Friday, March 20, 2009

Searching through the Searches

Apparently I need to be more clear on the functionality of the Medieval Cookbook Search.

Every now and then I like to look through the various log files generated by my web hosts. This allows me to find out if someone like the BBC recently linked to the site, or if some recipe is surprisingly popular, or if there's something wrong with the HTML code, etc.

I've recently become aware that a number of people are entering things into the Medieval Cookbook Search that aren't going to return much in the way of useful information. I originally set the search engine up to find recipes in various medieval sources which contain a particular ingredient. It incorporates a sort of "translation" feature that copes with the wild spelling variations of Middle English. A couple of years later I added the capability of searching for multiple ingredients at the same time (which turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be).

What I didn't anticipate when building the indexes though was that some people would enter the name of a recipe. I can add this, but it'll take some time.

I also didn't expect people to enter such things as "food" and "cookery". Just what do they expect to find with those keywords in a bunch of medieval cookbooks? Even stranger, if they mistakenly thought it was a search for the entire website, what did they expect it to return given that the whole website is about "food" and "cookery"?

I can rig up some code so that if nothing is found in the cookbooks, it'll offer a generic search for the whole website (thanks be to Google), which will help with terms like "white", "mousse", and "cookie".

Which brings me to search terms like "Moo Moo". That is just plain silly, and I won't write special code for it (though I suppose I could ...).

Friday, March 13, 2009

"If it's bad then we'll order a pizza."

I experiment on my family, and while even the kids are willing to try strange looking new foods, sometimes the recipes don't turn out. Our rule is simply that everyone tries it out, and if it's no good then we call Domino's. As it turns out, we've very rarely had to resort to pizza. This is partly due to my getting better at figuring out what will or won't work ahead of time, but mostly it's because I don't usually have the whole meal depend on a single, experimental dish.

For example, I tried out a new fish recipe recently (you knew this was coming, didn't you) and the results were less than encouraging. Sometimes medieval recipes don't work out because of translation or interpretation issues and sometimes there was an error back when they were writing down the recipe in the first place. Occasionally though, the problem is that the modern palate just isn't used to certain flavor combinations. I suspect this is the case with this recipe.

The dish in question comes from "the Second part of the Good Huswiues Jewell" (England, 1597).

To dresse a carpe.
Take your carpe and scale it, and splet
it, and cut off his heade, & take out all
the bones from him cleane, then take the
fish and mince it fine, being raw, with the
yolkes of foure or fiue hard egges minced
with it, so doone put it into an earthen pot,
with two dishes of butter & a pint of whit
wine, a handfull of proynes, two yolks of
hard egges cut in foure quarters, and
season it with one nutmeg not small bea-
ten, Salt, Sinamon and Ginger, and in
the boyling of it you must stirre it that it
burne not to the pot bottome, and when it
is enough then take your minced meat, &
lay it in the dish, making the proportion of
the body, setting his head at the vpper end
and his taile at the lower end, which head
and taile must be sodden by themselues in
a vessell with water and salt.
You may vse a Pike thus in al points,
so that you do not take the proines, but for
them take Dates and small raisons, and
when you haue seasoned it as your Carpe
is, and when you do serue it put the refect
into the pikes mouth gaping, and so serue
it foorth."

Ok, it doesn't look all that complex. It's chopped fish, hard-boiled egg yolks, butter, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and dried fruit. I picked out some fish (no carp or pike were available, so I chose flounder on the grounds that it was a white, lightly flavored fish) and got to work. I didn't have prunes, but did have dates and raisins.

The resulting dish smelled good, but here's the problem: it didn't smell like dinner. In fact, it smelled like breakfast. The combination of spices made it smell almost exactly like cinnamon-spice oatmeal. To make matters worse looked like cinnamon-spice oatmeal too, complete with raisins. Worrisome.

I had the forethought to cook a full regular dinner and have the new dish on the side, so no one was worried that we'd have to wait for the pizza man. Everyone sat down, dished up the food, and started eating.

Complete silence at the table can be a good sign, but not in combination with confused facial expressions.

Everyone agreed (even the kids) that while it tasted ok, and wasn't exactly bad, it still didn't taste ... right. Honestly, it tasted exactly like lightly fish-flavored cinnamon-spice oatmeal. This is not the sort of thing you want to eat at dinner, and probably not a good bet for breakfast either.

There was a lot of talk around the table about what made it not right. It could be I used too much of the spices, or the wrong type of fish, or wrong balance of spices, but really I think this is one of those rare occasions where medieval people were eating something that modern people just aren't going to like (even if they like new and different foods). So I'll shelve this one and maybe look at it again in a few months and see if anything occurs to me.


Monday, March 9, 2009


Anyone who has talked to me long enough is probably aware that I am an ardent proponent of digitizing old and out-of-copyright documents and making them publicly available on the Internet. I can provide any number of reasons for doing this, such as the distribution of information to facilitate and promote research, but just this week the world was given a startling example of why we shouldn't keep all of our historical texts in one metaphorical basket.

On Tuesday, the six story building housing the Cologne City Archives collapsed. This building housed many medieval documents, charters, and such, some of which were probably destroyed and all were most likely severely damaged. There was almost no notice that anything was wrong, which means there was no time to get anything out of the building.

Throughout history texts have been lost in this general sort of way. Fires, wars, floods, or just plain age and decay take their toll. The information in newer books isn't as likely to be lost since there are usually multiple copies in various locations, but older documents are typically the only copy, so if we lose that one then the information in it is gone forever.

What makes this particularly sad is that with the current state of technology, the cost of digitizing such documents and widely distributing them (thereby potentially protecting them forever) is almost nothing. Yes, there are some cases where any kind of touch is going to destroy a document, so the digitization process needs to be ultra-high resolution blah blah blah 'cause we're only going to get one chance and we have to do it right, but for the vast majority of books and manuscripts out there this isn't the way it is.

All it takes is a volunteer with a cheap digital camera (which can even be borrowed). They can go into a library and photograph the document. Then the images can be uploaded to public sites like Wikimedia Commons. Others can then stitch the images together and convert them to a PDF file suitable for the Internet Archive's Text Archive, or transcribe them to text for Project Gutenberg. Each time this is done - no matter how small or insignificant the text - it's a gift to the world.

Of course, key in this process is the library that owns the document in question. Some libraries are more than willing to accommodate such amateur archivists. The Indianapolis Public Library for example allowed me to photograph and transcribe A Noble Boke off Cookry. Other libraries though see their rare books as a rare asset, and that the fewer people allowed access to their rare books, the higher the status of their rare books collection (you can imagine how I feel about that). Sometimes libraries have their own digitization process, usually high quality, which since it is usually expensive is therefore subject to budgets and funding cuts and the like - a case of making the best the enemy of the good (and sometimes they only make their digitized collection available to very few, or sell distribution rights to companies like Proquest who charge large subscription fees - again, you can imagine how I feel about that).

Still this is one of the areas where the little guy can make a difference. If you have access to a digital camera and a copyright-free text that isn't publicly available, photograph it (with the owner's permission) and upload it. If you're not sure what text to digitize or how to go about it, I'll be happy to offer suggestions. Heck, even if it's just some obscure Victorian pamphlet on apiaries, I'm sure someone in the future doing research on late 19th century English references to bees will thank you. [Ok, even that sounds interesting to me - I'm such a geek]

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Breakfast

I've posted before about breakfast, noting the general uncertainty of whether or not the people of medieval Europe did or didn't eat a morning meal. Now I've found another interesting passage of text on the subject.

This one comes from The Castel of Helth by Thomas Elyot (1541). I'd found this book many months back when I was reading up on food and humoral theory, but I hadn't read through the whole thing. Much to my surprise, buried within a section on what's appropriate to eat at various times of the year is the passage quoted below. It's rather long but in essence it says that people under the age of 40 can eat breakfast, and that (given the climate of England) not doing so might harm their health.

Sir Elyot doesn't say anything specific about people over the age of 40 though, which leaves me to conclude that I'm personally allowed at least six meals a day.

Tymes in the day concernynge meales. Cap. 27.

Besydes the tymes of the yere and ages, there
be also other tymes of eatinge and drinkinge
to be remembred, as the sundry tymes in the day,
whiche we call meales, which are in number and
distance, accordinge to the temperature of the coun
trey and person: As where the country is colde,
and the person lusty, and of a strong nature, there
may mo meales be vsed, or the lasse distaunce of
tyme betwene them. Contrarywise in contrary coun-
trais and personages, the cause is afore rehersed.
Where I haue spoken of the diete of the tymes of
the yere, not withstandinge here must be also con-
sideration of exercise and rest, which do augment
or appaire the naturall disposition of bodyes, as
shalbe more delclared hereafter in the chapiter of
exercise. But concernynge the generall csage of
countreis, and admitting the bodies to be in per-
fite state of healthe, I suppose, that in Englande,
yong men, vntil they come to the age of .xl. yeres,
may well eate thre meales in one day, as at breke-
fast, dyner, and supper, so that betwene brekefast,
and diner, be the space of foure houres at the lest,
betwene diner and supper .vi. houres, & the breke
fast lasse than the diner and the dyner moderate,
that is to say, lasse than sacietie or fulnesse of bea-
ly, and the drynke thervnto mesurable, according
to the drynesse or moystnes of the meate. For mo-
che abundance of drynke at meale, drowneth the
meate eaten, and not only letteth conuenient con-
coction in the stomake, but also causeth it to passe
faster than nature requireth, and therfore ingen-
dreth moche fleume, and consequently reumes, &
crudenes in the vaynes, debilitie and slyppernes
of the stomacke, contynuall fluxe, and many o-
ther inconueniences to the body and members.

But to retourne to meales, I thynke breakefa-
stes necessary in this realme, as well for the cau-
ses before rehersed, as also forasmoch as coler be-
inge feruent in the stomacke, sendeth vp fumiosi-
ties vnto the brayne, and causeth head ache, and
sometyme becommeth aduste, and smouldreth in
the stomake, wherby happeneth peryllous sycke-
nes, and somtyme sodayne deathe, if the heate in-
closed in the stomake haue nat other conueniente
matter to work on: this dayly experience proueth,
and naturalle reason confirmeth. Therfore men
and women not aged, hauynge their stomackes
cleane without putrified matter, slepynge mode-
rately and soundly in the nyght, and felinge them
selfe lyght in the morninge, and swete brethed, let
them on goddis name breake their fast: Colerike
men with grosse meate, men of other complexions
with lyghter meate.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - March

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 March.

Yet stercoration2 is seasonable, and you may plant what Trees are left, though it be something of the latest, unless in very backward or moist places.

Now is your chieftest and best time for raising on the Hot-bed Melons, Cucumbers, Gourds, &c. which about the sixth, eighth, or tenth day will be ready for the Seeds; and eight days after prick them forth at distances, according to the Method, &c.

If you will have them later, begin again in ten or twelve days after the first; and so a third time, to make Experiments. Remember to preserve the Hot-bed as much as possible from Rain; for cool him you may easily, if too violent, but not give it a competent heat, if it be spent, without new making.

Graff all this Month, beginning with Pears, and ending with Apples, unless the Spring prove extraordinary forwards.

Now also plant Peaches and Necturines, but cut not off the top roots as you do of other Trees; for 'twill much prejudice them; Prune last years Graffs, and cut off the heads of your budded Stocks. Take off the Litter from your Kernel beds or you may fornear till April.

You may as yet cut Quick-sets and cover such Tree roots as you laid bare in Autumn.

It were profitable now also to top your Rose trees a little with your Knife near a leaf bud, and to prune off the dead and withered branches, keeping them lower than the custom is, and to a single Stem.

Slip, and Set Sage, Rosemary, Lavender, Thyne, &c.

Sow in the beginning Endive, Succory, Leeks, Radish, Beets, Chard-Beet, Scorzonera3, Parsnips, Skirrets4, Parsly, Sorrel, Bugloss, Borage, Chervil, Sellery, Smalladge, Alisanders, &c. Several of which continue many years without renewing, and are most of them to be blanch'd by laying them under Litter and earthing up.

Sow also Lettuce, Onions, Garlick, Orach, Purslain, Turneps, (to have early) monthly Pease, &c. these annually.

Transplant the Beet-chard which you sow'd in August, to have most ample Chards.

Sow also Carrots, Cabbages, Cresses, Fennel, Marjoram, Basil, Tobacco, &c. And transplant any sort of Medicinal Herbs.

Mid-March dress up, and string your Strawberry beds, and uncover your Asparagus, spreading and loosning the Mould about them for their more easie penetrating: Also may you now transplant Asparagus roots to make new Beds.

By this time your Bees sit; keep them close night and morning, if the weather prove ill.

Turn your Fruit in the Room where it lies, but open not yet the windows.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - Stercoration: The act of manuring with dung.

3 - Scorzonera: black salsify.

4 - Skirrets: Sium sisarum, a sort of water-parsnip.