Thanksgiving, medieval style: Give thanks that "Red Deer testicles" and "living eels in roasted pig" aren't on the menu today

Today we feast and give thanks for what we have—and what we no longer have to eat

Published November 26, 2015 4:58PM (EST)

  (HBO/Helen Sloan)
(HBO/Helen Sloan)

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, blessedly devoid of spirituality and denominational religion, just piles of food, family and football (followed by napping). But if the idea of another turkey, flanked by cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, sounds ho-hum, consider what constituted the feasts of yore. Our ancestors used to eat some pretty crazy shit. It’s only a matter of time before a renegade chef opens a pop-up medieval food truck. But whether hipster consumers of wagyu and kale tacos are ready for Roasted Swan Legs, Deer Antler Soup and Porpoise in Aspic is a fair question.

What are the socio-political repercussions of eating Grilled Womb (which is unlikely to appear on menus in red states, at least not in the months leading up to an election)? Even a passionate carnivore like Anthony Bourdain might have some moral qualms about dipping into a plate of Living Eels in a Roasted Pig. If you’ve got leftover deer testicles in the back of your fridge, then maybe it’s time to inject a bit of the Middle Ages into your Thanksgiving menu.

Yes, some six centuries ago, these dishes were considered delicacies worth preserving in medieval cookbooks. Doubtless grandmothers, huddled around their soot-blackened kitchens, perhaps cackling maniacally out of their whisker-strewn maws, would lovingly instruct their granddaughters in the finer methods of preparing Roast Cat, or a cauldron full of boiling Garbage (the evocative appellation for chicken gizzard stew).

Curious as to what was on the menu during those pesky Bubonic Plague epidemics, I began to research medieval and Renaissance cooking. It all began with a nice little book review assignment. I was to review "The Medieval Cookbook" by Maggie Black (Getty Publications, 2012) for the academic journal Gastronomica. The book takes authentic medieval recipes and updates them for the modern kitchen. The book is a fine one, but it did not satisfy my curiosity. To be frank, it was too normal. OK, even Getty Publications can’t expect Mary Jane from Minnesota to prepare Roasted Peacock. And so, the book contains recipes that are as close to what we, today, consider normal as possible. Sure, there are pottages (the old-fashioned word for a thick soup), buknades (an even thicker pottage, more like a stew), piment (spiced, sweetened wine), and civey (uh…also a stew). Some dishes and spice combos from the Middle Ages would be most welcome in the modern kitchen, and their preparation will almost certainly not result in incarceration (the same cannot be said for some of our other examples—I’m looking at you, Grilled Womb). Saffron and ginger play a far more central role in spicing medieval savory dishes than we would consider today, outside of Asian cuisine. Much of this was down to masking the taste of not-so-fresh meat, necessary before the invention of the Frigidaire. Likewise mace, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar were common additions to savory main courses, sweetness being broadly valued over other flavors. But two medieval staple spice mixes would find a home in any creative kitchen. Powder Forte is a mixture of ground cumin, black pepper and ginger, while Powder Douce combines ground coriander, cinnamon and brown sugar. Aside from unusual terms for things, many of the recipes from "The Medieval Cookbook" sound, well, normal. I mean, I can’t get too excited about cheese lasagna and roast pork, both of which are featured. I’m sure they are perfectly good, but when dipping into the foods of an exotic age, and in looking for historically accurate ways to spice up my Thanksgiving, I was hoping for more shock value.

Beware what you wish for. My further research uncovered all manner of dishes that are either unadvisable, or in some cases illegal, to prepare today. Hold onto your dormouse stew…

Before we begin, a word about diet in the pre-modern period. There was a widely accepted belief in pre-modern Europe that you had to eat according to the social class into which you were born. Eating above (or below) your station would make you ill, or even kill you. Aristocrats consumed creatures and vegetables associated with the air, the sky, lightness and whiteness. Their preferred proteins were fowl and white-fleshed fish. Nobles drank white wine, ate white bread and tree-growing fruit, chose veggies that grew aboveground, avoided root vegetables. Peasants, by contrast, ate things that were dark in color and associated with the earth: black bread (the old term for rye), black wine (the old term for red), root vegetables, beans, red meat, shellfish, porridges and stews thickened with grains.

I’d take the peasant menu any day. While there is, of course, no genetic reason why Count von Frupingstein should only eat roasted swan legs and figs, while Fritz the Goat-Herd must dine on roast potatoes and mutton, there may have been a biological reason why the nobility stuck to its airy, white diet. If generations ate only within their dictated confines, then the aristocrats might have lost their enzymes to break down red meat, and therefore might well have felt ill, if they consumed what they were not used to. For the peasants, the question would be less about illness and more about cost. White wine was far more expensive than red, pure white bread more expensive than rye, and nice white fish pricier than lobster, mussels and eel. Eel, in fact, appears in medieval cooking with a frequency alarming to us moderns, because it was an inexpensive source of good protein. As a stock fish, eel could be farmed, and was often used in stews or other dishes in place of beef, which was pricey and harder to come by. Eel can be delicious when properly prepared (for example, in my favorite Japanese dish, unagi), but how about a platter of Living Eels in a Roast Pig? I’m not sure if that would be more traumatic for the diner or the eels, but either way, I’d steer clear of it.

Unsurprisingly, it was the dishes of the aristocracy that were the most bizarre and fanciful, part nourishment and part entertainment. Medieval banquets were long-form affairs (the predecessors of the Slow Food Movement), often hours long. You would be given a number of courses relative to your social status, and might have to sit and watch the king eat his 13th exotic plate, while you’d only be given two. While writing a book on the great Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, I learned that van Eyck was responsible for the design of banquets at the 15th century court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, creating dishes that were first thought of in terms of drama and aesthetics, with taste being a secondary concern. On the other hand, peasant food, which inevitably sounds far more appetizing, was about making the most of what was available, without the least concern for presentation. Peasants were satisfied with soups and stews, often thickened with grain and including whatever was available, from vegetables to scraps of meat: one-pot dishes that could gently bubble in a cauldron for hours on end, while a family went about their daily labors. Aristocrats, on the other hand, employed full-time cooks as well as occasional artists, like van Eyck, who would collaborate in the design of elaborate feasts to awe and delight important guests. Exotic ingredients and a heavy hand with spices were signs of wealth and erudition. Minimalist cooking it ain’t. If you could use 10 spices, why, that was five times better than using two. Ostentatious displays of wealth seem to have been prized over deliciousness. This makes reading about medieval cooking a good deal more fun than eating it.

For many, the thought of medieval dining recalls “four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie,” from the popular 18th century English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” Fowl baked in a pie (with their feathers removed, but not deboned) was indeed a common banquet recipe. But according to the nursery rhyme, “When the pie was opened/The birds began to sing/Wasn’t that a dainty dish/To set before a king?” This, too, is on the money. Jan van Eyck was responsible for the design of a pie that housed a compartment for a live dove to hole up, so that the dove would fly out when the pie was (carefully) sliced open. The nursery rhyme describes a real recipe. You can imagine the macabre fun at medieval dinner parties, when live birds escape from their lightly browned crusty coffins, just before you slice the cooked portion of the pie and serve the birds’ less-fortunate cousins. In fact, the word “coffin” appears in medieval recipes as a synonym for pie crust. As Gervase Markham wrote in "The English Hous-wife" (1615): “that it may stand well for rising, your coffin must ever be deep.” That could mean so many things … This morbid undertone may be found throughout medieval cookery. Consider that the original lyrics for “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in the 1740 first edition, read: “Sing a Song of Sixpence/A bagful of Rye/Four and twenty Naughty Boys/Baked in a Pye.” Hmm. There’s nothing quite so creepy as a traditional nursery rhyme, the lyrics of which we sing to sleepy babies, without stopping to think what we are saying. I mean, “Rock-a-bye baby on a tree top/When the wind blows the cradle will rock/When the bough breaks the cradle will fall/And down will come baby, cradle and all.” Huh? WTF?!

Alas, the juxtaposition of cooked and living critters was considered enormously diverting by our ancestors. One book in particular rides the thin line between magic tricks and dinner (as well as nourishment and horrible taste). Giambattista della Porta’s 1660 tome, "Magia Naturalis (The Secrets of Nature)" contains a number of highly disconcerting recipes that, we can only hope, were largely theoretical. I quote from his description under the heading “To Cook a Live Goose” (skip this paragraph if you are faint of heart, or a member of the ASPCA):

Take the goose, pull off the feathers, make a fire about her, not too close for smoke to choke her, or burn her too soon, not too far off so she may escape. Put small cups of water with salt and honey ... also dishes of apple sauce. Baste goose with butter. She will drink water to relieve thirst, eat apples to cleanse and empty her of dung. Keep her head and heart wet with a sponge. When she gets giddy from running and begins to stumble, she is roasted enough. Take her up, set her before the guests; she will cry as you cut off any part and will be almost eaten before she is dead ... It is mighty pleasant to behold.

I think that old Giambattista and I have rather different opinions of what is “mighty pleasant to behold,” but reproduce his dish and you’re guaranteed to throw a Thanksgiving feast that your guests will remember forever. Perhaps waking up to the thought in a cold sweat, or rocking slowly back and forth on a therapist’s couch while recalling it. And to think of the fuss folks make these days about foie gras …

Giambattista was also fond of illusionism, and offers us a recipe for a Roasted Peacock that looks alive (he’s assuming that this is somehow a bonus), and also appears to breathe fire.

Kill a peacock, either by thrusting a quill into his brain from above, or else cut his throat, as you do for young kids [author’s note: I’m hoping that Giambattista meant baby goats], that the blood may come forth. Then cut his skin gently from his throat unto his tail and, being cut, pull it off with his feathers from his whole body to his head. Cut off that with the skin and legs, and keep it. Roast the peacock on a spit. His body being stuffed with spices and sweet herbs, sticking first cloves on his breast, and wrapping his neck in a white linen cloth. Wet it always with water, that it may never dry. When the peacock is roasted, and taken from the spit, put him into his own skin again, and that he may seem to stand upon his feet, you shall thrust small iron wires, made on purpose, through his legs, and set fast on a board, that they may not be discerned, and through his body to his head and tail. Some put camphire [a fragrant wood from which henna is derived] in his mouth, and when he is set upon the table, they cast in fire. Platina shows that the same may be done with pheasants, geese, capons, and other birds. And we observe these things among our guests.

I also found a reference to the aforementioned Living Eels in a Roasted Pig (in a 1598 book by presumed mental patient Frantz de Rontzier), but have not located the recipe…as you may be relieved to hear.

One thing you’ll find about reading medieval cookbooks is that our ancestors were without spell-check. Some of the recipes read as if someone decided against typing, and instead just banged his head on the keyboard. “Hagws of a schepe” is sheep stomach pudding—this becomes clearer if you sound out the words (“haggis of a sheep”). As spelling was not codified until after the 18th century, it’s a good bet to read medieval texts aloud, in order to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Another mouthful of a recipe, the preparation of which is certainly illegal and likely against the Geneva Convention, is “Purpays yn galanteyn.” That’s right, “porpoise in aspic.” If you read this aloud, you just might be able to follow it:

Take purpays: do away the skyn; cutt hit yn smal lechys no more then a fynger, or les. Take bred drawen wyth red wyne; put therto powder of canell, powdyr of pepyr. Boil hit; seson hit up with powder of gynger, venegre, & salt.

The recipes are Spartan, to say the least, and require much imagination to see how they come together, although they do tend to be explicit about how to kill the main ingredient. Take this one, for Jungen hirs horn, or Deer Antler Soup:

If you wish to prepare a good meal, take the antlers of a young stag, singe them until they are clean, boil them, chop them up, and add wine, honey, and gingerbread, and boil all the ingredients. Only the antler extract is important, and that is good.

Julia Child, eat your heart out. I’m also particularly partial to the last line of this recipe. From the original medieval German, I can’t tell if “that is good” is in praise of the dish, or a sigh of relief for the fact that “only the antler extract is important.”

Another dish I found, but without a recipe, comes from a 1370 book called Viandier of Taillevent: Red Deer Testicles in Hunting Season. Were you to try to prepare this at home, delicious as it sounds, I’m not sure where I’d suggest you shop for ingredients. Does Trader Joe’s have a testicles aisle?

Finally, there are also recipes that, while they may not involve hard-to-come-by ingredients, we might wish that they were harder to come by. Take Rupert de Nola’s 1529 recipe, from "Libro de Cozina," for…oh dear, I can’t believe I’m writing this… Roasted Cat.

Take a cat that should be plump and cut its throat, and once it is dead cut off its head, and throw it away, for this is not to be eaten; for it is said that he who eats the brains will lose his own sense and judgment. Then skin it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well, and then wrap it in a clean linen cloth and bury it in the earth, where it should remain for a day and a night. Then take it out and put it on a spit and roast it over the fire, and when beginning to roast, baste it with good garlic and oil, and when you are finished basting it, beat it well with a green branch; and this should be done until it is well roasted, basting and beating. And when it is roasted, carve it as if it were rabbit or kid [author’s note: once more, I’m hoping that Rupert de Nola refers to a baby goat not…well, you know…] and put it on a large plate. Take the garlic with oil mixed with good broth, so that it is coarse, and pour it over the cat, and you can eat it, for it is a good dish.

I like how it is dis-recommended to eat the cat’s head, but the rest makes for fine dining, particularly after it’s been buried underground for 24 hours. (Is that for flavor?) How about beating the roast with a green branch? I don’t remember any mention of that in "Jacques Pepin’s Cooking Techniques."

I suppose we can’t blame our ancestors for eating what was available, when a quick trip to Whole Foods was not an option. Whether these recipes-by-necessity tasted good is another matter. Logic and morality have kept me from testing the majority of them. I have tried out some medieval recipes, those that did not involve cats, living eels or swan legs. They tend to be too sweet for modern tastes, and too muddled: that habit of throwing in more spices for the sake of show means that the main ingredients of a dish are hardly discernible. But of those I’ve tried, the peasant foods are the best, and the simplest: braised meat, stews, beans, potatoes, rye bread and red wine. The aristocracy can keep their recipes, like To Make a Chicken Sing When It is Dead and Roasted—a recipe that involves mercury, by the way, which is not part of the Food Pyramid.

Maybe turkey and cranberry sauce is for the best, after all …

Selected Bibliography

Apicius "The Roman Cookery Book" (6th century)

Black, Maggie "The Medieval Cookbook" Getty Publications, 2012

De Nola, Ruperto "Libro de Cozina" (1529)

Markham, Gervase "The English Hous-wife" (1615)

Scully, Terence "The Vivendier" (Devon: Prospect Books, 1997)

Porta, Giambattista and Alessio Piemontese, "Magia Naturalis (Secrets of Nature," 1660)

"The Viandier of Taillevent" (1370)

"The Ambras Recipe" (Collection of Cod. Vind. 5486)

("Harleian MS 279," 15th century)

("MS Beinecke 163," 15th century)

("Curye on Inglysch," 14th century)

By Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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