by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the August 2000, A.S. XXXV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
The feast is a mainstay of a Society event, second only to the Tourney and Court. It is also the most difficult to carry off. This is often attributed to the mismatch between period recipes and modern tastes. The usual reasons given for this are: the scarcity and expense of spices, the limited methods of food preservation, and the consequence of limited variety in food stuffs. A recent article in "Scientific American" points to a very different reason: a change in the conception of what is a good diet. This essay is a brief summery of this idea.
During the Middle Ages, the central medical paradigm was that of the four humors. That good health required that they be in balance. The precise balance depended on age, sex, nationality and personality, etc. The ideal balance was slightly moist and warm. A proper diet would maintain that balance, or if a person was out of balance, a countervailing diet would restore that balance.
The four humors had correspondences with the four elements of Aristotelian physical theory. Therefore what distinguished them was the relative mixture of temperature and wetness each contained. And so food stuffs were classified similarly. Note that the concepts of temperature and wetness used here have a more philosophical meaning then a physical reality. For example: milk is classified as slightly wet and somewhat hot. The chef’s challenge was to combine various food stuffs and preparation methods that resulted in a meal that was balanced or otherwise complements the diner’s current condition.
An example of this thinking is the drink Hypocras. Hypocras is a version of spiced mulled wine. Red wine was classified as cold and dry. To counteract this, sugar, which was warm and moist, is added. Cinnamon and ginger were added to warm it up while balancing each other in terms of wetness. The mixture was served warm to bring it to the proper balance.
On the other hand, fresh fruit was to be avoided as it was overly cold and wet and therefore only good for fevers. Water was bad for similar reasons, and, in fact, considered bad for digestion since it cooled the heat by which digestion occurred. Root vegetables were earthy, and so inappropriate for a noble’s table.
The above does not mean that all meals satisfied the above criteria. That was no truer then today’s meals conform to the FDA’s pyramid recommendations. Nor that the above diet was necessarily bad. While it is difficult to know just how nutritious the medieval diet really was, judging from the records of what was consumed, on the whole, the average diet was adequate. Note also that the diets being discussed are for the upper nobility, where economic considerations were of minor import.
The dietary shift began in the 17th century, though it has roots in the 16th. As the Aristotelian world viewpoint broke down in the physical sciences, so did it in medicine. Digestion became seen as a chemical process. However, during this period had not yet fully execrated itself from the mystical of alchemy from which it arose. Thus food became seen as being composed of three principles: Sulfur, Salt, and Mercury. As with the humors, these are philosophical concepts having little to do with the chemicals of those names. Mercury was associated with the volatile aspects of food, Sulfur with the oily aspect, and salt with the solid residue left after the first two has been extracted.
How this effected diet can be seen in the case of sugar. Under the old theory, sugar was seen as having the same balance as a healthy man. Therefore it was a near perfect food and a panacea. As a result, sugar was in many recipes, or used as a garnish. But with the new theory, sugar was seen as leading to an acidic condition. Therefore it was banished from the main meal, and used only because of the decorative effects it could produce.
Oil based sauces became a central element of cooking. This was because they had the useful property of binding the salt and mercury components of food. Whereas in the old theory the heat of cooking was the central process of life, in the new theory it was fermentation and distillation. And as a result broth, bouillon, and gravies came into favor, as these represented the fermented juices of the underling food.
The current day is seeing a similar transformation in the concepts of diet. This time changing lifestyles are having as much effect as new scientific concepts of what is healthy. Vegetarianism is promoted as much for its environmental benefits as its health benefits. And weight loss is more at the heart of the battle between the hi and lo carb diet folks then which produces a healthier life.
What tastes good is more learned then what is inherent in the food. We like what we grew up with. And since we grew up with a cuisine much different from that of the Middle Ages, we find recipes from that period off-putting. Thus producing the eternal challenge of the feastocrat: to put out a feast based on period recipes, or one that people will eat. Understanding the theoretical underpinnings of the medieval feast it may be possible to produce modern recipes that reflect medieval concepts of food.
Hammond, P.W. Food and Feast in Medieval England. Dover: Alan Sutton, Publishing Inc., 1993.
Laudan, Rachel . "Birth of the Modern Diet." Scientific American August 2000: 76-81.
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