Book Review

From Paul Halsall, a review of an interesting new book:

Ruth Goodman, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal Into Victorian Homes Changed Everything (2020).

Despite the title the book really discusses the replacement of wood fires by coal fires in London in the sixteenth century, and wood cooking first by coal fires, and then by coal-fired iron ovens in the nineteenth century.

Again the focus is mostly London, where a population increase from circa 50,000 to circa 200,000 in Elizabeth I’s reign meant that hard to find and hard to transport firewood (etc.) was replaced by easy to find and easy to transport sea-coal from the River Tyne region.

There has been a lot of writing on this change to coal, e.g. by John Hatcher, but before Goodman that has not much focused on the implication for cooking.

Basically, she argues wood fires burn in such a way that they allow some forms of cooking but discourage others. Wood and charcoal cooking she suggests retained an elite class aspect, but the urban poor, especially when grates and chimneys became widespread, used coal.

She argues that the lower and variable heat of wood fires encourage slow “thick” recipes (since “catching” was not an issue), but much hotter coal fires encourage thinner soups and methods where you cooked food by boiling it in bags (i.e. puddings, which arrive in recipe books in the early seventeenth century).

She also argues that while roasting in front of a wood fire produced beautiful meat, that was less possible with coal where shape of the fire was not good for spit roasting, and the smoke spoiled the meat. What we tend to call “roast” is instead “baked” meat and owes its predominance to the late 18th and 19th century development of iron ovens.

It is her comments on bread that I found most interesting.

She argues that because bread-baking required large ovens to be done efficiently it was mostly done in the middle ages by professionals. Historians tend to have a lot of information on this because millers and bakers were often well enough off to leave wills and so on.

In actual houses, though, she argues that wood and peat fires (with low heat) meant that much or most grain was in fact prepared as frumentary (a kind of thick porridge) with versions made from wheat, oats, and barley. So while not denying bread was important, she thinks that in medieval England it was less a way of consuming grain calories than is sometimes thought.

Coal fires, however, tend to make thick frumentary recipes “catch” (i.e. burn on the bottom) and as a result she thinks that there was an increase in the amount of bought bread and pies that people ate. They cooked thinner soups and stews but bought bread for bulk. She shows that the percentage of bakers increased in the population of London. So, because coal-fired cooking made stodgy stews less easy to cook, the amount of bread bought outside the home increased.

When smaller iron ranges became available, it was much easier to cook bread at home (which Victorian male authors encouraged in order to stop plaster-adulterated bread), but in fact it was not very economical to heat an oven for one or two loaves, and people did in fact continue to buy commercial bread.

Castoreum

From Matador Network

The truth about artificial vanilla extract (and why you should always splurge for pure)

VANILLA IS IN our cupcakes, birthday cakes, and ice cream cones. It is sweetness personified, the taste of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies after dinner and licking frosting straight off the spatula. A little bottle of vanilla extract is a staple in pantries across America, and there is hardly a home baker in the country that questions where it came from when they pour a teaspoon into batter or dough. They definitely aren’t thinking about beaver glands. And yet these forest-dwelling, dam-building furry little creatures once played a central role in the production of artificial vanilla extract.

What beavers have to do with vanilla extract

Beavers have sweet-smelling butts. The castor gland, located underneath the beaver’s tail distressingly close to the anus, produces a slimy brown substance called castoreum. In nature, beavers use castoreum to mark their territory. Thanks to a diet of tree bark, the goo has a musky fragrance similar to natural vanilla.

The properties of castoreum have made it a popular additive in perfumes and to enhance vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors in foods like ice cream and yogurt. Don’t rush into your kitchen and purge all your vanilla extract from your cabinets or toss your vanilla ice cream from the freezer, though. Castoreum is rarely used to flavor food anymore, and even if it were, the FDA has ruled that it poses no health risk.

The biggest challenge to processing castoreum for use in food is that it’s challenging to harvest, as you might imagine. According to National Geographic, the process is complex and invasive. First the beaver must be anesthetized and the castor gland “milked” to produce the secretion. The entire experience sounds unappetizing (would you really want to use castoreum on your food after witnessing where it comes from?) and uncomfortable, for the beaver in particular.

Since at least 2013, only 300 pounds of castoreum have been produced annually. Going farther back, in 2011, one vegetarian non-profit asked five companies that produce natural and artificial vanilla if they used castoreum in their products. “All five unanimously stated that castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use” and that its more common use is in fragrances. Any pearl-clutching articles you may have run across spreading panic that there’s beaver butt oil in your food are greatly exaggerated.

Interesting stuff! Note that castoreum is not to be confused with castor oil, which is derived from castor beans; castor oil was indeed at one point used as a substitute for castoreum, thus its name. The word castor itself is Latin for beaver. I was disappointed to learn that this word is not the origin of “castrate,” after the beaver’s alleged practice of biting off its own testicles to leave as an offering for any pursuers. According to Wiktionary, “castrate” comes from castro, castrare, Latin for cutting. 

A beaver bites off his testicles in a thirteenth century bestiary. Oxford University, MS Bodley 764, f. 14r. Wikipedia.

Image from a medieval bestiary of a beaver biting off his testicles (English, thirteenth century). British Library, MS Harley 4751, f. 95. From the BL’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts

The beaver’s reputed defensive strategy may be found in Pliny the Elder and Aesop, and was widely believed in the Middle Ages, as the two illustrations attest. The beaver’s testicles are actually inside its body so biting them off is a physical impossibility, and the myth may have arisen on account of the beaver’s castor sacs which were visible (and highly prized). The word castor, referring to beaver, may derive from the Sanskrit word for musk. For more, see “Fantastically Wrong: Why People Used to Think Beavers Bit Off Their Own Testicles” on Wired

King Arthur Flour

Shopping at Publix just now I noticed that King Arthur Flour, perhaps the most medievalist company in the United States,* has gotten a little less medieval. Here is what their logo looked like until July:

prweb.com

And here’s what it looks like now:

An article in Adweek (which features some great animation) indicates that the makeover is, in part:

“The image of a white knight astride a horse felt very masculine, European and old fashioned. Though intended to symbolize King Arthur, the figure actually felt more like a medieval crusader… The cross on the flag further emphasized this religious crusader symbol and would alienate many consumers.” In contrast, the new brand removes hints of militarism or religious affiliation, while retaining the connection to the company’s heritage and the name King Arthur.

Be that as it may, it’s a shame that they couldn’t have found something a little more Arthurian – a sword in the stone, a Round Table, or the Holy Grail all come to mind…

UPDATE: From Theresa Rupp at the Scholarly Dilettante: “The Flour of Chivalry: King Arthur Flour and American Medievalism

* As it happens Canada also has a medievalist brand of flour:

Wikipedia.

I assume that Robin Hood’s redistributive economic policies will ensure that his image does not go the way of King Arthur’s. 

Revanche!

Here is an amusing story that serves as a riposte to Monsieur Eaton and his treatment of a youthful Roch Carrier (hat tip: David Winter):

Tania Levesque.

Pastry Chef Disappoints Toronto Maple Leafs Fan with Maple Leaf Foods Cake

Canadians from coast-to-coast are getting a giggle today out of what might be the funniest cake decorating fail since someone mistook graduation “cap” for actual “cat.”

The tale begins in Mascouche, Quebec, where the parents of a young sports fan named Jacob started planning his eighth birthday party.

Knowing that Jacob loves nothing more than hockey — and, in particular, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs — his parents planned a party at a Montreal arena and put in an order in for a custom cake bearing the Maple Leafs logo.

The boy’s stepmother, Tania Levesque, posted a photo of the finished product on Facebook Saturday evening.

“So Jacob was asking for a Toronto Maple Leafs cake for his birthday. The Pastry Chef of course was on google to find the logo but didn’t write… from Toronto,” wrote Levesque in her post, which has since been shared nearly 1,500 times.

“So this party is sponsored by the cold meats.”

That’s right: The baker confused Maple Leafs —Toronto’s NHL team — with Maple Leaf — one of Canada’s largest packaged meat brands.

Jacob’s father picked up the cake while en route to his son’s birthday party this weekend, but didn’t get a chance to look inside the box until he got there, according to CBC Montreal.

While shocked and confused by what they saw on the cake, the boy’s parents laughed off the silly mistake and served it anyway.

When asked what happened, Levesque told the CBC that the unnamed bakery she went to didn’t have a Toronto Maple Leafs stencil on hand. She suggested they simply Google the logo and put it on Jacob’s cake.

Something seems to have been lost in translation along the way, but kids attending the party ate the cold cut-themed cake all the same —  except for Jacob, who Levesque said refused to try it.

Some might say, as a Maple Leafs fan in Quebec, that the boy had it coming.

Apparently Maple Leaf meats have furnished Jacob with tickets to see the hockey team. 

Cake Wrecks is an entire website devoted to “professional cakes going horribly wrong.” Here is the “cake that started it all“:

Cake Wrecks.

Eat Like the Ancient Babylonians

From NPR:

Eat Like The Ancient Babylonians: Researchers Cook Up Nearly 4,000-Year-Old Recipes

What did a meal taste like nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia? Pretty good, according to a team of international scholars who have deciphered and are re-creating what are considered to be the world’s oldest-known culinary recipes.

The recipes were inscribed on ancient Babylonian tablets that researchers have known about since early in the 20th century but that were not properly translated until the end of the century.

The tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum. Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C., according to Harvard University Assyriologist and cuneiform scholar Gojko Barjamovic, who put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. A fourth tablet was produced about 1,000 years later. All four tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, in what is today Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

For a long time, says Barjamovic, scholars thought the tablets might be medical texts. In the 1940s, a researcher named Mary Hussey suggested the writing was actually recipes, but “people really didn’t believe her” at the time, he says.

“The tablets all list recipes that include instructions on how to prepare them,” the authors write in a piece about their work published in Lapham’s Quarterly earlier this year. “One is a summary collection of twenty-five recipes of stews or broths with brief directions. The other two tablets contain fewer recipes, each described in much more detail. ”

The researchers write that the “stews represent an early stage of a long tradition that is still dominant in Iraqi cuisine” — specifically, aromatic lamb stews “often slightly thickened, enhanced with rendered sheep’s tail fat, and flavored with a combination of spices and herbs and members of the Allium family, such as onion, garlic, and leek. These seem to be direct descendants of the Babylonian versions found on the culinary tablet with stew recipes.”

So far, the cooking team — which also includes a food historian, a curator, a chemical biologist specializing in food, a professional chef and an expert on cultural heritage — has re-created three stews. “One is a beet stew, one is vegetarian, and the final one has lamb in it,” says Barjamovic.

More at the link.

Paleoichthyology

It’s a real word, referring to the study of fish in the past, as detailed in a recent Atlantic article:

The Medieval Practices that Reshaped Europe’s Fish

In Europe, aquatic animals have been traded at least since the days of the Roman Empire. But it was during the early Middle Ages, with the arrival of widespread Christianity, that the animals became a popular source of protein. That’s partially due to the roughly 130 days a yearwhen the faithful were exhorted not to eat meat, because fish didn’t count in that category.

At the same time, expanding agrarian populations were cutting down forests to create fields and diverting rivers to fill defensive moats around castles and towns, Hoffmann writes in one paper. From the ninth century a.d. to the 11th, the number of grain mills built along rivers in England exploded from about 200 to 5,624. Species that came into fresh water to spawn, such as salmon and sturgeon, began declining. New regulations, such as King Philip’s, were put into place to manage fish populations. A Scottish statute from 1214 required all dams to include an opening for fish and barrier nets to be lifted every Saturday, for instance. Soon highly sophisticated aquaculture ponds stocked with carp also provided regular access to fish for the landed elite.

This decline in freshwater populations coincided with a sudden, commercial-scale boom in sea fishing, which began around a.d. 1000 and is known as the “fish event horizon.” In one study, archaeologists collected cod bones in London from 95 Roman, medieval, and postmedieval sites. The number of bones jumped circa the year 1000, and isotopic sampling showed that in the following centuries, fish came from farther and farther away, indicating long-distance trade. In the southern English town of Southampton, the remains of marine species (such as cod) began to outnumber freshwater species (such as eel) by 1030.

That “fish event horizon” could have been caused by a number of forces. It came at a time of population growth, urbanism, new ship technology, and increased trade, says the archaeologist James Barrett, from the University of Cambridge. But, he adds, “I’ve argued consistently that this must also be about human impacts on freshwater and migratory fishes. The degree of vulnerability of fishes depends on how bounded the ecosystem they occupy is.”

In other words, because their habitat was smaller, freshwater fish were more likely to respond to human pressures sooner. When the reliable stocks of freshwater fish began dwindling, hungry Europeans turned to the much larger oceans. And while those populations had larger ranges, humans still had an impact.

Anne Good and Madeline Gray ’18

On February 14, Associate Professor of History Anne Good and alumna Madeline Gray ’18 presented their research on “Mrs. Knight’s Receipt Book, 1740,” at the February Community Gathering. The Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning funded a trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library in November, where they examined Mrs. Knight’s book in person. It contained more than recipes for food – humorism was alive and well in the eighteenth century, and many home remedies based on this theory were also included. Attendees, however, were treated to gingerbread treats made according to the book.

And Third Prize is You’re Fired!

After the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (link NSFW), I can’t hear the words “steak knives” without smiling. So I was amused to discover this interesting article on Popular Mechanics:

The Secret History of Steak Knives

Sharp knives disappeared from the dining room table, only to return, centuries later, in steak knife form. Kings, cardinals, and factories are involved.

By Ernie Smith
Sep 28, 2017

Obviously, knives, with their sharp blades for cutting through things, have been around forever—they’re a key ingredient of any horror film, slasher flick, or murder mystery that’s ever been created.

But here’s a question that I don’t think a lot of people have pondered, mainly because they aren’t expected to, like I am: Why do steaks get their own dedicated knives, and why do we shove them into giant blocks of wood for storage? And what about butter knives? What’s up with them?

It turns out that it’s a story with a lot of edges—some sharp, some dull.

Before there was the steak knife, there was the table knife, or the butter knife. As blade designs go, it’s pretty weak-sauce, and intentionally so.

The reason for this goes back nearly 400 years, and involves an annoyed French clergyman. Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, the Duke of Richelieu and Fronsac—or Cardinal Richelieu for short—became annoyed by table manners of those eating with pointed knives, which were used as a way of picking teeth.

He had his knife edges rounded, the legend goes, in an effort to discourage bad behavior by his guests.

This broke tradition around knife use. See, knife blades were long the primary way that people ate food—unlike napkins, which weren’t always a given, they were always a key element of the meal. Often, medieval cultures would eat meals using a single knife—their own, which they brought with them to dinner—and their hands. The introduction of the fork into European culture changed the way we interacted with knives, just as it did with napkins.

Cardinal Richelieu was a powerful, influential man, and his knife-dulling approach gained enough currency that in 1669, 27 years after he died, King Louis XIV issued a decree making pointed knives illegal in France, whether inside the home or out in public. Suddenly, a lot of sharp knives got pretty dull.

Read the whole thing.

Ye Olde Shoppyng Liste

From Smithsonian.com, courtesy of Reinhardt alumna Wanda Pirtle Cronauer:

Seventeenth-Century Shopping List Discovered Under Floorboards of Historic English Home

Penned in 1633, the “beautifully written” list hints at household life 400 years ago

Among other necessary items, the list includes “greenfish,” a “fireshovel” and two dozen pewter spoons. (Image courtesy of the National Trust)

By Brigit Katz

SMITHSONIAN.COM
JANUARY 31, 2017

Pewter spoons, a frying pan and “greenfish”—these must-have items were scribbled on a shopping list 400 years ago. The scrap of paper was recently discovered under the floorboards of Knole, a historic country home in Kent, England.

As Oliver Porritt reports for Kent Live, Jim Parker, a volunteer working with the archaeology team at Knole, discovered the 1633 note during a multi-million dollar project to restore the house. The team also found two other 17th century letters nearby. One, like the shopping list, was located under the attic floorboards; another was stuffed into a ceiling void.

More, including a complete transcription, at the link. It is wonderful when such slices of social history appear after so many years. (I would happily save more of my ephemera as a service to humanity, although I don’t really have the space for it…)