By Ken Albala
I often use recipes in various classes as primary documents, to examine social issues and gender roles, to explore the meaning of various ingredients and techniques and their movement around the globe, and to discuss anything the text might yield as a record of the past. Cooking with these recipes is a little more complicated. Apart from the lack of kitchens, my food history class is usually about 60 students, and feeding them is just impractical. But I still really want students to get a sense of what historic food tasted like, especially when cooked on an open fire using period implements. In graduate classes I have had students cook in groups at home and we connect via video conferencing so everyone at least gets to discuss the historic recipes as they cook them. It’s much more satisfying to bring a smaller class to my home so we can not only get our hands dirty before the hearth, but get a physical sense of what cooking was like in the past, and of course taste the food to get a direct idea of people’s taste preferences.
For one gathering of history majors a few years ago I chose to cook from the 16th century Livre fort excellent de cuysine, a cookbook I had recently translated with Tim Tomasik, but neither of us had tested most of the recipes. So there was not only an element of uncertainty, but even I could only guess how the recipes would taste in the end.
I had some students chop pork by hand and stuff intestines to make cervelat sausages. Some used the wood-fired oven to bake, others cooked a rabbit with bacon at the hearth in a clay pipkin. I think the biggest hit was an opulent pie made with sole, rich with spices, dripping with butter and verjuice. There was also a “hochepot” stew made with chicken, dried fruit and a lot of sugar. A dish of frumenty, which is whole wheat berries and “crespes” (which are like funnel cakes) rounded out the menu. The only rule was to stick as closely as possible to the original early modern recipes, which thankfully didn’t include many measurements, so there was a good deal of leeway.
Everything turned out to be not only good, but excellent, as I knew it would if we had stuck to the directions. More revealingly, dishes that the students fully expected to dislike were devoured. Flavors they thought would clash, like the sugar in the stew, turned out to be very appealing. The riot of spices reminded some of Indian food. Most importantly, rather than hearing a description of these flavor combinations, students got to experience them first-hand. It was much like hearing music played on period instruments or seeing a 500-year-old painting up close. History can and should be made palpable and cooking is one of the most thrilling ways it can be done, as long as you start with a lesson in fire safety!
Ken Albala teaches food history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton California and is Director of the Food Studies Masters Program in San Francisco.