Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Learning Process

Let's face it, being proven wrong is embarrassing.

I try to view it all as a valuable learning experience - something that builds character and provides new insights and all that - but the truth is that it's still a bite in the butt.  The thing is, in order to make any kind of impact, in order to do any kind of worthwhile research, it is absolutely necessary to make some assumptions.  That means putting your butt on the line, and that means it's just waiting to get bitten.  Ok, enough of that metaphor.  How about some examples?

At some point on a cooking mailing list I noted the immense variability of Brasica oleracea (the species that includes broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage), and stated that since cauliflower was a corruption of cole flower, medieval cauliflower probably wasn't anything like the modern stuff.  Of course about 5 milliseconds later someone posted a link to a medieval painting of cauliflower that showed it to be very modern looking, and also showed me to be completely wrong.

Detail from "Market Woman with Vegetable Stall"
Pieter Aertsen, 1567.

Need another example?  A few years back in the medieval cooking re-creation community (read: geeks) it was pretty well established that there was no evidence to support the eating of bread spread with butter (other than a strange line in one medieval English text about how strange it was that those weird Huguenots ate butter on their bread), and since bread and butter never appeared on any of the available medieval menus then it probably wasn't eaten.  This statement was made on one of the cooking mailing lists (maybe by me, maybe not - I don't remember).  The result?  Yup.  About 3 milliseconds later someone responded with the results of a quick search of medieval documents showing many many such references.  People in the middle ages did eat bread and butter, they just didn't put it on the menu and apparently didn't need a recipe to make it.

Recently, a person I greatly admire posted to the same freakin' cooking mailing list that she didn't think the (modern-style) fruit preserves commonly represented as being medieval were anything like what was served in the middle ages.  This one really hurt.  I regularly make quince marmalade - incredibly yummy stuff, and very popular - and I've been promoting it as being medieval (which I thought it was).  There was much discussion and the general consensus was (is?) that the modern-looking fruit preserves probably came about in the 17 century.  The stuff before that was either whole fruits in sugar syrup, or something more like Turkish delight.

Oh bother.

I'm finally coming to terms with this.  I'll have to make a couple of changes to the recipe I have online, and make it clear whenever I serve the quince marmalade that it's late medieval at best.

The bigger problem though was that I'd never made the Turkish-delight-like stuff.  However, over the holidays I managed to correct this serious omission.  The result was a plate of diamond shaped slices of very firm quince jelly.  It still had that wonderful quince flavor, and now had the added bonus of being finger food!  It also wasn't any harder to make than quince marmalade (though it doesn't last nearly as long).

Yummy Medieval Quince Stuff

The lesson?  Well, one possible lesson is "Stay away from the cooking mailing lists!"  More importantly though, I'm reminded that researching medieval cooking is a process of successive approximation.  We make the best guess we can, and when new (or old) information comes along we improve upon that guess, even if it means letting go of some dearly held belief.

1 comment:

Doc said...

Minor update:

The source I used for making the Turkish-delightful-quince-stuff comes from Menager de Paris (France, late 14th c.) and can be found at the following URL.

Interestingly enough, when I re-read it I come up with multiple interpretations. One of which is what I made, but another possibility is something more preserve-like.

I guess the confusion continues...