Sunday, February 21, 2010

"The customer is always right" goes out the window in France

Or to be fair to what is really a very large country, one corner of France.

I have to admit I was somewhat shocked by the stupidity/rabble rousing revealed in this news report from Al Jazeera English. When you hear that Muslims in Europe will not integrate with the older population, remember this.

Where are those terrifyingly threatening backward baseball caps, anyway?

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of The Medieval Cook by Henisch

From TMR, a great source for timely reviews:

Henisch, Bridget. The Medieval Cook. Woodbridge, Suffolk:
Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 245. $47.95. ISBN: 9781843834380.

Reviewed by Gina L. Greco
Portland State University

Studies of cookery in the Middle Ages, whether scholarly or popular,
have focused on the production and procurement of ingredients, the
preparation and presentation of dishes, and the organization and
conventions of meals. The Medieval Cook examines these same
topics from the perspective of the different women and men in the
kitchen--peasant housewives, street stall vendors, hired caterers and
master chefs. The result is an accessible overview of medieval
culinary practice that will entertain and inform the general public.

Chapter 1, "The Cook in Context," offers an impressionistic survey of
positive and negative attitudes towards cooks and their craft, culled
from a rich variety of sources including Latin exercise books, royal
account books, biblical commentary, Arthurian romance, plays, and
children's games, supported with careful secondary research. The next
two chapters, "The Cottage Cook" and "Fast Food and Fine Catering,"
present different types of amateur and professional cooks, the tasks
they performed, materials they used, and challenges they encountered.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the diverse expectations and economic
realities cooks addressed, whether preparing meals for the immediate
household in "The Comforts of Home," or entertaining guests on a
lavish scale in "The Staging of a Feast." Throughout these chapters
Henisch continues to draw from an assortment of historical, literary,
and scholarly documents to illustrate her vignettes. The final
chapter, "On the Edge: the Cook in Art," canvasses visual
representations of cooks and their tools uncovered in the margins of
manuscripts, woodcuts, and sculpture. Notes are followed by a Select
Bibliography, Selection of Medieval Recipes, Suggestions for Further
Reading, and an Index.

Each chapter is divided into many short sections, one to seven pages
in length, the majority under four pages. These units, covering such
varied topics as "Hospitality," "Cook and Physician," "Methods and
Equipment," "Eggs," "Street Snacks," "Pie Makers," "Provisioning,"
"Crisis Control," "Economy and Discipline," and "Hell's Kitchen,"
offer the reader savory tidbits and easy entry into the world of the
medieval kitchen. Chapter titles, however, do not give adequate clues
to the content, and readers looking for a discussion of a particular
topic will regret that the table of contents does not outline these
section titles. While an adept user of the Index can navigate the
material, that task would have been greatly facilitated by a list. Of
course, these decisions are often based on a press's editorial
practice, and it is probably unfair to expect such detail in a volume
not intended as a reference work.

Henisch's focus on the cook as both historical person and fictional
character allows her to paint engaging, anecdote-rich sketches
appropriate for a book aimed at a general audience. However, this
organizational choice does occasion a certain amount of duplication
since in each different context--that of the home cook, the
professional cook, the family meal, the feast--many of the same topics
are by necessity revisited. In some cases, identical textual examples
and citations are fully repeated. For example, a reference to Gawain's
bleak mood when denied the pleasure of good food, including the direct
quote "ther he fonde noght hym byfore the fare that he lyked," is used
on p. 3 to illustrate the connection between food and mood, and then
the same the reference and quote reappear on p. 107 to make a similar
point. In a volume this short (200 pages of text, plus back matter),
the editor should have identified and eliminated such reiterations,
especially when the argument could have been supported by a fresh
quotation selected from a new source.

Another drawback to the book's structure is that the rapid movement
between brief chapter sections leaves little room for analysis, and as
a result there is no overarching argument to the volume. To be fair,
the author's stated aim is more descriptive than analytic: "to
consider medieval cooks in the context of time and circumstance, to
show how they were presented in the art and commentary of the period,
how they functioned, and how they coped with the limitations and
expectations which faced them in different social settings" (ix).
While an extensive amount of textual evidence is presented to that
effect, the author seems to take those sources at face value, when a
more critical reading might reveal a deeper and more nuanced
understanding of the context. For example, following the description
of a young woman kneading dough "for her playser and disporte"
presented as a rare "glimpse of the lady of the house at work,"
Henisch simply concludes: "She was really enjoying herself" (111-112).
This quick judgment ignores the fact that the scene is gleaned from a
moral tale juxtaposing a good niece, rewarded for her
affectionateness, with a bad niece, punished for her vanity. Given the
context, which would value moral truth over realism, the attentive
reader would expect the good girl to embody societal notions of female
goodness. The pleasure the character finds in domestic tasks might
therefore reveal much about her society's expectations and values, but
whether that means real women found true delight in what can be back-
straining work remains open to debate. This anecdote is followed
immediately by a section entitled "The Balancing Act," in which
comments on the "grim picture of the domestic misery for a husband
cursed with a feckless wife" (113) again beg the question of what grim
reality the housewife may have faced.

The comprehensive endnotes (531 for 200 pages of text) suggest that
the volume is intended for an academic as well as popular audience.
Scholars, however, will find little new material in The Medieval
, which recycles a large number of textual and visual
references from the author's 1976 book, Fast and Feast: Food in
Medieval Society
. The passage from Sir Gawain and the Green
mentioned above, for example, had already appeared in
Fast (71). Of the nineteen illustrations included in The
Medieval Cook
, six are repeats from Fast and several others
were also discussed, although not reproduced, there. Not only is a
substantial amount of material found already in the author's earlier
work, but it was often presented that first time in a fuller context
that provides more satisfying insight. Unfortunately, the student or
scholar cannot easily turn to that more developed exploration since in
the numerous instances of reused exempla that I detected, not once did
the endnotes indicate that the passage had been cited previously.
While the lack of cross-referencing will not disturb the general
reader--in fact, such heavy notations would have been off-putting to
many--it does diminish the volume's utility to the academic community.
Henisch's own conclusion offers a fitting summary of The Medieval
's strengths and weaknesses: "With patience and close
attention, it is possible to form a vivid, if not entirely coherent,
impression of their craft, a patchwork pieced together from bright
scraps and stray sightings" (202). While specialists will regret the
lack of a coherent argument, the general audience will be seduced by
the lively medley of cooks and kitchens the book presents

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Out of the East: Spices and the medieval imagination, by Paul Freedman

This book was a real treat, and not just because much of it was about food and dining. It's one of the best-written medieval/early modern history books I have read in a long time, and one of the most original.

If you have ever eaten, tried cooking or just read about aristocratic food in the Middle Ages -- and aristocratic food is almost all we know about -- you already are aware that medieval feasts included a lot of highly spiced foods. The spices used in "savory" dishes then are hardly ever used today except perhaps in desserts; some, like grains of paradise and zedoary are hardly known. There has been some good scholarly work in recent years as to why medieval cooking and modern European differ so much; Terence Scully, for instance, has explained the connection between the ancient and medieval medical theories involving the four humours and medieval recipies and feast design. But Paul Freedman's book probably is accessible to more readers while actually covering a great deal of novel material.

One very interesting subject Freedman covers is how the appeal of some of the favorite exotic spices faded dramatically when European merchants gained direct, routine access to them. People still wanted cloves and nutmeg, but they no longer thought of them as powerful, almost spiritual substances. And when it became known that grains of paradise came from the mundane West Africa (precisely, "the Grain Coast") and not the earthly paradise, Europeans slowly lost interest in them.

There is much more in this book -- lots about early European exploration and the role of spices in motivating it -- and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds this review in the least interesting.

Update: Phil Feller directs us to an NPR interview with Freedman.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Carnivalesque is here!

Gillian Polack at Food History has posted the June edition of the ancient/medieval/early modern Carnivalesque. Go have a look!

For me, the best discovery is the existence of Food History itself, which somehow had never lodged itself firmly in my brain.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Saladin's hummus?

A couple of weeks ago, a correspondent on MEDIEV-L sent the rest of us a link to this article from the Guardian, which discusses the efforts of the state of Lebanon to prevent Israel from claiming hummus and tabouleh as its own, when by all rights they should be knowledge this traditional dishes of Lebanon. Does this mean that they only want Lebanese produced hummus to be labeled as such? Where would that leave Canadian hummus? (Which is likely produced from Lebanese recipes.)

The article also mentions a legend that Saladin, the famous Muslim leader of the 12th century, invented hummus. Now that's what I call ridiculous. Some man invented hummus? I assert with complete confidence that the dish was invented by two women working together, probably grandmother and granddaughter, some time well before the first wall was raised around Jericho. Where they were when they did it, I'm not saying.

Image: A Greek version of hummus with tahini, just to complicate things.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

I will give a fig for it

When it is appropriate to do so, I love talking about food and the origin of various crops in my history classes -- in the past, this has generally meant world history and ancient history courses. Ancient Middle Eastern crops came out in discussing the background to early Islamic history a couple of weeks ago, and I had a fair amount to say about dates, a very important crop in Iraq at any time in its history. Soon after, I ran across this National Public Radio piece on figs as one of the earliest crops, a possibility revealed by new explorations near ancient Jericho, which rated a mention in my discussions of early towns and agriculture. I promised a link to the Islamic history class, and here it is!

Image: from NPR, showing an ancient fig (L) next to modern Iranian and Turkish figs (R).

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Friday, September 19, 2008

It's Ramadan -- Pictures from around the world

The Big Picture has a wonderful selection.

Image (it was hard to pick just one): "A seller of traditional Syrian sweets calls out for customers in the Meidan quarter of Damascus September 2, 2008."

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Beef and Liberty by Ben Rogers

A friend lent me this book with an enthusiastic recommendation, and I'm glad he did. Anyone who wonders about the origin of John Bull, or why Jack Aubery's sailors play the song "Roast Beef of Old England" before battle will enjoy this book. Likewise those who might want to know more about the comparative development of national cuisine in England and France, or the great era of the English satirical cartoon. Enjoyable and informative both.

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