The hen in winter

Researchers have found the oldest known collection of medieval food recipes:

The recipes, which include both food and medical ointment concoctions, were compiled and written in Latin. Someone jotted them down at Durham Cathedral’s monastery in the year 1140.

It was essentially a health book, so the meals were meant to improve a person’s health or to cure certain afflictions. The other earliest known such recipes dated to 1290.

There really was no distinction between food and medicine in the thirteenth century, or for several centuries thereafter; every food was thought to have properties that affected health. So even the recipe for “hen in winter,” which a researcher says is just a seasonal formula relying on herbs available in cold weather, looks to me like a preventative for colds and flu: “Heat garlic, pepper and sage with water.”

For an explanation, I’m going to excerpt from a talk I gave last year on “Herbs for Meate and Medicine”: More →

Do convenience foods undermine the family dinner?

An article in The Atlantic suggests that they do:

Even when all members of a family were at home, eating dinner together was a challenge in many households. Why?

Two less acknowledged reasons for why family dinners were a challenge for the families stand out: convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards supplied individualized snacks and meals for family members; and family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflicts surrounding children’s food choices. The consumption of preprepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event.

The article, adapted from a book-length study by a pair of UCLA researchers of “dual-earning middle-class families” in Los Angeles, describes families in which the mere fact that kids snack frequently and eat “special” meals makes it difficult for them to grasp, or parents to enforce, shared mealtimes. Oh, and guess what else? Using packaged convenience foods did not save these families time over cooking from scratch. More →

Friday photo: The killing fields of the Garden State

Three-quarters of a century ago the super-cool new thing in farming was to have a biplane fly low over your fields, spraying poison on your crops:


Photo by Edwin Rosskam, from the FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

The original caption reads:

Duster plane spraying insecticide over a field of beans. The mechanic in the foreground indicates the outside limit of the last “swath” which has settled by the time the plane returns. Note how low the plane flies. Bean fields like this, hundreds of acres in extent, are plowed, cultivated and even harvested by tractors.”

Still: it looks like this plane is coming to mow the man down. It looks like war. And, really, that’s no coincidence. More →

A plate of beans and freedom

In the fading of another winter day I am cooking black-eyed peas and cornbread, a meal that seems deeply southern and deeply old-fashioned but is neither, for me — I’m not southern and no one cooked this way for me when I was young; it’s just the way my family eats much of the time, here and now, where and when we happen to be, for reasons of our own. A meal like this could tie me to place, tradition, heritage, but it doesn’t.

Instead I’m inclined to see it as liberating. Maybe I’m trying to see it as liberating. A plate of beans, properly enjoyed, is freedom from my carnivorous nature — and I won’t deny I do have one. If I have no moral objection to eating meat within certain limits, if I could eat meat (I could throw some bacon in that pot) but decide not to, simply demonstrating to myself that I don’t need a thing I’m used to having is a benefit. I wish I’d learned that lesson thirty years earlier; better late than never.

But this isn’t some dour sacrifice recompensed by smug puritan self-righteousness. That wouldn’t be liberating, after all. More →

Zest, wow wow sauce, and William Kitchiner’s magazine of taste

“Magazine” as in powder magazine, that is, not the periodical kind. A personal arsenal of condiments, created by Regency England’s foremost gastronome. As for zest and wow wow sauce… well, we’ll get to those in a minute.

William Kitchiner (1775–1827) was a physician, optician, amateur musician, and above all a lover of good food. His father, a coal merchant, had left him enough of a fortune that he could spend his career as he chose, and he spent a considerable portion of both his money and his time on food. He wrote a number of books, including a guide to choosing opera glasses, but he was best known for The Cook’s Oracle, as comprehensive a cookbook as ever there was, and as good a read as you’ll find in one too, at least if you like early nineteenth-century English humor. Most of the recipes in the book were tested by Kitchiner’s “Committee of Taste,” a panel of fellow gastronomes who gathered regularly at his home. These dinners were famous and famously strict: if the invitation was for five o’clock, the door was locked at two minutes after, and dinner was served precisely on schedule lest it suffer by waiting. At eleven, guests were expected to leave just as promptly.

He made all this clear in his standard invitation to dinner: More →

I love to cook and to eat. I’m also a historian of food and agriculture. But food isn’t everything, and it doesn’t exist out of context. This site is about cooking, eating, and living responsibly rooted in time, place, and community. (More)


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  • A lawn in riot / after the violence of rains. / Send in the tanks!
  • Like a great dog the new year / approaches, and unbidden / lays its head in my lap.
  • Next door: Chimney stripped of siding, half undressed, its tattered fiberboard drawers showing: would it have worn better, had it known?
  • With random capitalizations and creative spellings, I mean, so "conform" isn't really the right word. But still.
  • Is there a way to make your iPhone correct your spelling to conform to 17th-century English?