...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Thursday, March 6, 2008

What’s for Dinner?

One of my favorite resource books on medieval meals is Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. There are many books containing medieval recipes, and others that describe medieval table manners, but you won’t find a better, all-in-one resource book that includes all of the above, and much, much more.

Fabulous Feasts makes researching easy, thanks to the many helpful subtitles within each chapter. Without reading the book straight through from cover to cover (although of course, that can be fun, too), a mere random flipping through the pages will quickly alight one’s eyes on such topics as: “Wines” (from which I discovered the perfect wine to use in my upcoming sequel to Loyalty’s Web); “Food Painting”, describing how such things as sauces, soups, pastries, breads, and even batter-encrusted meats were dyed various, fanciful colors with such flowers and herbs as parsley (green), sandalwood (red); saffron (yellow and orange), and even a concoction of egg yolk mixed with ginger powder and saffron to imitate an illusion of gold (FF, p. 61-63); and “Marvelous Entertainment”, which in addition to mentioning jugglers, acrobats, jesters, etc to entertain the diners, also includes this delightful example of “illusion food”: “At one banquet, a sculptured castle with beasts—deer, boar, goats, and hares—was borne into the hall by squires. It had a fountain in whose center a tower spouted wine in five directions, each wine of a different quality.” (FF, p. 33)

There are sections on “Bread and Baked Goods”; “Sauces at Table”; “Cooking Processes”; and even “Salt”. One can learn about “Food and Social Class”: (“When a lady royally born married a lowly knight, or a poor lady married a lord of noble blood, the lady of royal station kept her state as before her marriage; and the lady of low blood took with her husband his high seat at table.” (FF, p. 107) Descriptions of a medieval kitchen can be found under the section on “Various Kitchen Utensils” (FF, pp. 56-59).

The section on “Table Manners” tells us that, although spoons and knives were used when dining, most of the food was “picked, balanced, and conveyed by those most portable, manipulable, graceful terminals of the hands. Certain fingers were extended while eating specific foods to allow grease-free fingers available for the next dish, as well as for dipping fingers into condiments and spices.” (FF, p. 17) An example of incorporating this “finger food” into a fictional medieval scene can be read in an excerpt from Loyatly’s Web on my website at www.joyce-dipastena.com.

Fabulous Feasts ends with a chapter on “Medieval Feasts for the Modern Table”, with suggestions for how to reproduce a medieval feast in the 20th (and now 21st) Century, followed by an extensive list of recipes with instructions for producing medieval dishes for your guests. A mere sampling: Floteres, i.e. salmon and current dumplings; Oreoles, i.e. elderberry funnel cakes; Porpoise Pudding, i.e. oat-stuffed pike; Nekkesan, i.e., swan-neck pudding or capon or turkey-neck pudding; Garbage Pie, i.e. giblet custard pie; Flore Frittours, i.e. fried squash flowers; Joutes, i.e. herbed beets; Figeye, i.e. a tricolored fig confection; Faun Tempere, i.e. gilli flower pudding; and even such “Spectacles” or “Illusion Foods” as Hasle, i.e. mock entails. Yum!

Fabulous Feasts is abundantly filled with beautiful and useful illustrations and color plates to help you visualize the text. The only drawbacks to this exquisitely useful book is the lack of an index (always regrettable, in my opinion, with research books—I find indexes indispensable for “quick research” purposes); and the failure to list page numbers for the subtitles listed in the table of contents. For example, while typing the section on “Food Painting” above, a distraction caused me to lose my place and required me to go hunting through the text once more to re-find that section. Either an index or page number for the “Food Painting” subtitle in the table on context would have whizzed me back to my misplaced section. The moral? When using Fabulous Feasts, keep lots of small bookmarks handy to stick in the sections you’re studying, in case “real life” or other interruptions call you away.

These are, however, small quibbles for such a valuable book. Fabulous Feasts, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, is available on Amazon.com (see my "So you'd like to...Write Medieval Fiction" link, under "Links" on the right side of this screen for details). Since the book is still in print, it is undoubtedly available at most other online books sellers, or can be ordered through brick and motar bookstores, as well.

FINAL REMINDER: This is your last week to send me your name and address, if you want to enter for a chance to win a FREE copy of Medieval Wordbook. Deadline is March 14. Go to Research Book Drawing for details.

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