Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A New Cookbook

Another one of my birthday presents, brought back from Denmark, turned out to be a cookbook I've heard mentioned and have actually been looking for, Prehistoric Cooking by Jacquie Wood.

See here:

I've seen it mentioned a number of times, and read a few comments about it, but beyond that I wasn't finding too much info, or anything in the way of quotes or samples. So it will be very interesting to actually be able to sit down and take a serious look at this, and maybe try, and experiment, with some of what she says.
We'll have to see...


Saturday, 12 July 2008

Little Pots

Aren't they charming?
It's not like I have any lack of pots, or the man to make them, but this series of three (coincidentally nesting) pots came from one of the museums in Denmark, a birthday gift from my husband. (Yet another reason Homeland Security was anxious about his luggage! Not just iron blooms or maple syrup...)

I'll have to seal them up, which means a chance to try several different methods, but I'm quite delighted by them!


Sunday, 6 July 2008

Feeding Re-Enactors

Or how do we reset our modern sensibilities?

(expanded from the posting on the DARC blog.)

** Random thought warning: No guarantees of a beginning, middle, or end, here. It’s an ongoing discovery!**

Over the years of being one of the main food providers at the varying levels of demo that DARC takes part in, my biggest challenge has been mostly, finding the time ahead, in a life that’s pretty full of other activities or work, to get ready. Fortunately, I find that food fascinates me, and drying fruit or meat or vegetables, or making flatbreads ahead, and planning it all, amuses me. The one recent conundrum has been in crossing borders. All of a sudden I’ve lost my easy ability to prepare our own supplies to take, especially meat and fruit, and have to rely on local grocery supplies. (No, the Norse didn’t really eat pepperoni, but it was the only dried sausage available at your store!)

A number of years ago now, my husband gave me a food dehydrator, which sat for a while, until I finally discovered how truly marvelous it is. I’ve tried other methods of drying, but a dehydrator sure beats the oven, or the vagaries of sun and weather, or the klutzy feet of cats who just want to be a part of everything. Now I can dry foodstuffs all year round, for me as well as for camp purposes. And truthfully, I find that some of those stocks get used up in my daily kitchen before they even have the chance to be part of a period menu!

When it comes to a demo situation, it’s far easier to adhere to a more plausible menu of foodstuffs. On the one hand, I’m preparing it before the public, so my methods will only be the appropriate ones, especially as dictated by the cookware I’ll be using. And I find the people I’m feeding are far more accepting of whatever I give them, when it’s the oasis in a busy day of talking to the public. (Not to mention that after the demo, there’s a good chance we’ll be eating out somewhere, and they can suit their own tastes!)

However, there are occasions where we camp for ourselves. What then? We had already decided in our formative period, that morning was often a time of relaxed authenticity. Partly because some of us like our coffee in the morning; but also because that gave us a period of time in which we could discuss aspects of the whole process, and review gear, etc.

When it comes to food, though, beyond that pot of coffee, I truly prefer historical foods, and more appropriate methods. And when cooking for myself, that’s not really an effort. Historical food intrigues me, as well as the processes of preparing it. (Mind you, I occasionally stray out of one time zone a bit, if I really have urges for experimentation with some other things… I don’t get enough time cooking over fires to work my way through the entire list of things I want to try! Or favourites I’d like to revisit.) But I don’t think I’ve ever had any problems avoiding modern cooking or recipes. After all, this is my chance to escape all that!

I have found that when cooking for others, it’s much harder to toe that historic line. Or when cooking for a longer period of time. Our modern tastes, and sensibilities, and habits get in the way, no matter how much we try to suppress them. Not only will the varying ‘needs’ and requirements and differing senses of taste, and experience of the members of the group get in the way, I have my own perceptions of what constitutes an adequate meal, a balanced menu, and a need to please my audience. Even that is probably a far cry from a busy huswife concerned with making a timely meal from materials to hand.

It’s very hard to turn off our modern taste buds. Easier, perhaps, to follow a period recipe and accept the results. But in earlier period cooking, we’re working from known ingredients and methods, far more often than from actual recipes. There’s an automatic assumption that comes into play, about what we should be doing with those ingredients.

I often dry meat, for example. And while I’ve adapted the ingredients in varying jerky recipes to be something more in keeping with the spicings available to the Norse, it seems highly unlikely that they spent time adding flavourful marinades to meat they were drying as a means of preservation. A simple brining makes sense, because of the useful properties of salt. But plain brined and dried meat really just doesn’t cut it as a ‘snack food’ to the modern tongue. It works well as something for the soup pot, and I’ve used it as such. But for eating? Not so much.

Yet, in the real context, a bit of dried meat would probably have been quite the decent item to stave off some hunger, and the fact you had it at all would probably have been all that mattered.

I suppose I should be pleased with myself that I have tried the more logical ‘plain dried meat’ even, but the fact that I immediately opted back to a marinated jerky bothers me. That’s my 21st century taste buds chiming in.

And so, when faced with a small crowd of people who find plain water something for washing with, not drinking, or a simple soup of dried vegetables or salt fish, less than inspiring, especially if it’s what you had yesterday and the day before, and the day before that…

It definitely becomes a bit more of a challenge.

Particularly when I want them to not feel cheated out of a real meal.

Consequently, we end up with far more extensive meals than I can imagine being the norm. Which, when paired with an inadequate knowledge of period furniture, means a more awkward serving setting. (And way more dishes to clean up!)

And more meals, period. What I’ve read of the Norse suggest a morning meal, and a nighttime meal. Now admittedly, I’m fairly used to a two meal day, and when I worked at my previous job in the city, often a one meal day! But many people in the modern day really are more familiar with three meals a day.

Even the modern perception of what constitutes a meal can get in the way. If the Norse might have been content with a bowl of broth or gruel for a morning meal, with perhaps a crust of bread or an unleavened flatbread to sop it up, why do we feel we cannot start our day without a buffet of tempting items? Sausage, bacon, fresh griddle cakes, fruit… I often make an attempt to offer up a bakepot of some grain porridge, but there are times where I’m the only one willing to give it a go.

Admittedly, the North American diet makes far too much use of meat. We’re spoiled by accessibility and modern methods of preservation. And quite probably, our ideas of a hearty breakfast don’t match with the workload we’re about to undertake in our day! But certainly our choices are not as likely in a culture without large-scale farming, or food-processing, or refrigeration.

And whether or not there were fewer food allergies in history, or not, certainly there are many more scruples about food today, as well as sensitivities, and food choices, and dietary concerns. All those factors can come into play, and then the whole game becomes more complex.

I was lucky recently, at least, in that it was only a very small group of people I was cooking for, which made the variables a bit more finite. Another friend ended up cooking for over two dozen people, and found that in many cases, the entire idea of period food had to be set aside for the sake of efficiency, and group and individual needs. Also, in her case, a goodly quantity of those two dozen people may have had little or no experience with period food, and might not have had the ability to adjust their expectations. For my part, I discovered that although I had a fair array of appropriate storage vessels, and a goodly quantity of period foods along, they got lost in the chaotic shuffle of making sure there was adequate breakfast, lunch, ‘tea’, and dinner that matched up with the varying needs people had brought with them, or the extra bodies that always seem to accumulate.

Certainly, I believe it to be a learned association of ideas: both surrendering what feels natural, and your regular expectations. Particularly when we’re basing the whole thing on extrapolation and conjecture at best. That’s a difficult step to take. I’d like to be able to do it more often, or at least make the attempt.

I find that some easy steps are to simply include only appropriate foodstuffs, even if sometimes the net is cast just a teeny bit wider; ‘to include Britain, as well as the Scandinavian homelands.’ This, to possibly give some scope for wheat as the primary grain, or allow us to include almonds and walnuts. Or to perhaps allow a treat from ‘far away’. (In the case of a few olives for a special snack.) I do end up playing a few mind games with my planning, if only because I live rurally, and don’t have access to preferable options. In cooking for demos, I sometimes build in a supply trip so I actually can buy and use barley flour, or hazelnuts.

[For my experimental cooking, I’m far stricter with myself. It actually ends up being more rewarding.]

Perhaps it might be worth another post just to muse about what might make for good re-enactors’ food?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008