Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An Interview

Ohio State University's Center for Medieval and Rennaissance Studies interviewed me for their monthly newsletter, Nouvelles/Nouvelles - the current issue (with the interview) is on their website as a PDF document. This is way cool! Since they're only an hour and a half drive for me, I'm hoping we can set up some kind of cooking demonstration/talk thing for this spring or later this year.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gas vs. Electric

While considering the potential renovation of our home kitchen the issue of choosing a gas or electric cooktop came up, and a strange thought occurred to me (big surprise, I know - me having a strange thought - you'd think I was used to it by now).

The most common preference among cooking enthusiasts is gas, which allows you to quickly adjust the amount of heat being applied. Not so for electric, where the heating element takes long enough to cool down that it adds a significant challenge to making temperature-sensitive recipes (like many modern French sauces). In spite of being plumbed for gas, we have an electric cooktop.

In fact, I've been cooking on electric stoves for the past 24 years. You get used to it, really. You learn to move the pan around a lot, have it hang halfway off the element as it cools down, or lifting it up an inch or so for a minute. This makes my cooking style a bit funky when I'm working on the nice new gas stove at my mom's.

So my initial reaction was to go with a gas stove. After all, you can't get more medieval than cooking over fire, right?

Then I thought back to last summer, when I did a bit of cooking over a real fire using an earthenware pot. I had Helewyse de Birkestad (Louise Smithson) with me to show me the basics, and the first thing I learned is that I wasn't going to be cooking over flame. Instead we had the pot on a grill over coals. This gives a much more constant and even heat. So here's the kicker: how did we control the amount of heat applied to the pot? By moving it around. As the coals cooled down the pot got moved closer in. If it boiled a bit too much it got moved away - or was raised up a bit.

So maybe the past 24 years of electric cooktops was good training.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Shopping List

There are a number of books on my shopping list right now, so I thought I'd mention a few of them (in no particular order).

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition

C. M. Woolgar
This book sounds like it combines information from a diverse range of fields. Woolgar's previous works are wonderfully detailed and supported, so this one sounds really promising.

The Book of Sent SovĂ­: Medieval recipes from Catalonia
Joan Santanach (Editor), Robin Vogelzang (Translator)
I'm mostly into English and French cooking history, so why this? Catalan borders on France, of course, and there's almost nothing out there on medieval Catalonian cooking. How much does it resemble that of its neighbors? What ingredients are similar? What are the differences. I just gotta know!

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England
Peter Brears
Brears is one of those authors that, when they put out a new book, I pay attention. The combination of the subject with Brears' usual level of scholarship sounds very promising.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Researching Medieval Recipes

Physicists sometimes refer to "The Arrow of Time" - the apparent directionality of how time flows. Apparently there are some sub-fields of physics where this is a big thing. To those of us outside of that academic world, this seems like a "Duh!" kind of thing, and one wouldn't think it is worth considering in the area of historic research.

It is.

When people look at medieval cookbooks, there seems to be a strong desire to ignore the inherent directionality. I think it's part of a built in human need to generalize - to make sense of something that does not fit in with the current world-view.

Ok, that's a bit too philosophical. Let's try some examples.

Let's say you've got this recipe that's been in your family for many generations. One day while serving it to some family or friends the thought hits you that all the ingredients in it were available in medieval Europe. "This might be medieval," you think, and decide to look into it. You then spend months digging through the cookbooks, trying to find recipes with the same ingredients, where similar methods were used, and where the end result sounds similar to the dish you know and love. If you're really really lucky you find an exact match. More likely though is that you find a few "kind-a, sort-a" recipes from widely varying times and places, and then you give up in frustration and tell people that researching medieval recipes is hard.

It's not, really. It only seemed hard because you ignored the directionality of time. You latched on to a piece of modern information and tried to push it some 500 years into the past. You assumed that because all of the ingredients were available in the middle ages, that there must be a cook somewhere back then that made this recipe. [This kind of reasoning is proven invalid by recipes like mayonnaise - all of its ingredients were present back to ancient times, but it wasn't invented until 1756.]

The easier way to research medieval recipes is to keep the information flowing from the past to the present. Pick up (or download) a medieval cookbook and treat it like you would any other cookbook. Read through it, skipping here and there, looking for something interesting, something that sounds tasty or different or that you have all the ingredients called for. If you can't read Middle French or German then use someone else's translation. If you can't read Middle English, borrow (or download) a dictionary and practice - it's mostly funny spelling and a handful of archaic words.

So you've picked out a recipe. Now gather the ingredients and follow the instructions. It may take a couple of tries (or three, or four) before you get the quantities balanced so the flavor and consistency are so you like it - most medieval recipes inconveniently leave out any measurements). You may even find some recipes that sound good but turn out just plain nasty (I've done this, but I've also found such recipes in modern cookbooks). Once you've found a good recipe though, then you've got a truly authentic medieval dish, and you've also got the original source it came from - documenting it becomes a trivial matter.

Of course every now and then, while browsing through a medieval cookbook, you're reading a recipe and the realization hits you, "That's grandma's recipe!" - and you find out that in medieval times they put raisins in it.