Some years ago, as a gift, my grandmother (Boop) gave me a book of family recipes that she had gathered, and which, as these were not overly numerous, she had complemented with a number of recipes she had clipped and torn from magazines over the years, and put by perhaps imagining that someday some one of us, a child, a grandchild, a great-grandchild, the spouses of any of these, might try his or her hand at this most elementary and profound form of alchemy.
This treasure was put in a somewhat faded red (nearing blood-orange) three-ring binder. This is not overly significant but that it is representative of a world composed of materials at hand. She and my grandfather (Bobby), as befits a generation of recyclers, before there was an industry based upon it (one that seems to me to encourage a freer wasting of materials), used all things over and over and over again in numerous, numberless (I like that word, implying, though you could number them, there might be another one added to it), ways. The usual objects like coffee cans were always found holding nails, screws, bolts (all things hardware), but also toys or game pieces, and lures and hooks, bobbers and weights (worms, too) for fishing. But this hand-me-down binder had also surely done duty in as many ways as you can imagine: at the very least it had held other documents, likely building plans for all manner of projects with wood as Bobby is a carpenter. Good containers make good savers, to heist a construction out of Robert Frost.
But, as to what raised that into my foretop: Boop had labeled this heirloom, “Receipts for Doug.” Now, because I am an ungrateful boob of a sort, I made sure to call attention to this clear mistake of usage. Of course I also surmised that this was a binder used for work receipts that Boop simply re-labeled, but I couldn’t really make sense of it other than seeing it as a mistake. And once the exchange was completed and I was in receipt of the binder it was no longer on my mind. Until today. Today, Melville used this word in my hearing.
The first day there was “duff” to make—a business which devolved upon the mess-cooks, though the boiling of it pertained to Old Coffee and his deputies. I made up my mind to lay myself out on that duff; to centre all my energies upon it; to put the very soul of art into it, and achieve an unrivalled duff—aduff that should put out of conceit all other duffs, and for ever make my administration memorable.
From the proper functionary the flour was obtained, and the raisins; the beef-fat, or “slush,” from Old Coffee; and the requisite supply of water from the scuttle-butt. I then went among the various cooks, to compare their receipts for making “duffs:” and having well weighed them all, and gathered from each a choice item to make an original receipt of my own, with due deliberation and solemnity I proceeded to business.
As I was listening to White Jacket (thank you, Librivox) when I heard the narrator say “receipt” I simply imagined an error. Back in the home library I discovered it was not so.
A discussion with my wife yielded what must seem obvious–a receipt, even in the only way I had ever used the word, is simply a list of items. These are itemized costs tallied to a sum, but still just a list; and a recipe is as well, just a list, and this too, tallied to a sum (a “duff” in the above). Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary, to use the likely lexicon Melville had at hand, puts “recipe” under “receipt” (though he insists there should be no “p” in the spelling) as definition #5: “prescription of ingredients for any composition, as of medicines, & c.” Note, too, that Melville uses “conceit” and “receipt” together here as corollaries of the creative, usurping, authorial mind; using ingredients in a particular manner will create a thing to overcome all other thinking about that thing: build therefore your own world…out of whatever you can get your hands on.
The receipts in White Jacket, and the receipts in Boop’s binder, are recipes. And these words are really simply variations on the same idea housed in the Latin “receptus”: to take or to receive.
Webster goes on to elaborate the use of the term in commerce:
a writing acknowledging the taking of money or goods. A receit [sic, throughout] of money may be in part or in full payment of a debt, and it operates as an acquittance or discharge of the debt either in part or in full. A receit of goods makes the receiver liable to account for the same, according to the nature of the transaction, or the tenor of the writing.
I’ve taken much from my grandparents over the years. I might rephrase that as I’ve received much from them over the years. I am in receipt of much from my grandparents. It would take some time to itemize this legacy. Still, it is worth a few more words to share some of the examples from Webster under the variant, “receive”:
“The idea of solidity we receive by our touch.” Locke
“Receive with meekness the engrafted word.” James 1:21 (full verse: “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.”)
“They kindled a fire and received us every one, because of the present rain and because of the cold.” Acts xxviii (interesting regarding the Amazon digital reader, eh?)
(But as if in rebuke to Jeff Bezos.) “The brazen altar was too little to receive the burnt-offering.” 1 Kings viii
What are “we” but the sum, the summing, of a constant reception? I would suggest that we all pay a little more attention to our giving and taking and keep in mind the kind of “duff” we seek to offer.
I am not sure for what I am liable to account to Boop and Bobby. What I do know is that the sheet does not balance and that to detail the exchange will reveal one truth: I will be always be in their debt.
photo credit: John Murray Archive