How Tasty Was the Past? Cooking My Way into the 17th Century Kitchen

January 8, 2012 - 9:20am

Sometimes work follows you home and that’s not always a bad thing. In the first three months of research at the Prussian State Secret Archives, my work has revolved around the minutia of everyday life in the kitchens of the court of Brandenburg in the seventeenth century. I am looking for answers to questions such as: what was the compensation for different jobs in the court kitchen; where did the food, wine and beer come from; who decided what food made it to the courtly table; who ate the leftovers?

In my downtime, outside of the archives, I’ve been reading early modern cookbooks to help me get a sense of what the raw ingredients listed in my court records might have looked like when they reached the table and how early modern writers described these foods.

When I describe my dissertation project about food in 17th-century Germany to people, I am often asked, “Oh, have you tried making a 17th-century meal?” I used to laugh off this question because it seemed to undermine the scholarly seriousness of my project and because I found the idea of it to be, well, unappetizing. Lately, though, I’ve come to realize that I can’t really understand what these early modern recipes describe unless I experience making and eating them. For example, what can one make of the following recipe from the 1615 English cookbook, The Well-Kept Kitchen without physically performing the instructions?

How to make coarse gingerbread.

To make coarse gingerbread, take a quart of honey and set it on the coals and refine it: then take a pennyworth of ginger, as much pepper, as much liquorice; and a quarter of a pound of aniseeds, and a pennyworth of sanders: all these must be beaten and searced, and so put into the honey: then put in a quarter of a pint of claret wine or old ale: then take three penny manchets finely grated and strew it amongst the rest, and stir it till it come to a stiff paste, and then make it into cakes and dry them gently.


Over my Christmas vacation, I had the opportunity to taste someone else’s experiments in historically-inspired cuisine at a “pop-up restaurant” associated with the National Archives’ current exhibit, What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.  Chef José Andrés created the America Eats Tavern in D.C. to offer his take on historically-significant American recipes including Ben Franklin’s Milk Punch (a cocktail recipe Franklin sent to his friend James Bowdoin in 1763) and the first recipe for mac ‘n’ cheese in the U.S. by Lewis Fresnaye, a refugee from the French Revolution.

Most of the dishes at America Eats have a modern slant to them (such as deconstructed Key Lime Pie) and are not, therefore, historically-accurate reproductions. However, I still found the experience of eating from a menu describing America’s multifaceted culinary history to be very exciting because it highlighted the unsettledness of our “traditional” foods. This brings me back to questions from my own project where I am attempting to uncover cultural meaning in the cuisine of early modern Brandenburg. Like any other aspect of culture, cuisine is unstable and those who associate cultural or national identity with particular dishes might be surprised to learn how recently those foods entered the diet of a particular country. What is increasingly apparent to me is that I will need to try some 17th-century recipes myself in order to appreciate how foreign this food is to my 21st-century palatte. I guess I could start by figuring out how to get ahold of some penny manchets