Speak pipe


Hail medieval grub, for 'tis both hale and hearty fare

Nancy J. Stohs is food editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sources: Teaching Company lecture series, The Medieval World; "The Penguin Companion to Food" by Alan Davidson (Penguin, 2002)

You know that story about how cooks in the Middle Ages used spices to disguise the taste of spoiled meat?

Yeah, well.

You can throw that one out along with your pocket guide to identifying the common village witch.

After all, the plague wiped out roughly half the population of medieval Europe. What makes you think they were blessed with iron stomachs?

If rotten meat would send us to the hospital today, it would have put them out of commission, too.

A recent lecture I listened to on medieval food and drink - this is how I while away my 30-minute commute - has not only slain some myths about the topic, but has led me to believe the assertion set forth by the distinguished lecturer, Dorsey Armstrong, an associate professor of English at Purdue University: Folks in the late medieval period actually ate better than we do.

But don't let me just tell you. Let's look at a few facts and keep score.

• How sweet it wasn't: Until very late in the Middle Ages, cooks didn't have access to sugar. If a dish was to be sweetened, honey was used. Overall, desserts and sweets were very rare - and so, therefore, was rampant tooth decay.

Score 1, Medieval World (MW).

• Plant power: Their diet was heavy on fruits, vegetables and beans. For a long time, scholars believed just the opposite, given that surviving recipes of the day were heavy on meat. But think about it: Only the nobility could afford scribes, and why would anyone record recipes for simple foods made every day? These were feasting dishes.

Most everyone (and the peasant class made up 95% of the population) had a garden out back, plus fruit trees, berry bushes and the like. The one-pot vegetable-based meal was a staple, and only the wealthy regularly ate meat.

Score 1 for MW, ¼ for Us (for at least knowing we should eat more fruits and veggies).

• Natural rhythm: They ate seasonally. No raspberries in January for them, no lamb in October. The food they ate was at its peak of freshness.

Score 1 for MW, ¼ point for Us (for beginning to get religion on this issue).

• Lean cuisine: The meat they did eat was leaner. All livestock was free-range, and scholars estimate the fat-to-muscle ratio then at 1:3; today, it's the reverse.

Score 1, MW.

• Fire! Cooking implements were few, especially among the peasant class, and most cooking was done over an open fire, posing an ever-present hazard. Score 1 for Us, for modern kitchen safety. It doesn't matter how healthfully you eat if you go up in flames.

• Not so fin-tastic: The rivers and lakes in medieval times were garbage dumping grounds. Sound familiar? Oh, but this was worse. Think tanners, farmers, butchers, all dumping their waste products, along with raw sewage. . . .  And this is where the fish came from. And they ate a lot of fish, given the number of days in the church calendar on which meat was forbidden (150 days, according to one source).

Score ½ point for Us. At least we're aware of polluted waterways and are working to clean them up. And the fish we buy at the store is by and large fresh and safe.

• Speaking of water: Generally speaking, the water - being anything but pure - wasn't safe to drink. So the most common beverages of the day were ale, wine, mead (fermented honey) and milk.

This is a tough one. Our drinking water is safe enough, but we drink a lot of bad stuff too (soft drinks!) and overdo on alcohol. At the same time, their loaded beverages had a much lower alcohol content. Score us both ½ point.

• Staff of life: The bread then was better. It was largely whole grain (so high in fiber), baked fresh, sometimes bolstered with ground nuts or beans.

We'll call this even, a point apiece, given the emphasis in today's Western bread culture on whole grains. No wait, deduct ¼ point from MW for the occasional inclusion of tree bark as filler - and for inventing the notion that white bread (with its "finer flour" reserved for the rich) was superior.

So here's the tally: Medieval World 4 ¼, Us 3 ½.

Remove the fire hazard, and it's 4 ½ to 2 ½. But throw in the fact that when times were bad, the standard in the Middle Ages was malnourishment, and it's probably closer to even.

So what's the lesson here? Let's see: People in the Middle Ages ate the way they did because they had no real choice. We have all the choices in the world, and far greater knowledge about nutrition, and yet we often make poorer dietary choices.

Scholars should have fun with that one someday.

Hark! All sup and be merry
Here are a few other notable tidbits about medieval cuisine:

• Then, as now, salt and pepper were the most common everyday seasonings. Saffron was the most expensive.

• Medieval cooks preserved food the same ways we do: salting, pickling, conserving with sugar or honey, and drying.

• Medieval cooks serving nobility would have dazzled Food Network fans with their presentation tricks. For example: dressing a roasted fowl such as peacock with its original feathers to make it look like the live bird.

• In villages, bread - a daily staple - was most often baked in the oven of a communal bakery for a small fee.

• At communal meals and feasts, it was BYOK. That's K for knife. Forks were not yet in use.

• Hand washing before meals was stressed at feasts, but as a matter of manners; the germ theory was still many centuries in the future.

• Medieval nobility had its own version of Second Harvest. Poor people would hang around the manor or castle on feast days, knowing they'd be handed the leftovers when the meal was done.

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