Food Riddles and Riddling Ways

“Food Riddles and Riddling Ways” is an online exhibition focusing on the intersections of culinary and riddling practices, primarily in the United Kingdom and North America. We showcase many different dinner-time riddling events and provide digitized versions of beautiful manuscripts and riddle-related items housed at McGill University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

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Food Riddles and Riddling Ways

Contextual Introduction to the Exhibition:

In the spring of 2017, McGill Library acquired a unique item for its Rare Books and Special Collections. At first glance, it appeared to be a cookery manuscript from late 18th and early 19th century England. Looking more closely, we discovered that amongst the recipes were riddles. And the most intriguing discovery was a table setting diagram in which each dish was described only in riddles. This was our first example of what is known as an “Enigmatic Bill of Fare.” So the search for others began.

We were surprised to discover that virtually no research had been conducted on “Enigmatic Bills of Fare.” Wanting to learn more, we browsed through library archives and catalogues, slowly gathering more riddling menus. Many of the menus we identified were from the 18th and early 19th centuries, primarily originating in the United Kingdom. We found that many of the menus contained the same riddles, and several table setting diagrams were identical. In other words, they were circulated and copied extensively. “Enigmatic Bills of Fare” were not only handwritten, they were also being published in compendiums, almanacs, and magazines. Historians often claim that riddles became a form of children’s play by the end of the 19th century[1]. However, our discovery of culinary riddles led us to be suspicious of the accuracy of these claims.

A second acquisition by McGill Library consolidated our suspicions. The cover of this pamphlet simply read “SUPPER, February First, 1893.” Inside was a menu entirely written in riddles. Yet the date surprised us. The menu was over 40 years later than anything else we had found. This, we soon discovered, was a “Conundrum Supper” menu.

“Conundrum Suppers” were distinct from, but related to, “Enigmatic Bills of Fare.” They, too, used riddling menus for entertainment. Yet, unlike the Enigmatic Bills of Fare, these events were a primarily North American form of entertainment, often hosted by Protestant Churches as fundraisers or holiday celebrations. Hoping to better understand Conundrum Suppers, we began scouring newspaper archives from the period and found records of over one thousand events. The events were held much later than the “Enigmatic” dinners, occurring mostly at the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century. But, like “Enigmatic Bills of Fare,” the phenomenon of “Conundrum Supper” menus had gone unnoticed.

The Riddle Project’s first goal has been to shed light on these traditions and initiate a larger discussion. It has been truly a cross-disciplinary endeavour. The critical context includes culinary history, riddle etymology, and the history of enigmas and wordplay throughout Western Culture. Our attempts to navigate the intricacies of cataloguing and metadata gave us crash courses in library practices and led us to communicate with rare books librarians from all across the globe. Promotion, too, was necessary, leading the Research team into the realms of Social Media, publicity, and graphic design, mentored by Merika Ramundo and Greg Houston. We learned about the subtleties of exhibition layouts from library personnel, especially from Octavian Sopt, and we spent hours organising and arranging the story we wanted to tell about culinary riddles. We learned to use computational tools for analysis and to interpret the statistics of our corpora. The team brainstormed efficient ways to construct user interfaces and developed best practices to convey our research to the public. As the project came together, we became highly adept at teamwork; we wrote and edited for one another, offered and implemented suggestions for optimization and efficiency, learned to meet shared deadlines and to evaluate our progress. Our exhibition is a result of the team members’ combined efforts.

Leehu Sigler, student project co-ordinator, MA candidate in English, McGill University

This online exhibition draws from a physical exhibition prepared for McGill’s McClennan Library and includes maps (see the “Story Maps” page) to help explain the evolution of Enigmatic Dinners and Conundrum Suppers. They tell the story of our research journey and explain interesting patterns in the evolution of riddling traditions.  Maps allow us to demonstrate where riddlng practices originate, trace riddling events across the globe, and identify precisely how these traditions shift over time. Viewers can peruse the moments when the trend for riddling peaks, and learn how riddles are part of holiday celebrations. Our maps tell a fascinating story.

We pique curiosity be describing riddling practices that had fallen out of sight. Consequently, we are careful to document all our sources, and pieces of a puzzle our team is beginning to assemble. Culinary riddles were only discoverable thanks to the combination of distant reading techniques available to us now in the digital age and traditional close reading of archival materials. In other words, we scoured databases and took advantage of digital visualization tools, but also read many, man pages of handwritten manuscript material in rare and special collections from Birmingham to Los Angeles, and major research libraries in between.  By telling the story of our exploration here, we aim to show you some of the challenges and rewards of the combined effort of a  multi-disciplinary team of curious researchers.

Andrea Wahba MISt, librarian and MA candidate in English, McGill University

Although we have unearthed these enigmatic food riddles in rare and archival collections all across Europe and North America, they were difficult to find. Many of the physical documents were noticed between the pages of almanacs, personal cookbooks, collections of games, often written in dissimilar handwritings and scripts. As a result, understanding how such riddling events played out has been hugely challenging. But we have learned a lot that we can share, by way of inviting others to join the hunt.

First, please look at our blog posts, all available here (The riddle project github and McGill Library Matters). In particular, this post (Digital Humanities and the Gale Dataset) provides visualizations of our distant readings of a larger corpus of riddling events from 1733-1971. There we also reference in detail and provide images for actual riddles. In our recent blog post, titled “Call Me By My Name: The Nomenclature of Riddling Dinners,” (Call Me By My Name: The Nomenclature of Riddling Dinners) we discuss the difficulty of classifying riddles. Here we explain how the transition from records of them described as “Enigmatic Bills of Fare” to “Conundrum Suppers” inhibited our ability to find them and connections between them. We suggest ways in which contemporary cataloguing practices may adapt to contribute to the findability of this enigmatic subgenre.

The blog platform was chosen as a communicative instrument for the results of our research. We can link the blog externally from other websites making it a flexible and current way to share our findings with the community quickly and easily.  These online platforms for our blogs also allow for tags and other backend applications that enable metadata, such as the title, description, and index terms associated with a particular Enginmatic Bill of Fare for example, to be generated. We can use the metadata to track which tags are most effective in increasing the relevance ratings of blog posts in search results in order to improve and better understand how researchers are accessing this information.

The obscurity of culinary riddles presents a challenge to researchers, specifically related to their discoverability in library records and catalogues. Because of our research experience, we recognized the opportunity Enigmatic Bills of Fare presented to develop cataloguing strategies. For example, in addition to including mention of “Conundrum Menus” or “Enigmatic Bills of Fare” in cataloguing notes, one day might these categories be more formally added to the controlled cataloguing vocabularies in order to improve the finding of these special resources in libraries in the future? Certainly, additional controlled vocabulary would add more access points to these resources. Generally, ‘riddles’ necessitate more attention from libraries. Their tendency to mesh and interweave with other genres and media has made riddles difficult to find – even in the digital age. They are puzzling artifacts as well as puzzles, in other words.

As libraries and archives continue to improve the capabilities of their digital resources, digital tools can drastically improve the discoverability of riddle subgenres.  For example, linked data can provide consistency in the records of culinary riddles by allowing researchers to search in-text, or by subject, title, and other elements of legacy metadata. These data could be linked across multiple platforms and institutional repositories, and indexed digitally to connect researchers with resources faster, and more easily than ever before. The potential for linked data to contribute to the findability of emerging genres rests in the continued development of and communication between digital semantic technologies. Today, platforms that use these technologies (standards that allow data about machine-readable) such as search engines, online catalogues, social media, and blogs may all contribute to uncovering even the most obscure traditions

Chelsea Woodhouse MSc (Anthropology), MA candidate in Library and Information Studies, McGill University

Data is hard to wrangle. Working with a large dataset means trying conceptualize an amount of information that is too expansive to be understood by a human. One basic consequence of not being able to have a strong distant read of thousands of lines of information is that often, starting down one path of investigation will lead to a dead end. Many data-driven projects feel like one is staring down a suite of unsolved problems that never seem to disappear or get resolved.

By contrast, the Riddle Project has offered exciting results. As the developer for the online portion of the project, my job was to make this data readable in a way that could support discovery of new ideas. Interactive maps, charts, and stories illustrate some of our findings.

In this exhibition, we invite you to join us by entering doors to new discoveries. Explore riddles on the interactive map by clicking and reading their contents, which will offer you a way to peruse the global phenomenon. Our digital humanities-guided research methods, enabled us to  illustrate ways in which the riddles connect with one another, in a way that is not possible with traditional close reading, when an individual reads one riddle at a time. For instance, one visualization represents a social network, highlighting shared lines between riddles, or overlapping content. This reveals that riddles tended to cluster around particular time period. In other words, the fashion for riddles waxed and waned, the most popular were shared quickly, but then fade into the background.  

One important piece of the digital project, especially one supported by a publicly-funded academic research library and Canada’s tri-council agency SSHRC, was designing it in a way to facilitate expansion and wide distribution. To this end, the website and digital humanities work is open-source on GitHub. There is significant documentation detailing how to maintain and improve the website, develop additional story maps, and add blog posts. One huge advantage of the website is that it can change over time as new information is added. All of the tools are in place to keep building out and up!

Nathan Drezner, BA candidate in Computer Science and English, McGill University

Such an exhibition is only possible with the collaboration of a wide variety of talented and generous individuals and the deep collections of libraries. With special thanks to the personnel of McGill Library, especially Chris Lyons, Head of Rare Books and Special Collections; Merika Ramundo, Library Communications Director; Greg Houston, New Media & Digitization Administrator; and Octavian Sopt, Senior Documentation Technician. Thanks, too, to Nora Shaalan, former student Project Coordinator of The Riddle Project, as well as to Research Assistants Deniz Çvik, Will Keefe-Stacey, and Thomas Corey. Bylines credit archival holdings at the Clark Library (UCLA), Cadbury Library (Birmingham), and Bodleian Library (Oxford). Searches in the Gale databases allowed us to access material in many others, and benefit from tools in Gale’s digital scholars’ lab. This research program benefits from the generous sponsorship of the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada.

What lies ahead? Please keep your eyes peeled for a book on “Food Riddles and Riddling Ways” and more information as we begin to explore other riddling entertainment practices, including “assiettes parlantes.” These ‘talking plates’ displayed visual riddles or rebuses to delight diners and tempt them to clean their plates.

Nathalie Cooke, Principal Investigator, Professor of English and Associate Dean, McGill University Library. Montreal, 20 March 2020.

[1] For more information on the research surrounding children’s riddling practices, see: Bryant, Mark. Dictionary of Riddles. Routledge, 1990, pp. 51-52. Hecimovich, Gregg A. Puzzling the Reader: Riddles in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 2008, pp. 15-17. Opie, Iona, and Opie, Peter. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford UP, 1967, pp.73-86. Roemer, Danielle M. “Riddles.” Children's Folklore: A Source Book, edited by Brian Sutton-Smith et  al., University Press of Colorado, 1999, pp. 161–192. JSTOR,