Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Link from NPR!

So I'm looking at the statistics for the website and I very quickly notice that I'm getting a lot more hits than usual - about double the traffic. There's one URL at NPR.org that shows up a lot in the logs. I check it and sure enough, there's a small link to my Frumenty recipe partway down the page.

(the culprit)

This is the coolest link since I got one from the BBC website!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Solstice Dinner

For the past couple of years I've cooked a big dinner on December 21st to celebrate the winter solstice. Partly it's a traditional way to observe the changing seasons of the year, and another special thing to enjoy over the holidays. The biggest reason though is so I can cook a fancy holiday dinner the way I want without making any additional fuss and mess on Christmas eve or Christmas day.

The menu hasn't settled down yet, but this year I decided it should be a counterpoint to Thanksgiving. I've selected mostly medieval English dishes and the focus is on old-world foods. Here's what I've got so far:

Roast Goose with Sauce Madame - The goose is stuffed with fruit and herbs. After roasting, the stuffing is removed and used to make a fruit sauce. This is my first time making this recipe (and for that matter, my first time cooking goose), so we'll see how it goes.

Wastels y-Farced - Since the goose isn't going to have a bread-based stuffing, I thought I'd make this old favorite. It's essentially a steamed, savory bread pudding.

Plum Pudding - While plum puddings aren't at all medieval, I've become quite addicted to this particular English tradition. The holidays just wouldn't be complete without it.

The only thing I still can't decide on is a vegetable. I've thought about Brussels sprouts, but somehow they just don't click. I'll have to make up my mind soon.

If I have time, I'm going to make some gyngerbrede too. Not for dinner or dessert, but as a treat for during the day and with mulled cider later that evening.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Food Related Painting of the Week

Supper at Emmaus
Marco Marziale, 1506

Supper at Emmaus
(from the Web Gallery of Art)

This painting illustrates one of the problems I have to face: early medieval artwork was usually much more concerned with religion than it was with food. I can find heaps of paintings and illuminations depicting religious figures, but very few that have any kind of accurate depiction of medieval food (I almost chose a painting of Herod's banquet where John the Baptists' head was being served on a platter, but it just wasn't food-related enough).

At any rate, there actually is a bit of interesting food-related stuff going on in this picture. Most prominent of course are the oddly shaped loaves of bread. I haven't seen kidney-shaped loaves before. Each loaf has a strange little dimple on the side as well - perhaps it's a baker's mark.

In front of each diner is a rectangular trencher, apparently made of metal. Bread trenchers were increasingly popular for feasts in the later 14th and early 15th centuries, but may have fallen out of fashion by the time this was painted. I'm not sure exactly what;s on these trenchers. It looks kind of like the calamari I get at the local sushi place, but I kind of doubt that. The ones on Jesus' trencher look like uniform slices of something. Meat? Sippets?

Aside from the trencher and a spiffy knife for each diner, the remaining items on the table are all rather plain. Jesus's bowl, the pitcher, and the glasses are certainly of nice quality (metal and glass), but are not ornate. The glasses don't even have the stereotypical prunts (bumps added to the outside to make the glass less slippery). The possible exception is the salt cellar in front of Jesus, which looks like it's made of gold or brass and appears to have some decoration around the side.

That's it for the food though - just bread, wine, and some mysterious things on trenchers.

The sawhorse table is rather interesting of course, as are the stools at either end. I still need to get around to making a couple of tables like this, and maybe stools too. Others may be fascinated by the clothes, hats, rosaries, belt pouches, napkins, boot closures, and the fact that the fold lines are so visible on the table cloth, but not me. I didn't notice those things at all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thoughts on Misconceptions

I don't normally let a short story get to me, but one I finished reading yesterday is still bugging me. I won't mention the title or author's name as they're actually irrelevant to my point here. It's not that the story was particularly bad in terms of writing style or plot. I probably would have enjoyed the thing if it hadn't been for one small problem: the author had no idea what he was talking about.

Line many stories, the tale centered upon a person from a primitive culture being taken to a more developed one. This is all well and fine, except that instead of learning what primitive human cultures are/were really like, the tale's author simply repeated every myth about "naked savages" he'd ever read or seen in movies regardless of whether they made sense. Ugh! I did laugh when he actually used the phrase "naked savage" when the main character saw himself in a mirror, but it wasn't a good laugh so much as a shocked laugh of disbelief.

So where's the medieval angle here? Well oddly enough, most of the myths the author perpetuated are often applied to medieval European culture as well. There seems to be some need in humanity to assume that life in any given time of the past must have been shorter, simpler, and nastier than it is now. I'll address some of the specific myths in the story from the viewpoint of a historian and medievalist, but the answers pretty much apply to all human cultures.


Some cultures do indeed bathe more than others, but if a human is going to live long enough to breed then it must maintain some level of hygiene. Medieval Europeans bathed, and it was more than once a year. No, they probably didn't smell like roses or lemons, but neither do some of the people I deal with on a daily basis. They did understand the importance of washing their hands, cleaning their teeth, and the like. Dirt and sweat are one thing, filth and vermin are another.


Not everyone lived their entire life on the edge of starvation. Yes, there were periods of famine in the middle ages, but there were also time were people had enough to eat. While they didn't have modern agriculture or preservation techniques, they were generally capable of getting enough food from their lands and storing enough of it to get through the winter.


While the sum of human knowledge has increased, the level of human intelligence has not changed for many thousands of years. In other words, medieval people were just as smart as modern people, but they didn't have as much information as we do. There were geniuses and idiots in ancient Rome, and they were much like their modern counterparts.


Live was not simpler in medieval Europe. The merchants there/then had already invented things like insurance and stock futures. They had bank accounts, brokers, overseas manufacturing, fraud, cartels, and everything else we expect from modern business. People - even in the working or farming classes - didn't spend all their time at work. They had fashion trends, theater, religious debates, wedding celebrations, and even fast food. It seems that humans will always make things as complicated as possible given their environment in order to keep from being bored. (Don't believe me? Check out Polynesian cultures)

So yes, I'm sure there were some people in medieval Europe who were stupid and filthy, who worked all of their waking hours, and lived their entire lives on the edge of starvation. However I'm also sure that I could find such people living in modern cities as well. Their lives are not (and were not) typical.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Food Related Painting of the Week

Vincenzo Campi, 1580s

(from the Web Gallery of Art)

Another late-medieval (depending on your viewpoint) painting by Vincenzo Campi. This one depicts a (assumed) fish merchant.

The group of people on the left (family?) immediately catch the eye. The man and woman are both holding bowls of what I assume are cooked beans (see Annibale Carracci's The Beaneater). Nice, simple bowls. Partly obscured view of the spoon the woman's holding. It's hard to tell what's on the table in front of them. I think the blocky, rock-shaped things are pieces of bread. It looks to me like there are dead mice on the plate, but I'm pretty sure that's not it. At the woman's feet is a pitcher with a bowl on top. My guess is that the bowl is being used a drinking vessel, and is filled with some of the wine (or whatever) that's in the pitcher.

On the other side, a young woman is dumping a large bucket of fresh (live?) fish onto the table for sorting. I'm not sure what the stick-like things just in front of her are. Next to her is a big, beautiful copper kettle with a knife.

The variety of seafood in the picture is very impressive. The big guy in the center is a sturgeon. There are at least a half-dozen other species of fish, along with scallops, oysters, clams, and crab. There's also a turtle under the table. Conspicuously absent are skates and rays - they usually show up in these sorts of paintings (see Pieter Aertsen's Market Scene). The one that really gets me though is the starfish at the bottom center. I don't think I've ever seen a recipe for starfish in a medieval cookbook, and from what I remember of biology class there isn't anything in a starfish that is edible. Are they just there as bycatch? Were they used for soup stock? Did Campi just include them because they look cool?

Another thing to check on as soon as I get a time machine.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Sometimes I feel awfully scatterbrained - I'm well aware that organization is not my strong suit (Oh, and if you've emailed me and I didn't get back to you, it's probably because I was distracted by something, so feel free to email again and nag until you get a response - I promise I won't get annoyed). At any rate, I thought I'd make a list of the current projects I'm working on in the hopes it motivates me to finish a few of them off.

The Projects (in no particular order):
  • writing a novel (gothic horror, about 60% done)
  • transcription of Kalendarium Hortense (ongoing)
  • Halidai's Instant Feast
  • image processing for "A Noble Boke off Cookry"
  • medieval prayer book (in Middle-English)
  • book/paper of medieval scientific knowledge
  • transcription of Middle-English cookbook
  • construction of various props for RPGs
  • about 100 books to be read
  • menus for 3 different events
  • outfitting a medieval field kitchen

Ugh! That's a lot for someone who still has a day job, and there's a bunch more that I haven't included. I need a staff to follow me around and complete things, kind of like Martha Stewart had - before she went to jail.

No more new projects until I get these done - and this time I meant it!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kalendarium Hortense - December

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 December.

Prune and nail Wall fruit2, (which yet you may defer a Month or two longer) and Standard-trees.

You may now plant Vines, &c.

Also Stocks for Graffing, &c.

Sow, as yet, Pomace of Cider-pressings to raise Nurseries; and set all sorts of Kernels, Stones, &c.

Sow for early Beans and Pease, but take heed of the Frosts; therefore surest to defer it till after Christmas, unless the Winter promise very moderate.

All this Month you may continue to Trench Ground, and dung it, to be ready for Borders, or the planting of Fruit-trees, &c.

Either late in this Month, or in January, prune and cut off all your Vine shoots to the very Root, save one or two of the stoutest, to be left with three or four eyes of young Wood. This for the Vineyard.

Now seed your weak Stocks.

Turn and refresh your Autumnal Fruit, lest it taint, and open the Windows where it lies, in a clear and serene day.

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

2 - Wall fruit: trees trained against a wall.