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There are few things in this world that I have truly bonded with people over. You know the bond—the one you find with a fellow 15-year-old online because they’ve also included Fall Out Boy lyrics in their Bebo profile, or the sweet bond of being drunk and having “the same song” as another equally drunk stranger. The bond. Historical food shows are my guaranteed bond maker—you like em’ and we’re going to be best friends, immediately. Sure, readers might think this opinion piece was hastily typed out while I put on my chainmail for LARP, or put some inspiration quotes on my children’s Facebook walls, but it wasn’t, I swear. I am a sane twenty-something, sans children or fictional worlds, who just really likes historically-based cooking.
The main culprit, of course, is the ever-wonderful Supersizers Go. Two seasons of British wonderment where comedian Sue Perkins and food writer Giles Coren circumvent time, and eat their way week by week through the Restoration, the Elizabethan period, wartime, the seventies, etc. Or, as the show foreshadows every episode, “over the coming weeks, we’ll be gobbling our way through six periods in British history. Each week we’ll be medically tested, dressed the part, and then trough our way through the breakfasts and banquets of Britain’s culinary past”.
Heston Blumenthal is perhaps the most well-known host of historically-based food shows, with his series Heston’s Feasts basing a whole meal around specific periods, be it Tudor, Victorian or the more abstract, “Heston’s Titanic Feast”. Don’t like the idea of a British-based show? Well, why not look to Historieätarna (the “History Eaters”), a Swedish version of the same show. While I have yet to figure out how to watch it with English subtitles, the hosts Erik and Lotta look to be having a really good time. Penguin Books have also commissioned a fantastic series called Great Foods—basically literature about food from Isabella Beeton’s Victorian household classic The Campaign for Domestic Happiness, or Agnes Jekyll’s A Little Dinner Before the Play, a collection of Tuscan recipes from the 1920s.
While some of you might be chalking these shows (and books) up to niche interests that might be more appealing to a single aunt (along with quilting), I assure you—historical food shows and/or books span the genres. Into romance? Well, did you know Bird’s powdered custard (what we know as instant custard powder) was invented by Alfred Bird in 1837 because his wife was allergic to eggs? Adorable. More interested in horror and gore? The Ancient Romans used a fermented fish sauce called garum, literally made from rotting fish blood and intestines (before they threw it all up again in Vomitoriums of course).
There is an immense pleasure to be derived from watching a show like this, and knowing that you could be eating the very worst food possible and it still wouldn’t be as bad for you as what they’re putting in their mouths. The sadist in me has a real fondness for watching episodes in which the hosts are told they’ll have constipation, halitosis and a shit load of protein all in the name of historical accuracy.
Oh God and the learning, THE LEARNING! These shows teach you everything from new cooking methods—e.g., fricassee n. a dish of stewed or fried pieces of meat served in a thick white sauce—to resources you could eat should you be caught in a crisis—e.g. cow’s tongue wrapped in the amniotic sac of a calf, cox combs (the frilly hat piece that roosters have), and pastries that can be used (and reused) to preserve a bevy of unworldly animal parts.
On a wider level, it’s fascinating to see how changes in time and history have affected the everyday consumption we are used to. In the Victorian period, it was unsavoury (lol) to show enjoyment for your food. In the seventies, Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book recommended each party-goer consume half a bottle of spirits every two hours, with doses increasing to three-quarters of a bottle as “drinking will increase if people haven’t gone home by then”. Stop blaming RTDs for binge drinking Stuff, it started in the seventies.
Food and drink are timeless, and everything you eat has some sort of connection to the past. The coffee you had at Vic Books today—that originated in the 15th century and was the foundation of coffee houses that hosted political gatherings from Mecca to Paris. Did you have milk? If you were a school kid in 1940s New Zealand, you would have been given it daily. What about sugar? In the 17th century, sugar had the same value as pearls and was farmed off the back of slave labour in the Caribbean.
If this starts to sound like an advertorial for a 2007 BBC Two programme, that’s exactly what it is. And if you’re wondering whether I’ve thought about inviting friends over and cooking them period-based meals, of course I have. But I know you’re going to YouTube it later and see how King Louis ate crayfish in champagne, or at the very least you’ll Google recipes like “Nymphomaniac’s Prayer”.
Nicola is Salient’s news editor. When she’s not fighting off colds, as she was during the writing of this piece, her professors describe her as an “adequate” writer.