Monday, November 28, 2011

TV Interview

Last week I had a brief interview with "Goodday Sacramento" on the Sacramento CBS affiliate.  The fact that this was my first TV appearance meant that I had no idea what to expect.  It turns out that for morning news shows the operating word is "fast" - I don't think I was on the air for more than a minute.  Obviously that's not enough time to go into any significant depth on a subject (and I know I can get awfully wordy), so I thought I'd take some time to give more leisurely answers here for the questions I was asked.

The first question was along the lines of "Why cook medieval recipes?"  My answer was that one could just as easily ask, "Why cook Chinese recipes?" or "Why cook Indian?"  Medieval European cuisine is a unique style of cooking, with its own balance of flavors.  I also noted that the flavors of Medieval English cooking are surprisingly similar to those of modern Indian, leaving out the capsicum peppers.

In medieval England - especially in the 14th and 15th centuries - spices like cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and saffron were used, especially in meat dishes.  The combinations of these spices gives a flavor that is very similar to that in modern cooking in the Mediterranean and India.  On a side note, the word "curry" itself comes from Middle-English, and means "cook".

I was then asked about how hard it is to find recipes.  I said that when I started researching, 20 years ago, it was very difficult.  You needed to be near the right library or know the right people.  Now many of the texts are freely available online, and I have a list of links for them on the website.

This has really changed medieval cooking research an incredible amount.  Not only are libraries now putting images of the original manuscripts online, but researchers (both amateur and professional) are transcribing and translating the documents into multiple languages.  In just the past five years the number of medieval recipe books that are readily accessible to the average geek has gone from a handful to hundreds.  Medieval English and French cookbooks have even been translated into languages like Russian and Japanese.

Finally, I was asked about Thanksgiving dinner.  Given that they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving in medieval Europe (for the most part they still don't, but I've heard that's changing), what medieval foods could be served in it's place?  I responding with a menu that most would find surprising:  honey mustard barbecue chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and peach pie.

I unintentionally described this as a "traditional menu", but it's more accurately a "menu of traditional foods".  No, I have no record of any medieval cook serving exactly that meal, but all those foods can clearly be traced to England in the 14th century.  I often use that fact to pull people out of the mindset that medieval food was all about huge chunks of roast meat and tankards of wine.  The recipes we have from back then are surprisingly sophisticated and exhibit a wide range of flavors.

There is a copy of the video online.

From a technical viewpoint, I have a few observations.  First is that I look and sound like a total goob.  I'd like to think that it's the fault of the camera angle and the cheap microphone built into the computer - please don't tell me otherwise and ruin my happy delusion.  If I should end up with another interview via Skype, I'll make sure the ambient lighting is better.  The room was fairly well lit about 15 minutes before the start of the interview, but it then clouded up outside and things got too dark.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Levels of Medievalness

Whether it is dinner at a "medieval-themed" restaurant, a feast held by a historic recreation group, or a home-cooked dinner made for a school project (or even just for the fun of it), a question that might arise is "How medieval is this meal?"

Really, it's a very tricky thing to work out. There's all sorts of things that can enter into it, including such diverse elements as the type and source of the ingredients, the atmosphere (both ambiance and air quality) of the dining area, and even the time of year in relation to the foods served. In fact, considering all the extended variables, I suspect the answer to "How medieval is this meal?" is "Not very."

However, there are some aspects that are more easily controlled and which have a much larger impact on the ... medievalness? ... medievalosity? ... medievalery? ... ok, authenticity.  Let's look at them in order from least medieval to most medieval.

1. Medieval Ingredients

There are a number of foods that weren't available in medieval Europe. Some are things from the Americas (e.g. turkey, potatoes, capsicum peppers, peanuts, vanilla, chocolate) and weren't imported into Europe until after 1500.  Some are from other places (e.g. bananas, tea, coffee, yams), but were still not in common use in Europe.  Some are things that were invented well after 1500 (e.g. baking powder, mayonnaise).

The presence of any of these marks a meal as being modern.  It doesn't matter what recipe was used or how the food was cooked, they're simply not medieval.

2. Real Recipes

Even if all the ingredients used to make the meal were available in medieval Europe, that doesn't mean the resulting dishes would have been familiar to a medieval European.  Bread, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and pickles are all reasonably medieval foods, but there's no account of any medieval cook ever making a cheeseburger (or any other type of sandwich, for that matter).

Fortunately there are a large number of medieval European cookbooks available, both in print and for free online. What's more, many have been translated into several different languages (for the benefit of those who don't read Middle-French or whatever), and there are even recipes that have been worked out with modern measurements and instructions.

3. Menu Consistency

Given both medieval ingredients and recipes, the consistency of the menu becomes an issue. By this I don't mean that the menu is too runny or somesuch, but rather that the individual dishes on the menu make sense to be served together.

While a World Fusion dinner can be fun, most people would be confused to be served a dinner menu of curried beef, Szechuan vegetables, tamales, poi, and hot chocolate. It's too strange a mix of cultures and cuisines.  The differences within regions and time periods in medieval European cultures can be very subtle, but they are there.  Twelfth century English food is very different from sixteenth century German.

Sometimes there are menus along with the recipes in many of the medieval cookbooks, which makes this part a lot easier. However there is still a lot of uncertainty to this aspect, and it's a great area for research.

It is only when the ingredients are medieval, the recipes are medieval, and the menu is medieval, that other aspects become important (like the apple variety, the quality of the spices, the shape of the serving vessel, the way the food is served, the color of the walls).

It's also important to work things in the above order.  Using non-medieval ingredients or modern recipes is kind of like building a ten-million dollar home and skimping on the quality of the materials or workmanship.  The final product simply won't hold together.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dwarven Cookbook now available!

It took a bit longer than expected, but the book is now available online. The proof copies looked really nice and Stephanie and I are happy with the way it turned out.

A Dwarven Cookbook: Recipes from the Kingdom of Kathaldûm
Stephanie Drummonds and Daniel Myers
Paperback: 132 pages
ISBN-10: 0615549616
ISBN-13: 978-0615549613
Price: $8.95

We're going to take a bit of time to work on other projects, but we've already got plans for a follow-up cookbook of halfling recipes.