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Life in the 1500's


legant
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I’m more than convinced these are Urban Legends, but some of the food related “facts” are quite interesting.

  • In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme, Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old..
  • Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat..
  • Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
  • Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.
  • Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

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As with most of these things that get passed around the interwebs, the vast majority of it is complete bumf. A point-by-point rundown of the full thing is available at snopes.com, but here are the highlights for the food bits:

Pease porridge:

Even some cooking practices of today call for tossing whatever's on hand into the stewpot, with new ingredients added each day to whatever is left over. French bouillabaisse, for instance, is sometimes made this way, as are any number of "peasants' stews."
Another source, the very well researched about.com medieval history site, points out that people living at subsistence level back then would hardly have 9 days worth of leftovers lying around in the first place, and even if they did wouldn't be adding fresh food to something that old and potentially nasty.

Bacon:

Surprisingly, one authority states the saying predates the 16th century, asserting it comes from the 12th and refers to a time when a slab of bacon was awarded to the happiest married couple. A man who therefore "brought home the bacon" wasn't showing how good a provider he was but rather the success of his marriage.

Another authority believes the "bacon" refers to the pig used in the greased pig chase common to many local fairs. The winner's prize was the pig itself, thus the skilled pig catcher got to "bring home the bacon."

The term chewing the fat doesn't seem to have been around prior to the American Civil War. One theory links it to sailors attempting to chomp on the tough rind found in salt pork sea rations. As Richard Lederer puts it, "What seems clear is that chewing the fat, like shooting the breeze, provides little sustenance for the amount of mastication involved."

Tomatoes:

Tomatoes were generally shunned by many Europeans until the 19th century, but not because they had discovered that tomatoes were acidic and lead from pewter plates therefore leached into them. Many people believed tomatoes to be dangerous to eat because they resembled other plants known to be poisonous, such as henbane, mandrake, and deadly nightshade. For a long time the tomato was considered primarily an ornamental plant; eating its fruit was considered to be distasteful and potentially harmful.

Bread (the one they actually got right, ish):

Even a blind squirrel can find an acorn once in a while, and that appears to be the case here -- the wag who thought up this e-mailed leg pull accidentally stumbled onto an actual origin. "Kutt the upper crust (of a loaf of bread) for your soverayne [sovereign]" was good manners in 1460. The custom at the time was to slice the choice top portion off a loaf and present it to the highest-ranking guests at the table. Centuries later, this practice led to calling the elite who ate the upper crust "the upper crust."

The rest of the bread was not apportioned out by rank, though.

Wakes:

Waking the dead is an ancient custom that extends around the world and has existed in Europe for at least the past thousand years. The term refers to the practice of watching over the corpse during the period between death and burial. Partly, this had to do with making sure someone was always around in case the corpse woke up, but the watchers were also there to make sure household animals and assorted vermin were kept off the deceased.

Some so feared the possibility of live burial that they left instructions for special tests to be performed on their bodies to make sure they were actually dead. Surgical incisions, the application of boiling hot liquids, touching red-hot irons to their flesh, stabbing them through the heart, or even decapitation were all specified at different times as a way of making sure these people didn't wake up six feet under.

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True: To encourage a woman's lust, Italian handbooks of the sixteenth century advised men to throw 90 grubs in a liter of olive oil, leave it to steep in the sun for a week and then apply the mixture liberally to one's penis.

Cf. Rudolph Bell, a respected social historian. You're best off reading those who have done the research and published in scholarly journals or academic presses. There's plenty of culinary history these days, e.g. scholarly translations of early recipes including those found in the margins of manuscripts and not just early cookbooks that instruct you on ways to cook a bear. There are studies on much earlier periods of world history and even prehistory. I wouldn't trust information that doesn't provide sources, names or specify whose 16th century since practices and beliefs differed widely.

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To encourage a woman's lust, Italian handbooks of the sixteenth century advised men to throw 90 grubs in a liter of olive oil, leave it to steep in the sun for a week and then apply the mixture liberally to one's penis.

This works like a charm, btw.

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[*]In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme, Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old..

not only the old days. i once shared a house with a friend for a summer who kept a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove on low heat 24 hours a day for over two months. he ate it for every meal. as the contents started to deplete he would just add more. he was not much for most vegetables, so it was mainly potatoes and the cheapest grade of beef available from Safeway at the time.

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not only the old days. i once shared a house with a friend for a summer who kept a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove on low heat 24 hours a day for over two months. he ate it for every meal. as the contents started to deplete he would just add more. he was not much for most vegetables, so it was mainly potatoes and the cheapest grade of beef available from Safeway at the time.

Wow. I thought nothing could beat a co-worker, long ago, who at either PB&J's for lunch, or MRE's circa the Carter administration.

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