisted of short descriptions of the most prominent characteristics that separated the two breeds that were most commonly held by Dutch farmers, the Yorkshire and the German Landrace (Figs. 1 and 2). The Yorkshire for instance had to have erect ears whereas the German Landrace typically had floppy ears. [1] During the first twenty years after 1900 the descriptions became more and more elaborate in order to achieve complete quantification of the breed characteristics. This trend culminated in the publication of a booklet by veterinarian Engbert Dommerhold that meticulously described every part of a pig’s body. [2] According to Dommerhold, it was not enough for the Yorkshire to have erect ears. A good representative of the breed also had to have ears “fringed by fine hair”, its rump should not be more than 4 centimeters above its withers and the angle between its snout and brow had to be between 100 and 120 degrees, this in contrast to the German Landrace, for which the angle was supposed to be between 120 and 150 degrees.

Fig. 1. German Landrace. (Notice floppy ears.)
While these elaborate descriptions appear to represent an effort to make the judging of pigs more objective, Dommerhold, at the end of his booklet, gave an example of an effective method for grading pigs that disregarded this strive for objectivity and implicitly acknowledged the indispensability of the subjective breeders’ eye. This method was initially developed around 1920 by the herdbook of the provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel and it was based on grading the different parts of the pig. Depending on the breed and the importance of a specific part of the body for that breed, each part was awarded a number of points. For instance, the head of both Dutch breeds could get six points, the German Landrace could get seven points for its chest and the Yorkshire six. If the total number of points was above a certain minimum, the pig was accepted for registration in the herdbook.

Fig. 3. Evaluation form. 
Obviously, the grading according to this method is more subjective than (quantitatively) comparing a particular pig with its breed description, as the points awarded were based on the opinion of herdbook officials and did not relate to any physical measurement. In fact, it might be argued that whereas Dommerhold’s breed descriptions were an effort to replace the breeders’ eye with objective measurements, the new method served largely to accommodate the breeders’ eye. This becomes even clearer when we look at how the method was extended with a weighting factor. In this extended version, the herdbook official did not directly determine the grade, but had to give his opinion on all features of the pig, on the basis of the following list of adjectives: excellent, very good, good, somewhat deviant, strongly deviant, deficient and bad (See Fig. 3). These adjectives each had their own weighting factor, ranging from 1 for excellent to 0 for bad. The total number of points a pig could get for a certain feature were then to be multiplied by this factor. In this extension, subjective notions that were usually used to express an evaluation by the breeders’ eye were thus quantified by connecting them to grades.

It may seem rather curious why Dommerhold, and also veterinarian Hendrik Kroon, both leading figures in the world of pig breeding, were of the opinion that this grading method allowed for more “precision” and less “bias” in the grading of pigs, as it was based on thoroughly subjective notions like excellent and bad. [3]  Their reason for not recommending measuring every part of the pig for grading purposes, was that it did not take into account that the individual parts of the pig had to form a “harmonious” whole, as Dommerhold put it. This is also why in the grading system 25 points were reserved for “general appearance”. Although people like Dommerhold and Kroon thus had a very definite idea about the ideal type for a particular pig breed, as is evident from their elaborate quantitative descriptions, they knew that the evaluation of individual pigs and deciding whether they resembled this ideal type, was a task that could not be accomplished by measuring rods and weighing scales. Measurements could not tell if the individual parts of a pig had the right proportions. The breeders and herdbook officials did have this ability and that is why people like Dommerhold and Kroon deemed the subjective breeders’ eye to be indispensable in the grading of pigs.


[1]  J. Timmermans, as cited by A. Paridaans, 75 jaar varkensfokkerij in stamboekverband (Veldhoven 1987), p.20.
[2] E. Dommerhold, Het uitwendig voorkomen van het varken (Maastricht 1920).
[3] H. Kroon, Het Varken (Deventer 1924), p. 47.

February 11, 2015

Eating through the Archives: Milk Pancakes (1820)

Emily Beck
Today's post is by Emily Beck, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of medicine here at the University of Minnesota. She focuses on "16th century Italian domestic medicine, vernacular print culture, and knowledge transfer," frequently examining medical and herbal recipes, as well as occasional recipes for food, such as milk pancakes! This entry was originally posted on her own blog, Eating through the Archive. You can follow her on Twitter here.
One of the most common questions I get from people about my work is, “But do the recipes work?!” These days, potential cures can be found in chia seeds and red wine, so why not in historical documents? I get it, it would be really cool to find out that a cure for the common cold was discovered ages ago and all we’ve got to do is just dig through these recipe books to find it. And maybe it is there. But, that isn’t my shtick. Why don’t I try the medical recipes in the recipe books that I research? Well, many of the recipes are for serious illnesses that I don’t have, thankfully, and wouldn’t want to mess with on my own anyway – cancers, fistulas, kidney stones, and plague… The ingredients are mostly herbal, but I’m not a botanist. Plus, sometimes I just know when not to mess – Mercury? Antimony? Puppies? No thanks.

That being said, I can make some of the recipes: Candied lemon peel? Potato Pudding? “Carolina Snow Balls”? Yeah, I’m into that. So, freshly returned from Italy and back to the Wangensteen Library and my dissertation writing, and onto a new chapter. It is time for some old timey recipes.

Milk Pancakes recipe
The Recipe:

Milk Pancakes

Mix a pint of milk with as much flour as will make a thin batter, put in a glass of brandy a little nutmeg ginger and salt- break in four Eggs beat them well together until they are smoothe fry them in hot lard and then sprinkle sugar over them. [1]

Don’t worry, I had a picture of the book on my iPad, the manuscript is in the library safe from food spills. Does the Siena filter make the cooking look more historical?
Notes on the recipe:

I have no brandy, so I used whiskey. Also, I don’t have any lard, so I used a little vegetable oil. There are only two people who live in my apartment, so I halved the recipe. It was easy because, as you can see, we only have amounts specified for 2 of the 7 ingredients.

The Result:

These are definitely more like crêpes than pancakes because they were super flat and pretty egg-y. Pancake recipes these days tend to include baking powder or soda, which makes them fluffy enough to soak up all the maple syrup that your heart desires. The whiskey added some sweetness, but not a ton of flavor; make your “glass” as substantial as you please. The spices were delicious.

Because we had two pears that were just about to become too ripe, I made a quick pear mash: pretend like you’re making applesauce, but use pears – chop up pears in little-ish pieces, put in a pan with cinnamon and add nutmeg and ginger (they’re on the counter anyway because of the pancakes, so why not…). Cook until mushy. This pear mash nonsense ended up being pretty tasty on top of the pancakes.

Pancakes, pears, and coffee
Bottom Line:

Ken and I agree – A+ old timey pancakes. We’d make this meal again.

Now, I could give you amounts here, “But how much milk did you use? How much of the spices?” But in the game of trying to understand historical recipes, why people wrote them the way they did and how they reproduced them, it is sometimes better to just take what is in front of you and experiment. For example, why does the writer only specify the amounts of milk and eggs to include? Here is my best guess: They probably assumed that whoever used the recipe would just instinctively know how much of the other ingredients to use, that the reader would be experienced in cooking and simply need reminders or suggestions, not full instruction in the art of pancake making.

What is next? I’ll be on the lookout in the library for other recipes that won’t be too expensive, that I can make in smaller quantities (many of these could feed 20+ people), and that can actually be made in an apartment. [2]


[1] Just for a point of comparison, here is my family’s normal pancake recipe: Buttermilk Pancakes (from James Beard’s American Cookery) – 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 cups buttermilk, 3 eggs, separated (beat the whites until stiff), ¼ cup melted butter.

[2] I found a recipe for a dried goose… It is pretty complicated, but I feel confident… How do you think my parents will feel about it hanging their chimney for a week?

February 4, 2015

"Visualizing the Body": Tweets from a University of Minnesota Symposium in Honor of Vesalius

Blog Relaunch!

Hi all!

Kele Cable, blog editor, here.

Many years ago, some of the grad students from the University of Minnesota's Program in the History of Science, Technology, & Medicine came together to start a group blog. Although only 34 posts would be published, they began in January 2008, so they were far ahead of the game. For various reasons though, it was not sustained and the blog fell defunct for several years.

Now, however, we are relaunching it! After discovering the value of blogging - it eventually got me a publication in the Journal for the History of Biology - I have begun proselytizing the activity to my fellow grad students as well as faculty. True to the original intentions of the site, anyone is welcome to submit posts regarding HSTM as well as the academic (or non-academic!) life. To do so, simply e-mail the editor (me, Kele Cable, cable020@umn.edu) and we will discuss your thoughts!

At the moment, you can expect a new post every two weeks. Wrangling grad students is a hard business.

Contact me via email (above), or Twitter (@KeleCable).

Thank you,
Kele Cable