[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series. In this entry, Molly Taylor-Poleskey discusses her work in teaching about late medieval taste and cuisine.]
One of the most common questions a food historian gets is, “are YOU an expert chef?”
In my case, the answer is no. Sure, I can whip up an okay weekday meal, but I don’t have the experience to intuit good flavor or the patience to follow others’ recipes precisely. However, despite my personal shortcomings as a cook, I still find the act of attempting a historical recipe to be enlightening and a particularly useful exercise for teaching history. At my most recent college reunion, I taught a broad overview of medieval and early modern European culture through the dish blancmange.
As opposed to its modern, dessert version, Blancmange in the medieval period (just as the name implies) was a “white dish” of castrated rooster in almond milk. The dishes basic traits allowed me to express many of the transformations that were taking place in Europe in the 13th through 15th centuries to a group of students of all ages and historical experience. Blancmange had iterations all over the continent during a time when Europe was rediscovering networks of exchange that had been closed since the fall of Rome.
Blancmange contained some of the new and perhaps unexpected flavors of an age of war against Islam: both against the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Crusades. It was a time when most luxury goods were entering Europe from the East (mostly through the Middle East) because Europeans couldn’t produce many luxury goods themselves. The return of the crusaders and a new thriving merchant class coincided with the rise of elite, international cuisine in Europe. Elites all over Europe wanted to emulate one another and there was a high degree of exchange of information about dishes like Blancmange particularly in books purchased with this new wealth.
Now, that’s a familiar narrative for elite medieval food history, but what was fascinating for me was how much I learned while searching for these ingredients all over my hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. Capons cost a whopping $50 each and can be ordered on the internet. I didn’t plan far enough in advance to get one, but it turned out that the local butcher shop could get me one anyway in just over a day. Capons reportedly had a better flavor than traditional hen poultry. I went to the effort and expense to get them because I was curious about this flavor difference and wanted to highlight the larger variety of food available to medieval chefs. Not only do we (in standard modern, Western cuisine) eat a smaller variety of animals, these few varieties taste the same no matter where we are because the process of raising chickens is homogenized. No matter where you are, chances are that when you purchase chicken in a grocery store it’s the same breed of chicken, raised on the same food in the same manner as anywhere else in the country. And in fact, in my inexperienced hands the capons didn’t end up tasting any different than, well, chicken.
Searching for the spices brought me to the culturally diverse-neighborhood of Union Sq. with grocerettes with foods from many different nations. The Indian store promised on the phone that they carried galangal, but when I got there, I wasn’t 100% sure that their galangal roots were not ginger and in any case, it was a whole fresh rhizome, which supposedly tastes like ginger anyway. I had to go to a chichi gourmet spice shop in Cambridge to get the dried version, which is what I assumed made it to medieval Europe.
Next, I searched for the peppery grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta). The Brazilian store had a preserved “Malagueta pepper” in a bottle and I got excited. However, just to be sure, I googled the product before checking out and there are indeed two different foods associated with this name. Just like Columbus misnamed the chili peppers of the New World because they gave a similar tongue sensation as peppercorns, the malagueta/melegueta naming was the result of culinary confusion. The trade of melegueta (grains of paradise) from the Gulf of Guinea to Europe was dominated by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The Brazilian chili (Capsicum frutescens) I found bottled in Union Square was also named by Columbus. I had never used grains of paradise before and searching for it in the twenty-first century reminded me of the convoluted foodways since the Columbian exchange. Again, the real grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) was only to be found at the Cambridge specialty spice store.
In the end, I forgot to add the sugar and the verjus while cooking my blancmange, and both of those ingredients would have made this dish stand out to the modern Western palate. But even my mistakes illustrated the distance between medieval and modern assumptions about cooking and taste, and drew my attention to aspects of history since the medieval blancmange was regularly consumed. There was a mixed audience in my classroom, as the students who participated came from many different backgrounds and levels of experience. We were able to draw on these experiences in class, and even had a professional chef press the almond milk with an urban farmer. Cooking allowed my students and me to practice the all-important historical skills of research and interpretation through a physical experience and the lens of our modern lives.