Scenes from an Anglo-Norman Kitchen, Part 2: Vegetables Cures and a Drunken Cook

By Winston Black, Assumption College

In my last post, I introduced the twelfth-century verse herbal of Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus (“The English Garden”). This work is mostly medical in nature, but one poem on the medicinal uses of parsley also contains two culinary recipes for savory green sauces used on mutton or pork. Such recipes are rare for the twelfth century, so I wanted to share them here at The Recipes Project. But Henry’s herbal tells us more about twelfth-century cooking than just a couple recipes; through his satirical verse, he presents amusing portraits of contemporary cooks and kitchens.

An early modern interpretation of the Roman kitchen of Apicius.
An early modern interpretation of the Roman kitchen of Apicius.

Henry wrote two poems on parsley, the first of which contains the aforementioned recipes for herby, spicy green sauces. It is near his second poem on parsley that Henry introduces the character of a belligerent cook, and through him demonstrates what may have been common stereotypes about cooks, kitchens, and vegetables. For example, cooks are frequently drunk, garrulous, and rude, and common vegetables are not useful in medicine. The cook fights back, however, and addresses Henry as a “poetling”, a plagiarizing hack, and eventually tells him simply to “go to hell, Mr. Envy”. We shouldn’t assume Henry actually felt this way about cooks in general, but was rather building on a long tradition of animosity against cooks. Satires about cooks, foodies, and kitchens have a long pedigree, appearing in the works of ancient Roman authors like Juvenal and Petronius.

juvenal%2c-country-meal%2c-wenceslaus-hollar
Juvenal, Country Meal. CAPTION: The satirist Juvenal attacked Roman high society, including their meals and pretentious cooks. Here is a simpler country meal, in an early modern printing of Juvenal, illustrated by Wenceslaus Hollar.

In some poems of the Anglicanus Ortus Henry the author poses as Henry the narrator, a pretentious master of medicines. After he finishes five books of the herbal, this Master Henry boasts that he is a great physician and a worthy follower of Apollo:

…thus similar to Phoebus’s physicians, most pleasing to all,
I’ll be read throughout the entire world, I’ll have an eternal name!

 

Suddenly, the cook appears, much as Apollo had suddenly appeared in the first poem on parsley, to criticize his failure to discuss common vegetables:

While I was boasting overmuch, a certain cook smirked and said to me,
‘By Phoebus [Apollo], worthless man, you’re quiet about greater matters,
and have also kept silent about Leeks, and Onions, and Cabbage—
vulgar things, to be sure, but by all means very pleasing.’

Henry then objects:

‘We name herbs, not foods, in our writings,
and these, by Jove, aren’t herbs, since they are foods!’

Simple Roman ingredients. Here, the preparation for a Roman cheesecake.
Simple Roman ingredients. Here, the preparation for a Roman cheesecake.

Henry, as narrator, steps aside, and allows this cook to describe how the vegetables onion, leek, and cabbage can be used in medicine, then adding orache (saltbush), parsley, and garlic. Sadly, the cook does not offer any culinary recipes here, but tries to show up Henry by describing elaborate cures, and namedropping the greatest authorities in learned medicine, like Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Cato the Elder. Then, in a tour de force poem about garlic, the cook piles on cure after cure using mundane kitchen vegetables, while calling on more ancient authorities like Pythagoras, Diocles, and Macer. Seemingly out of breath, and apparently drunk, the cook finishes with a brief note of cooking advice, one that is still welcome today:

‘I say that the flavour of no spice will equal it [garlic],
if Pepper is added and ground for a long time.’

Henry the narrator uses this culinary aside as an opportunity to interrupt and take back his herbal. He sends the cook off with good wishes for more alcohol:

‘At last, brother, you’ve returned, stumbling, to your stew pots!
May the gods grant you frequent fruit of the vine as your due.’

This portrait of a cook is not meant to be realistic, since Henry is using it primarily as a tool for criticizing himself and the pretensions of learned physicians. Still, through this cook, we get a glimpse of the standard vegetables and greens in a twelfth-century English kitchen. While these vegetables were undoubtedly common, some of the herbs and spices in the sauces described in my first post were luxury items, like the pepper and costus root. These recipes are thus not peasant food, but neither do they seem intended for the lord’s high table. Rather, they represent the comfort food of a twelfth-century churchman: a dinner of hot mutton with a spicy green sauce, and cold pork the next day for lunch.


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