Monday, August 30, 2010

Historical Cooking Learning curve

I grew up steeped in history (check out this entry for more on that) especially “daily life” type history so popular at museums and among historians of the 1970s and 1980s.  I was not yet out of college when I got my first museum job (entries about that here and here.) which involved talking about a lot of women’s daily tasks, of which food production and cooking played a major role. So when reading history books or thinking about history I have gravitated toward the study of food as a window into whatever time and place I was studying. However, that does not mean I did a lot of cooking.

I don’t cook a lot in my mundane life either. Usually by the time I think to cook I am too hungry to take the time to make something. I can cook, and I don’t mind doing it, but I lived alone for a number of years, then Stephen and I moved in together and he actually likes to cook, so I let him do most of that while my chore is cleaning up after his kitchen experiments.

So when Stephen started talking about doing a historical encampment and I volunteered to cook, I was embarking on a very new sort of endeavor. I had read a lot, I had attended a lot of museum workshops, I had even assisted at some of those workshops, but my experience level was negligible. I think I fooled everyone except Stephen into thinking I was old hat at all this. I had a couple of historical cooking books, a book on how to cook over a fire, and years of camping experience. Two other members of the guild volunteered to cook as well, and we practiced a few times at rehearsals before we actually had to prepare a meal for the entire group to eat.

The first thing that I attempted to cook was made of historical ingredients, but it was a modern recipe: Alton Brown’s Lamb and Barley Stew. I watched the Good Eats episode about barley several times, and I even made the dish at home on our modern stove before I attempted it over the cookfire at rehearsals. Stephen taught me how to cut up the leg of lamb and suggested an addition of fennel to give it that sweet and spicy flavor so common among medieval recipes. It was a huge hit with the guild. The next things that I cooked were from the book: The Magic of Fire. While the recipes were not necessarily historical, most of them were based on incredibly old styles of cooking. So I string roasted a chicken, ash roasted some onions, and made a couple of fritattas over the course of the run.

Das Geld Fahnlein preparing for the mid-day meal.
I did attempt some traditional medieval recipes as well. We had 9 days of faire during which we had to provide a meal, I did not want to repeat anything more than twice during that time. I used a recipe for buttered cabbage, and one for Apple Moye out of the book Sallets, Humbles and Shrewsbury Cakes and I made a Garlic Walnut sauce for fish out of The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. These books were great for me because they had modern versions of the recipes as well as the original Medieval texts. The modern version included exact ingredient lists and measurements as well as cooking times. They were written with the idea the recipes would be cooked in a modern kitchen with things like food processors and ovens, so I had to pick recipes that did not call for those things, or alternate the recipes to use renaissance tools and cooking fires. Some recipes were more successful than others, but none of them were complete disasters. And as far as I know no one starved.

In the spring I had another brief chance to cook, we were going to attend Marching Trough Time in Maryland in April and we needed to do some cooking, but since we were only taking two vehicles, we did not want to bring the entire kitchen set-up. I made and froze a number of things to bring with us, so all we would have to do was heat them up over the fire, and not actually do a lot of chopping, butchering and prep-work. I made the lamb stew again, then I made an herb soup out of The Medieval Kitchen book. I also really wanted to make a Pea Pottage. As one of the quintessentially “old timey” foods, pea porridge is one of those foods that just about everyone calls to mind when they picture an old-timey family huddled around a smoky fireplace. I know it is a horrible cliché, and that not everyone ate peas porridge all the time. But it was eaten with a fair degree of frequency, and could easily be cooked up ahead of time and frozen. I looked up the recipe in a couple of my medieval cook books, but there were a lot of conflicting directions. There were too many choices on how it could be cooked, seasoned, and thickened. I got a package of split peas at the grocery store (because whole dried peas are not that easy to find) and thought about just following the recipe on the back of the bag, but I wanted to do better than that. Finally, the day I was going cook up the peas I was checking some of my favorite blogs, and a blog that usually concentrates on 17th and 18th century cooking had for her most recent post a renaissance era recipe, a recipe for Pease Pottage! The author of the blog got the recipe from a book on King Henry the VIII’s  kitchen at Hampton court that she was reading. She wrote out the renaissance version with the old text, then wrote it out in modern English. There were no ingredient amounts or cooking times, but I had the back of the bag to tell me how much water to use and how long it took to cook the peas until tender. The transcription of the original was just what I needed, and it is exactly what I made when I went home. I did cheat a little, since I was preparing it at home, and used an immersion blender to smooth out some of the soup. I will not have that option when I make the whole thing in camp this fall, I’ll have to come up with a renaissance smoothing method, I’ve already got some ideas.

This is Part 2 of a series of entries on Historical Cooking. Read Part 1 here. Part 3 coming soon!

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