We tried it again, this time with a simple recipe for boiled perch. This time there was quite a gratifying response, in which perhaps fifteen or twenty people supplied their redactions to the original recipe. Suddenly there was a sort of wave of people who thought they couldn't redact from primary sources, doing exactly that. In the course of this, there was a request for the more experienced redactors to supply a philosophy on the hows and whys of recipe redaction and period cookery in general.
My philosophy, if I have one, is this: the period recipe is an important tool in creating an all-around period atmosphere. We are supposed, more or less, to be acting in all ways as period people, so we try to dress and act appropriately to our personae. So too should we eat that way, if possible. I'm not going to get into a whole authenticity issue. But a good chunk of what we do is the dedicated suspension of disbelief: if, say, Baron Tibor (the gentleman who posted the original "challenges") and I were in a room at an event together, it might strike one as odd that a 14th century Savoyard (I think) and a 5th century Romanized Briton would hobnob, but the glory of our Society is that we can, and that wherever and whenever it is that this is happening, it almost certainly isn't 20th century North America, or Europe, or Australia, or wherever. That being the case, why eat food that screams, "20th Century!!!"? People in the Society frequently consider it bad manners to introduce a modern element that would spoil the game. We try not to discuss the 20th-century aspects of our lives, frequently using elaborate euphemisms for those modernities we sometimes need to discuss (cars, telephones, etc.) Bringing in an obviously non-period food can be just as jarring.
I'm willing to concede, and people will probably disagree with me about this, that there are times when being extremely authentic in one area could lead to the crashing down of the entire game, and under those conditions it is sometimes better to go with a less authentic version. So, for example, the gentleman I heard about several years ago (I think in Ansteorra, but I could be wrong) who added sand and gravel to his bread recipe on the grounds that it belonged in a period loaf, not only misrepresented period bread (period folks' teeth were no better then than ours are now; in fact, they were probably worse), but also wasted good food, probably all to prove the very questionable point that we shouldn't try to be authentic in the area of food in the first place. It's kind of like when my six-year-old son says, "You want me to clean my room? Fine. I'll spend the rest of my life doing nothing but clean my room. I'll stand there waiting for a speck of dust to come, so I can clean it up right away." Both are exaggerated responses to demands the parties felt were unreasonable, but actually weren't. This, by the way, is an example of what we have come to call Cariadoc's Law, which states that we should not let the best (really authentic period bread or a nice clean room) become the enemy (to the point of ridiculous exaggeration and impossibility) of the good (a reasonably good attempt). Or, to put it another way, you can't let yourself argue that because perfection is impossible, there's no point in trying.
In the Exception That Proves The Rule Department, my own usual example of this phenomenon is that sometimes it is better to use canned, boneless ham, than to get a couple of hundred feasters to admit that most of them can't carve one very well. This is a case wherein the less authentically period option is, in the long run, a better contributor to the overall medieval ambience. This is, of course, pretty rare.
Enough of the soapbox stuff. Let's get to the how-to.
I began to suspect that a good deal of the problem people have with period recipes is with language. Tibor supplied a period recipe for boiled perch which was just a bit more simple than some of the others, and didn't become too funky in the language department. Many people gave it a shot, and, seeming to expect all kind of disasters, came up smelling like fis-- I mean roses. And what's more, although everyone put their own little personal touches on the dish, it always remained recognizably the same dish. For those who suggested that they thought they must have done it wrong, what does that suggest? To me it suggests they did it right. The fact that the recipe was sometimes vague, supplying no cooking times, no temperatures, and no ingredient quantities didn't seem to be too much of a problem, so long as we had an idea of what we wanted the dish to be like in the end. This was easier in this recipe than in some of the others, which I hope some day people will try their hands at, but it's an area where experience comes in really handy.
Essentially, what people did was to go through the recipe's instructions, and act as if they were following them, supplying from their own experience or intuition the information needed to fill in any blank spots in the recipe. For example, what were we all skimming from the top in the recipe? There was nothing in the water yet except salt. So, people assumed that either the salt was impure and produced a scum on top, or that they were expected to add the fish trimmings to make a stock. I have my own opinion on this question which it will be simpler not to include here. The point is that those of us who aren't period cooks (i.e. all of us) were able to get through a recipe with a few logical gaps in it and produce a "virtual" dish that was not only "virtually" yummy (and I have no doubt that the real thing is great, too), but which an actual period cook could be proud of.
So here, for those of you who've read this far, is the Primary Rule of Cooking from Period Recipes: "Whenever Possible, Just Do What the Recipe Says. That's what it's there for." You've probably already figured this part out.
As for language, probably the best way is to just read from the period sources until you don't find it intimidating. Curye on Inglysche has a fine glossary with notes, for example. Not a whole heck of a lot different from tackling Chaucer for the first time, and certainly far easier than dealing with Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon, another not-impossible task. Besides, it's about a subject we are all interested in: food.
A way to cheat at this a bit is to use translated period sources. This could include, say, Terence Scully's translation of the Viandier of Taillevent. There will still be those gaps in the recipe that will need to be interpreted. But at least Scully has done the work of translating it from medieval French into modern English. People in and out of the SCA have done many fine translations of period sources that weren't in English originally. These include the various Arabic and Andalusian sources, Das Buch Von Guter Speiss, and a host of others. The latest edition of His Grace Cariadoc's Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks is an extremely large bang for the buck in this area. You can probably find people selling this at the Pennsic War for not very much.
Last, but not least, is the fact that you do need to have some foundation in basic cookery. It will be a great help to know how food will behave under a given set of circumstances, so a bit of kitchen chemistry, which can be gleaned from various modern cookbooks (the more basic, but comprehensive, the better: try Fanny Farmer, or The Joy of Cooking, or something by James Beard), will be helpful. If you later decide you're really interested in the physical and chemical wizardry of cooking, I suggest you go out and find Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, and The Curious Cook. Maybe Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner, too.
This doesn't mean that you'll end up serving modern food from these modern cookbooks (although if you did, you could do worse), but they will help you develop a certain second nature or intuition about what many of the period recipes are talking about. You'll know a stew from a soup from a pie, and act accordingly, which is a good part of the redactor's art right there .
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