Compleat-Cook-art - 9/4/97
"The Compleat Cook" by Dame Alys Katharine of Ashthorne Glen (Elise Fleming).
How to prepare a feast taking into consideration documentation, cohesion and presentation.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called StefanŐs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
THE COMPLEAT COOK
By Dame Alys Katharine of Ashthorne Glen
Others have written how to put on a feast, purchase food in bulk, cook for hundreds, as well as details of kitchen sanitation. I would like the cook to consider the preparation from several other points of view: documentation, cohesion, and presentation. A feast may be tasty and the food may be plentiful but feasters can feel "incomplete", not quite knowing what is missing. Tasty little meatballs, rolling around in a too-big bowl with no sauce to cover them or anything to put them on might be one reason. A special subtlety, loudly proclaimed by the herald and paraded through the hall, invisible because of weak candlelight, might be another. A Muslim Arabic dish served with roast pork and chocolate cake may be third. I would like you to consider with me some of the potential difficulties modern cooks may have in presenting a medieval or Renaissance feast to the public.
If you are new to cooking medieval foods please don't let the ideas presented here keep you from experimenting and cooking for groups. One does not become an "master medieval cook" overnight. The concepts of documentation, cohesion and presentation are meant to stretch your horizons and expand your idea of what cooking a feast can be, not to stop you until you can somehow become "perfect."
Feast cooks are, appropriately enough, concerned with the budget, the mechanics of preparation, and even the mechanics of cleaning up the feast hall to ready it for Court or dancing. Those who pay for a feast are concerned with whether they will get good value for their money and whether the food will taste good or be "wierd." But, consider how SCA armor has progressed. It has gone from freon cans and carpet padding protection to armor and tabards that look "real". While beginning fighters may use blue plastic barrels to make their armor most fighters continue to improve their armor making it more "medieval" as they continue to improve their fighting. No one really forced this. It came as a natural consequence of fighters wanting to look more "period." SCA feasts need to leave this "freon can" stage of feasts and begin to investigate how a medieval or Renaissance feast was put together, how the tables were set, how the food was garnished and presented to the feasters. When you as a cook make some simple (or spectacular!) changes to make your feasts more "period", others will follow. Only then will this important part of our re-creation begin to mature and develop as have our armoring and arts and craft skills.
Cooking is a transitory art. Once the food has been cooked, it is eaten and the leftovers are disposed of...in 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. Whether you are preparing a feast or just a few dishes to please yourself and possibly some friends, documenting what you did and how you did it will help you the next time you want to do the same dish. Most of us make this kind of simple documentation, usually in the margins of the cookbook!
Each year it becomes easier to find books that provide modern versions of period recipes. Some cooks prefer to start by using someone else's adaptation rather than experimenting with a medieval recipe that may have unusual spices or few measurements. Look for books that contain the period recipe along with the modern adaptation (redaction/interpretation). Check to see how closely the modern author followed the original recipe. Did the author specify why changes were made? Are the changes logical based on your experience? What would happen if you used the original ingredients or preparation method? Once a cook gains experience it becomes easier to work from the medieval recipe.
Keep a list of the recipes you have tried and what book(s) they came from. Make notes you will be able to comprehend two years later about any changes you made, ingredient amounts you used, the results and what you might do differently the next time. This is a type of documentation.
Developing your own store of period recipes will help if you want to put on a feast. Too often people will decide to "do a feast" and then use modern recipes because they don't have a repertoire of authentic material to draw from. Or, they will give the hoary excuse, "Period recipes don't taste good."
As a cook begins to learn something about medieval and Renaissance cooking, he or she usually discovers that there is far more to learn than expected. For example, baked ham will probably be well-received at a feast. However, medieval hams bore little resemblance to today's "water-added" meat. How would it be possible to approximate what would have been available? In most European countries meat was always served with a sauce or several sauces. What kinds would have been used with a ham? Does the feast cook know enough to provide sauces or is the ham studded with cloves and glazed with brown sugar? Delicious, certainly, but it is analogous with the "freon can" level of armoring.
Certainly SCA cooks can provide an excellent modern feast or banquet. The guests can receive excellent value for their money as well as full stomachs after a hard day of fighting, teaching classes, or just plain socializing. The problem comes with implying that what is being served is "medieval" rather than "modern" or "medievaloid." Cooks who wish to raise the consciousness level of the feasters might consider letting them know something about the meal. A simple way to do this is to prepare a list of dishes and place it on each table. For example, "First Course: Basque Chicken, Spaghetti with Moorish Sauce; Spinach with Raisins and Pinenuts." The next step up is to let the diners know that the recipes are from period sources. "Tarte of Strawberries", The Good Huswifes Jewell, Thomas Dawson, 1596," would be an example. And, most diners will appreciate an English translation of a food such as "Comminee d'almandes (Almond Chicken Cuminade)."
If you have been planning far enough ahead you could prepare feast recipe booklets. These 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. Some groups have done 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.
Cohesion refers to the unity of the feast. It is something that usually develops after the modern cook begins to master the individual dishes. Many feasts are a mixture of dishes from several countries separated by several centuries. Usually there is no thought given to the interrelationship of the foods themselves or the final dish. Most feasters probably won't notice if an Arabic food is served alongside an English dish to be followed by an Italian Renaissance dessert. And, sometimes all the cook wants to do is prepare things to be eaten by everyone, fighters and cooking Laurels included. But, attention to presenting a unified whole can indicate that you are beginning to master the details of your chosen hobby.
Cohesion is often difficult to pin down. Imagine that you want to put on a clambake for your friends. You "automatically" know something about the foods that should be served, how they should be prepared, and something about an appropriate setting. Now imagine that you are a cook some 500 years in the future. You decide to put on a re-creation of a 20th-century clambake. You can only get a limited amount of clams since they are expensive and scarce so you stretch your meal with the more common mussels. It's a clam "bake" so you prepare them in the oven and freeze them for later use. It says to use their "liquor" so you have carefully saved and fermented the liquid from their baking. You discover from one source that corn-on-the-cob was served. You can get corn but it's not on the cob. It's in a sterile irradiated pack and comes with a milky sauce. It should be a reasonable substitution, you decide, since you can't get the other and everyone likes it. How was the food presented? Since it deals with seafood the setting surely must be on a beach, so you have the guests, wearing bathing suits, sit on the floor on a layer of sand. While this isn't an exact analogy to what we do to medieval food there are similarities. The medieval cook already "knew" certain parameters about the food, the way it needed to be prepared, and the setting. In the SCA we tend to re-create only the individual dish, not the entire meal, the presentation, or the ambience of the setting. Therefore, at some point in the learning process the modern cook should begin to be aware that this isn't "how it was done back then" and should look at refining his or her skills. For example, your particular interest may lie with Moorish cookery. Work on being able to present a feast using the spices and dishes used in Moorish Spain or Arabic countries. Some SCA cooks have compromised by cooking each course from a different country or century. This allows them to try dishes from several different regions which would use a smaller repertoire of recipes.
Investigate how meals were presented in certain countries and centuries. For example, I believe that during most of SCA's time period England used only two, or at the most three, courses but each contained from ten to thirty or more dishes. Italy apparantly used more courses and had a different arrangement of what food was presented when. In certain countries the humoral theory was prevalent. In others, the humors had ceased to be considered. To make a cohesive whole you should become aware of what foods would have been served first, which foods would not have been served with others, and how to modify the basic nature of a particular food so that it would not be "dangerous." While you may choose not to present a whole unified feast, your medieval counterpart would naturally have done so.
One memorably cohesive feast was served as if the hostess were in her own manor in 15th-century France. All the dishes were from that time and were served in the order that period menues suggested. We were brought basins of water to wash our hands at the appropriate times. It was one of the few times that I began to feel as if I were sharing something that I would have shared "in period." While this may be beyond the capabilities of a large feast hall certainly an enterprising cook can make adjustments. One part of the feast hall can be set aside for the "above the salt" meal and the feasters limited to what can be easily handled. Special care can be taken with the presentation and service to these few with the remaining feasters getting a standard SCA feast.
At the risk of over simplifying, many people can be good cooks and serve a tasty feast. But, if you wish to master the craft you should learn to go beyond just preparing individual dishes so that you learn how to present the food as it would have been presented "back then." The public will not demand that you educate them. They are probably unaware that the normal feast bears little resemblance to period practices. But, part of our Society is education. With care and planning you can move your already tasty feasts into something that would more closely resemble a feast in a particular country at a particular time. Informing the public through a tabletop menu (and brief explanation) will help them learn a little more about the practices you are presenting to them either in one particular course or in the entire meal.
Presentation covers a wide area, from the physical characteristics of the hall to the final serving of a completed dish. You may not be able to do much about some of the physical characteristics of the hall but you should be aware of its limitations as soon as the site is selected and begin considering how to modify various elements. If this is not something you particularly like to do find someone who does and make him or her the Hall Steward.
The kitchen is your bailiwick. The feasters won't usually see it. However, the feast hall is another matter. How will you set out the tables? Can you approximate one of the several ways that medieval or Renaissance halls were set up? Will you need to limit the number of feasters? For much of our early period, at least in England, the halls were set up with a High Table at one end, often on a dais, and two long rows of tables down each side of the room. People sat (or stood!) at the outside of the table, leaving the inside for the servers to work. At Society feasts people are often placed at both sides of a regular table which doesn't leave much room for candles, their feast ware, and your serving dishes. What kind of physical arrangement was common given the time period and the country from which your dishes come?
Medieval feast hosts did not expect their guests to bring their own illumination. The host provided extra torches to make the hall shine brightly and to show off his wealth and power. Modern halls are often too brightly lit for our Victorian-inspired tastes. What can your Hall Steward do to modify the lighting and still permit people to see your splendid dinner? One solution might be to carefully drape material on the ceiling to soften the harshness of fluorescent lights. Another might be to use the dimmer switch the hall may have to lower the level of light. A third might be to turn out several banks of lights but still leave one or two on. Communication with the event staff is important in this case so that someone doesn't come along and turn out all the lights which you so carefully left on. (You might want to tape over the switch and put a note on saying "Don't touch!") Another possibility is for your group to provide a number of candles for each table to augment what the individual feasters have brought. If you have access to lights that could be aimed off the ceiling, this would provide indirect lighting and still allow the diners to see their food.
While the hall's lighting isn't part of the cooking it can have a direct relationship to how people perceive your feast. One hall source was so dark that we took turns holding a flashlight so that the table volunteer could carve the chicken and not cut his fingers. The same flashlight came in handy to hold while each feaster examined a dish to see whether it was a salad or a grain dish! At a recent feast the cook had gone to great lengths to have five or six lovely subtleties made. Each represented a barony, was placed on a specially-cut board in the shape of the barony's symbol, and was topped by marzipan figures and tiny cookies hanging from a tree inserted into the cake on each board. The heralds cried an explanation and the cakes were paraded through the hall. Unfortunately, no one could see them since the only illumination was from the candles which the individual feasters had brought. People were unable to appreciate the skill of the cook.
Additional items to consider might include whether your group chooses to provide tablecloths for the guests or provides any decoration for the tables. Tablecloths seemed to cover all the tables and English "courtesy books" describe how they were laid. Most paintings do not show table decorations except for the trenchers, a few dishes and goblets, and an impressive "salt" at Head Table. There are references, however, to flowers strewn on the table in different time periods. And, again, customs differed from Italy to Germany to France to England.
Medieval feasts, just as many other facets of medieval life, were labor intensive. Today we do not have the luxury of having many servants available and this can make serving the feast a challenge. Servers are also a part of the "presentation" of food. The medieval server knew what to do, did it on a regular basis, and had appropriate clothes to wear which enhanced the reputation of the host. We use volunteers who need an inexpensive meal! If your group puts on events somewhat regularly you might consider enlisting group members as part of a regular servers' corps. One group's impressive servers wear special tabards, line up in the back and after Head Table has been ceremoniously presented with the food by the "majordomo" and his staff, enter marching in unison with the food held high to be placed on the feasters' tables. While this may not be feasible for every group those who can manage some degree of ceremony will add to the ambiance and the "cohesion" of the feast.
Presentation of the food most definitely falls under the cook's jurisdiction. Most of our emphasis tends to be on the cooking of the various dishes. The food is placed in bowls or on platters and taken out with little thought to the visual impact it may have. Those tasty meatballs rolling around in their bowl would have had a better impact if they were placed on, for example, greens or even a grain dish, with their sauces nestled snugly beside them for immediate use. Colorful greens, triangles of toast (sippets), or fancifully cut vegetables can enliven a dish and entice the diner to eat it. While most early period cookery books don't talk about the presentation touches there are mentions in cookery books from the late 1500s and beyond. As a cook, you should give consideration to what might have been done for the dish you are re-creating and then give that task to someone who will put on the finishing touches before the servers present the dish.
Besides the presentation of the individual dish you need to consider the presentation of the course and the dishes in it. This involves organizing the kitchen so that all the foods that are to be eaten together are actually sent out together. One unfortunate feast included eight small pork slices sent out, ungarnished, on a too-large platter, once slice per person. Some ten minutes later, a sauce arrived. All the meat had been eaten by that time. Some ten minutes after that came half a baked apple per person. While the meat may have been tasty it certainly lacked something, being the only food available for quite a while. And, what can the diner do with sauce and no meat to put it on?
Part of becoming a "master cook" involves learning how to manage the cooking and "serving forth" of multiple dishes. And, the best-laid plans of a modern cook can oft times go awry when the oven refuses to work or the pots have all disappeared. Modern cooks might take advantage of Chiquart's lists of equipment needed when his master traveled away from home. Local groups, as funds are available, can stock some of these items so that the cook isn't caught short. Serving dishes and serving spoons (so the diners do not need to dip their saliva-coated spoons into the common bowl!) are particularly useful. Use the services of others to oversee various aspects of the feast rather than trying to do it all yourself. One head cook places a person in charge of presentation, putting the finishing touches on each dish, as well as a head server who doesn't actually serve the food but sees that it is sent out in a timely fashion. She has a third person in the kitchen to see that the food gets into the proper dishes. Besides relieving the head cook of specific tasks it is good preparation for those who wish to become the next feast's head cook.
As you learn more about how food was presented in various times and places you can begin to experiment with subtleties and fanciful items. Keep in mind that while the Head Cook oversaw the complexity of the entire feast preparation, he did not prepare everything himself. In the largest establishments the pastry was prepared by one specialized section to be filled by the cooks. The confections and subtleties were often prepared by a third specialized group. Subtleties, while often composed of edible parts, were not always edible and might have been constructed by the carpenters or the plasterers with assistance from painters. The presentation of these spectacular pieces would often be accompanied by musicians or dancers. The herald would read the "motto" which explained the meaning of the subtlety. A number of these have been recorded in the herald's notes from English royal feasts. Do some research to find period examples or take a cue from the event's theme or an honored guest and add a subtlety to highlight your meal.
While most cooks focus solely on the preparation of a dish there is certainly more to presenting a realistic re-creation of medieval food, dining, and feasting. Using historical sources rather than "medievalizing" modern food; keeping adequate records of one's experimentations with different recipes so that successful attempts can be repeated; offering a unified "whole" with foods that would have been served in the same meal; providing a realistic atmosphere with attractively presented dishes; all are part of what we should be attempting as we experiment with medieval cookery. In this fashion SCA cookery can move from the "freon can" stage of medievaloid cooking to cookery that is increasingly a re-creation of what was actually prepared.
Copyright 1997 by Elise Fleming, 3950 Walter Road, North Olmsted, OH 44070-2111.
<alysk at ix.netcom.com>. Permission granted for republication in SCA-related
publications, provided author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.