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October 20, 2002

Magia naturalis
Posted by Teresa at 04:08 PM *

I’ve messed around some with medieval recipes over the years, enough so that I regard “tyl it be y-now” as a normal cooking instruction, and I’d gotten to thinking I pretty much knew the basic corpus of surviving medieval recipes. I’m delighted to report that I was not only wrong, but that the material that gives me the lie is extravagantly and gloriously weird. It’s collected together on the Incredible Foods, Sotelties, and Entremets page.

They’ve got all the classic medieval solteties and bizarreries I expected to find when I went to check out the page: cooked peacock re-clothed in its skin and feathers, check; fruited meatloaf made to look like a giant peasecod, check; roasted chicken dressed in helmet, shield, and lance, riding on a roasted pig, check; three recipes for cockatrice, check check check.

But making the re-feathered peacock breathe fire—now, that’s a new one on me. So’s a clever (if hazardous) use of unslaked lime to power fireless cooking.

There are directions—unkind, but it must have been very funny if the gag came off—for treating a live plucked chicken so it looks and acts like it’s been roasted, until such time as it wakes up and takes off across the dinner table. I don’t know, maybe it’ll run past the fire-breathing peacock that’s cooked but looks like it’s alive. That’d be weird. It would be even better if you served both of them at the same time as the roast chicken that sings. That would give you one edible bird out of three, since the live chicken can’t be eaten, and the method for making the roast chicken sing involves stuffing the neck cavity with sulphur and quicksilver.

But for my money, the real showstopper is the recipe for decorating a perfectly good roast “That flesh may look bloody and full of worms, and so be rejected by smell-feasts”—a smell-feast being a schnorrer, someone who always shows up at dinnertime looking hopeful. This jolly trick, it turns out, is from How to drive Parasites and Flatterers from great men’s tables, the thirteenth chapter of Giambattista della Porta’s Magia naturalis:

How to make good meat appear rotten:

Boil Hares blood, and dry it, and powder it. Cast the powder upon the meats that are boiled, which will melt by the heat and moisture of the meat, that they will seem all bloody, and he will loath and refuse them. Any man may eat them without any rising of his stomach. If you cut Harp strings small, and strew them on hot flesh, the heat will twist them, and they will move like Worms.

Most ingenious! Which is just about right for that period; medieval Europe was full of gifted techies. It’s just that most of them weren’t real big about writing it down.
Comments on Magia naturalis:
#1 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 05:12 AM:

I had a lot of dealings with unslaked lime (i.e., whitewash) at one time. When you put the block into water, it really does put on an impressive display of boiling and bubbling. I never thought of using it to cook, but it strikes me as perfectly feasible if you happen to have enough of the stuff around (and that's merely a matter of having roasted a bunch of seashells at some point in the past). I can even think ff instances where one might not want to have an open flame and/or smoke, and still do some cooking, where it might come in very handy indeed.

#2 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 11:50 AM:

In Breughel's "Peasant Wedding" there's one guy who is running up from somewhere else (dragging his wife -- several of the wives in that painting are beeing dragged). He has a spoon hanging from his belt. Obviously he just finished one wedding and is hitting the second. A smellfeast.

"Aged beef", of course, is rotten -- it's aged with mold. Many tasty foods are rotten -- sauerkraut, kim chee, rocquefert cheese, etc. For more:

#3 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 02:05 PM:

"the method for making the roast chicken sing involves stuffing the neck cavity with sulphur and quicksilver."

Hey, back then this would qualify it as a nutriceutical.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 02:08 PM:

That's an interesting page you recommend, but being host to microbial growth is not the same thing as being rotten. If it were, we'd never swallow wine, cheese, or leavened bread, much less eat huitlacoche.

I don't know what a cellular biologist would make of it. Maybe rotten is what we call infestations we don't like. But as a cook, I can tell you that there's a world of difference between aged meat and spoiled meat. Some people like their meat a little more aged than others, but when it's gone over the line and is rotting, it takes a major effort of will for anyone to eat it who isn't literally starving, and no amount of seasoning wil cover the taste. I suspect natural selection has something to do with this.

#5 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 03:51 PM:

Eat too many singing roast chickens, and you'll end up mad as a hatter!

Mixtures of mercury and sulfur were also common alchemical precursors to gold (more so than the now-traditional lead). So if your chicken didn't sing, you might still hope to end up with a golden goose.

#6 ::: FranW ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 07:03 PM:

I'd say that for meat, "aged" = tenderized by the natural enzymes in the muscle tissues; "rotten" = degraded by bacteria.

Fran (a cellular biologist in her spare time)

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 07:11 PM:

Oh, of course, makes perfect sense. And why didn't I think to ask you in the first place?

#8 ::: FranW ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 08:35 PM:

Cuz you knew I lurk here, so I was bound to chime in with my unsolicited $0.02 :-)

[Lurking at Patrick's blog keeps me up to date with current events, but yours has better recipes and is (no disrespect to P) just plain more fun.]


#9 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 11:26 PM:

I used to believe that about enzymes too, but meat is aged by letting it mold optimally. Lots of molds and yeasts are involved in making food tasty. The only bacteria I know of which makes foods tasty are the yogurt/buttermilk bacteria. But I'm not an expert either.

#10 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 11:31 PM:

"Fermented" = "good spoilage". "Rotten" = "bad fermentation".

Other examples:Vietnames "rotten fish sauce". And the Inuit / Eskimos eat food whether raw and spoiled.

#11 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 11:48 PM:

"The only bacteria I know of which makes foods tasty are the yogurt/buttermilk bacteria. But I'm not an expert either."

A good sourdough starter is a symbiotic relationship between yeasts that do the actual work of leavening and some strain of bactieria. The tasty sour flavor derives from the activity of those bacteria.

Typically the bacteria are lactobacilli, so this may more of a datapoint in your support than it is a contradiction.

What makes the relationship symbiotic is that the bacilli work to keep the starter from getting moldy: molds and bacteria are ancient enemies and they Don't Share. Just as molds put out bacteria-killing substances (think penicillyn), bactteria put out mold-killing substances, and so that lump of sticky dough one keeps in the jar in the fridge is the one thing that doesn't acquire blue-green fur as time passes. Sourdough bread also keeps longer than bread that uses caked or dry yeast for leavening.

#12 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 11:58 PM:

What is "cherry electuary"? The dish that makes the different-colored roasted chickens calls for it, and I don't think I can go pick it up at the local Acme.

#13 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2002, 02:35 AM:

According to Webster's 1913, an electuary is:

A medicine composed of powders, or other ingredients, incorporated with some convserve, honey, or sirup; a confection.

With a follow-up note at "Confection:"

Note: The pharmacop[oe]ias formerly made a distinction between conserves (made of fresh vegetable substances and sugar) and electuaries (medicinal substances combined with sirup or honey), but the distinction is now abandoned and all are called confections.

Which most likely is not quite what was meant, but suggests that Acme might have something "close enough" in the form of one of those "all-fruit" cherry confections sold in jars.

#14 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2002, 02:45 AM:

Regarding meat and ageing vs. rotting, current practice is to age meat at a low temperature, probably below 40° F, though above freezing.

One might argue that mold growth proceeds even at these low temperatures, but would seem to fail to explain how the mold manages to permeate the sometimes rather extensive fat muscle tissue of a steer's hip and upper leg, or of the even more substantial tissue of the animal's back, in a short period of time.

Having handled this stuff and seen how packaging and storage for ageing operated at first hand during my early teens, I'm happier with the model of ageing as autolysis than with the notion of some biologically active agent.

As for sourdough, though: Feh! I spit in your foo-foo!

#15 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2002, 09:32 PM:

Goetia Naturalis
from "Wolfgang Puck of Pook's Hill"

No one sees us when they dine;
Loudly the forkfuls go past,
A bird and a bottle of wine,
And a tablet goes fizz in a glass.
No one knows that we are there,
They munch without question or pause;
We crouch on the haricots verts,
And lurk like a thief in the sauce.

We are the condiments, we,
To julienne, chiffonade, grate;
But set us aside and you'll see
The void that we leave on your plate.
We sit on the rim of the dish,
The spices nobody can name;
We stand by the meat and the fish,
Some bloke in a toque gets the fame.

Eggs folded into a flan,
Sausages steaming in brew;
Chicken stretched on the divan,
How they must love what they do!
Yes -- and we seasonings too,
We are as tasty as they;
We are the salt in the stew,
Watch as the chanterelles play.

You may think we are not strong;
We know habaf1eros that are;
Some Worcestershire helps things along,
You know what wasabi is for.
Still we shall sit on the side,
Court-bouillon and bouquet garni;
Your tastebuds will not be denied;
No quarter and no MSG!

#16 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2002, 09:58 PM:

That first line should, of course, read "sees us," and I am not sure what process -- perhaps bad fermentation -- turned the quote marks into question marks.

One must be scrupulous about such things when posting to the board of a Nielsen Hayden.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2002, 07:27 AM:

No, no, it's all right; I have minor magic powers here. See? The glitches are gone.

Meanwhile, tsk! You've gone and Pict at your food again.

#18 ::: Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2002, 08:13 PM:

I want to know \what/ the roast chicken sings! As it's not an aquatic fowl, I expect it doesn't begin with "Olim lacus coluerat"....

(No, I'm not crazy enough to experiment with the materials listed; chemists (as I used to be) last as long as other professionals now (as they used not to) because they've learned caution. When I began working with thiophosphoryl insecticides, my boss handed me a passage from the 19th-century researcher who characterized the parent of the family; he noted melting and boiling points, crystal form and color, and " has a sweetish taste.")

Theresa -- have you visited the Museum of the City of London since becoming interested in medieval cookery? I spent just enough time in the local SCA Cooks' Guild to be pleased at finding a portrait of Kenelme Digby, Kt., somewhere in the midst of the descending helix.

#19 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2002, 11:55 PM:

Sumer hath an cumin seed,
Singen roast cuccu.
Shook and coaten in ye pouch,
For an chicken stew.
Drip thine eggen chicken broth,
As ye Chinen doo,
Cony he be waxen wroth,
Saith ye hare foo foo.

My, but it's been a long day. For Wednesday, anyway.

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 07:45 AM:

The trouble with not being on rec.arts.sf.fandom is that you can't bestow rasff awards on the spot when the spot so clearly calls for one.

#21 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 09:25 AM:

So? Fake it. Since this is Making Light, and the standard unit of luminous intensity is the candela (defined as the magnitude of an electromagnetic field, in a specified direction, that has a power level of 1/683 watt per steradian at a frequency of 540 terahertz, but that's overkill. For this purpose, it is enough to know that it is there.)

So, award candela. And, since it's an SI unit, you can modify it to kilocandelas for a very good post, and picocandelas for barely noticible good posts. And so forth.

Hoping this rates a couple of decicandela, I remain,
Yr. Hmb. Servant

#22 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 03:01 PM:

We might not know *what* the roast chicken sings; but perhaps Maya Angelou can tell us *why*.

PS: Mike Ford is a gem, of course.

#23 ::: Kate Yule ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2002, 09:27 PM:

Harking back to Teresa's original post: no one has addressed the question of whether eating small bits of cut up harp string might be hard on the digestion.

(We had okonomiyaki at a Japanese restaurant once; it came topped w/okonomiyaki sauce (like unto ketchup) and bonito flakes. The latter waved, gently, in the air currents created by the hot food. Truly the result looked Klingon.)

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