28 May 2013

Each from his private bowl

No, Food52.  No.  Whatever this menu you posted is, it is not a 'medieval feast.'

I'm trying to be fair here. I know they're trying to promote recipes on the Food52 web site. It looks like a nice menu. The recipes look delicious. Had it just been presented as a dinner party menu, I would have applauded the thoughtful combination of dishes and moved on.

But they called it a 'mediaeval feast,' with roasted potatoes and a cake for dessert. As we all know, there were no potatoes in mediaeval Europe. Nor was there baking powder. It's possible that onion confit existed in some form, but I've read most of the major European cookbooks from the Middle Ages and don't remember seeing anything like that.

And that's really what brings out the pedant in me. It's not just the history. It's that mediaeval cuisine is a distinct thing, just as Indian or Chinese cuisine are distinct things.  There were mediaeval aesthetics, mediaeval theories of health and nutrition, and regional tastes underpinning that cuisine, just as there are Chinese aesthetics, theories of health and nutrition, and regional tastes underpinning Chinese cuisine.

You wouldn't make a fish stew with supermarket-grade curry powder, apples, and north Atlantic cod and call it Indian. Indeed, I suspect if you tried, you would be soundly thrashed for it, and rightly so, as it doesn't reflect the Indian culinary aesthetic at all. The chickpea soup that opens the 'mediaeval feast' is a beautiful thing, but it doesn't reflect the mediaeval culinary aesthetic.

There is a large and very accessible body of research into mediaeval foodways and cooking, both in print and on the web. Medieval Cookery is one very good online resource, and if you Google the phrase 'medieval recipes,' your first two search hits will be links to it. It would have been great to see a major food site take a thoughtful look at historic cooking. It's not surprising, but still disappointing, that they didn't.

Thomas Merton


  1. Back in the days of my youth, I went to an even billed as a medieval feast. The menu was surprisingly historically accurate (according to an historian friend), and I liked the fact that we had limited eating utensils i.e. pretty much only a knife and our fingers and teeth.

    Two years ago a friend made a Thanksgiving dinner with only native North American foodstuffs. It took a *lot* of research and planning, perhaps more so because she is from CA and didn't grow up with all the same history as I did in the North East. The dinner turned out very Mexican. :)

    1. I'll bet that was an awesome Thanksgiving dinner.

      And yeah, mediaeval food! fingers and knives! strange sauces! It's great stuff. Though the author of the blog post at Food52 responded to me in the comments and said she looked at "a bunch" of real mediaeval recipes and none of them were delicious enough to share.

      That kinda thing just makes me sad.

  2. I'm glad you left the (polite) comment you did. I don't understand the point of promoting a "medieval" feast when the people in question don't really know what "medieval" means or what sorts of food people ate back then. It's just strange.

    1. I was just going to let it go until I saw the comment about substituting turnips for the potatoes in the roasted potato dish. Because ... augh ... no.

      When I was active in re-enactment circles, we talked a lot about aesthetics -- what made something look mediaeval even when it was made by a modern person. Things like the scale of a pattern on a textile or how a sleeve was set into a garment seem small but really affect how you see the garment. The same for cooking -- not just which spices, but how and in what combinations make the difference between dishes in, say, modern India and mediaeval Constantinople.

      And the research is all so accessible! That's the really frustrating thing.


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