Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Last Minute Preparations

This week is typically the most hectic of the year for me. Pennsic War (the SCA's huge "medieval" camping event) is next week, and GenCon is the week after. These two events have recently been held at about the same time, and every year I experience a strange kind of culture shock going from one to the other. Anyways, if you've sent me an email recently and it doesn't involve something very time-critical, then I probably won't get back to you until after August 17th.

Pennsic War

Pennsic is an odd combination of people, some with strong interests in accurately re-enacting medieval life, and others just there to have a good time. With over 10,000 people attending and camping for one to two weeks, there's all sorts of stuff going on and plenty to hold the interest of just about anyone. I tend to look at it as sort of a modern version of the medieval market fair. I spend my time shopping for things I can't easily get other places (like re-creations of medieval cooking knives and linens), socializing with people that I otherwise talk to only through email, take classes on extremely geeky subjects (e.g. Saints and Relics), and kick back and relax in general.

the sort of thing I like to see at Pennsic
click on the image to see more of the photographer's work

There are aspects of Pennsic that I could do without (there were infestations of elves and goths in past years, but they've pretty much cleared out), but you take the good with the bad and on the whole it's worthwhile.


GenCon is a convention devoted to games of all sorts, and has an annual attendance of over 25,000. For the past few years I've been giving seminars there on medieval cooking (to help provide game designers and writers with some background information for their work), and of recent participating in the Writers Symposium track of seminars (a fun and eclectic bunch). I also spend a lot of time working/hanging out with the folks at the Miniature Hobby Events (which is kind of funny since my miniature painting skills are quite bad).

I'm nowhere near ready for either of these, much less both, but time and tide wait for no one. Excuse me while I panic.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wrong in so many ways ...

I just came across this blog posting which is referring to a recently published study on food diversity in New Journal of Physics. Either the blogger doesn't quite understand the gist of the (flawed) study, or they're just really bad at explaining their understanding. Either way, the blog post is highly misleading.

First and foremost, why in the world is the blog posting entitled "Medieval Cookery Comeback"? While it does refer to a modern book about medieval cooking (Pleyn Delit), that's not the focus of the article or the study. Also, the blog post mentions locations like South America and Japan, where (this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine) the term "medieval" really doesn't make sense.

Reading the original paper (note that the study was published in a physicists journal, not in a culinary or history one), I find it has some serious problems. They did not consider the possibility that the frequency of occurrence of an ingredient in a cookbook does not necessarily correlate to the frequency of consumption in daily diet (think about how many cake recipes there are in the average American cookbook compared to the number of recipes for hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries and chicken nuggets).

A rather stunning point is revealed simply by looking at the full title of their chosen medieval cookbook - Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. This book is a modernly published collection of recipes drawn from a number of medieval sources. What's important to note though, is that the book is intended for a modern audience, so the recipes were chosen to appeal to modern sensibilities and a modern palate. Had the study authors chosen a cookbook that was actually written in the middle ages (like Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books perhaps) they would have found the medieval cuisine to be very very different.

If the authors had actually taken a look at the world around them, they might have questioned their conclusions. It seems that they weren't aware of how quickly and thoroughly capsicum peppers moved into a central role in cuisines around the world after their introduction in the 1500s. There are other new world foods (tomatoes, potatoes, corn/maize, etc.) similarly introduced to various parts of the world that have quickly become prominent, and to a degree they displaced local favorites.

The study authors also may not have taken into account how even when new foods are introduced into a region, the land there may not support those foods as well as ones that have been grown there for millennia. There can also be a substantial delay in incorporating a food into a cuisine due to reluctance of farmers to growing it locally.

Roque, who lead the research project, said : "We think it's important to analyse cultural phenomena like cuisine. The idiosyncratic nature of each cuisine will never disappear due to invasion by alien ingredients and recipes."

Ugh! That last sentence is so massively wrong. The "idiosyncratic nature" of English cuisine in the fifteenth century changed quite severely after the introduction of new world ingredients. Medieval English and French cuisine did disappear, and it happened in a little over a hundred years. Even in the last century in the US there have been ingredients that have fallen out of favor. There used to be a quince tree in just about every farmyard, now quince are only carried in a few groceries as an exotic fruit. Meats like bear, deer, bison, and squirrel used to be a staple of frontier life, now they're rarely served.

There is a slightly more critical review on the physicsworld.com website. They note that the study was a statistical one that only looked at the appearance of ingredients in a small number of cookbooks, and that it really was a case of showing how their statistical analysis fit a statistical model.

Generally I'm all in favor of amateurs researching topics outside of their fields of expertise (we all need to start somewhere), but when they think they've found something phenomenal I'd like it if they'd check their conclusions against the real world and make sure they know the difference between a model and reality.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pickled Meat Pies

I was looking through some of the recipes in The Good Housewife's Jewell (England, 1596) and came across the recipe below.

To make fillets of beefe or clods instead of red Deare.
First take your Beefe, and Larde it very thicke, and then season it with pepper, and Salt, Sinamon and ginger, Cloues, and Mace good store, with a greate deale more quantitie of pepper and Salte, then you would a peece of Venison, and put it in couered Paste, and when it is baked, take vineger and suger, Sinamon and Ginger,  and put in, and shake the Pastie, and stope it close, and let it stande almonst a fortnyght before you cut it vp.

What makes this interesting is that it clearly states that the pie is to be kept for two weeks before eating it.  From what I've read recently, the spices called for have anti-bacterial properties (especially the cinnamon), which when combined with the vinegar may kill off any existing bacteria and prevent new growth (I'm still trying to find out just how well spices can do this).

The only other recipe I'd found before like this one is from a similar source, The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen (England, c. 1588).  It has a similar step of pouring vinegar into the baked pie, but only states that the pie can be kept "a great while."

To make a pie to keep long.
You must first perboile your flesh + press it, + when it is pressed, season it with pepper and salt whilest it is hot, then lard it, make your paste of rie flower, it must be very thick, or else it wil not holde, when it is seasoned + larded, lay it in your pie, then cast on it before you close it, a good deale of cloves and Mace beaten small, and lay upon that a good deale of Butter, and so close it up: but you must leave a hole in the top of the lid, + when it hath stood two houres in the Oven, you must fill it as full of vinigar as you can, and then stop the hole as close as you can with paste, and then set it in the Oven again: your Oven must bee verie hot at the first, and then your pies will keep a great while: the longer you keepe them the better wil they be: and when ye have taken them out of the oven, and that they be almost cold, you must shake them betweene your hands, and set them into the Oven, be well ware that one pie touch not another by more than ones hand bredth: Remember also to let them stand in the Oven after the Vinigar be in, two houres and more.

The common aspects of the recipes appear to be seasoned meat and fat, placed into a crust and baked, and vinegar poured in afterwards.  It's also interesting to note that both recipes instruct the cook to shake the pie, assumedly to distribute the vinegar.

This of course leads me to wonder how such a pie would taste, and just how safe (or unsafe) would it be to eat?  I'm tempted to make one and see if I can find a lab to test for bacterial levels after two weeks.

Monday, July 14, 2008

On Vegetables

Ask the average person and they'll probably tell you that people in medieval Europe didn't eat any vegetables (except possibly for the Irish, who were evidently eating potatoes for centuries before they were brought from the Americas, but that's a whole different issue).

vegetables grown for no reason

Some background: I just spent the weekend traveling, and this morning it occurred to me that every time I eat in restaurants for more than a couple of days I start to feel incredibly vegetable-deprived.

Mind you, I'm not a vegetarian. I'm not even one of those people who are forever grazing on carrots and celery and whatnot. In fact I'm pretty sure I don't eat anywhere near the number of servings of vegetables currently recommended by any of the health authorities. That's why this disturbs me so much. If I'm feeling veggie deprived when eating restaurant food, then there really must be a serious lack of green things there.

Let's think about the typical restaurant meal for a minute. If it's fast-food then there's almost no chance for plants. Maybe there's a shred of lettuce or tomato or pickle - about 1/1000000th of a full serving. French fries come from a plant, but they're really just starch and fat - not much veggie goodness there. And no, before anyone says it, ketchup is not a vegetable.

Other restaurants may do slightly better. A small salad, coleslaw, maybe even green beans or broccoli (when I was in England I found they served peas as frequently as the US does broccoli - a pointless observation, but there it is), but even that seems to be more the exception than the rule.

Now compare that to the menus from meals served to medieval royalty. It can be hard to tell what's going on in a lot of these - there are lots of meat references and few vegetable ones, but that's not too different from modern menus. Looking at household accounts and dietetic manuals from the time though, it's pretty clear that medieval people were eating plenty of vegetables. Apparently only a relative few of the recipes for vegetables were thought important enough to write down.

They ate salads and cooked turnips (sliced and layered with cheese and butter) and sometimes cooked cauliflower and such. Occasionally spinach or beets, parsnips and carrots. Now that I think about it, it really doesn't sound that different from the modern diet. The average person likes to eat meat, starchy-foods, and sweets. They'll eat some vegetables, and maybe like them too, but for most people it's not the first thing they'll reach for at the table.

Interesting. So apparently I'm an exception and not the norm. There's a surprise.

Friday, July 11, 2008

More Medieval Cookery at GenCon

I mentioned in a post back in April that I'll be giving a seminar on medieval food preservation at GenCon this August. As of the close in registration, there are over 30 people who have signed up. In addition to that seminar, I'll be participating in the seminars below:

Food in Fiction 8/14/08 10:00-11:00 AM
Don’t starve your main character. Don’t force your villain to drink the wrong vintage of wine with his macaroni and cheese. Little details like food help make your fiction real and add depth to your characters. In fantasy and science fiction, it can also reveal important information about climate and culture. Panelists: Daniel Myers, Chris Pierson, Elizabeth Vaughan, Brad Beaulieu
Worldbuilding: Class Struggle 8/16/08 9:00-10:00 AM
What makes society divide into caste and class? We’ll take a look at historical and present-day structures and how to use various elements to develop classes in your world. Panelists: Tim Waggoner, Richard Lee Byers, Daniel Myers, Sabrina Klein, Paul Genesse
Worldbuilding: Build From the Ground Up 8/16/08 10:00-11:00 AM
Build from the physical world and not the culture. Learn how geography influences a society’s development. For example, deserts create a reverence for water, and migratory patterns for sustenance. Learn how to let the terrain shape your people. Panelists: Sabrina Klein, Daniel Myers, Tim Waggoner, Steven Schend, Paul Genesse

It's shaping up to be a good convention. If you can make it, stop by one of the seminars and say "Hi".

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Spice and Spoilage

I recently came across an article from the March issue of Cornell University's Cornell Chronicle titled Study: Antibacterial spices explain why some like it hot. It describes the recent research done by Professor Paul Sherman, and the paper he published in the March 1998 issue of the journal Quarterly Review of Biology.

According to Sherman, some commonly used spices have significant antibacterial properties and may help prevent illness caused by food-born pathogens. More specifically, in the interview he said, "We believe the ultimate reason for using spices is to kill food-borne bacteria and fungi." Obviously this subject is of interest to a medieval food historian - medieval food preservation and disease prevention are a couple of those perennial hot topics. While I won't deny Sherman's claims outright, I do approach the whole thing with a good amount of skepticism.


My first question is on the degree of antibacterial properties of the 43 spices he's studied. At what concentrations were his tests performed? The article lists garlic and onion as being among the most potent germ killers, and states that "... they kill everything". I'm very sure I've had food go bad that contained both onions and garlic, and I know that mixing them in with raw beef won't make it safe to eat. This means that the concentration of the active ingredient is important, and this leads me to wonder if the amount of a given spice (say, cinnamon) needed to be an effective antibacterial agent would make the food inedible.

Sherman also draws a connection between latitude and spice consumption, with the inference that in warmer climates foods will spoil more quickly and therefore they need more spicing to prevent this spoilage. The article doesn't mention that the majority of spices (e.g. cinnamon, cloves, pepper, etc.) do not grow well outside of a tropical climate, meaning they'd need to be imported to the colder climates and would therefore be less likely to be used there. Did his study make any attempt to correct for this? If not, then it would seriously skew his data.

The article goes on to state that people "... probably aren't eating spices for their nutritive value, the biologist said, because the same macronutrients are available in similar amounts in common vegetables, which are eaten in much greater quantities." I know of one specific case that contradicts this: capsicum consumption in Mexico. The traditional Mexican diet would be severely deficient in vitamin C if it weren't for the consumption of capsicum peppers.

On the plus side, at one point in the article Sherman notes that the idea of using spice to cover the taste of spoiled food is bogus. He says that such a practice "... ignores the health dangers of ingesting spoiled food."

I'll have to see if I can get a copy of the original paper.

UPDATE: I've found one link that gives more detail on the paper, and it appears that some of my questions were addressed. I've also found a couple interesting links that discuss the antibacterial properties of some spices (see the links below).

Friday, July 4, 2008

Modern Tools for Medieval Cooking Research

During the medieval period, the only way to learn about medieval cooking was to spend time in the kitchen, and maybe read one of the few existing cookbooks (that is, if you're lucky enough to have one, and can read as well). I'm about 500 years too late to do this.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the only option was to go to places like the British Library and read old books. If you couldn't travel then you were pretty much out of luck.

With the advent of the Internet though, research has become immensely easier. Aside from the fact that there are a whole slew of medieval cookbooks available online for free, there are other online tools that I've found to be very useful. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

Online Dictionaries
Greg Lindahl has put copies of Cotgrave's 1611 French/English Dictionary and Florio's 1611 Italian/English Dictionary online, and they even have a search feature. I can not even begin to tell you how incredibly useful this was when I started working with Middle French cooking texts. He and Steve Bush obviously put a lot of work into these and have not been thanked enough.

Medieval Cookbook Search
I originally created this searchable index for my own use. I wanted to be able to find recipes in Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books by ingredient, and because of the weird spellings used in the book, regular search engines were useless. It's far from perfect, but until something better comes along it'll do.

Billed as " a reusable non-linear personal web notebook", Tiddlywiki is a strange little program. It's essentially a small, modifiable web site packed into a single file. Right now I'm using it as a sort of storage space for all the things I would normally write down on a piece of paper to remember later and then leave in my pocket to go through the laundry and then be left with a lump of paper and a feeling that I've forgotten something important. I upload the file and keep it where I can get to it from any computer hooked to the Internet (as a bonus, it's completely platform independent). I'm sure there are other uses I haven't thought of yet - it really is a neat little program.

Major Online Text Sources
Aside from the museums and libraries that have one or two useful texts that they've made freely available online, the Internet Archive and Google Books have put an immense number of texts out there for anyone to get to. It can still be pretty hard to find things, but with the enormous volume of books they've got, it's certain there is something in there that you would find useful.

I'll update this list as I think of things.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Kalendarium Hortense - July

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of June.

Sow Lettuce, Radish, &c. to have tender Salletting.

Sow later Pease to be ripe six weeks after Michaelmas.2

Water young planted Trees, and Layers, &c. and reprune now Abricots and Peaches, saving as many of the young likeliest shoots as are well placed; for the now Bearers commonly perish, the new ones succeeding. Cut close and even, purging your Wall-fruit3 of superfluous leaves which hinder from the Sun; but do it discreetly.

You may now also begin to Inoculate.4

Let such Olitory-herbs run to seed as you would save.

Towards the latter end, visit your Vineyards again, &c. and stop the exuberant shoots at the second joynt above the fruit (if not finished before;) but not so as to expose it to the Sun, without some umbrage.

Remove long-sided Cabbages planted in May, to head in Autumn; 'tis the best Cabbage in the World.

Now begin to streighten the entrance of your Bees a little; and help them kill their Drones, if you observe too many; setting the new invented Cucurbit-Glasses of Beer mingled with Honey to entice the Wasps, Flies, &c. which waste your store. Also hang Bottles of the same Mixture near your Red-Roman Nectarines and other tempting fruits, for their destruction; else they many times invade your best Fruit.

Look now also diligently under the leaves of Mural Trees5 for the Snails; they stick commonly somewhat above the Fruit: pull not off what is bitten; for then they will certainly begin afresh.

1 - olitory: Of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - the feast of St. Michael, which occurs on September 29th.

3 - fruit borne by trees trained against a wall.

4 - inoculate: insert a bud for propagation, cause to propagate, as by grafting or layering.

5 - Wall trees, see note #3.