Thursday, October 4, 2007

Medieval Food Myths

Frequently when people I've met find out that I research medieval cooking, they mention something they've learned on the topic. Unfortunately it's frequently one of the following myths. Invariably I'll get thrown into "Teacher" mode and their eyes will glaze over, they start to drool, and finally their heads explode.

In order to prevent future social carnage, I now present these myths along with a brief debunking.

1. They used lots of spices to cover the taste of spoiled meat.

This is so incredibly wrong for so many reasons.

a. The chemicals in spoiled meat that smell and taste bad are so potent that no amount of spice is going to cover them up.

b. They did not slaughter livestock until it was needed, so raw meat didn't stay around long enough to spoil.

c. Considering that spices were more expensive than meat, why would they spend the equivalent of $10 of spices to cover the spoiled taste of a $2 chicken? It'd be much cheaper (and nicer) to just buy a fresh chicken.

d. Meatless dishes from the same time period were spiced just as heavily as meat dishes.

2. Pepper was worth its weight in gold.

A quick check finds this to be far from correct. While pepper was more expensive in the medieval period than it is now - approximately ten times the current cost based on the wages of unskilled laborers - it was not even close to the value of gold.

The price of saffron (which is and always has been the most expensive spice) was about 183 pence per pound in fifteenth-century London. That's closer to gold (240 pence per pound) but still not over.

3. Bread was coarse and brown.

There are numerous descriptions in medieval texts of the bolting process, where ground wheat is passed through linen sacks multiple times to give a fine white flour. There are records of laws specifying the different grades of bread, from coarse and dark to fine white bread. The poor may have eaten coarse dark bread, but the middle and upper classes could and did buy white bread.

4. The wealthy didn't eat vegetables.

I've got hundreds of recipes from the cookbooks of the middle and upper classes that call for vegetables, fruits, and grains. There are many examples of instructions for making and serving salads. There are shopping lists for banquets that call for vegetables. The wealthy weren't just carnivores.

5. The poor didn't eat meat.

Records from medieval prisons and poor houses include weekly menus which feature a substantial quantity of meat three to four times a week. If they were feeding convicted criminals better than the poor outside of prison then prison wouldn't be much of a deterrent to crime, would it?

6. Potatoes / tomatoes / capsicum peppers originated in Ireland / Turkey / India.

All botanical and historical evidence leads to the conclusion that none of these foods existed outside of the Americas before 1492. If anyone can find primary source documentation for these foods being used in Europe before then, I'll be overjoyed to amend this. The same goes for turkey, green beans, pumpkins, cranberries, vanilla, chocolate, and corn.

7. Most vegetables weren't as well developed as they are now.

This can be easily disproved by taking a quick look through medieval paintings that depict food. There you can easily find very modern looking produce.

8. Medieval feasts consisted of bread, roasted meat and wine (or ale).

We have Hollywood to thank for this one. Unlike the popular depiction, medieval feasts were complex affairs which included multiple courses, each with multiple dishes. Meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains were all served. Delicate and subtle dishes were made using a wide variety of spices. Intricate entertainment pieces were also presented - sometimes edible, other times not.

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