Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Supersizers Eat Medieval

I recently watched "Supersizers Eat Medieval" ... I know .... I really should do this to myself. Every time I go in hoping for a realistic portrayal of medieval food, and almost every time I'm disappointed.

This time wasn't as bad as it could have been. While they did repeat and reinforce some of the usual myths, they did get some things reasonably close to right. Below are some comments on things that were said, done, or shown in the episode - in no particular order.


The show did depict the use of trenchers as a sort of disposable plate, and noted that they would have gone to the poor when the diner was through with them. That's reasonably accurate, though trencher use was not prominent until the late 15th century - which is much earlier than most of the other stuff depicted in the program.

It's also worth noting that, from the accounts I've read, trenchers were made from three-day-old bread (rye?) specifically baked for that purpose. One description of trencher loaves has them as being rectangular, flat, and about 4" x 6" in size. This is in contrast to the show's hosts cutting slices off of a round, apparently fresh loaf.

Lack of Vegetables

Where are the veggies? Contrary to popular belief, and to what was depicted in the program, the wealthy did eat vegetables (and the poor did eat meat, but that's a whole different matter.

Size of Meals

There is definitely something strange going on about the size of the meals - but it's not necessarily the fault of the program. Even medieval accounts had each diner sometimes receiving absurd portions of meat (e.g. 10 pounds). I suspect a large portion of that was passed on to the poor as an act of charity, or it was shared with members of the diner's household, or some such.


The popular belief that nobody ever drank water in the middle ages is repeated. It's simply not true. We can thank the Victorians for this myth.


I have no idea where the bit about spitting in the beer came from. If someone can point me to a reliable source, I'll accept it (after all, that's one of the ways they (used to?) make fermented beverages from corn in South and Central America (e.g. "chicha").

Average Lifespan

This is one of those ideas that seems to be unkillable. People are always confusing "average life expectancy" with "maximum life span". Yes, the life expectancy of people in medieval Europe was pretty low (e.g. 30 years), but that doesn't mean that no one lived long enough to get old, nor does it mean that 35 was considered old.

The average life expectancy was brought way down due to infant mortality, but if an individual survived childhood then they stood a decent chance of making it to their 60s.


At one point in the program, they make a big deal about how nasty peacock tastes, with the implication that medieval people had to be nuts to eat it. It was relatively common though to use a peacock's feathers to dress a capon - thus making a good tasting bird look really fancy. I've also seen a recipe in a medieval French source that called for the roasted peacock to be dressed with the capon's feathers - not to be enjoyed by the noble, but to be served to some unsuspecting diner as a prank. The implication is that medieval Europeans didn't like how peacock tasted either.


At one point in the program they are served turkey. Since turkey is a new world bird, it would not have been available for most of the middle ages (possible for any of it, depending on how you define "medieval").

Gilded Gingerbread

This is a strange one. I've seen lots of recipes for gingerbread, but none that call for gilding. There are recipes for sugarpaste that might have been gilded, and I think there is one (late medieval) case where sugarpaste was called "gingerbread" (it was flavored with ginger). I'm curious where they got this.


At one point they translate "leach" as "licking". Um ... no. Leach (or leshe) is "slice" - both as a verb and a noun.


Marzipan is described as being expensive. This is sort-of true, in that it is made from almonds which were imported, and that (in 1438 for example) a pound of almonds cost almost twice what an unskilled laborer would be paid for a days work. However given what was also being bought for medieval feasters, that's not that extravagant. Marzipan shows up a *lot* in medieval cookbooks.

Barnacle Geese

The stories about what was and wasn't considered to be "fish" in the middle ages are quirky and fun, and it's tempting to say "Look how daft they were!" However I'm inclined to think that the whole bit about beaver tails, barnacle geese, and the like were just a sort of culinary "technicality" to get around religious dietary restrictions.

For this particular claim, the Wikipedia page on Barnacle Geese has the following note:

At the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), Pope Innocent III explicitly prohibited the eating of these geese during Lent, arguing that despite their unusual reproduction, they lived and fed like ducks and so were of the same nature as other birds.

Like I said, it could have been worse. They didn't bring up rotten meat at all.


Tomas said...

The earliest turkey recipe I've found was early 1590s. Though it did show up in England in the 1520s. Though even at 1520s it's Renaissance, not Medieval. But if it was Supersizers Eat Medieval & Renaissance then it would get a pass :).

I'm very glad they didn't bring up the rotten meat one. It's right up there with the never bathing one for me.

Alena said...

I was at a lecture recently given by an English gentleman who remarked that when British colonists got to the new world and saw these huge fowl they named them turkeys because they looked like a bird that they had back home of the same name! Apparently, before the North American bird got to be popular Guinea Fowl (originally from Africa, but available in Europe) were called "turkeys", but the practice of calling them turkeys died out when the North American bird became more popular. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and that seems to be the currently accepted history of the turkey.

Doc said...

In her article "Unjoynt that Turkey and Serve it Forth" (see URL below), Johnna Holloway quotes an English text from 1678 as saying, "In English they are called Turkeys, because they are thought to have been first brought to us out of Turkey."

Before the introduction of the turkey to England (and concurrent as well), the African guinea-fowl was also referred to as "turkey" which can (and does) cause confusion.

On a side note, the medieval French name for guinea-fowl was "Coq d'Inde" or "Indian chicken" - apparently they thought it came from India.

I can check with Johnna - she's done quite a bit of research on the subject and seems to know the OED like the back of her hand - but everything I've read supports that the name came from the believed place of origin.

"Unjoynt that Turkey and Serve it Forth"

Unknown said...

Distantly related question - if saffron is so rare now, it must have been then, too. How come SO MANY recipes in the medieval cookbooks I'm just starting to get into call for saffron?

Don't tell me this was common amongst the general public??

llama256 said...

I found this post while trying to figure out how turkeys got into a medieval feast. Should they have used geese? Also, I have heard of goose barnacles but not barnacle geese. What?

Doc said...

Goose, peacock, swan, heron, and other large birds make frequent appearances in medieval feast menus, so any of them would have been appropriate. Really it depends on what specific time period they're trying to re-create. That's why I encourage starting with actual medieval menus and recipes rather than attempting to somehow make a modern meal into a medieval one.

Barnacle geese are a specific species of goose. At one point in the middle ages some people claimed that barnacle geese grew on trees so they could be eaten during lent, but the church essentially said, "No. Stop being silly."