Monday, June 27, 2011

Cooking "In Vain"

As a bit of a disclaimer, I'll start off with a note that the editor of the books mentioned below was kind enough to send me a copy of each. Had he not done so I probably wouldn't have mentioned them, mostly for two reasons: first because I generally don't read historical fiction, and second because I have a lousy memory.

Many many months ago I received an email asking for details about a particular medieval recipe. This happens fairly often, and I try to give as useful an answer as time allows. In this particular case the author was interested in including a few recipes with her most recent book, and was asking about one recipe in particular - Towres. In a brief email exchange, I helped make sense of the Middle English and work out what type of recipe and such, and then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

As it turned out, Barbara Reichmuth Geisler's third book (a prequel) in The Averillian Chronicles includes a few authentic medieval recipes at the end. That combined with the positive reviews of her two earlier books is enough to catch my attention. In spite of my predisposition to Science Fiction and Fantasy, these books are now in my "To Read" stack (that's the short stack, as opposed to my "To Read Someday" stack, which is much bigger).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Graphing Meats

Last week I wrote a post about a news story about an article in Food and History, noting my skepticism towards some claims about medieval beef consumption.

Since then I've added a handful of pages of data to the Statistics from Medieval Cookbooks. That's all well and good, but I wondered if I could graph some of the data and see if it made any trends more apparent. The graphs, along with some comments are below.

First though, I'd like to note again that this data comes from medieval cookbooks, and there is very likely some disconnect between the number of times an ingredient appears and the frequency of consumption. Second, the data set is small and there seems to be a lot of "noise" in the sample. Third, I am not a statistician. That being said, let's take a look at the graphs.

Fish / Seafood

In this graph it looks like there may be a slight downward trend in fish consumption overall. There's a pretty clear downward trend for France, and a slightly smaller one for England.


I think the data point for Du fait de cuisine in this graph is an outlier and should be ignored. Everything else looks like a reasonably flat trend line.


The decreasing trend here is pretty clear, even if Du fait de cuisine is an anomaly. What's more, the trend for the English cookbooks is very clear.


Finally, the crux of the matter, there appears to be a rising trend for beef, with a very low starting point. The spike from Du fait de cuisine is echoed in Le Recueil de Riom, so it could be valid. When England and France are taken separately, the rate of increase is higher for France.

Overall, this supports the claim that pork consumption in Europe declined during the 14th and 15th centuries, but it still doesn't do much for the ideas that beef was the most popular type of meat in France and England, or that it appears in Viandier or Forme of Curye more often than other meats.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Uncertainty and Doubt and Beef

On Monday I came across an article referring to a paper on medieval beef consumption.  This article contains the following eyebrow-raising statements:

One of the key conclusions of this article is that cattle and sheep were the main sources of meat throughout Western Europe, and that consumption of pork went into general decline during the 14th and 15th centuries, which López attributes to changes in farming after the Black Death.
... in northern France and England beef was the most popular type of meat.
... medieval cookbooks, like the Viandier and the Forme of Curye, had beef in their recipes more often than other meats.

I haven't yet read the paper that the article is referring to - "Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities during the Late Middle Ages: A Contemporary Study", Food and History, Vol.8 No.1 (2010) - but I'm certainly trying to get a hold of a copy.

What makes me question the quotes above (aside from the fact that the economics of the situation make heavy beef consumption unlikely) is that it doesn't mesh with the statistics I've extracted from various medieval cookbooks.

First, the statement that beef appears in the recipes in Viandier and Forme of Curye more than any other meat is just plain wrong.  Beef appears in 3% of the reciped in Forme of Curye, which is plainly less than the 13% of recipes that contain pork.  In fact, beef is sixth on the list in descending order of frequency - it appears just below rabbit (4%).  Fish / Seafood has the top spot, appearing in 22% of the recipes.

Beef does appear higher up in the statistics from Viandier.  There, it's in the second spot with 14%.  It's still below fish / seafood with 29% though.  What's more, poultry (13%) and pork (10%) aren't very far behind.

Note that there is some wiggle-room in these statistics.  For example, I've lumped together a lot of different kinds of aquatic life into the category "fish / seafood", and "pork" includes "ham", "bacon", and any part of a pig.  Still, browsing through the recipes I still find way more references to "pork" than "beef" in Forme of Curye.  Additionally, the number of recipes for a type of meat doesn't necessarily correspond to how often that meat was consumed.

The statement that beef was the most popular type of meat is possibly true, but the data I've seen doesn't support it.  In the dozen cookbooks I've pulled information from, only three (Ancient Cookery, The Good Housewife's Jewell & Ouverture de Cuisine) have beef appearing most often in recipes.  Fish / seafood has the top spot in the vast majority.  I suppose if you don't consider fish to be meat (e.g. as the church dictated) then beef's position improves, but it's still not the most common going by the numbers.

Lastly, the statement about cattle and sheep being the main sources of meat seems to be a real stretch.  Before 1500, sheep / mutton recipes are not that common - generally appearing in less than 10% of the recipes in French and English cookbooks (Du fait de cuisine being the exception).

There are all sorts of possibilities here.  It could be that the paper's author compiled the data differently than I did, and that lead to different conclusions.  It could also be that the article, which was written for a popular (sort of) audience, misinterpreted the author's conclusions.  Either way, I want to see the actual paper.  Something's off somewhere, and I want to make sure it isn't me.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Thoughts on "Medieval Japan"

Every now and then I get asked for recipes or information about medieval cooking outside of Europe, and each time it happens I end up mulling it over for days trying to work out an answer.  I suppose I could say that I focus on Europe (and sometimes I do), but that answer is an evasion.  It doesn't address the question of why I don't research medieval cooking from other cultures.

The first problematical point rests in what is meant by "medieval".  Webster's defines the word as "of, relating to, or in the style of the Middle Ages," and goes on to define the middle ages as:

"... the time in European history between classical antiquity and the Italian renaissance (from about 500 a.d. to about 1350): sometimes restricted to the later part of this period (after 1100) and sometimes extended to 1450 or 1500."
This goes back to the origin of the word, which is from the Latin medium aevum - the middle age, or the time between the classical era and the Renaissance, and most definitions I've seen of "medieval" look something like this.

Europe during this time period had a surprisingly consistent culture.  Yes, there were stylistic and political differences for different regions and countries within Europe, but there was also an amazing degree of uniformity in terms of technology, clothing, and (most significantly) food.

These definitions are rather Roman-centered.  They clearly make sense when applied to Italy: it's the time between the fall of the Roman empire and the Renaissance.  With the extension of years they also make sense when applied to northern Europe (England, France, etc.) as it took much longer for the Renaissance to percolate that far north.  It's a bit of a stretch to get it to mesh with places on the edge of Europe though.

When someone then asks about cooking in medieval Japan (or China, or India, or Central America, etc.) I'm first stuck trying to figure out what "medieval Japanese cooking" means.  Are they asking about Japanese cooking between the years 500 to 1350?  What about 500 to 1500?  Maybe some other date range?  To the best of my (limited) knowledge of Japan, there isn't that much difference in the culture and cooking in Japan between 1000 and 1800, so just where is the dividing line?

Now if they asked about cooking in "feudal Japan", or "India before the British empire", or "pre-1500 Central America," those are concepts I can deal with.  Of course my answer would simply be something like "I just don't study that."  I also suspect that answer would be no more surprising than the response to a car dealer's response to "Why don't you sell bicycles?"

It's not that I don't like Chinese or Indian or other cuisines - as my somewhat padded outline will attest, I like a wide variety of foods.  It's not even that I don't like the history of the other places.  It's just that medieval European cuisine is, in itself, a distinctive cooking system, and since I don't have time to research everything about food and cooking to any real depth, I choose just that one part.