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Spoiled or Splendid? Speculations on a Culinary Misgiving

Preparing medieval food

Spoiled or Splendid? Speculations on a Culinary Misgiving

By Aaron Hostetter

eHumanista, Vol. 25 (2013)

Preparing medieval food

Introduction: The state of medieval eating can be characterized in the modern imagination by parallel yet contrasting acts of consumption. The first is sublime and religious, the eating of the literal body of Christ through the sacrament of the Eucharist. The other is repellent and decadent, the presumed practice of eating spoiled meat, its putrid taste disguised within an overpowering façade of spices and strongly-flavored ingredients. While the holy feast was ideologically central to medieval culture, integral to the way that medieval Christians perceived themselves, its unwholesome secular counterpoint is hardly more than a myth of the modern age, a presumption of temporal privilege that persistently clings to the prior era. While the former feast was vital to the Middle Ages itself, the fantasy of the latter meal suits only the ideological needs of the present. In this essay, I intend to quickly present the case against the spoiled food of the Middle Ages, and then offer a few speculations as to why modern observers continue to perpetuate this distasteful myth.

While it is true that the refined palates of medieval eaters of high status had a yen for the exotic tastes obtained by combining a disparate and (we often assume) incongruous amalgam of spices in their prepared dishes and sauces, it does not follow that this taste was primarily for purposes of making the inedible palatable. There are other, more powerful and compelling reasons that Middle Age gourmands enjoyed the taste of spices. Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes that spices are just one aspect of cultural borrowing from the Islamic Middle East, creating an economic dependence that rivaled the contemporary Western addiction to petroleum. Madeleine Pelner Cosman states that “spices were a superb insignia of conspicuous wealth… A particular odor or taste in food thus affirmed the political statement: power bought this”.

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Spices not only bespoke of power, but the “good life” and “wellness,” as argued by Paul Freedman, alluring consumers due to their “expensive, exotic, and even mysteriously sacred nature”. Jack Turner suggests that spices were indeed used for concealment, but posits that the taste being hidden was that of salted meat or fish . Scholars of ancient nutrition, such as Ken Albala and Terrence Scully, also show that spices played an important role in constituting the proper balance of a dish according to the predominant medical theory of the bodily humors.5 Spices in the Middle Ages were fabulously expensive, difficult to obtain, and reserved for only the wealthiest eaters: it is more than highly unlikely that these precious, almost ineffable, commodities would have been thrown away simply to preserve bad meat.

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