by Wanderer Werewolf
©2011 Wanderer Werewolf

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   Howls, all, and welcome back to Red King’s Dream, where fact and fiction meet… and this month, meet to eat! Starting with this column, we’ll be taking a look at how food has changed through the ages, beginning with the known history of food preparation, progressing through next month’s look at the modern world, and from there into the Great Unknown that is the future of food.
   Before I begin, though, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the hard work of our painstaking editor-in-chief, the man without whom there is no Anthro: Quentin Long. Nice to have you back and be back, my friend.

   Somewhat ironically, food is one of the few parts of history about which we know a great deal. After all, whether you’re talking about Norse sagas or Andre Norton’s Star Ka’at series, sooner or later people will always have to eat. The catch, of course, is that you only find out about the food that certain sorts of people eat. If you look at Ancient Rome, for instance, you’ll find a whole lot about dinner parties and fancy imported foods, because the writers are members of the nobility. The meals of the lower class… well, they never get mentioned. Even by the Middle Ages, it’s easier to find recipes from the kitchens of the nobility than any plain-spoken description of what a peasant eats, simply because the peasants aren’t writing the records.
   That said, certain things remained constant throughout the earlier periods:

   First: For the average person, Buy Local wasn’t just a catchphrase—it was a way of life. After all, in the days before canning and refrigeration, imported foods had to either be shipped live or heavily salted. Because of this, (and even to this day, in small ways), local cuisine was shaped by local terrain: River-towns and seaside cities specialized in fish, while towns with a lot of grassland specialized in sheep and cows. Chickens, of course, have been raised in hen houses since Ancient Rome at least (De Re Rustica, Columella), for both meat and eggs, and their bones are among the most common finds in medieval middens (Chicken Husbandry in Late-Medieval Eastern England), while pigs, the first known domestic omnivore, were usually raised in wooded areas, to allow forage*.
   Goats, on the other hand, are browsers (eating the young leaves of shrubs), rather than grass-eating grazers like sheep and cows. Because this is less damaging to the local farmland, goats have been a very popular form of cattle for a very long time, and were the original sources of the milk for cheeses such as the Greek feta and the Italian caprino (thus the name).
   This isn’t to say the nobility ate exclusively of foreign animals and such, of course; ‘as above, so below’, as the saying goes. They could afford more and greater variety, but their meals were still centered around the same meats as their peasantry. Even their greater hunting rights in some areas didn’t change that, despite an influx of venison and other game meats.
   (A side note on meat preparation: Almost all of the methods we use today are ancient, though roasting is considered likely to be the oldest. Stewing was in use by the time of Ancient Mesopotamia (according to the Yale Culinary Tablets), and frying by the Middle Ages. Because stews were easy to keep warm without messing up the flavor, this was the most common method by the Middle Ages, and has the most medieval recipes devoted to it.)

   Second: Not to make a Dune reference, but Spice Is Expensive. While salt could be had from any form of saltwater, moving beyond that ancient staple tended to be outside the range of the average peasant’s pocket; even by the late medieval, a half-pound of pepper cost 18d—that is, 2.25 days’ wages for a master craftsman (James E. Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, vol. IV: 1401–1582 (Oxford: 1882))! Even white sugar, that we all take for granted today, cost 16d the pound during that same period.
   Peasants didn’t like bland food any more than we do now, so they learned the many uses of herbs: Garlic, onions, parsley, fennel, mustard and rue were all available to the cooks of the differing classes. (Of course, some survivng texts say that onions and garlic are strictly peasant food, or will upset your humors, or what have you. All I can say is, you can’t throw a stick in an ancient cookbook without hitting onions or garlic somewhere in the text, so that opinion seems to have been a minority.)
   One curious matter is the flavor that was aimed for; in the Forme of Cury, in Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria, and even all the way back to the Yale Culinary Tablets (recipes from ancient Mesopotamia), the desired taste seems to have been a mix of sweet and sour. For a peasant, that usually meant honey for the sweet, herbs for the sour, while the nobility used the poudre fort and poudre douce (‘strong powder’ and ‘sweet powder’, respectively). These were spice blends that, annoyingly for the food historian, weren’t written down. Good approximations in use by some modern cooks are:

Poudre fort:
   1 part ginger
   1 part pepper (black or long)
   1 part powdered bay leaf
   1 part powdered mace
Poudre douce
   Sugar (optional)

   Third: Yes, people ate vegetables, though it can be hard to spot them in the ancient recipes. The few mentions we do have explain why:

   154. D’autres menuz potaiges…: Other Lesser Pottages, such as stewed chard, cabbage, turnip greens, leeks, veal in Yellow Sauce, and plain shallot pottage, peas, frenched beans, mashed beans, sieved beans or beans in their shell, pork offal, brewet of pork tripe — women are experts with these and anyone knows how to do them.

Le Viander de Taillevant, 14th Century

   I have a tendency, on reading those words, to sigh and think horrid thoughts at the author.
   From what little we do know, dry root vegetables (parsnips, turnips, etc.) were usually chopped up and boiled, while leafy greens were usually the province of the sallet, or ‘salad’. (Usually just vinegar and vegetable oil for dressing, of course.) Onions, being quite juicy, wound up in all kinds of places, showing up as garnish (in a recipe for mock sturgeon, Curye on Inglish), fried (with beans, Forme of Cury), and stewed (French iowtes, Forme of Cury).
   As for beans, there were many, though broad beans (the modern ‘fava bean’ of Hannibal Lecter fame) were the most usual. They were boiled, fried, mashed, stewed, and used in every level of ancient cooking, from the Greeks on.
   Other common vegetables (for more than just ‘common folk’) included leeks, beets, carrots… the list goes on. Fruit also makes an appearance, particularly in 14th-century references such as Piers Plowman, which gives us some idea of a peasant’s storehouse as well:

— “I have no penny”, said Piers, “pullets to buy,
“neither geese nor partridges, but two young cheeses,
“A few curds and cream§ and a cake of oats,
“And two loaves of beans and bran baked for my children.
“And yet I say, by my soul, I have no salt bacon,
“Nor eggs, by Christ, coloppes (bacon omelets) to make.
“But I have parsley and leeks and many cabbages
“And also a cow and a calf, and a cart mare
“To draw afield my cart while the drought lasts.”

   (I’ve taken the liberty of translating the 14th-century vernacular.)
   Of course, as he then notes, this is supposed to last his household until Lammas (August, the festival of the wheat harvest), and this section is set in or around May, when the planting is done. More on that in a minute. The fruit is in the next section:

“All the poor people filled their peascods (doublets);
“Beans and baked apples they brought in their laps,
“Scallions (spring onions) and chervils and ripe cherries many,
“And proffered Piers this present to please Hunger…”

   Fourth: Believe it or not, peasants usually weren’t starving. True, they didn’t have as much food available at all times as we do now, nor as many varieties, but they didn’t starve unless something went badly wrong. Of course, this was at least partially because of the manorial system; food was a part of the daily wages, and was often noted in the household accounts. (In 1289, for example, we know that the peasants working as carters on Ferring Manor in Sussex were given bread, ale and cheese for their morning meal; in the records of the Northumberland Household, in 1512, we know that clerks and yeomen were given a similar breakfast, though the cheese was replaced with boiled beef (Food & Feast in Medieval England, P.W. Hammond).
   From the Shepherds’ Play of the Chester Mystery Cycle, we have quite a nice assortment of foods provided by the three shepherds (which I’ve translated and condensed; the 14th-century original, starting at line 109 of the linked document, isn’t finished until line 136):

First Shepherd: Pig’s foot and leftover tongue
Second Shepherd: Fresh bread (this day baked), onions, garlic, leeks, butter, fresh cheese.
Third Shepherd: Halton ale, a sheep’s head (soused/stewed in ale), sour milk/cream, pudding (type not specified), and a jannock (oat cake), along with a gambon (gammon, a form of bacon or ham)

   Not bad for three shepherds, huh? And all of this is what they had to spare, keep in mind, given to them by their wives when they left home to tend the flock.
   For the most part, while a peasant didn’t live a comfortable life, they ate and drank on a regular basis, getting three meals a day out of their wages and home-grown crops. Of course, they weren’t quite recognizable as the three meals we have nowadays…
   Breakfast: Typically the lightest meal of the day, literally breaking the night’s fast so you could get to work without being hungry. The tradition had started with bread and water (and sometimes wine and cheese) under the Romans, and light breakfasts are still the norm in Europe. Typically, nothing heavier than a bit of pottage (or even oatmeal), if that.
   Dinner: The major meal of the working man, no matter his class. The shepherds in the Shepherds’ Play are just sitting down to theirs, for instance. This is the meal that lasted you until supper, so it tended to be the biggest, giving your body the fuel to get the job done.
   (It wouldn’t be called ‘lunch’ until the Sixteenth-century German word nonechenche, literally ‘noon drink’, became appropriated to mean a small meal between meals. As the size of the average midday meal declined, the name was changed.)
   Supper: Not as grand a spread as the midday meal… unless there was a feast day, of course. While peasants usually had stew, this was the most usual time of day for the grand feasts of the nobility. (Keep in mind, though, that those many courses were served in small portions. There was a reason the servants carved, and not the guests.)
   (As a side note, dessert was usually something sweet, then as now, whether fruit or some form of candy. Pie, on the other hand… well, medieval pie crusts were what’s known as ‘hot water crust’ (fat, melted in water, added to flour and eggs), to judge from the few recipes that have come down to us. (Few, because “everyone knows how”.) Hot water crust is stiff and sturdy, capable of standing on its own after being shaped and filled. Modern pie crust is cold water crust, thinner and softer. The difference is best characterized by Mark Twain’s analysis of an English apple pie after his trip to Europe:

   To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows:
   Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

   Twain being Twain, this is a bit exaggerated. People eat hot-water crusts all the time these days, since the stiff crust is perfect for prepackaged pot pies. Appropriate, since the crust was the pot back in the day, whether for sweet pies or savory.
   Cake, on the other hand, was still in the ‘cookie’ stage; given the price of sugar, not much of a surprise. The ‘oatcake’ mentioned above, the jannock, was rather typical of the breadlike final product, as are the better-known hoecakes of America.
   As a final dessert-related note, ‘gyngerbrede’ was around from about the 14th century… but, oddly enough, the recipe that survives, (reprinted in Two 15th c. Cookery-Books, Thomas Austin, 1888), has no ginger in it; it’s breadcrumbs boiled in spiced honey (spiced with saffron and pepper), then sprinkled with cinnamon. Obviously for the wealthy, even now, but interesting.)

   Fifth: It’s all in the details. Ancient Rome had garum and liquamen, two diferent concentrations of fish-based sauce; the Middle Ages had poudre douce and poudre fort. All ancient cooking had ‘tricks’ that were in use at the time, whether it was a sauce, a spice mix, or an aged grape juice (verdigris, mentioned in Le Menagier de Paris; it’s the juice of unripe grapes, aged at least one year to become a spice… before which, it’s a good stain remover).
   Now… how can this help your stories and games? Consider:

  1. Buy Local. When you’re coming up with the local cuisine of your setting, remember where you are and what there is. Chickens can go almost everywhere, of course, but most other ancient meats require a certain type of terrain… unless they’re imported, of course.
       This can be interesting in its own right; a forest-dwelling race is likely to have goats, pigs, chickens, and even fish (because everyone needs water), but less likely to have cows or sheep, simply because there’s so much less grass available. (Hm, no wonder Bilbo liked the food at Rivendell…)
       (I notice, upon reflection, that I’m simply going to have to figure out what dwarves eat, one of these days…)
  2. Spice Is Expensive: This one has been a kick-starter for stories since time immemorial. Pepper, cinnamon, and saffron (especially saffron) can all be trade goods, ransoms, rents, and the targets of thieves. Not to mention, perishables come with a built-in time limit… even before you count how easily fenced they are. (To say nothing of the chance that less-intelligent thieves might eat the profits!)
  3. Yes, People Ate Vegetables: This one is more a note of completeness, to dispel the second-worst myth about ancient cooking. (The first was that people used spices to camouflage spoiled food.) Even when dealing with the more carnivorous fantasy races, remember that there are no pure carnivores; even wolves and tigers eat grass sometimes.
  4. Peasants Weren’t Usually Starving: The corollary, of course, is that a starving peasant means Something Is Wrong Somewhere… and that, as the saying goes, is where the heroes come in. This is especially true for large cities, which can’t keep everyone fed without outside shipments, as rival cities just might hire thieves to divert the food.
  5. It’s All In The Details: This is the watchword for all I’ve said in this article. With the appropriate changes, the above rules can satisfy any setting. For Native American, remove milk entirely (there were no domestic milk animals before the Europeans arrived), and replace goats with dogs (including as meat animals… sorry). For the Middle East, very little needs to be changed; adding the appropriate forms of chickpea-based food to the mix tends to satisfy. (For your own invented peoples, of course… have fun!)

* To my readers who may not know much about pig farming, it should be explained: Long ago, pigs were allowed to forage in the woods, the way wild boars do, and were only gathered into their pen at night. Swineherds would watch them, and sometimes knock down nuts from the trees with a long stick to help them feed. Sadly, this tradition became impractical when most pig farms no longer had access to woodlands, so most pigs wound up being fed kitchen waste… ‘slops’, which are used even now to pad out the commercial feed on some farms. It’s not as healthy for the pig or for those of us who eat pork, but it’s certainly cheap… [back]

† An important side note about parsnips, here: Long before our modern potato was discovered in the New World, parsnips held pride of place at the medieval table, as they had in Rome. You can do anything with a parsnip that you can a potato, and more, including using them as a sweetener by boiling them, a ‘kitchen emergency’ method from the Middle Ages. [back]

§ A note on milk products: Most people in the world are lactose intolerant at maturity, then as now. Most ancient peoples took milk only in childhood, or as a food for invalids; otherwise, milk was more usually met as cheese, butter, sour cream, and even yogurt. Goat’s milk was more widely available, as goats were easier to keep than cows—but there was still plenty of milk to go around. [back]

   Next time, we’ll be taking a look at the rise of modern food, including the Nineteenth-Century invention that revolutionized food storage… and how, in a roundabout way, it helped give us McBurgers. Until then, readers!

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