THE COMPLEAT COOK by Alys Katherine, OL
Others have written how to put on a feast, purchase food in bulk, cook for hundreds, with details of kitchen sanitation. I would like the cook to consider the preparation from several other points of view: documentation, cohesion, and presentation. A feast may be tasty and the food may be plentiful but feasters can feel “incomplete”, not quite knowing what is missing. Tasty little meatballs, rolling around in a too-big bowl with no sauce to cover them or anything to put them on might be one reason. A special subtlety, loudly proclaimed by the herald and paraded through the hall, invisible because of weak candlelight, might be another. An Arabic dish served with English beef or French lamb may be third. I would like you to consider with me some of the potential difficulties modern cooks may have in presenting a medieval or Renaissance feast to the public. My comments (which I hope are applicable to any cook) are written with cooking apprentices in mind, those who are comfortable with cooking for hundreds as well as those who prefer to cook for a select circle of guests.
If you are new to cooking medieval foods please don’t let the ideas presented here keep you from experimenting and cooking for groups. One does not become an “master medieval cook” overnight. The concepts of documentation, cohesion and presentation are meant to stretch your horizons and expand your idea of what cooking a feast can be.
Feast cooks are, appropriately enough, concerned with the budget, the mechanics of preparation, and even the mechanics of cleaning up the feast hall to ready it for Court or dancing. Those who pay for a feast are concerned with whether they will get good value for their money and whether the food will taste good or be “weird.” But, consider how SCA armor has progressed. It has gone from freon cans and carpet padding protection to armor and tabards that look “real”. While beginning fighters may use blue plastic barrels to make their armor, most fighters continue to improve their armor, making it more “medieval” as they continue to improve their fighting. No one really forced this. It came as a natural consequence of fighters wanting to look more “period.” SCA feasts need to leave this “freon can” stage of feasts and begin to investigate how a medieval or Renaissance feast was put together, how the tables were set, how the food was garnished and presented to the feasters. When you, as a cook, make some simple, or spectacular, changes to make your feasts more “period”, others will follow. Only then will this important part of our re-creation begin to mature and develop as have our armoring and arts and craft skills.
Cooking is a transitory art. Once the food has been cooked, it is eaten and the leftovers are disposed of...in a tummy on a later day or into the trashbin. Nothing really remains to tell us how it tasted, what variations were made in the recipe, or what changes are recommended for the next time. There are several reasons why one may wish to document what was cooked. Entering competitions, proving that one can cook historical recipes, and “leaving a trail” are three that come to mind.
First, you should start with a historical recipe. It is therefore important to list the source of the recipe, the author (if any) of the cookery book, when it was originally printed, and any modern book that it was taken from. In other words, one is providing a cooking footnote so that others can go to the same (or similar) source and find the recipe. It is much more difficult (and rather argumentative) to “back document” a particular dish. “I know they used beef, and I know they had onions and some places had noodles so this fried onion, noodle and beef dish could have been done. Besides, this is ‘creative anachronism’!”
If you are entering a competition, you should provide a copy of the original recipe either as a photocopy, re-typed, or carefully written out. This allows those judging the food to determine how closely the adapted recipe follows the original. For a competition, you should include the actual recipe that you used. If this is your own adaptation (interpretation/redaction) you should state that. If it is an adaptation done by someone else (a modern cookbook author, for example) then say that. If you use someone else’s recipe and do not say so it is the same as plagiarism. You should note what changes you made from the original and why the changes were made. For example, you might note, “I omitted the nuts because I am allergic to them,” or “I didn’t use alkanet because I had no source for it so I used food coloring instead.” Other changes such as “I added twice the rice flour because it wouldn’t thicken,” may be useful in determining why the end result is the way it is.
In competitions I have found that judiciously honest comments can inform the judges what you learned while preparing the dish. “While this dish is tasty, next time I will try....” is an example. Or, you may have tried a “period” way and decided that doing something different will make the dish taste better. You could submit both ways to the judges with comments on what you learned during the cooking process. Point out the pros and cons, why you decided to do something different, and what you learned.
While you should expect that your judges are fellow cooks, they will probably appreciate a step-by-step account of what you did. For example, “I then cooked the meat” doesn’t say as much as “I gently boiled the meat in salted broth over a low fire for two hours.”
There is a mistaken idea that medieval food didn’t taste good. Modern world authors such as Terence Scully, and SCA cooks such as Duke Sir Cariadoc of the Bow, have put the lie to that idea. People did not eat rotten meat and disguise it with spices. Most foods were not heavily spiced, although there were exceptions even as there are heavily spiced foods today. If your recipe does not taste good you may want to consider how your interpretation of the recipe may have colored the results. Talk with local medieval cooks, correspond via the Internet or through cooking newsletters. Look through more cookery books for similar dishes. Perhaps there will be a hint for a different heating technique, variations or even measurements for spices or other ingredients. Record what you have found out. If the dish still doesn’t taste good, leave it alone and try something else!
If you cook feasts, you may want to let the feasters know something about the meal. A simple way to do this is to prepare a list of the dishes and place it on each table (First Course: Basque Chicken, Spaghetti with Moorish Sauce; Spinach with Raisins and Pinenuts). The next step up is to let the diners know that the recipes are from period sources. You could add similar information to what was listed for competition documentation, above. For example, “Moules (Mussels), The Viandier of Taillevent, French, 1370,” or “Sugar Paste Dishes, The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, Thomas Dawson, 1597.” Most diners will appreciate an English translation of a food such as “Syseros (mashed chickpeas with garlic).”
If you have been planning far enough ahead you could prepare a number of feast recipe booklets. This should include the list of foods served and the recipe you used along with any changes you made. Ideally, it should include the original recipe (for those diehards who want to check what you did with the original!). A final nice touch in the booklet would be a complete bibliography of all your sources with title, author, publisher, year, etc. I have seen spiral-bound feast booklets with heavy-stock covers that contain historical information about the country, the period author, or about some of the foodstuffs used in the recipes. Others contain just the recipes photocopied on regular paper and folded in half. Your fee for the book will depend on how many pages, your printing costs, and so forth.
Leaving a Trail
This is for your personal record or for the assistance of your advocate or teacher. It is like an artist’s portfolio. Ideally, you are well organized and have lots of time to record what you are doing! Your portfolio would include the recipes you tried, the dates you tried them, the feasts (if any) at which you served them, your particular adaptations, the results, and what you would do the next time. A “simple” way might be to photocopy the original recipe and write down your changes in the margins or below it. If you are using this to help your teacher or advocate help you, then comments about the dish’s reception, what you learned, and what you will do differently are needed. People can see your progress through the repertoire of medieval cookery and gain an insight about how you might have grown and improved.
Photos are another helpful asset to your portfolio. Just photographing a chicken isn’t very informative, but if you have gilded the chicken, arranged it artistically and perhaps placed decorative foods around it, that is more useful. Those interested in your advancement can see that you have begun to think about the presentation of the food and that it is visually appealing as well as (we assume) tasty.
Do you have to have a portfolio to be recognized? No. If, however, you would ultimately like the highest recognition the Society offers, the portfolio can give a type of permanence to this impermanent art.
Cohesion refers to the unity of the feast. It is something that usually develops after the modern cook begins to master the individual dishes. Many feasts are a mixture of dishes from several countries separated by several centuries. Usually there is no thought given to the interrelationship of the foods themselves or the final dish. Most feasters probably won’t notice if an Arabic food is served alongside an English dish to be followed by an Italian Renaissance dessert. And, sometimes all the cook wants to do is prepare things to be eaten by everyone, fighters and cooking Laurels included. But, attention to presenting a unified whole can indicate that you are beginning to master the details of your chosen hobby.
Cohesion is often difficult to pin down. Imagine that you want to put on a clambake for your friends. You “automatically” know something about the foods that should be served, how they should be prepared, and something about an appropriate setting. Now imagine that you are a cook some 500 years in the future. You decide to put on a re-creation of a 20th-century clambake. You can only get a limited amount of clams since they are expensive and scarce so you stretch your meal with the more common mussels. It’s a clam “bake” so you prepare them in the oven and freeze them for later use. It says to use their “liquor” so you have carefully saved and fermented the liquid from their baking. You discover from one source that corn-on-the-cob was served. You can get corn but it’s not on the cob. It’s in a sterile irradiated pack and comes with a milky sauce. It should be a reasonable substitution, you decide, since you can’t get the other and everyone likes it. How was the food presented? Since it deals with seafood the setting surely must be on a beach, so you have the guests, wearing bathing suits, sit on the floor on a layer of sand. While this isn’t an exact analogy to what we do to medieval food there are similarities. The medieval cook already “knew” certain parameters about the food, the way it needed to be prepared, and the setting. In the SCA we tend to re-create only the individual dish, not the entire meal, the presentation, or the ambience of the setting. Therefore, at some point in the learning process the modern cook should begin to be aware that this isn’t “how it was done back then” and should look at refining his or her skills. For example, your particular interest may lie with French cookery. Work on being able to present a feast using the spices and dishes used in France. Society cooks have compromised by cooking each course from a different country or century.
Investigate how meals were presented in certain countries and centuries. For example, I believe that during most of SCA’s time period England used only two, or at the most three, courses but each contained from ten to thirty or more dishes. Italy apparently used more courses and had a different arrangement of what food was presented when. In certain countries the humoral theory was prevalent. In others, the humors had ceased to be considered. To make a cohesive whole you should become aware of what foods would have been served first, which foods would not have been served with others, and how to modify the basic nature of a particular food so that it would not be “dangerous.” While you may choose not to present a whole unified feast, your medieval counterpart would naturally have done so.
One memorably cohesive feast was served as if the hostess were in her own manor in 15th century France. All the dishes were from that time and were served in the order that period menus suggested. We were brought basins of water to wash our hands at the appropriate times. It was one of the few times that I began to feel as if I were sharing something that I would have shared “in period.” While this may be beyond the capabilities of a large feast hall certainly an enterprising cook can make adjustments. One part of the feast hall can be set aside for the “above the salt” meal and the feasters limited to what can be easily handled. Special care can be taken with the presentation and service to these few with the remaining feasters getting a standard SCA feast.
At the risk of over simplifying, many people can be good cooks and serve a tasty feast. But, if you wish to master the craft you should learn to go beyond just preparing individual dishes so that you learn how to present the food as it would have been presented “back then.” The public will not demand that you educate them. They are probably unaware that the normal feast bears little resemblance to period practices. But, part of our Society is education. With care and planning you can move your already tasty feasts into something that would more closely resemble a feast in a particular country at a particular time. Informing the public through a tabletop menu (and brief explanation) will help them learn a little more about the practices you are presenting to them either in one particular course or in the entire meal.
Presentation covers a wide area, from the physical characteristics of the hall to the final serving of a completed dish. You may not be able to do much about some of the physical characteristics of the hall but you should be aware of its limitations as soon as the site is selected and begin considering how to modify various elements. If this is not something you particularly like to do find someone who does and make him or her the Hall Steward.
The kitchen is your bailiwick. The feasters won’t usually see it. However, the feast hall is another matter. How will you set out the tables? Can you approximate one of the several ways that medieval or Renaissance halls were set up? Will you need to limit the number of feasters? For much of our early period, at least in England, the halls were set up with a High Table at one end, often on a dais, and two long rows of tables down each side of the room. People sat (or stood!) at the outside of the table, leaving the inside for the servers to work. At Society feasts people are often placed at both sides of a regular table which doesn’t leave much room for candles, their feast ware, and your serving dishes. What kind of physical arrangement was common given the time period and the country from which your dishes come?
Medieval feast hosts did not expect their guests to bring their own illumination. The host provided extra torches to make the hall shine brightly and to show off his wealth and power. Modern halls are often too brightly lit for our Victorian-inspired tastes. What can your Hall Steward do to modify the lighting and still permit people to see your splendid dinner? One solution might be to carefully drape material on the ceiling to soften the harshness of fluorescent lights. Another might be to use the dimmer switch the hall may have to lower the level of light. A third might be to turn out several banks of lights but still leave one or two on. Communication with the event staff is important in this case so that someone doesn’t come along and turn out all the lights which you so carefully left on. (You might want to tape over the switch and put a note on saying “Don’t touch!”) Another possibility is for your group to provide a number of candles for each table to augment what the individual feasters have brought. If you have access to lights that could be aimed off the ceiling, this would provide indirect lighting and still allow the diners to see their food.
While the hall’s lighting isn’t part of the cooking it can have a direct relationship to how people perceive your feast. One hall source was so dark that we took turns holding a flashlight so that the table volunteer could carve the chicken and not cut his fingers. The same flashlight came in handy to hold while each feaster examined a dish to see whether it was a salad or a grain dish! At a recent feast the cook had gone to great lengths to have five or six lovely subtleties made. Each represented a barony, was placed on a specially-cut board in the shape of the barony’s symbol, and was topped by marzipan figures and tiny cookies hanging from a tree inserted into the cake on each board. The heralds cried an explanation and the cakes were paraded through the hall. Unfortunately, no one could see them since the only illumination was from the candles which the individual feasters had brought. People were unable to appreciate the skill of the cook.
Additional items to consider might include whether your group chooses to provide tablecloths for the guests or provides any decoration for the tables. Tablecloths seemed to cover all the tables and English “courtesy books” describe how they were laid. Most paintings do not show table decorations except for the trenchers, a few dishes and goblets, and an impressive “salt” at Head Table. There are references, however, to flowers strewn on the table in different time periods. And, again, customs differed from Italy to Germany to France to England.
Medieval feasts, just as many other facets of medieval life, were labor intensive. Today we do not have the luxury of having many servants available and this can make serving the feast a challenge. They, too, are part of the “presentation” of food. The medieval server knew what to do, did it on a regular basis, and had appropriate clothes to wear which enhanced the reputation of the host. We use volunteers who need an inexpensive meal! If your group puts on events somewhat regularly you might consider enlisting group members as part of a regular servers’ corps. One group’s impressive servers wear special tabards, line up in the back and after Head Table has been ceremoniously presented with the food by the “majordomo” and his staff, enter marching in unison with the food held high to be placed on the feasters’ tables. While this may not be feasible for every group those who can manage some degree of ceremony will add to the ambiance and the “cohesion” of the feast.
Presentation of the food most definitely falls under the cook’s jurisdiction. Most of our emphasis tends to be on the cooking of the various dishes. The food is placed in bowls or on platters and taken out with little thought to the visual impact it may have. Those tasty meatballs rolling around in their bowl would have had a better impact if they were placed on, for example, greens or even a grain dish, with their sauces nestled snugly beside them for immediate use. Colorful greens, triangles of toast (sippets), or fancifully cut vegetables can enliven a dish and entice the diner to eat it. While most early period cookery books don’t talk about the presentation touches there are mentions in cookery books from the late 1500s and beyond. As a cook, you should give consideration to what might have been done for the dish you are re-creating and then give that task to someone who will put on the finishing touches before the servers present the dish.
Besides the presentation of the individual dish you need to consider the presentation of the course and the dishes in it. This involves organizing the kitchen so that all the foods that are to be eaten together are actually sent out together. One unfortunate feast included eight small pork slices sent out, ungarnished, on a too-large platter, once slice per person. Some ten minutes later, a sauce arrived. All the meat had been eaten by that time. Some ten minutes after that came half a baked apple per person. While the meat may have been tasty it certainly lacked something, being the only food available for quite a while. And, what can the diner do with sauce and no meat to put it on?
Part of becoming a “master cook” involves learning how to manage the cooking and “serving forth” of multiple dishes. And, the best-laid plans of a modern cook can oft times go awry when the oven refuses to work or the pots have all disappeared. Modern cooks might take advantage of Chiquart’s lists of equipment needed when his master traveled away from home. Local groups, as funds are available, can stock some of these items so that the cook isn’t caught short. Serving dishes and serving spoons (so the diners do not need to dip their saliva-coated spoons into the common bowl!) are particularly useful.
As you learn more about how food was presented in various times and places you can begin to experiment with subtleties and fanciful items. Keep in mind that while the Head Cook oversaw the complexity of the entire feast preparation, he did not prepare everything himself. In the largest establishments the pastry was prepared by one specialized section to be filled by the cooks. The confections and subtleties were often prepared by a third specialized group. Subtleties, while often composed of edible parts, were not always edible and might have been constructed by the carpenters or the plasterers with assistance from painters. The presentation of these spectacular pieces would often be accompanied by musicians or dancers. The herald would read the “motto” which explained the meaning of the subtlety. A number of these have been recorded in the herald’s notes from English royal feasts.
While most cooks focus solely on the preparation of a dish there is certainly more to presenting a realistic re-creation of medieval food, dining, and feasting. Using historical sources rather than “medievalizing” modern food; keeping adequate records of one’s experimentations with different recipes so that successful attempts can be repeated; offering a unified “whole” with foods that would have been served in the same meal; providing a realistic atmosphere with attractively presented dishes; all are part of what we should be attempting as we experiment with medieval cookery.