A love for spices and fanfare are highlights of medieval cooking

A love for spices and fanfare are highlights of medieval cooking

Yale Historian Paul Freedman

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Yale historian Paul Freedman, Ph.D., shared some of the outstanding characteristics of cooking techniques and food preferences of medieval Europe during a presentation at Lycoming College April 7.

During his presentation, "Basic Principles of Medieval Cuisine," Freedman broke down the stereotypes of medieval times, calling into question whether the period roughly between 500 and 1500 CE could justifiably be called the dark ages. Much like today, the typical medieval cook used primarily locally and organically grown foods and a wide array of spices to tempt all types of palates. He also noted that most of what is known about medieval cooking is based on accounts from upper class families.

Where medieval cooks differ from today’s cooks lie in the amount of spices used for each dish — medieval cooks tended to use amounts that would be considered copious by today’s standards — and a love for fanfare that prompted them to decorate or alter foods in surprising and colorful ways. So the medieval reveler may find his cooked chicken redressed in feathers, bequeathed with miniature helmet and spear, sitting atop a deliciously prepared hog. Or one might open a red and gold decorated egg to find it filled with a carefully prepared vegetable. And because they like slippery food, many edibles were paired with aspic, a gelatin created when cooking meat.

Medieval cooks loved spices not only because they had a passion for piquant and varied flavors, but because of their mystique, having come from “the end of the world” or “paradise.” They also tended to use more varieties of spices in a single dish than cooks do today, and they used them often in beverages, particularly wine.

According to Freedman, meals tended to be more protein-based and involved a wider variety of animals harvested. For example, during a banquet, the fowl course would include small song birds along with larger birds like herons and cranes. They also tended to use more of the animal, sprinkling in an array of organ meats among the usual roasts. Unlike today, cheeses, milk and sausages were disdained by the upper classes for much of this time period, although less well-to-do people ate them regularly. Medieval people also tended to eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

The variety of meats was particularly important during periods of “fasting” required by religious edicts. Fasting periods did not necessarily require people to eat very little, rather to avoid certain types of foods. Therefore, one could still hold a weeklong banquet during lent, it simply meant the menu would include fish only — lampreys, pike, crabs, eels, salmon, sole, perch, and gunner among others.

Medieval people did not usually eat what are typically called desserts, although they still had after dinner snacks, most often meats or cooked fruits and vegetables.

Another aspect Freedman discussed was the medicinal value of food. People believed they remained healthy by eating foods that would balance their four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. For example, those who tended to be moody should avoid foods that increased black bile. The concept prompted all kinds of rules about which foods should be paired with others and how much a given personality should eat.

Freedman also outlined how the demand for certain products affected economies, first by the importation of spices from afar, and much later with the rise in the demand for sugar and bananas, which significantly changed global labor and trade practices.

Freedman is the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History and chair of the History of Science and History of Medicine programs at Yale University. He is the author of several books, most recently “Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination” (2008, Yale University Press) on the demand for spices in medieval Europe. He also has edited a number of essay collections, including “Food: The History of Taste,” which is an illustrated collection of essays about food from prehistoric to contemporary times (2007, University of California Press). His teaching and publications have earned him numerous awards including the 2008 Cookbook Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The lecture is sponsored by the endowed Ewing Lecture Series, which is named for Robert H. Ewing who taught at Lycoming College for 27 years, to recognize his deep religious faith, passion for history and strong devotion to a liberal arts education. A revered teacher and friend of the college, Ewing’s inspirational influence prompted students, colleagues and community members to establish the Ewing Fund and lecture series in 1973, shortly after his retirement.

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