Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

800px-margarine-on-toast
Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.

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Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Describing Seething Meat in the New World

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Building on my last post on picturing New World foods in Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, I now turn to the textual descriptions of those foods.

After listing a number of food items and comparing them to similar English ingredients, Hariot commented briefly on various aspects of Virginia Algonquian life. As any modern travel writer might do, he covered primarily positive aspects of what he saw and explained several agricultural practices of the Algonquians.

John White, White Indian man and woman eating; on rush mat, eating maize from a large round flat dish. Image Credit: British Museum.
John White, White Indian man and woman eating; on rush mat, eating maize from a large round flat dish. Image Credit: British Museum.

The following passage concerning maize or Indian corn–“corn” was an English word for grains in general–describes the grain and ends with the particulars of making a pap or mush (p. 13, online edition and this transcription):

PAGATOWR, a kinde of graine so called by the inhabitants; the same in the West Indies is called MAYZE: English men call it Guinney wheate or Turkie wheate, according to the names of the countreys from whence the like hath beene brought. The graine is about the bignesse of our ordinary English peaze and not much different in forme and shape: but of diuers colours: some white, some red, some yellow, and some blew. All of them yeelde a very white and sweete flowre: beeing vsed according to his kinde it maketh a very good bread.

Wee made of the same in the countrey some mault, whereof was brued as good ale as was to bee desired. So likewise by the help of hops therof may bee made as good Beere. It is a graine of marueilous great increase; of a thousand, fifteene hundred and some two thousand fold.

There are three sortes, of which two are ripe in an eleuen and twelue weekes at the most: sometimes in ten, after the time they are set, and are then of height in stalke about sixe or seuen foote. The other sort is ripe in fourteene, and is about ten foote high, of the stalkes some beare foure heads, some three, some one, and two: euery head containing fiue, sixe, or seuen hundred graines within a fewe more or lesse.

Of these graines besides bread, the inhabitants make victual eyther by parching them; or seething them whole vntill they be broken; or boyling the floure with water into a pappe.

Not only did Hariot describe the flora and fauna of this new world, he took pains to learn how the Virginia Algonquians prepared some of their food. The next passage forms the headnote to De Bry’s elaboration of John White’s original watercolor, “The Seething of Their Meate in Potts of Earth” (p. 54, online edition and this transcription).

Their woemen know how to make earthen vessells with special Cunninge and that so large and fine, that our potters with lhoye wheles can make noe better: ant then Remoue them from place to place as easelye as we candoe our brassen kettles. After they haue set them vppon an heape of erthe to stay them from fallinge, they putt wood vnder which being kyndled one of them taketh great care that the fyre burne equallye Rounde abowt. They or their woemen fill the vessel with water, and then putt they in fruite, flesh, and fish, and lett all boyle together like a galliemaufrye, which the Spaniarde call, olla podrida. Then they putte yt out into disches, and sett before the companye, and then they make good cheere together. Yet are they moderate in their eatinge wher by they auoide sicknes. I would to god wee would followe their exemple. For wee should bee free from many kynes of diseasyes which wee fall into by sumptwous and vnseasonable banketts, continuallye deuisinge new sawces, and prouocation of gluttonnye to sarisfie our vnsatiable appetite.

The differences between John White’s original drawing in the 1588 text and De Bry’s 1590 rendition in a later edition, which I discussed in my previous post, leap out at the viewer. But Hariot’s words serve to paint a more realistic picture.

While such early material must indeed be taken with a grain of salt, Hariot and White’s contributions offer a glimpse into a world seen by few Europeans of the time.

Modern translations of the excerpts follow below.

1. Pagatowr is a kind of grain. It is called maize in the West Indies; Englishmen name it Guinea wheat or Turkey wheat, after the countries from which a similar grain has been brought. This grain is about the size of our ordinary English peas and, while similar to them in form and shape, differs in color, some grains being white, some red, some yellow, and some blue. All of them yield a very white and sweet flour which makes excellent bread. We made malt from the grain while we were in Virginia and brewed as good an ale of it as could be desired. It also could be used, with the addition of hops, to produce a good beer. The grain increases on a marvelous scale-a thousand times, fifteen hundred, and in some cases two thousand fold. There are three sorts, of which two are ripe in ten, eleven, and, at the most, twelve weeks, when their stalks are about six or seven feet in height. The third one ripens in fourteen weeks and is ten feet high. Its stalks bear one, two, three, or four heads, and every head contains five, six, or seven hundred grains, as near as I can say. The inhabitants not only use it for bread but also make food of these grains. They either parch them, boiling them whole until they break, or boil the flour with water into a pap.

2. Their women know how to make earthen vessels with special cunning and that so large and fine, that our potters with their wheels can make no better: and then remove them from place to place as easily as we can do our brass kettles. After they have set them upon a heap of earth to stay them from falling, they put wood under which being kindled one of them takes great care that the fire burn equally round about. They or their women fill the vessel with water, and then put therein fruit, flesh, and fish, and let all boil together like a gallimaufry [hodgepodge], which the Spaniards call olla podrida [burgoo]. Then they put it out into dishes, and set before the company, and then they make good cheer together. Yet are they moderate in their eating whereby they avoid sickness. I would to god we would follow their example. For we should be free from many kinds of diseases which we fall into by sumptous and unseasonable banquets, continually devising new sauces, and provocation of gluttony to satisfy our insatiable appetite.

Picturing Seething Meat in the New World

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Early English settlers in the New World possessed very specific ideas about food, its effect on their bodies, and the social factors influencing who ate what and when and how and why. Once they arrived in the New World, they faced very real challenges, not just because of the lack of food–although that obviously played a major role at times. But these beliefs followed them. As Trudy Eden puts it in The Early American Table, they saw the new foods as “savage” and  “feared a regular diet of native foods could very possibly transform them into a lower class of human beings” (4).

The debate over the origins of American food has taken some strange swerves over the centuries. The influence of Native Americans and African slaves on early American cooking remains somewhat nebulous. And yet the foods of the New World “first peoples” did make inroads on the English kitchen.

Some of the reasons for this confusion over the impact of Native American foodways lie in the

  1. lack of written information by Native Americans;
  2. inability of archaeological information to convey how food was cooked, particularly the exact ingredients and how they were put together;
  3. records left by early European explorers, who interpreted Native American foodways through their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century worldviews.

Early chroniclers possessed an ulterior motive: commerce. Through their writings, they hoped to entice investors and colonists to the New World. For that reason, it is important to take all the verbiage with the proverbial grain of salt. And the artwork as well.

One of those early explorers and chroniclers was Englishman Thomas Hariot (1560-1621), who spent the year 1585-1586 in Virginia. He arrived in the New World via one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships, the Tiger, under the leadership of Sir Richard Grenville. The colonization attempts failed, but Hariot–and artist John White (1549-1593)–returned to England with timeless and invaluable material from their explorations of Roanoake Island in North Carolina.

Image Credit: British Library.
Image Credit: British Library.

Hariot could well be dubbed the first Anglo-American ethnographer. Prior to his trip, Hariot learned some rudimentary Algonquian language from two Virginia Algonquian men (Manteo and Wanchese) who had been brought to England by Raleigh in 1584. Hariot recorded his observations of the New World, while White created detailed watercolors of their surroundings and Alongonquian activities such as cooking. Together, they left a valuable record of the culture and eating habits of the Ossomocomuck (Algonquians): A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, which first appeared in Latin in 1588. This was the first account of the New World written by an English author. Only eight of the original copies now exist, but the material is available in digitized form as well.

In 1590, at the urging of Richard Hakluyt the younger, Theodore de Bry (a Liège engraver) printed a third edition of Hariot’s 48-page work. Hariot added headnotes to De Bry’s engravings of 1590, with engravings based on White’s original drawings.

John White, "The Seething of Their Meate in Poots of earth". Courtesy of the British Museum.
John White, “The Seething of Their Meate in Poots of earth”. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Hariot added headnotes to De Bry’s engravings in the 1590 edition. John White’s original drawing of cooking in a pot became quite something else under the engraving pen of one of De Bry’s workshop artists, Gijsbert van Veen.

G. Veen, "Their seetheynge of their meate in earthen pottes". Image Credit: British Library.
G. Veen, “Their seetheynge of their meate in earthen pottes”. Image Credit: British Museum.

That De Bry himself elaborated on most of White’s other illustrations as well, suggests the care needed in interpreting these drawings and engravings…

My next post on Thursday will consider the book’s descriptions of Algonquian cooking.