Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Historical Cooking: The Steep Part of the Curve

Detail of a camp kitchen from a 1551 painting by Matthias Gerung

Part 1 and Part 2 bring us up to this spring, now it is almost fall. The faire is less than a month away and I am in full panic mode about cooking at the faire. You’d think with a year under my belt I’d be less nervous, but I am totally not. I still don’t cook much at home, and last year I let myself get away with some things that I will not myself get away with in the long run. Now that I have a little more experience I really only want to cook historical recipes. Last year I used any old historical recipe from the couple of cookbooks I’ve got, now I want to be able to trace the lineage of all my recipes.

It started this summer with fritters.  Last year Amanda cooked fritters. She does it with her 1830s cooking lessons, and she found medieval recipes too. She slaved over the fire cooking those fritters, and everyone loves them. Amanda will not be joining us in camp this fall and fritters seemed too ubiquitous to leave off our menu. They are seriously ubiquitous. The historic cooking blog I read did a whole series of posts on fritters, and most of the medieval cookbooks in my collection had recipes for fritters. I decided to photocopy and organize all the different recipes on fritters that I could find, so that I would not have to drag my recipe books to faire when making the recipes, and so I could decide exactly which recipe to use. While I was photocopying the fritter recipes, I decided to photocopy the recipes that I had used last year for similar reasons: I could take a photocopy to the grocery store when buying ingredients, and I could compare the similar recipes and see which one I liked best and which one was the most historically appropriate. Since I was photocopying all those I decided to photocopy other recipes I had already identified as ones I wanted to try this year, and once I was in this far I decided to photocopy recipes from my medieval cook books that looked like the ones I had made last year that I had found in non-historic circumstances. Over the past two weeks I have made a lot of photocopies (I’m sorry environment.)

I put all those recipes in sleeve protectors in a three ring binder, organized by recipe type. I also made sure to write on each recipe: what book I had gotten it from and where that book had gotten it (the original source.) I was really lucky that a lot of my cookbooks not only noted the source of the original recipes, but included the original text along with modern cooking methods. By looking up one of those original sources I found out that a lot of these medieval cook books have been transcribed (written out in modern English) and put on the web. Also at the same time I was madly immersed in cookbooks we went to Pennsic. I’ll write more about Pennsic later, but one of the more enjoyable things I did while there was attend a number of classes on cooking. While normally I am leery of using stuff posted on the web by random SCAdians, once I have met a person I feel much better about trusting their historical research. And a lot of the people I met do have web pages full of recipes. Needless to say I spent way too much time last week reading and printing out recipes.

While I was tracking down sources I was looking in particular for ways to justify the Alton Brown Lamb and Barley stew recipe that I’d made last year, so I was looking at a lot of mutton recipes and at meat cooking methods. I was looking for instances of directions for browning meat before cooking it and the use of carrots. I learned that browning usually only happened after everything had been boiled once, and that the further back you go the less carrots are a foodstuff, the more they are a medicine (at least according to the cookbooks.) I also figured out that the cookbooks I was predominantly looking at were written in the 14th century, whereas we portray the year 1528. Also, though I was finding cookbooks from Fance, Italy, Spain and England, it seemed like none of the German cookbooks (of which there are several) had modern recipe redactions in English. A few of them have been transcribed on the web, but I’m not feeling confident enough to do my own redactions.

Now I’ve gone through a few more cookbooks (Julie loaned me some) I’ve made a few more photocopies (my three-ring binder has grown from a half inch binder to a 1-inch binder) and I’ve figured out the new things I want to try this fall. Along with all the recipes that I’ve done before I would like to make:

Sweet & Sour White Fish
Stuffed Eggs
Cherry Soup
Poached Pears
Compost (a type of mixed pickles)
Ash Roasted carrots
Emperor’s Fritters (cheese)
Apple Fritters

Wish me luck!


  1. "While I was tracking down sources I was looking in particular for ways to justify the Alton Brown Lamb and Barley stew recipe that I’d made last year, "

    Let me suggest that that approach, although very common (at least in the SCA) is backwards. It's rather like ordering a pizza by calling a random phone number in the hope it will turn out to be a pizza place. There is, after all, no good reason to assume that a modern recipe, even a very tasty one, is also a period recipes.

    Better, surely, to do what you also seem to have been doing--look through the period cookbooks to find recipes that you think you would like.

    On the subject of fritters ... . One of my favorites is Lente Frytoures from _Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books_. Apple slices in a beer batter.

  2. Hi David,
    You are right that justifying a modern recipe is not a great way to go about reenacting history, but when I started I knew all the ingredients were correct. So changing your analogy slightly, it was like knowing there is a pizza place on Main St, then driving up and down Main St until you find it.

    Moving forward from now on I will not use modern recipes. But last year I was completely new to historical cooking, with not even much experience in modern cooking. I am very glad I started with a recipe with step-by-step directions, where all the processes were explained in an articulate way. Which is more than can be said for most of the modern books containing old recipes, and especially of the original recipes themselves.

    I will definitely have to try apple slices in a beer batter. Do you know of any modernization of that recipe?

  3. Alana, You write, "Moving forward from now on I will not use modern recipes," and yet, you end with, "Do you know any modernization of that recipe" [apple slices in a beer batter]. No, no, no! As someone who does alot of historic cooking, I say STICK to original recipes ONLY! When I first started, I had virtually no experience with modern cooking, either, and I'm convinced that was the BEST preparation for historic cooking, because then I was a blank slate. I had no bad habits to unlearn, no qualms about NOT being able to use modern gadgets, etc. It does take time and practice. But I think it's better to spend time on the originals then to waste it on modern versions, basically duplicating efforts. I now find modern recipes nigh impossible to understand! Anyway...that's my two cents worth. BTW I like your list of dishes. What fun!