All posts by M. Taylor-Poleskey

I’m the professor of Digital History at Middle Tennessee State University. My scholarly interests include cultural exchange, travel, material culture, court culture, and the history of everyday life in early modern Europe.

My first book project (in progress) looks at food culture and the food system at the court of Brandenburg-Prussia during the growth period of the second half of the 17th century.

The Fruits of Summer in the Dead of Winter

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

In the seventeenth century, life ebbed and flowed with the seasons. In my research into the court household of Berlin, I noted seasonal shifts in livery, lighting, bedtimes, and, of course, recipes. Even with these seasonal adaptations, however, early modern Europeans sought to overcome seasonal growing constraints. One occupation primarily concerned with defying the seasonality of food was that of the court confectioner. It was his (and his wife’s) job to preserve the delicate summer fruits for wealthy Europeans to enjoy even in the depths of winter.

Nicolas de Bonnefons described the rewards of this play with the seasons in his 1654 Les Delices de la campagne, which was translated into English and German and even republished by a Berlin court physician, Johann Sigismund Elsholtz. Bonnefons raptured:

There is nothing which doth more agreeably concern the senses, than in the depth of Winter to behold the fruits so fair, and so good, yea, better than when you first did gather them; and that then, when the trees seem to be dead, and have lost all their Verdure, and the rigour of the cold to have so dispoil’d your garden of all that imbellished it, that it appears rather a desart [sic] than a paradise of delicacies; then it is, I say, that you will taste your fruit with infinite more Gust and contentment, than in the summer it self, when their great abundance and variety rather cloy you than become agreeable. For this reason therefore it is, that we will essay to teach you the most expedite, and certain means how to conserve them all the winter, even so long, as till the new shall incite you to quite the old.[1]

A view into the confectioner’s kitchen in The French gardiner, 1691,

Considering Bonnefons emphatic endorsement of summer fruits in winter, it is perhaps not surprising that confectioners were highly valued in Europe. The moist and cold properties of fresh fruit generally made it a nutritional no-no, according to Galenic principles of diet. However, candied fruits were considered medicinal and the position of court confectioner often fell under the office of the apothecary, not the kitchen.[2] In the Renaissance, it was common to seal the stomach at the end of a rich meal with either fresh or preserved fruits and fruit at a meal was emblematic of the wealth and refinement of the host.[3] By the eighteenth century, the task of the confectioner to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the table was so ingrained that one encyclopedist claimed they belonged to the artist class and prospects had to apprentice themselves to a city confectioner for six years until they had mastered their art.[4] 

Georg Flegel (1566–1638), Still life with cookies and confections (including dried cherries).

The importance of the confectioner is apparent at the court at Berlin in the seventeenth century. The household archives contain a frantic exchange from 1647 between the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688) and his counselors about finding a replacement for the deceased confectioner, Johann Schenke, whose wife did not want to carry on the job. It being early summer (Jun 27), the councilors expressed the pressing need to fill the vacancy because “now is the best time for juices and other garden fruits to be preserved.”[5] Friedrich Wilhelm ordered them to install the Prussian confectioner, Johann Tiegel, in the position. He wrote that although they would eventually draw up a contract for him, Tiegel should get started immediately collecting the fruit from the gardens and bringing them to the elector’s tables with the appropriate confections.[6]

When it was finally written, the court confectioner’s employment contract specified the supplies he would receive to carry out his charge: 700 Reichsthaler (in addition to his 80 Reichstaler salary), 960 eggs, as much flour and fruit as needed (from the gardens and from in-kind taxes), 1000 citrons, 1000 bitter oranges, as well as a supply of wood, coal and candles.[7] Occasionally, the confectioner did not get the necessary supplies, which hindered his ability to preserve fruits and was costly for the court. In 1657, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered that Tiegel surely be supplied with apples, cherries, and Black Corinths (Johannisbeere in German) in order to avoid the great expense of having to buy confections from outside of the palace, which had been necessary the previous year.[8]

Cherries were the first ripe fruits of the summer. The sandy soil of Brandenburg was well-suited to growing cherries and in 1656, there were eight varieties of cherries cataloged in the palace garden of Berlin.[9] Dr. Elsholtz wrote that cherries were ripe in June and July and described their consumption: “one eats cherries either fresh or cooked into a soup, or dried, or preserved with sugar. Some make cherry water or a syrup.”[10] Here is a translation of one such cherry recipe reprinted by Elsholtz from Bonnefons:

One makes the cherry syrup from the good, ripe cherry juice, which you press through a hair or linen cloth. For every quart of this juice, add a pound of sugar, boil that to a thick syrup. To clarify this syrup, let it run through a distillation sack.”[11]

Elsholtz’s descriptions also correspond with the menus and food receipts from the Brandenburg-Prussian household archive, which frequently list the ordering or consumption of dried cherries and cherry sauce (Kirschmus), in particular.

In some popular food literature today, there’s nostalgia for a time when humans adhered more closely to the foods nature provided each season. Even prior to industrialization, however, people clearly prized the rarity of a taste of an off-season food. What the archival record reveals, though, is that early modern Europeans of all orders were still hyper aware of what foods were available when and were careful about timing the work of preservation accordingly.

[1] Nicolas de Bonnefons, John Evelyn, and John Rose, The French Gardiner (London: Printed by F.B. for B. Took, and are to be sold by J. Taylor, 1691), p. 191-2. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.31822031020266?urlappend=%3Bseq=218.

[2] This was the case in Berlin. See Peter Bahl, Der Hof des Grossen Kurfürsten: Studien zur hoheren Amtsträgerschaft Brandenburg-Preussens (Koln: Bohlau, 2001), p. 365.

[3] Ken Albala, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 82-89.

[4] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Conditor,” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft (Berlin: Pauli, 1773), http://www.kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[5] Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz I. Rep. 36 948, p. 57

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Ibid, p. 55. There is no mention of the quantity of sugar the confectioner would receive, but an earlier missive from the previous elector ordered the Office of the Domains (Amtskammer) to supply the confectioner with enough sugar for the dried fruits coming in as taxes-in-kind from the administrative districts (Ämter). Ibid, p. 16.

[8] Ibid. p. 73.

[9] Marina Heilmeyer, Kirschen für den König, Potsdamer pomologische Geschichten (Potsdam: Vacat, 2001), p. 10. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz’s 1656 plant catalog Horta Berolinensis can be found at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin Ms.boruss.qu. 12.

[10] Elßholtz, Vom Garten-Baw (Berlin, 1684), p. 258.  Ibid, Diaeteticon (Cölln an der Spree: Georg Schulz, 1682), p. 61.

[11] Ibid, p. 436-7. I translated Viertal as quart and “Luttersack” as distillation sack. There’s a picture of a 19th-century Luttersack here (item 30). According to Adelung, the Lutter is what came out of the first pass through the fire when making brandy (which required two firings).

A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I)
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

Beer soup: The Breakfast of Early Modern Rulers

By Molly Taylor-Poleskey

As a young ruler, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia began each morning with a beer soup. He then dutifully locked himself away and attended to the day’s business until the midday meal.

This simple anecdote is recounted by almost every biographer of Friedrich Wilhelm. I was intrigued by the historiographic implications of this (what did biographers think it reflected about the ruler that he consumed this rather modest fare?). Beyond this, though, I became curious: what actually was beer soup? And, what it might have been like to start every day with it?

Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877
Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877

Although foreign to contemporary German cuisine, beer soup was very common in central Europe in the medieval and early modern period. As such common fare, it had a wide number of permutations. The most basic definition of beer soup is a “soup of brown (probably dark) beer, cream, fat and flour or egg yolk.”[1]  Various other recipes called for slightly different ingredients (such as costly spices), or onions and cheese to make a more substantial soup to accompany a roast.

After reading about various beer soups in early modern cookbooks, though, I still could not wrap my head around what a beer soup was. So, there was only one thing to do: perform “experiential research” and try beer soup for myself.

The Experiment

Somewhat surprisingly, my friends Steve and Noria enthusiastically agreed to join the experience. We gathered at my apartment one Saturday afternoon (we couldn’t bring ourselves to perform the experiment first thing in the morning) and decided to attempt two versions of the recipe. We selected the recipes for their clarity and because they used a representative mix of commonly-mentioned ingredients.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first recipe was inspired by a recipe in an eighteenth-century encyclopedia for “a really good beer soup.”[2] We translated it thus:

  • 1 Bottle of dark beer
  • Sweet cream
  • Three egg yolks[3]
  • Mace
  • 3 ½ Tbs. Butter[4]
  • Raisins[5]

Thoroughly stir mixture, boil it and serve with toast.

“a really good beer soup”
“a really good beer soup”

The result? “Repulsive,” said Steve, “I don’t want to eat it anymore.” I had to agree, the egg-drop soup consistency combined with the taste of day-old beer was nauseating. Noria had a more descriptive response: “it’s weird that it tastes sweet; I would have never guessed it since it smells like feet.” The toast was unquestionably the highlight of that attempt.

Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise
Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise

The second attempt was, thankfully, slightly more palatable. For this, we used the following recipe from the 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook:

  • 1 Bottle of white beer (we used Erdinger Weißbier)
  • Cloves
  • 3 ½ Tbs. butter
  • 2 slices of rye bread cut into small chunks
  • Salt to taste

Combine beer, cloves and butter. Heat in a pot, but don’t let it boil. When it’s ready, add bread and salt and this makes a tasty soup. [6]

Although this attempt was not completely successful, we all agreed that it was much better than the first. Perhaps with fewer cloves and less salt, it was conceivable that someone (other than us) might enjoy this soup.

Reflection

Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.
Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.

In following these recipes, I did not presume to recreate the experience of an early modern diner. The gulf between our palates, ingredients, cooking tools and methods is just too wide. But there’s no doubt that the exercise helped me realize some things about the habits and tastes of the people I study. For example, beer soup was more a hearty drink than a soup that might constitute a meal. This fits with the description of daily habits from an early eighteenth-century court advice manual, which described beer and bread for Früh=Trunk, or “early drink” (instead of using the word for breakfast, Frühstück). The records of daily food distribution at the Berlin residence also only refer to two meals: the midday and evening meals. The elector’s beer soup, then, was more likely meant as a restorative broth. Other absolutist rulers, such as King Charles II of England, are known to have drunk such a restorative during their morning levée when they were ceremoniously washed and dressed.

The practical application of the recipes made me pay much closer attention to the details of the instructions than if had I just read them. I could not follow the author’s instructions to the letter. In the end, I had to make decisions about what modern ingredients to substitute for early modern ones, such as whipping cream with sugar for sweet cream. Most likely, my Calphalon pot over an electric burner also produced different results than an iron kettle or a raised hearth.

But, even Rumpolt allowed some room for improvisation: “each cook prepares food as he pleases … in my opinion, there are no absolute rules in cooking, otherwise it would be impossible.”[7]


[1] Sabine Bunsmann-Hopf, Zur Sprache in Kochbüchern des späten mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit-ein fachkundliches Wörterbuch. (Würzburg: Verlag Koenigshausen & Neumann GmbH, 2003), 29.

[2] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Bier=suppe.” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie Oder Allgemeines System Der Staats- Stadt- Haus- Und Landwirthschaft, 1773, http://kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[3] Presumably the egg whites would have been turned to more elegant purposes elsewhere in the early modern kitchen.

[4] Measurement taken from a beer soup recipe at the website: www.how-to-live-like-a-German.com

[5] We only had dried cranberries on hand—a New World food that only entered German cuisine in the 21st century!

[6] Nimb weiß Bier/ thu Kümmel und Butter darein/ laß nur damit warm werden/ und nicht affusieden/ und wenn du es wilt anrichten/ so schneidt Ruckenbrot darunten/ unnd salz es/ so is ein wolgeschmackte Biersuppen. Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch (Franckfurt am Mayn: Fischer, 1604), 164.

[7] “ein jeder Koch seine art und weise/ eine Speise seines gefallens zubereiten … Ist auch meine meynung ganz und gar nicht/ gewisse Regeln un Praecepta/ nach welchen sich einer/ der kochen wil lernen/ eben richten solte un müßte/ als wer es sonst unmüglich kochen …” Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch, 63.