September 27, 2009

McMedieval Secret Sauce? by Guest Blogger Jeri Westerson On my blog tour to promote my latest Crispin Guest Medieval Noir, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, I’ve been talking about the medieval myths I’ve encountered while discussing my books with the public. There are many misconceptions about this very interesting time period. Today, I’d like to talk about that myth that medievals used a variety of exotic sauces over their meat to disguise the fact that the meat was rotten. And to talk about that, we’ve got to start the discussion off by exploring those spices. Spices were very precious commodities in the medieval world. Most of what we consider familiar and fairly inexpensive accompaniments in our own kitchens were some of the most expensive and exotic fare to European tables. Salt could be gotten locally but it was an extensive process to extract it and so salt itself was expensive. We think very little when a peppercorn escapes from our peppermills, but each peppercorn was precious. Cinnamon, cardamom, cubeb, mace, nutmeg—these were not grown in European gardens and had to be imported from the mysterious East. In fact, it wasn’t new lands that made Christopher Columbus sail the ocean blue in the year of 1492, but a new path to India so that Europeans didn’t have to fall prey to the Arab spice traders and their high prices. Even sugar was considered a spice and was sold in conical loaves. If you wanted something to sweeten your palette, then you kept bees for the honey, a very ancient past time, by the way. Egyptians have paintings of beekeeping on their walls. So, logically, if your spices were so expensive, why spend the something like $50 to mask the rottenness of a $2 cut of meat? No, this was the medieval equivalent of kicking it up a notch. Sauces were used to impress the guest and please the palette. Meat sauces were full of flavors that Europeans today would not recognize except in an old-fashioned mincemeat pie (one that included beef and suet). Cinnamon, cardamom, nuts, and dried fruit were often used in these recipes. If you favor Moroccan meat dishes, then you are tasting European medieval dining. So how did they preserve all this meat? Remember, in many instances, they were getting it fresh from the butcher or out of their own yards and fields. But it could be preserved in any number of ways: salted, smoked, dried, pickled. If meat was salted and then soaked and washed to get the salt out, you certainly might want a sauce to kill off some of the saltiness, but not always. Other fare included fowl of many varieties, including egrets and swans. Doves, chickens, ducks, and geese were among the fowl kept around, and fresh fish, shell fish, and eels rounded out the watery fare. Venison and wild boar were for richer tables. Many had a family pig which would forage during the summer and fall. As the winter drew on it could be slaughtered and preserved in a huge number of ways allowing the family their meat throughout the winter. So that’s all well and good, but how do we know about these medieval recipes? Well, in the fourteenth century—when my book is set—we saw the beginnings of cookbooks. Prior to that, these “cookbooks” were physicians’ notebooks full of folk prescriptions. These originally came from the Middle East. Gradually, cookbooks became popular to in the larger households. Richard II’s household also had a cookbook. But these did not give recipes for Medieval Meatloaf. In other words, they weren’t writing down recipes that everyone already knew. They were for special feasts, to pass down spectacular and favorite recipes to the next generations. Creating a cockatrice, for instance, a mythological beast with the head of a bird and the body of a four-legged creature, was a special treat. It explains how to do this: scald a capon and cut him in two at the waist and do the same to a pig and sew the halves together. Not exactly meatloaf night. Table manners were also extremely important. But that’s for another blog post! ----------------------------------- Visit Jeri’s website for a listing of her blog tour and find out more about her newest release, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, or check out her blog of history and mystery at
CARS Posted by Sheila Connolly (Sarah Atwell doesn't have a driver's license) I am so not a car person. When I was in high school, girls took home ec and learned to fry an egg and run a sewing machine, while the guys took auto shop. How I wish they had flipped that! (When my daughter was in high school, things were a bit better: she actually learned how to run a band saw and weld–but still no auto shop.) I never had a car of my own in high school–or in college or post-college. When I married, my husband had a rust-pitted clunker of a Chevy that his parents had given him in college, and I had to pry it out of his hands several years later when we bought our first "real" car (I think he received $75 for it at a gas station). I learned to drive a stick shift in it, in a cornfield in North Carolina. Its biggest plus was the fact that it was simple and my husband could fix almost anything that went wrong with it. Not so any more. Now you need a computer to diagnose engine problems, and every car is different. My husband hates that: he doesn't trust mechanics (heck, he doesn't even know any mechanics), and he resents that fixing car things is out of his control now. (He also hates to spend the money.) We own three cars (all paid for!). The lowest mileage on any of them is 95,000 miles. Obviously we aren't car-proud. We don't buy cars to impress our neighbors or bolster our self-esteem. We buy cars to get us where we are going, safely and dependably. I can't even distinguish among makes and models these days–they're all sedans in green or black. I can't name half the major auto makers any more. I am willfully ignorant. I just ask that a car work when I ask it to–start and keep going. But...old cars tends to fall apart, and we're suffering through a flurry of disintegration. Or maybe a blizzard. My beloved red Beetle has now joined the sick list. The Bug is the only car I have ever owned outright (my husband's name is not on the title, just mine). I bought it new, in the second production year for the model. I hoped that VW would work the bugs out (pun intended) with the first-year version. I have loved the car. Although small, it has great head-room and leg-room, which matters when you're as tall as I am. The seats are high, so it's easy to get in and out (unless you're in the back seat). If you fold down the rear seats, there's plenty of room to carry things. In fact, I brought back the entire contents of my daughter's dorm room when she graduated from college. In one trip. What's more, the car has always taken care of me. It beeps when I leave the lights on, or leave the keys in it, or forget to buckle my seat belt. It beeps (louder!) when the gas is getting low. It locks the doors for me, at precisely 11 mph (I still wonder why they chose that number). We've had a good working relationship. Until now. The Bug celebrated her tenth birthday this past May. I've always taken good care of her–every scheduled checkup, and one per year even if it wasn't required, mainly for my own peace of mind. Until this year she had never given me any real trouble. Oh, there was a flashing dashboard light now and then, which usually signaled an electrical problem. A couple of batteries crashed without warning–but both times in the driveway, rather than in some parking lot somewhere. She tends to blow lightbulbs regularly, but that's easy to handle. But suddenly she's feeling her age. First it was the power steering pump–fine when I parked her, shot when I started her up again. Now the radiator's sprung a slow leak, so that's going to have to be replaced. The back brakes are worn out (fair enough–they've got 50,000 miles on them). The gas-cap cable doesn't work any more. The timing belt and water pump should be replaced proactively, per the VW service people. I do have to give kudos to them–they aren't pushy, don't say things to alarm me, and aren't even trying to sell me a new car. But what boggles me is that everything is failing at once. All expensive to fix (goodbye, advance). I have to admit I feel betrayed. I thought we had a relationship, Bug and I. We looked out for each other. And now she's let me down. Which I wouldn't mind so much except that the other two cars are in worse shape, and they all want expensive fixes. Is there an astrological chart for cars? Because something is surely in retrograde right now. What about you? Do you have a personal relationship with your car, or is it just a hunk of plastic and metal?

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

The Typepad Team

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