What did early modern food taste like?

By Ben Breen

Diego Velázquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs, c. 1618, National Gallery of Scotland.

As the official portraitist for the Spanish monarchy at the height of its glory, Diego Velázquez painted queens, emperors, and gods. But one of his most famous paintings is a window into a much humbler world. A woman is frying eggs in hot oil, ready to scoop them out with a simple wooden spoon. Behind her, a servant boy carries a half-full jug of wine and a melon tied up in a loop of twine.

This painting is the type of thing historians love. A profoundly talented artist with a knack for realism, choosing the type of subject matter that is so normal that it rarely gets preserved (the same is true today—how many contemporary painters choose to depict taquerias or bagel shops?) Scholars suspect that Velazquez’s own family members may have served as models in his early paintings. It’s possible that the woman in this painting numbered among them, since she also appears in a religious painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, that he produced in the same year.

Velazquez painting
Diego Velázquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, National Gallery, UK.

But this post is not about Velazquez. It’s not even about art history. It’s about food.

What can we learn about how people ate in the seventeenth century? And even if we can piece together historical recipes, can we ever really know what their food tasted like?

This might seem like a relatively unimportant question. For one thing, the senses of other people are always going to be, at some level, unknowable, because they are so deeply subjective. Not only can I not know what Velázquez’s fried eggs tasted like three hundred years ago, I arguably can’t know what my neighbor’s taste like. And why does the question matter, anyway? A very clear case can be made for the importance of the history of medicine and disease, or the histories of slavery, global commerce, warfare, and social change.

By comparison, the taste of food doesn’t seem to have the same stature. Fried eggs don’t change the course of history. But tastes and recipes do change history.

One example, chosen at random: the Mexican chili peppers hiding in the bottom edges of both paintings.

The pepper family (genus Capsicum) is native to the Americas, and it was still a relatively new arrival in the cuisines of Asia, Africa, and Europe when Velazquez was alive. As a non-elite person born in 1599, we can guess that his grandparents would not have been familiar with the taste of peppers and that his parents still thought of them as an exotic plant from across the seas. Even the name he, and we, apply to the plant was a foreign import: the word ‘chili’ is from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. So is ‘avocado’ (Nahuatl ahuacatl), ‘tomato’ (tomatl) and chocolate (chocolatl).

The taste for these foods was a significant factor in the series of global ecological movements between the Old and New Worlds that historians call the Columbian Exchange. Any time we eat kimchi, or kung pao chicken, or pasta with red sauce, we are eating foods that are direct results of the Columbian Exchange.

But we’re also eating modern foods. That’s not to say that there aren’t older correlates to these dishes—there undoubtedly are. But food has changed since the early modern period. Globalization of food crops has transformed the flavors of regional cuisines. Meanwhile, factory farming has led to a homogenization of some of the varietals available to us, while also creating a huge variety of new strains and hybrids.

One example: I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it” was “still rather rare in France.” Likewise, Brussels sprouts don’t appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.

Two women with Brassica oleracea: Louise Moillon, The Fruit and Vegetable Costermonger, 1631, Louvre, Paris.

One example of the substantial changes produced by the artificial selection of premodern farmers actually made the news a couple years back. In 2015, there was a wave of reporting about early modern watermelons. The watermelon is native to Africa and has a substantial amount of range in terms of color and taste. Seventeenth-century still life paintings record a substantially different phase in the artificial selection of watermelons toward the bright red, seedless varietal familiar in Western grocery stores.

Albert Eckhout “Pineapple, watermelons and Brazilian fruits,” circa 1640.

But focusing on unusual varietals and exotic imports can be misleading. Most people in the early modern world—not just in Europe, but everywhere—were illiterate farmers and pastoralists whose diet was hyper-minimalist by contemporary standards.

This is not to say that their food tasted bad, necessarily. But it was clearly very simple, and very starch-heavy. From China to Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, gruels and stews made out of staple grains or legumes were the daily fare. Italian farmers weren’t eating eggplant parmesan or spaghetti with meatballs. They were typically eating either boiled beans or grains, day after day after day.

Bruegel painting
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (detail), Antwerp, 1525-1530.

The acute eyes of Bruegel the Elder captured one example of this universal food of the premodern peasantry. In Bruegel’s The Harvesters, a team of peasants is taking a break for a mid-day meal which seems to consist entirely of bread and bowls of what I am guessing is a wheat-based gruel, something akin to Cream of Wheat. The jugs they’re drinking out of probably contain small beer.

But paintings like these can only get us so far. A more promising approach, perhaps, would be to go directly to the textual sources and take a close look at early modern recipes. I spend a lot of time recording ‘receipts’ (an archaic form of the word recipe, but also a broader one, since it included drug prescriptions). Several actually look pretty tasty (like eighteenth-century “Maccarony cheese“), and I hope to cook a few one day, taking a page from my friend Marissa Nicosia’s reconstructions of early modern food at Cooking the Archives.

But there are many others that I have no desire to make anytime soon. One example that stands out in my mind is this recipe for snail water from a circa 1700 English manuscript at Penn.

To make Snaill water, for a consumption, or anny weakness in old or young persons, and for the ricketts

take a quart of snails, wash them twince in stronge-stale-beere and dry them well in a cloth, then bruse them shels and all, put to them 3 quarts of red cows-milk 4 ounces, red rose leaves, Rosemary, sweet-marjoram, Ivery, of each a good handfull, distill altogether and sweeten your water with surrop of violets, and sugar candy lickerish sorrop, put in 6 penny-worth of naturall-ballsom, drink a quarter of a pint of this every night and morning.

Snails, stale beer and ivory shavings certainly sounds like a challenging flavor combo to me, despite the addition of the fragrant herbs and sugar. But this is a medicine, not a food, and it wasn’t intended to taste good. Another early modern manuscript owned by Penn (this one from 1655, and more inclined toward food recipes than drug recipes) contains a far more relatable dish:

To fricasie a chicken or rabbitt.

Take a chicking and scald it or Case it, and put it into a frying pan with halfe a pint of strong broth, a peace of buter with a little whole pepper and mace, and boyle them well upon the fire till yr  Chickin be tender then make a leare [?] of verjuyce and minced peaches and ye yolkes of 2 eggs and a little drawne butter then put it into the frying pan keeping yr pan with shaking over the fyre till it bee thick, then dish it up strewing thereon a little minced parsley.

Even this relatively simple recipe for pan-fried chicken has some surprises, however. One is the addition of mace, a fairly obscure spice that comes from the same plant as nutmeg (nutmeg’s the actual seed, and mace is the covering). It’s a highly potent spice that numbs the tastebuds and imparts a strong aroma to food. And it’s combined here with highly-acidic verjuice, as well as egg yolks—not a flavor combination that has survived into the cuisines of the modern era, so far as I know.

Guessing the true flavors of these ingredients—the taste of premodern chicken, or mace carried in a ship’s hold from Indonesia to Europe, or butter that was churned by hand—is at some level impossible. Certainly, we can make some educated guesses. In the case of late medieval cooking, one scholar has looked at the transformations of recipes as they crossed cultural zones (such as the medieval Arabic sweet porridge called ma’muniya, which evolved into Anglo-Norman maumenee) and concluded that “as time went by, a dish tended to become sweeter, spicer, and more complicated.” But so much has changed between the worlds of the past and the present when it comes to cultivars, modes of preparation and preservation, and, perhaps, an overall sense of what tastes good and bad. I often wonder what someone from the thirteenth or seventeenth century might make of a Snickers bar, for instance. I suspect they’d find it disgustingly cloying. But then again, maybe not.

Thinking about historical tastes reminds me of the French expression for words that seem to be analogous across two languages, but actually have totally different meanings: faux amis. (For instance, English-speakers in Spanish-speaking countries often say that they are embarazada—they intend to say they’re ’embarrassed,’ but they’re actually saying they’re ‘pregnant.’)

These early modern foods are culinary false friends. They seem like they’d be the same as our familiar correlates. But we can’t be sure that they tasted the same.

Like so much in history, they’re so close, yet just out of reach.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared at Res Obscura.

Further reading online:

Cooking the Archives

What did Byzantine food taste like?

“The Exotic Taste of Rice,” a previous post on The Recipes Project.

 

Tales from the Archives: Love Magic in Eighteenth-Century Russia

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so it is an opportune time to reflect on the recipes of love in our archives. In her post on Russian love magic, Elena Smilianskaia reflects on the cultural meaning of love spells–specifically, anxieties surrounding feelings that were out of control. Romantic love, it seems, was thought to be a potentially dangerous emotion.

Be careful tomorrow!


By Elena Smilianskaia

'For a Love Potion' M. V. Nesterov (1888) (www.artcontext.info)
‘For a Love Potion’
M. V. Nesterov (1888)
(www.artcontext.info)

Love magic has existed in human history from the very start, and it continues to exist today – the Recipes Project has already featured some fifteenth-century English love spells. It is not very difficult to find a person who guarantees a client ‘true’ love potions and very effective love spells in any city of the world. The texts that ancient and contemporary magicians use in their ‘craft’ have a lot of commonalities, including:

 

  • A desire that a love object looks at you and will ‘never tire of looking’
  • A desire that a love object forgets all his/or her relatives, primarily a father and a mother, and thinks only about you
  • A desire that a love object can neither eat nor drink in his/her love fever
  • A love fever being compared with madness, or with fire.

 

So if we state that all of these concepts from love spells are the same for different cultures and historical periods, then we must conclude that human expressions of love passion do not dramatically change over time and it is hardly possible to find a specific transition in the sphere of love. Alternatively, we must try to compare cases of using magic in love and verbal descriptions of love feelings for each concrete period and specific culture to prove that we can talk about the transformation and the evolution of love spells (although very slowly and primarily in the external sphere, in ‘the clothes of love’). I prefer the second way.

In eighteenth-century Russian magic texts a person who has fallen in love can find not only a description of their extreme feelings but a hope that magic would either help to overcome this ‘sinful passion’ or to make the object of their passion share a love. It also helped to comprehend why one’s affection so influenced human life and behavior.

There are cases in which an individual was sure that love magic was definitely the origin of an otherwise inexplicable passion: one example that I like very much comes from 1740, when a peasant named Vasiliy Gerasimov at last understood why his daughter lived with a church sexton Maxim Dyakonov: he found Maxim’s love spells. By 1740, Vasiliy’s daughter had already had two babies with Maxim, but only a sheet of paper with the text of a love spell explained everything…

'The Sorcerer at the Wedding' V. M. Maksimov (1875) (WikiCommons)
‘The Sorcerer at the Wedding’
V. M. Maksimov (1875)
(WikiCommons)

It is also notable that very often love itself was considered to be an illness and was cured the same way: not only by a witch or a sorcerer, but by an ordinary healer. It was also thought that love spells might cause diseases in a human body (there are some court cases mentioning that a woman under the effect of love magic ‘swelled up’ and suffered from physical pain and only counter-magic rituals could help her).  In a lot of situations when a woman became a klikusha (a kind of witch), the community was convinced that somebody (a man of course!) had wanted to bewitch the woman, making her unable to resist passion and evil intentions.

Magic was always suspected when feelings were out of control. For example, when in 1737 a servant-maid named Ustinya Grigorieva fell in love with a soldier, she considered her ‘great pangs’ of melancholy to be magical in origin. In her testimony during the trial she described her actions.  She reported that she had thought: ‘this soldier or somebody else has bewitched her?’  and so she went to the sorcerer Masey who read a spell over wine, put an unknown root into it and gave the wine to Ustinya to drink – and… she became free of her love pangs and the feeling of love itself.

Condemned by the Orthodox Church, passion and erotic love in traditional Russian culture were considered for a very long time to be sinful, demonic, and therefore connected with magic. But in eighteenth-century Russia, magic provided a way for people to comprehend the origins of passion, and its influence on human behavior, as well as the means to control that behaviour.

The CIA’s “Secret” Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Twitter is a funny, messy place where topics and tropes wantonly mingle and merge. Memes about Tide pods follow presidential proclamations. Rankings of Very Good Dogs scroll alongside obituaries.

And sometimes you can go to Twitter for updates on twenty-first-century American politics and find modern-day illustrations of your-seventeenth-century English research interests. Or at least I did when following a tweet thread from Benjamin Wittes (Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed Lawfare blog): between intergovernmental document requests, I found the kind of cultural exchange of recipes that fascinates me.

In the Lawfare blog post, Wittes explains he had heard rumors that a 2017 holiday message from CIA director Mike Pompeo was divisive, “inappropriately political and exclusionary.” He filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see the message and wrote a post about it (as he does with all FOIA requests he makes).

A month later, before he could hear back about his FOIA request, Wittes received a letter from Pompeo himself. Enclosed was a copy of the holiday message to the CIA and a letter from Pompeo with this closing:

We both agree that our country is facing some of the most complex national security challenges in history and that we all benefit if we work jointly to promote American national security, even if we disagree on the best way forward. It is unfortunate, indeed sad, that you chose to publicly cast doubt on our team without so much as the courtesy of a simple phone call that could well have answered your ‘question.’ You should have been better than that, Ben.

And then, incongruently (as least to me):

I hope, too, that you will try the fudge recipe that I also included in the workforce message. It is my mother’s recipe and she loved that others enjoyed it during the holiday season.

As you can see in the document embedded in the post, the recipe itself is a little ho-hum (apologies to Dorothy Pompeo)—it is almost identical recipe to one found on the back of jars of marshmallow fluff.

14805648958_2eda0ac06a_z
Good Housekeeping, December 1962 – Vol. 155 No. 6 Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/29069717@N02/14805648958

This is not to say, however, that the recipe is presented as generic—it is printed on holiday paper, highlights pictures of the Pompeo family (including the dog) attempting the recipe, and adds a little history of Pompeo’s mother, Dorothy.

Despite its lackluster provenance, the recipe’s title trumpets this recipe as “secret,” a now clichéd way of lending a recipe authenticity and value. The recipe is framed as not just a postscript, but a valuable gift.

Many scholars, notably Amanda Herbert, have pointed out the use of recipes to create alliances and cement bonds of friendship. Herbert discusses women’s social networks in the seventeenth-century, but similar kinds of dynamics seem to be at play in this exchange between twenty-first-century men: the written recipe as means of cultural exchange and the reliance on ethos of the recipe’s author (Mike’s mother, presumably invoking tradition and welcome).

As Amy Tigner and Allison Carruth note in their examination of a recipe by Lady Ann Fanshawe for drinking chocolate and its colonial legacy, “this fundamentally literary act points first to collective memory, and then, to the act of exchange. The receipt/recipe is a medium of transmission that represents a sense of community networked in ever-widening circles.”

Is this recipe for fudge, then, a gift, an olive branch of sorts from Pompeo to Wittes? An attempt to create an alliance across political difference in a fractured and contentious American moment?

Or is this gift of a mother’s fudge recipe a performance, a sort of folksy, downhome counterstrike meant to evoke human exchange over legal maneuvering?

Wittes himself is noncommittal. He grants that the holiday message “contains nothing objectionable,” but says,

As to Pompeo’s accusation about me, I post all of my FOIA requests and will continue to do so. I will also always post all responses I get to them—whether they support, or, as in this case, refute the premises that led me to submit them.

I look forward to trying his mother’s fudge recipe.

Before he could get around to it, however, an associate of his, Shannon Togawa Mercer, managing editor of Lawfare blog, tried the recipe with happy results.

In this one unexpected exchange run many themes familiar to those who study recipes:

  • Recipes as gift exchange
  • Recipes that establish bonds and forge connections
  • Claims of “secret” recipes
  • Documenting the recreation of recipes
  • Recipes as historical/familial archive.

This window into government and intelligence-communities also shows that recipes retain enormous cultural capital and can both convey meaning and actively form bonds.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Apparently, politics also makes strange kitchen-mates.

Nursing and Nutrition: Treating the Influenza in 1918-9

By Ida Milne

Monster representing the influenza virus. E. Noble, c. 1918. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This season’s higher than normal influenza cases has inevitably drawn comparisons with the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the worst in modern history.  It killed more than 40 million people, according  to the World Health Organisation.  It punctured medical doctors’ newfound confidence in the power of bacteriology to fight infectious disease. In Ireland, it killed at least 23,000 people (the number of certified deaths from influenza and excess pneumonia) and infected about 800,000 people, one fifth of the population. Entire communities fell silent as it passed through.

Laboratories churned out vaccines, but the general consensus was these vaccines, made from bacteria suspected to cause influenza like illness such as Pfeiffer’s bacillus (haemophilus influenza), were ineffective.   Physicians threw everything in their medical bag at it, trying desperately, and in vain,  to find a cure for a disease they found baffling. Ultimately, doctors came to realise that the most effective treatment was good nursing – which included nutritious food – and strong liquor.

From a school journal The Clongownian, 1919. By kind permission of the editor, Declan O’Keeffe.

There was little consensus amongst the medical profession on what medicine worked best. Some suggested quinine and grains of aspirin to reduce fever and grains of opium for sleeplessness.  Calomel (mercurous chloride)  was liberally prescribed, as doctors then were very keen on keeping the bowels open.  Strychnine, which we tend to view now as the villain’s poison of choice in James Bond movies, was injected as a stimulant.

D.W. McNamara, a young house doctor in Dublin’s Mater Hospital during the crisis, later wrote that one of the popular treatments in the hospital was an injection of camphor in olive oil, which he described as ‘the very nadir of therapeutic bolony’. Instructed by his seniors to use it, he felt guilty that he had inflicted further pain and suffering on the very ill.  Some doctors, especially his older colleagues, favoured brandy or whiskey ‘in heroic doses’.  Alcohol had, he considered, a good deal to recommend it, as it was ‘probably no less worthless than any of the other nostrums, and at least its customers had a merry spin to Paradise’.

The demand for whiskey was so strong that some flu-stricken communities wrote to the Chief Secretary’s office to see what could be done to improve supplies. Non-prescription medicines were in high demand. As well as compounding regular medicines, pharmacists worked long hours to prepare huge quantities of tonics, cough medicines and poultices. The poultices were usually a mixture of boiling water and ground linseed, reputed to aid decongestion, enclosed in cloth and placed on the chest or throat.[1]

Journalists passed on tips on cures to their readership. The Irish Independent related that Major R. T. Herron, Medical Officer, Armagh Union infirmary, had suggested gargling with a solution of permanganate of potash as a useful preventive measure. Sir R. Winfrey, MP, a qualified chemist, recommended a prescription of thirty drops pure creosote, half-ounce rectified spirit, three-quarter ounce liquid extract of liquorice, two drachms salicylate of soda and twelve ounces of water, with the recommended adult dosage of two tablespoonfuls three times daily.[2]

While good nursing with bed rest, plenty of liquids and nourishing food offered a better chance of survival than medication, this was not always possible when every member of the family was sick. In some areas, the Women’s National Health Association, the St Vincent de Paul and neighbours set up community nursing schemes and community kitchens to cook and deliver nourishing soups and stews to those too weak to care for themselves. Local farmers often donated vegetables and meat.

Sinn Féin’s Dr Kathleen Lynn, who opened a hospital to treat influenza sufferers and vaccinate people, suggested that sufferers should be given milk, barley water and egg flip, while those in good health ought to fortify themselves with butter, eggs, fresh meat, vegetables and porridge.

Many newspapers reported that people were carrying handkerchiefs doused in eucalyptus oil in front of their mouths as a preventive measure.  Macnamara considered this practice about as effective against influenza as ‘a black beetle would be to halt a steamroller.’

Advertisement in Abel Heywood and Son’s Influenza: Its cause, cure and prevention, 1902. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Beef extracts Bovril and Oxo were in heavy demand, and production was sometimes halted when they ran out of bottles when sales went up. Beef extract or tea was understood to strengthen the body as a defence against infection. Goodbody’s Flour Mills in Clara, Co Offaly supplied Bovril to their 300-strong workforce  during the pandemic.

Manufacturers changed their regular advertising to offer their product as a useful treatment. Readers of the Enniscorthy Guardian were urged to ‘pour a little Cousin’s lemonade into a saucepan and warm it, to provide the perfect drink for influenza sufferers.’ A pharmacist in Gorey, Co Wexford, advertised his cod liver oil emulsion as offering  protection from influenza.  Purveyors of snake oils – the cure-all nostrums – swiftly added curing influenza to their list. Such claims preyed on the general fears created by an untreatable mass disease.

The use of whiskey as a treatment crops up frequently in written records and oral histories I captured from survivors or families of sufferers. Raphael Sieve, whose family lived in south Dublin at the time, told me that his father kept his teenage brother constantly mildly drunk with whiskey at the time, until he pulled through. When I presented this idea in a paper, a medical doctor suggested that there might be good science behind it.  He said that the reason that young healthy adults may have suffered more than normally in this flu was because of cytokine storms, where the immune system overreacts. He thought that small regular doses of whiskey might help prevent this.

One survivor I interviewed, Tommy Christian, from Boston, Co Kildare, was administered gruel, a type of watery porridge, which he said ‘had an awful lot of responsibilities’, a hint perhaps that it was intended to open his bowels. His family put a poultice made of linseeds and hot water wrapped in cotton on his chest, another common treatment. Tommy had his first taste of whiskey, in a hot toddy – made from sugar, whiskey and hot water – as that five-year old flu sufferer, a taste he said he continued to enjoy for the rest of his life.  Despite being extremely ill in 1919, he lived to his 99th year. Proof that the old remedies can sometimes be best?

Editor’s Note: Ida Milne’s book on the influenza epidemic in Ireland comes out in May 2018 and can be ordered through Manchester University Press.

[1] Telephone communication with a family member of Phillip Brady, who worked as a pharmacist at Kelly’s Corner, Dublin, during the epidemic; further details with author.

[2] Irish Independent, 4 March 1919.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine