Period Food is Yummy: What to Bring to an SCA Potluck

This is reposted from my old blog on Blogger.

Let’s start with the basics:

  • Keep in mind the scope of the SCA:
    • The SCA is officially recreating pre-1600 Western Europe, with some wiggle room for “cultures that would have had contact with Western Europe.” This can help you figure out how to focus your research into cooking, and this is what I (and most SCAdians) mean when using the shorthand of describing something as “period.” So while saying something is period is kind of a bad sloppy habit we have (when we should say “Item X is historical for time period Y in place Z”), it is an easy way of delineating “SCA acceptable” from “outside our scope.” (And note that I’m not making any comment on whether or not the SCA should be more or less limiting than this.)
  • Make an attempt:
    • In the SCA, we require that everyone make an attempt at period clothing. Similarly, everyone can make an attempt at making and eating period food. Even if all anyone did was commit to not bringing blatantly modern foods to potlucks (pizza, brownies, etc.), we could significantly improve the quality of events. It is my aim to educate as many people as possible about historical (and passable) options that are achievable for people with various skill levels. You do not have to make a cockentrice right out the gate (but if you want to, go for it!) — everyone taking one step toward historical authenticity has a more powerful impact than a small minority of people taking a thousand steps and leaving everyone else behind. Take that step with me, I’ll hold your hand 🙂

Approach historical cooking with the right mindset:

  • Period food is yummy!
    • Real people really ate this food, and just as when you branch out of your comfort zone and try food from another country, trying food from another time can often result in you discovering that, in fact, the unfamiliar can often be awesome.
  • Stick to your strengths.
    •  It’s okay to stay within your comfort zone, especially at first. Love to bake? Try some 16th century cookie recipes. Can’t read Middle English, or uncomfortable just winging it with no quantities or specific cooking directions? Look for recipe translations and modernizations (stay tuned for links and cookbook suggestions).
  •  Food is sacred.
    • There’s a reason why cultural celebrations (ahem: including SCA feasts) and religious ceremonies center around food. Food is a big deal! You will spend a phenomenal portion of your life acquiring, preparing, and consuming food; why waste that time? Food can and should be more than just bare nourishment. Food is art, food is passion, food is science, food is love, food is joy. Within the SCA, historical food is a way to experience historical life. Take that opportunity, it’s worth it.

Where to start:

  • Avoid new-world and blatantly modern foods
    • Think tiny changes. If you were going to bring chocolate chip cookies to the potluck, bring shortbread instead. If you normally bring salsa and corn chips, bring hummus and pita bread.
  • Pick a culture (a specific time and place) that interests you
    • Then do some research. This can match your persona but doesn’t have to. Maybe you’re going to a potluck at an event with a theme, or maybe you just think Spanish food is tasty and you’d like to try some historical Spanish food. If you can personalize your quest for historical food a little, you’ll have more fun with the journey.
  • Find a recipe or two that looks tasty and make it
    • See my suggestions for sources below. Maybe cook something in small quantities at home to try it out before taking it to an event to get a sense of it. If your first attempt doesn’t appeal to you or doesn’t work, don’t give up; try something else.

A word on New World vs Old World foods: the conquest of the New World changed the global food landscape forever. There are a lot of foods that we take for granted that medieval people did not know about. While it’s true that some New World foods were adopted into European cuisines prior to the end of the SCA’s time period, the forms they took at first are often ones that are complete unfamiliar to us now; white potato jam is period, mashed potatoes not so much. One of the simplest ways to begin to explore period cooking is to try going without New World ingredients. Don’t despair, though: there are lots of Old World foods that are awesome in and of themselves. Here are some representative lists of New World and Old World foods; these are far from complete:

  • New World: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, vanilla, chocolate, tomatoes, squash (winter and summer varieties), most beans, turkeys, quinoa, pecans, cashews, peanuts, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, cranberries, peppers, sunflowers, avocado, agave, huckleberry, jicama, manioc, wild “rice”, yucca, green beans
  • Old World:  Barley, wheat, rye, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rice, lentils, garbanzo beans, fava beans, cows, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, deer, elk, many types of fish, millet, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, most common herbs and greens, almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, eggs, dairy, apples, onions, garlic, leeks, bees (honey), cane sugar, artichoke, asparagus, beet, cantaloupe, citrus, cucumber, fig, garlic, grape, hazelnut, peaches, pears, radishes, pheasant, peacock, heron, mushrooms, gourds, and more
  • Totally modern: Chemical leavening agents, industrially processed foods, and many vegetable varieties (for example rutabagas and sugar beets)

Where to find recipes online:

My favorite cookbooks for beginners.

Things you can bring even if you can’t cook:

  • Desserts: candied ginger, dried fruit, shortbread cookies, dates, yogurt with honey, marzipan / almond paste, fresh whole or cut up fruit, candied nuts, baklava, candied orange peels, quince paste (sold as “membrillo”), fruit and nut “cake” (Spanish “Pan de Orejon”), butter wafer cookies (Trader Joe’s has these), tiny fruit tarts
  • Nibbles: cheese, olives, nuts, hard boiled eggs, hummus and vegetables / pita bread, salami and other cured meats, pickled mushrooms, pickled vegetables (check the New World / Old World lists above), pâtĂ©
  • Salad mix with oil and vinegar dressing
  • Rotisserie chicken, pre-cooked ham, smoked fish, sausages and mustard, pre-cooked meatballs (especially with a simple medieval sauce like any of the ones based on vinegar, spices, and bread crumbs)
  • Pasta (cheese ravioli, egg noodles, etc.) with butter and cheese

Final thought: Don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun. And historical authenticity is really fun.

Really:

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What I cooked at the Cooks’ Play Date

Because of everything else going on (about which I promise a large post is coming in the next several days, after I recover a little), I didn’t really plan sufficiently for this year’s Play Date at An Tir / West War, and I didn’t get to cook much at all on one of the days. Unlike what I usually do, and to my personal shame, I did not bring actual period recipes to cook from. I was winging it on EVERYTHING that I made. All that said, here’s what I put together.

Wednesday: Set up day, so no cooking. We ate dinner in town and I had an outstanding piece of grilled salmon. I did manage to start a butter culture going by adding a half pint of cultured buttermilk to two pints of heavy cream in a jug to sit out overnight. This part is important.

Thursday: I churned butter all day! We were slow to get fire going, but I still managed to make some simple oat pancakes (oat flour, the buttermilk from my butter adventures, and eggs) to put the butter on as “play food.” For dinner I made rolled stuffed beef — I pounded a steak flat and spread it with a mix of ground almonds, powder fine (mixed spices), salt, sugar, vinegar, and rose water, then tied it up and roasted it on the fire. This was good and I’ll likely do it again. I also made Roman cucumber salad, based on my memory of an Apicius recipe (but tweaked slightly because Anne refuses to eat garum) — cucumbers, olive oil, red wine vinegar, mint, and salt. So good! I also put out some butter on the dinner table. I will certainly make butter at War again, it’s so fun. And Anne said out loud “You need a bigger butter churn!” and I have witnesses, so I’m getting a bigger butter churn.

Fish Friday: Went to the fishmonger and stocked up. I don’t think I managed to do any “play food” this day. I tried to make pea soup with some smoked salmon collars and fins that I bought, but I was distracted (this was the day of my vigil) and didn’t really give it enough consistent heat. So in spite of soaking them for over 24 hours, the whole peas just never cooked. That was frustrating. But I did make two things for dinner which were both quite successful. The first was just crab meat (I got a whole crab and Tova helped me extract all its meat) in (freshly churned) clarified butter with sage. I also made a dessert that I plan to make regularly: a Dish of Snow with fresh berries. Dish of Snow is an Elizabethan recipe for whipped cream with the addition of egg white, sugar, and rose water. The egg white seems to really help the cream whip easily; I used my new adorable birch twig whisk and it was not odious to whip by hand. The original does not have fruit added to it, but I went rogue. A+ would eat again.

Saturday was my elevation and I cooked nothing, just sat around feeling a little tense and peevish. I did throw together a very lazy salad for dinner because I did not want to arrive empty handed.

Then Sunday we had to come home! But I did get Crazy Norwegian fish and chips (with grilled fish) on the way home. Yum!

How to Make Crustardes of Flessh (finally!)

At long last, here is a complete description of how I made Crustardes of Flessh for KASC back in March, including recipes and quantities. Enjoy!

This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn't get pictures of it.
This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn’t get pictures of it.

Continue reading “How to Make Crustardes of Flessh (finally!)”

Medieval Cooking is Complex: A Complete Recipe Annotation

During the process of creating my pie for KASC, I had to not only do a lot of test cooking, but I also had to do a ton of close reading. Reading a medieval recipe is a complex and nuanced endeavor. Here is an example of my process of interpreting a recipe.

Continue reading “Medieval Cooking is Complex: A Complete Recipe Annotation”

Introduction to Historical Food Research

This is re-published from my old blog.

In the SCA, the first piece of research advice you’ll get (well, after “don’t try to back-document a project you’ve already completed”) is that you must know the difference between a primary and a secondary source. Generally, we define a primary source as an actual historical item (or text) and a secondary source is a modern interpretation of those historical sources. So if you’re researching clothing, a primary source would be an extant historical garment while a secondary source would be a modern book about medieval clothing.

Here’s a question for you: what’s a primary source for historical cooking? You can’t go to a museum and see (much less eat) the wedding feast of Henry and Matilda. Recreating historical food will always require you to synthesize multiple research strands. That’s the fundamental purpose behind this lesson: all of these types of sources that I describe build on each other, and the strongest research makes use not only of multiple individual sources but multiple strands of research and analysis.

Continue reading “Introduction to Historical Food Research”

Marzipan: my go-to dessert for every feast

Marzipan is delicious, relatively easy to make (if you allow yourself modern cheats), vegan and gluten free, historical, and fancy: these factors combine to make it my top choice when planning a feast. You can sculpt it, add colors, or arrange some other sweets (I’m partial to dried fruits and candied ginger as shown here) to serve:

  

My basic marzipan recipe that I’ve been using for years:

  • One part by weight blanched slivered almonds
  • One part by weight sugar
  • Rose water

Grind the almonds and sugar together in a food processor until the almonds are very fine. Add rose water a spoonful at a time, grinding continuously, until the marzipan forms a paste. Continue grinding until it is a smooth and uniform as possible. 

Marzipan is also wonderful to take to events for a sweet treat or to share at a potluck. 

Yesterday I made the marzipan pictured above as desserts for an Italian feast. It all got devoured and I even caught a friend of mine filling his napkin with it to take home!