Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Medieval Cuisine and Agriculture

In the article "On the Impracticality of a Cheeseburger," Waldo Jaquith writes:




Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.


So often when we think that such-and-such a food was not around in the European Middle Ages, it's because the ingredients are New World. For example, you'll sometimes hear that medieval people thought tomatoes were poisonous, which is preposterous because medieval (European) people didn't think about tomatoes at all, having never seen them (here's Melissa Snell's accurate account of tomatoes in Europe). Medieval people didn't have potatoes, peanuts, squash, green beans, turkeys, chili peppers, corn, chocolate, etc.

What Jaquith's article made me wonder, though, was what modern dishes we eat that could not have existed in the Middle Ages not because of distance between new world and old, but because the harvest times of the various ingredients were so different that one could not practically make them. Since vegetables were often pickled to preserve them, I'm imagining certain kinds of salads that we take for granted today might be impossible without wilted or pickled ingredients.

I've worked on a farm in my youth, but it was with modern planting, harvesting, and so many of the plants were New World that I really have no idea about medieval agriculture -- but I'm sure many out there do. What modern dishes were impossible or impractical in the Middle Ages?

12 comments:

  1. Yeah ... I feel a little like Jaquith's original article arbitrarily raised the stakes on what constitutes a “cheeseburger”. I think if you have got ground or chopped meat (probably beef) between two pieces of some sort of bread foodstuff, with cheese, then you basically have a cheeseburger. We can debate the relative merits of other condiments, but such could be swapped in or out or all around without changing the essential “cheeseburgeriness” of the construction — while omitting the bread, ground/chopped meat, or cheese pretty much rules out the possibility of having a “cheeseburger”, IMO. And I see no reason that bread and cheese could not be reasonably readily available to anyone equipped with ground/chopped meat. The cheeseburger may indeed require the Neolithic Revolution as a practical prerequisite, but I am not sure it necessarily requires “a highly developed, post-agrarian society” … unless we impose some extra (and perhaps questionable) rules that make it so.

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  2. I think if you have got ground or chopped meat (probably beef) between two pieces of some sort of bread foodstuff, with cheese, then you basically have a cheeseburger.

    Carl, I'm pretty sure that chopped lamb in a pita with feta cheese sprinkled atop it isn't a cheeseburger but, in fact, souvlaki. :) You might want to tighten up that definition a bit! As I said dozens of times in the subsequent discussion—and even put a note at the top of the blog entry, to avoid confusion—the food would have been wildly impractical, though surely theoretically possible to somebody with significant resources and with sufficient vision to envision such a food that would have made so little sense for its time.

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  3. making burgers is art :))) it can't be easy to make a good one. love'em. burger king is the most favorite place on earth :D and i think this food can be healthy, as long as it's done right

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  4. Interesting thoughts.

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  5. Cool post! Thanks a lot.

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  6. Waldo
    Not to put too fine a point on it, but what you tried to describe was not a souvlaki, but more like a gyro. Souvlaki is usually seasoned pieces of pork broiled on a skewer.
    I must admit that in all my years visiting Greek restaurants, I have never seen a gyro with cheese of any kind. It is usually slices of roast ground lamb, onions, tomato, and a yogurt based sauce rolled into a cone shaped piece of pita.

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