Towards a New Base For Historical Cooking

The Company is known for its kitchen. Company cooks like Helga, Josiane or Werner prepare wonderful dishes and our guest are stunned by the feasts we host from time to time. By a coincidence none of the experienced cooks will attend our next event and I have been volunteered to be the head of the kitchen. Unfortunately, the event in question is rather demanding: We are going to portray a noble household with a lord and his family. This is a challenge for the cooks - and it is not a small one.

My fellow cooks and I took the opportunity to launch a new round of research on historical cooking. In my experience, most reenactment cooks base their work on historical recipes. There is a great many of medieval manuscripts with recipes. But before one dives into those, it pays to take a look at a small book from the French "Typologie des Sources" series:

Laurioux, Bruno, ed. Les Livres de Cuisine Medievaux. Typologie des Sources du Moyen Âge Occidental, Fasicle 77. Turnhout (Belgique) 1997, ISBN: 2-503-36000-9 (Review/Summary).

When you read through this excellent description of this class of sources you will understand, that collections of historical recipes are not an ideal base for good reenactment. The authors of manuscripts on cooking recipes were hardly cooks themselves. Very often, they were physicians interested in a good diet, nouveau riches attempting to show their wealth, or they are Maîtres d'Hôtel trying to make their lord look shiny through the documentation of the excellent dishes being served at his court. So these collections of historical recipes reproduce special, often high-class dishes for feasts or for the upper class. By no means is it a direct documentation of every day food in a military camp of an artillery company.

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Mettlinger, "Ein regiment der jungen kinder", part of folio 7r (scanned from a faksimile).

If we want the latter, we need different sources. We need sources speaking of the every day diet and documentation of this diet. Archaeological excavations come to mind: Latrines give a very clear idea of the basic elements of the food, the people ate. The latrines are less talkative when it comes to recipes, though. Administrative sources are very useful too. If a city documents the type and the amount of food being sold on the retail market, then this is a direct proof of the consumption of these items within its wall or within its hinterland. For example, administrative sources tell us, that fresh-water fish were becoming more and more popular during our period.

Another interesting example for a great source is a treatise by German pediatric Bartholomäus Mettlinger from 1497: "Ein regiment der jungen kinder". It is available as a faksimile; I got my copy via zvab at a decent price.

Bartholomäus Mettlinger: Die jungen kinder wie many sy halten und erziechen sol von irer gepurt biss sy zu tagmen komen. Faksimile der Inkunabel "Ein regiment der jungen kinder" von Batholomäus Mettlinger, gedruckt von Hans Schaur zu Augsburg im Jahre 1497. Kommentar von Peter Amelung, Dietikon 1976 (Review/Summary).

This is a book about childcare and the typical diseases of small children. The author's love for babies makes it a very interesting read from a cultural historical perspective. Outside of his counsel of good diet for children, he also gives advice for nurses. He describes the typical diet of everyday people and tells the reader which of these dishes are suiteable for a nurse and how one can make a normal recipe more digestible. Voilà: This is what we need as a base for historical cooking.

Reading these sources, we plan to come up with a whitelist of food. So we are not starting from a modern diet and then we substract potatoes and tomatos. No, we start from scratch and then we add basic ingredients to this list; each one of them in its historical context. The result will form a new base for historical cooking.

By Christian Folini, Veteran Company member.

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