Today we have a special guest, Krista D Ball, who is the author of What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, a marvelous resource that takes readers on a journey into the depths of epic fantasy’s obsession with rabbit stew and teaches them how to catch the blasted creatures, how to move armies across enemy territories without anyone starving to death, and what a medieval pantry should look like when your heroine is seducing the hero. Welcome to Magical Words, Krista!
Sooner or later, all writers face the dreaded research phase. It might be as something as simple as checking to see what street intersects what avenue in your city, or it might be as complex as the legal system of 12th century England. The reactions to research are just as varied, too. Nevertheless, the research demands your attention.
I’ve personally received many emails over the years asking for help on various topics such as what sailors on a Man-of-War would eat, or if a Regency heroine could drink coffee with her breakfast. So in 2011, I was asked to write a non-fiction writer’s guide about food history – What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide.
Today, I’d like to talk a little about some of the historical food myths that exist and keep cropping up in novels, but especially epic and historical ones who use Britain in the Middle Ages as a starting point.
1. Spices preserve meat
One of the most interesting parts of researching for What Kings Ate was the myths I came across in talking to people. A couple heated decisions broke out between people arguing opposite myths. Both sides would be incorrect, but both would be arguing commonly-held “knowledge.” Let’s get the most troublesome one out of the way right now: Imported spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc) were not used to preserve, mask, or recover spoiled meat.
True story. Food scholars have been pulling out their hair trying to kill this myth, but it doesn’t seem to want to die. Spices just don’t do much for preserving meat, and really spoiled meat tastes bad no matter what you sprinkle on it. Salting, smoking, pickling, and air-curing remain the best ways to preserve meat. Sure, spices are added to cured meats such as Spanish chorizo, but that is more for flavour than preservation. It’s also possible that the myth comes from both our modern tastes not being in line with medieval spice use (i.e. venison and ginger). Today, we understand that food does not require combining to balance one’s “humors,” but the need to balance foods to promote good health was important in medieval medicine. Also, food augmentation was a serious problem up until the late 19th century when governments around the world began to step in and say, no, you cannot put lead in that cookie. Combining our lack of taste for some of these spice combinations, as well as the known use of spices and augments to make food appear edible (when really it should be in the dumpster) might have added to the myth.
2. Spices were cheap
If spices were used to preserve meat, they must have been pretty cheap, right? And if you look at the spice use in period cookbooks, they were full of spices. The Forme of Cury is filled with rich recipes of ginger, pepper, and saffron. Even by today’s standards, there were a lot of spices used. However, these early, surviving cookbooks were meant for aristocratic homes and not the everyday labourer. A well-off family in 1424 could spend as much on spices as they did on beef and pork combined.
That did not mean no one purchased spices. It just meant that the use of spices in cooking was not as equal as they are today. Before modern transportation and agriculture, spice was a status symbol. When George the Rich, Duke of Bavaria-Landshut married in 1476, the 286 pounds of ginger, 205 pounds of cinnamon, and 85 pounds of nutmeg purchased for his banquets were not to mask bad meat, but rather to show how important and rich he really was. (Thus the name: George the Rich.)
3. Poor people never ate meat.
4. Poor people only ever ate meat.
These two caused a hours-long Twitter fight one night between several folks (thankfully, none of them were me!). I had no idea how passionate people felt about meat! This is a really confusing myth because it is based in fact…but not quite. The problem wasn’t so much of quantity, but rather of access. Fresh meat was accessible by most affluent people in the Middle Ages. Farms stretched from Ireland to Iraq to India. Poorer people living in cramped cottages often kept a couple chickens and a pig or two. Perhaps even a goat to help control the weeds and provide some meat when she’s weaning her kid. Plus, domesticated animals are a lot larger today. Early Medieval livestock was 40 to 60 percent smaller than today’s livestock! These earlier versions would have produced less meat in relation to their size, but still required the same grazing space and food.
It’s normal for modern folks to eat meat two times a day, and sometimes even three times. We eat the same kinds of meat: sausage, bacon, chicken breast, beef roast, pork chops, and cans of tuna. The modern image of “simpler times” (which exists today, not in the past) of roasting joints of meat isn’t accurate for most people on a daily basis. Baked hedgehogs, rabbit stew, and boiled salt beef would be more common. Calf’s head stew, salted cow tongue, and split pea pottage with bone marrow would have frequented the plates of the lower ranks.
5. Obesity: everyone was fat
The final myth I want to cover is that everyone in the Middle Ages was obese. This is another confusing one, since there is some truth to it. In many cultures, obesity was seen as a sign of wealth. A person could eat rich foods to their heart’s content and not work off those calories. Even in cultures that did not have a formalized culture of obesity, there were still Kings (Henry VIII is a notable example) who were nearly as wide as long when they died.
The average labourer or farmer was not in any danger of being called “fat.” Modern dieters go into shock when they see historical cookbooks. Pounds of butter, dozens of eggs, and liters of cream would make anyone fat, right? Sure, in today’s world 4000-5000 daily calories would fatten us up, but in worlds without central heat, air conditioning, internal combustion, and water heaters, those calories would be used up fast.
Of course, even those of leisure would become rotund once their youthful metabolisms slowed down and they’d stopped whoring, hunting, and playing tennis in their “old age” of thirty.
Some recipes for your novels:
Boiled Calf’s Head
Take a prepared calf’s head (hair removed and cleaned, brains taken out). Soak the head and brains in warm water for an hour. Put the head in a pot with enough water to cover it, along with a little salt. Skim off the scum that will rise as the head boils. Boil the brains, chop them, and mix with melted butter, parsley, and salt. Remove the head from the pot, remove the tongue and skin it. Serve the head in the middle of a serving plate, with the tongue and brains around it. Pour melted butter over the head. For an extra treat, add boiled eggs to the chopped brains. Feeds six to seven people, and is in season between March and October.
Fried Cod Tongues
1 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ tsp pepper
½ pound salt pork
Wash enough fresh cod tongues for your meal (the usual serving is eight tongues per person). Dry them on a cloth or paper towel. In a bowl, combine flour, salt, and pepper and mix together. Set aside. Cut up salt pork and fry it up until golden brown. Remove the pork cubes for another use (or you can even use them as a topping if you need an extra-hearty meal). Coat the tongues in the flour mixture one by one. Fry them in the hot pork fat until golden brown on both sides. Place them on a warm plate with a cloth or paper towel to soak up any excess fat. Serve immediately, or place in a warm oven (or, a cooling bread oven) if needed.
Soldiers’ Couscous (Kuskusû Fityâni)
This is a fabulous Andalusian recipe from the 13th century. With some modifications, it can be adapted to nearly any technology level, too, making it a prime recipe to reproduce. Give it a try and see what you think.
1 chicken, cut up
1 onion, quartered
3 carrots, chopped coarsely
3 stalks of celery, chopped coarsely
A handful of fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, and oregano
2 cups couscous
Boil the chicken and vegetables in a pot of water until the chicken is falling apart, about 1 hour. Strain out the meat and vegetables, setting aside 2 cups of the pot broth. Mix the couscous and broth together and cover for 5 minutes. Put the couscous on a plate, and top with chicken and vegetables. Serve hot.
Take one pound of large mushrooms and break them up in a crock bowl. Sprinkle salt over them liberally. Cover with a cloth and stir a few times a day for three days. Then let them stand for twelve days until a thick scum forms over them. (This phase can take several attempts if you have cats. Mine kept spraying the batches thinking urine could improve the smell.)
Strain off the liquid (the mushroom liquid, not the cat pee) into a pot. Boil it with peppercorns, mace, ginger, a clove, and some mustard seed. When cold, add to a jar and seal it off. In three months, boil it again with fresh spices and it will keep for a year.
For more info about what Krista’s doing next, visit her website http://kristadball.com/ or like her on Facebook, Krista D. Ball