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Thursday, April 16, 2009

A bit about the history of food.

One of the things an author of historical romance must research is what food was eaten when. Fortunately for me, the history of food stuffs has always fascinated me. So here are some facts I’ve learned over the years.

If we go way back in history, there are some interesting things about the food consumed by the Israelites. Their rules, handed down from Moses and their religious leaders, make sense with what we know today. But considering their knowledge of science at the time, the rules are intriguing. For instance, they were forbidden to eat pork. At the time, pigs were the scavengers of the food chain. They were fed food scraps, in the dirt, and were often spoiled. Without proper care worms that could be transferred to humans were usually present in the animals.

Then there was the rule they couldn’t serve meat and milk from the same wooden bowls.
Today, we know that the bacteria from meat can become imbedded in wood particles,
spoil and effect food which comes in contact with that wood. Their meat was usually goat or sheep and they used the milk from the goats. Beef, the kind we consume today, was never cooked.

During the medieval ages, in Europe, the fare was venison, all kinds of fowls. People living close to water had the advantage of fresh fish and sea food. The food was served in bowls made of bread and the eating utensil was usually a small dagger worn at the waist. When spices were introduced, they were used excessively, to cover up the taste of tainted food. Lots of people died from what they called indigestion. Today we think they died of food poisoning.

Flour was stored in barrels and often contained objectionable objects. It was brown because they had yet to develop the means of refining it. The drink of the time was ale or wine, both made from their own produce. The serfs or servants usually drank ale. Vegetables were very limited but they did have fruit.

By the way, Whiskey was first produced in Scotland, way back in the 13th century and made it’s way to Ireland then to England.

When the pioneers came to the United States they were introduced to all kinds of new foods. Corn, of course was new, and squash. Even the artichoke was grown by the Indians. Surprisingly, they used a tremendous amount of pumpkin. They boiled it, baked it, put molasses on it, make a soup of it, and even baked it in pies. The Europeans considered pumpkin a peasant’s food, but many colonists survived because of it.

They also had sea food, fowl of all kinds, sheep, and of course the Indians introduced them to the buffalo.

Food preservation was always difficult. Food was dried, salted or smoked. If it had been properly dried it lasted longer than salted or smoked food. Like a fire which had to be tended to keep it going in very early days, the same was true of bread starter. Unless you wanted unleavened bread (cracker without the salt) you had to keep your starter going or make new. It took weeks to get a new batch of starter going.

Sugar has always fascinated me. The first sugar was stored in a cone and scraped or sliced from the cone to sweeten things. And raw sugar is not white. It’s a dirty brown.
Not that appetizing to my way of thinking.

Of course, tea was the drink in Europe which they began to trade with China. Chocolate became the ladies’ drink, especially in the morning, but it was not the sweet hot chocolate we know. It contained some water, milk and bitter chocolate powder made from the pulverized beans. (Ugh!)

I have to admit I’m sincerely glad I live today, when we have so much and such a variety.

Allison Knight
"Heartsong" Named Novel of the Year
"A Treasure for Sara" available now


Paty Jager said...

Interesting information, Allison! I have my cup of chocolate every morning, but it is sweetened! LOL

Do you have any resources that told how they salted the food? I've been wondering about that.

Kathryn Albright said...

Fascinating, Allison! Since I write Westerns, I hadn't given much thought to medieval foods. So you are saying that they didn't eat cows? They had cows, didn't they?

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Alison, what a great post! It's important for us to know what foods were available during our time period. Thanks for the short history of it.

Anna Kathryn