A How-To and Why for Cooks

by Dame Alys Katharine (Elise Fleming)

Cooking is a transitory art. Once the food has been cooked, it is eaten and the leftovers are disposed a tummy on a later day or into the trashbin. Nothing really remains to tell us how it tasted, what variations were made in the recipe, or what changes are recommended for the next time. There are a number of reasons why one may wish to document what was cooked. Entering competitions, proving that one can cook historical recipes, improving SCA feasts, helping new cooks, and "leaving a trail" are several. One of the joyous aspects of the SCA is when the individual recognizes that it is fun to learn, discover, and re-create what people did in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is to that end that documentation serves its purpose. Documentation is the ladder to increasing knowledge for both the neophyte and the experienced cook. It is the means by which we can share what we have learned with others, helping this lesser-known aspect of the Society stretch and grow as have more visible areas such as armoring, costuming, calligraphy and illumination.


Each kingdom has its own way to run competitions. Some require extensive documentation of each ingredient and process used. Others ask for much less proof that what is being cooked is from a valid historical source. Other "competitions" are more of a "share and taste." Even if the competitions you enter require little in the way of proof that your work is as historically accurate as you are currently capable of being, you will gain personally by developing your own forms of documentation.

First, you should start with a historical recipe. It is therefore important to list the source of the recipe, the author (if any) of the cookery book, when it was originally printed, and any modern book that it was taken from. In other words, one is providing a cooking footnote so that others can go to the same (or similar) source and find the recipe. It is much more difficult (and rather argumentative) to "back document" a particular dish. "I know they used beef, and I know they had onions and some places had noodles so this fried onion, noodle and beef dish could have been done. Besides, this is 'creative anachronism'!"

If you are entering a competition, you should provide a copy of the original recipe, either photocopied, re-typed, or carefully written out. This allows those judging the food to determine how closely the adapted recipe follows the original. For a competition, you should include the actual recipe that you used. If this is your own adaptation (interpretation/redaction) you should state that. If it is an adaptation done by someone else (a modern cookbook author, for example) then say that. If you use someone else's recipe and do not say so it is the same as plagiarism. There is nothing wrong with a neophyte cook following modern version of a period recipe. However, be aware that if the book you took it from did not provide the original version you have no way to know how accurate, if at all, the modern version is. For competition purposes it is better to use recipes where you can check the original version. Look to see what changes the modern author made. Did the author list why? Are the changes logical based on your experience? What would happen if you re-did the modern version to more closely conform to the period one?

It is important to note what changes you made from the original recipe and why the changes were made. For example, you might note, "I omitted the nuts because I am allergic to them," or "I didn't use alkanet because I had no source for it so I used food coloring instead." Other changes such as "I added twice the rice flour because it wouldn't thicken" may be useful in determining why the end result is the way it is.

In competitions I have found that judiciously honest comments can inform the judges what you learned while preparing the dish. "While this dish is tasty, next time I will try...." is an example. Or, you may have tried a "period" way and decided that doing something different will make the dish taste better. You could submit both ways to the judges with comments on what you learned during the cooking process. Point out the pros and cons, why you decided to do something different, and what you learned.

While you should expect that your judges are fellow cooks, they will probably appreciate a step-by-step account of what you did. For example, "I then cooked the meat" doesn't say as much as "I gently boiled the meat in salted broth over a low fire for two hours. I used commercially-prepared broth because of time constraints." Write as if you were talking to people who had no idea of how to prepare the dish. It is especially important to note whether you prepared something (such as the broth above) from scratch. Otherwise, the judges will assume you used a commercially prepared product.

There is a mistaken idea that medieval food didn't taste good. Modern world authors such as Terence Scully, and SCA cooks such as Duke Sir Cariadoc of the Bow, have put the lie to that idea. People did not eat rotten meat and disguise it with spices. Most foods were not heavily spiced, although there were exceptions even as there are heavily spiced foods today. If your recipe does not taste good you may want to consider how your interpretation of the recipe may have colored the results. Talk with local medieval cooks, correspond via the Internet or through cooking newsletters. Look through more cookery books for similar dishes. Perhaps there will be a hint for a different heating technique, variations or even measurements for spices or other ingredients. Record what you have found out. If the dish still doesn't taste good, leave it alone and try something else!

Proving Yourself

If you cook feasts, you may want to let the feasters know something about the meal. A simple way to do this is to prepare a list of the dishes and place it on each table (First Course: Basque Chicken, Spaghetti with Moorish Sauce; Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts). The next step up is to let the diners know that the recipes are from period sources. You could add similar information to what was listed for competition documentation, above. For example, "Moules (Mussels), The Viandier of Taillevent, French, 1370," or "Sugar Paste Dishes, The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, Thomas Dawson, 1597." Most diners will appreciate an English translation of a food such as "Syseros (mashed chickpeas with garlic)."

If you have been planning far enough ahead you could prepare a number of feast recipe booklets. This should include the list of foods served and the recipe you used along with any changes you made. Ideally, it should include the original recipe (for those diehards who want to check what you did with the original!). A final nice touch in the booklet would be a complete bibliography of all your sources with title, author, publisher, year, etc. I have seen spiral-bound feast booklets with heavy-stock covers that contain historical information about the country, the period author, or about some of the foodstuffs used in the recipes. Others contain just the recipes photocopied on regular paper and folded in half. Your fee for the book will depend on how many pages, your printing costs, and so forth.

SCA feasts rarely resemble period feasts. Only by letting the feasters know when you are attempting to re-create the dishes, the method of serving the food, or the ambience of the feast hall will the general public begin to distinguish between an valid, documentable attempt at re-creation or a fantasy-inspired, modern-world banquet. Please note that there is nothing inherently wrong with providing a modern world dining experience while wearing medieval clothes. What is unfair is implying that the feast is medieval when it is merely "medievaloid."

Leaving a Trail

This is for your personal record or for the assistance of your "master" or teacher. It is like an artist's portfolio. Ideally, you are well organized and have lots of time to record what you are doing! Your portfolio would include the recipes you tried, the dates you tried them, the feasts (if any) at which you served them, your particular adaptations, the results, and what you would do the next time. A "simple" way might be to photocopy the original recipe and write down your changes in the margins or below it. If you are using this to help your teacher or advocate help you, then comments about the dish's reception, what you learned, and what you will do differently are needed. People can see your progress through the repertoire of medieval cookery and gain an insight about how you might have grown and improved.

Photos are another helpful asset to your portfolio. Just photographing a chicken isn't very informative, but if you have gilded the chicken, arranged it artistically and perhaps placed decorative foods around it, that is more useful. Those interested in your advancement can see that you have begun to think about the presentation of the food and that it is visually appealing as well as (we assume) tasty.

Do you have to have a portfolio to be recognized? No. If, however, you would like people to recognize that you are learning, maturing, and have begun to master this particular craft, then your portfolio can give a type of permanence to this impermanent art.

Sharing With Others

Now that you have begun to leave some documentation about what you have done and what you have learned you can share it with others. Your own versions of medieval recipes with your personal comments about what to be careful of, or how to achieve a desired result, can help a new cook learn how to prepare that dish. Many new cooks would rather start with an already-proven recipe rather than dive into a period cookery book with its lack of specific measurements. Computers provide a handy way to store the information but notebooks or file cards in a box will work as well. How can one share information? Teach a class at an event; hold informal "cook and taste" sessions; provide samples at shire meetings; submit recipes to newsletters - local, principality, cooking, or A&S editions, even Tournaments Illuminated. Hold regional, kingdom or inter-kingdom cooking seminars. Share with others via electronic groups. Encourage local cooks to put on more period feasts using documented recipes and serving methods.

Documentation, the details of the period recipes you have tried and its results, thus becomes the ladder to increased knowledge within the Society. The fun comes from the learning and the sharing. As you learn more about what your fellow cooks did hundreds of years ago you will, I hope, become increasingly more curious about other aspects of their cooking life. In this way cookery in the Society will begin to match the strides made in other areas such as more historical armor; clothing that resembles what people actually wore, rather than being fantasy-inspired; or scrolls that can be shown in museums.

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