Sunday, April 3, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Had dinner at Ghenet, an excellent Ethiopian place in my neighborhood.
3 Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 5: Food
Medieval food implied a class distinction. The noble ate meat and white bread and drank wine; the peasant had porridge, turnips, dark bread, and in the north, beer or ale. In Germany there were actually codes of food for the different classes. Such distinctions are lost now that grand lady and proletarian push their carts in line at the supermarket, now that presidents serve weiners to heads of state. Still, pheasants, caviar, and champagne preserve some of the old aristocratic connotation.

Meat and fowl were served in great variety. All sorts of birds were eaten, from starlings to gulls, herons, storks, cormorants, and vultures. Animals were cut up and cooked immediately after killing, or they were salted for preservation. Pork was recommended as most resembling human flesh. Tender fowls and animals were roasted on spits, but most meat was boiled since rangy cattle, hard-running stags, and half-wild chickens were sure to be tough, rebuffing toothless elders. Pretentious party dishes were elaborate hashes in which the taste of a dozen strong spices dominated, especially pepper, mustard, and garlic. (The French crusaders in Constantinople revolted the natives by their garlic breath.)

The meat-and-pastry diet induced skin troubles, digestive disorders, infections from decomposed proteins, scurvy, tooth decay. (The common cure for toothache was extraction; hence the old had only rare, treasured teeth.) The Lenten prohibition of meat was an excellent therapeutic measure. Fish was substituted; castles and monasteries had their own fishponds, in which villeins were forbidden to dip. Every kind of fish was eaten; dogfish, porpoises, seals, and whale were imported from the salt sea.

Most of our vegetables, except potatoes, tomatoes, and Indian corn, were known, but they were scorned as commoners' foods. Lentils and cucumbers were regarded as unwholesome. Our fruits were familiar, though they were smaller, wilder, and perhaps more flavorsome than they are today. Medical opinion counseled against eating them raw. They were often preserved in honey and cooked in pastry. Such desserts were costly because of the shortage of sweetening. But sugar was imported as a luxury from the twelfth century on. People delighted in rosy and violet-colored sugars from Alexandria and appreciated cakes, wafers, cookies, waffles, and jellies.

Much attention was given to the appearance of dishes. An artistic chef liked to serve a peacock fully feathered, with its tail spread. Or a swan with a silvered body and gilt beak, swimming on a green pastry pond. Or a pasty, which, on being cut, released bewildered little birds; upon these nobles' falcons plunged. Or a sculpture of paste, jelly, and sugar, called a subtlety. Or some such novelty as a cockatrice, the head and forequarters of a piglet sewed to the body of a capon or vice versa. A great party given for the pope by two cardinals in 1308 was graced with a pastry castle containing a roasted stag, two edible trees bearing fruits and candies, a fountain spurting five kinds of wine. A new archbishop of Canterbury in 1443 enjoyed a subtlety representing the Trinity with Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas à Becket.

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