Last Updated May 22, 2008
Food history has its favorite bits of fakelore and old saws, and Food History News has been taking shots at them early and often. On this web page, you will find the straight scoop about some of these persistent tales, plus advice on how to spot food mythology when you see it.
The Truth About Spices, Lobsters, and Flaming Ladies
By Sandy Oliver
If you believe everything you read about colonial life, you might think that one day the housewife was dredging her spoiled meat heavily in spices so her servants who had already eaten lobster (or salmon) twice that week and so would refuse another bite of seafood, would not notice the bad flavor. Sadly she stepped a little too close to the fire, her skirts caught flame, and she perished in a horrible fiery death. And the exact same thing happened only the week before at her neighbor's house!
We like a good story, even when they aren't true, and especially if the story makes us feel a little smarter than we imagine people in the past were, or else having thrilled us with the dangers of colonial life, it leaves us more self-satisfied about modern conveniences and comforts. Every field has tales, usually apocryphal, which persist though knowledgeable professionals spend an inordinate amount of time trying to present the facts. History is full of them; famously, for example, Parson Weem's invention about George Washington and the cherry tree.
Food historians shake their heads over the idea that spices were used heavily in the past to cover up the bad taste of spoiled food; that some people refused to eat lobster or salmon more than twice a week; and that the second most common cause of death among women (right after childbirth) was dying when their skirts caught fire at the hearth. These stories are so firmly entrenched that they are solemnly repeated even by experts. There seems to be no evidence, however, that any of these are true. At the center of all these stories, though, is a tiny kernel of truth which is often much more interesting and revealing than the exaggerations.
For example, it is true that for a while in the history of culinary practice, cooks used spices with a heavier hand than many of us are accustomed to today. In fact, in some parts of the world, usually in hot, humid, climates, food is more dramatically spiced than it is in cooler, drier climates. There has even been a little scientific research conducted that shows certain spices retard spoilage somewhat. But the story about covering the taste of spoiled meat is mainly told about Medieval and Early Modern European and sometimes about colonial American, cooking, too.
In fact, European elites were most likely to use spices heavily, the very same folks with the most sophisticated food procurement systems, and the means to obtain the freshest and finest fare on demand. Aristocrats and their cooks had the same good sense that the peasantry did not to eat spoiled food. This didn't prevent them from hanging some kinds of fowl or flesh to age somewhat, much as we age a fine steak today. And on the odd occasion when some piece of meat began to show signs of going off, there were recorded methods of washing it to bring it back to good condition. Those instructions may give rise to the idea that there was a lot of spoiled meat around. Actually what the elite were doing is what the very wealthy have always done: they were showing off-demonstrating their wealth by using lavishly very expensive spices. The fad did not endure because it did not actually improve the cooking very much but mainly because spices lost their caché along with their scarcity when European merchants established regular trade with the East and West Indies and even middling sorts had access to them.
The lobster and salmon story is one of the most frequently told about New England seafood. It generally goes like this: Salmon and lobster "used to be so abundant that, it is said, " pick one---the apprentices, servants, boarders, lumbermen, occupants, prisoners, and slaves of-pick another--Newcastle, England, Boston or Lowell, Massachusetts, Puget Sound, Bristol, Rhode Island, Islesboro, Maine, the Maine State Prison, or the South-refused to eat either lobsters or salmon, more than twice a week. Recent versions of the story usually feature lobster, but the vast majority of accounts prefer salmon.
All the stories have in common some group of people who have no control over their food choices, people who have to eat what is served them. The stories all explain that these sufferers had a meeting to form a complaint presented to an official in charge. The story, substantiated only by reference to an alleged expert who "has it on good authority" or words to that effect, is usually put in the context of former natural abundance. So the tale is reported second hand, refers to a time from fifty to one hundred years earlier than the usual late 1800s publishing date. The most common sources for this particular tale are town histories which abounded in the nineteenth century often written by a local antiquarian, though it appears also in George Brown Goode's The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States published in 1887. Lack of primary evidence is the main reason to doubt this story. No minutes of these indignation meetings, nor ordinances outlawing sea food more than twice a week, have ever emerged. But why salmon, why lobster, why twice a week?
The stories appear when salmon or lobster are becoming historically scarce, when the author wants to recall a distant, more abundant past. Twice a week was for many in early England or the colonies, the number of fast days a week on which one customarily ate fish. As Protestantism neglected religious fasts marked by fish consumption, the idea of having to eat fish more than one's religion formerly required sounded like an imposition on people who always preferred meat to fish.
Now, housewives did occasionally die from burns when their skirts caught fire at the hearth and when it happened it made for sensational headlines in the papers. However, more died, as did their husbands and children, from contagious disease. Researchers have closely examined two late 18th century diaries, one kept by the Philadelphian Elizabeth Drinker who recorded the cause of death of everyone she knew or heard about, and one kept by Martha Ballard, a midwife and health care provider in frontier Maine. The diaries reveal that when people died from burns, it was often, as Drinker noted a toddler dressed in cotton, or an tottery elderly person, who fell into or near the fire. Once someone suspected of being a drunk perished from burning in a fireplace. Interestingly enough, Martha Ballard recorded caring for children with burns and noted that she occasionally treated women with scalded feet and legs.
Most women hard at work in their kitchens, never feared catching fire. They knew their hearth like the back of their hands. But with little ones about, a moment's distraction could mean a child getting too near flames, or setting a pot down too suddenly could result in splashing ones feet with hot liquid. Otherwise, staying sober and wearing sensible and less combustible wool or linsey-woolsey skirts kept most women safe and alive and their toddlers, too.
Of course, if you really want to believe these stories, I can tell you ones about poisonous tomatoes and the invention of the doughnut hole, too. And popcorn at the First Thanksgiving.
Spices and Rotten Meat
Old Saw: "They Used A Lot of Spices to Disguise Spoiled Meat."
Medieval cuisine is notable for its astonishing seasoning. Sharp, spicy sauces pointed with vinegar and richly flavored with numerous spices, accompanied each dish of meat, fowl, or fish; vegetables were stewed with herbs and spices; an the final course of a grand meal invariably featured a highly spiced wine called hippocras. After dinner, the nobility retired to their rooms to nibble epices de chambre. Spices were the consuming passion of the Middle Ages, devoured by all but the poorest. The wealthier one was, the more spices one consumed.
The number of different spices familiar to the medieval cooks exceeds that of any other period in the West, yielding complex flavors (though generally the seasonings were not hotchilies, after all, were still to be introduced from the New World.) This is true even though the ancient Romans had been very fond of exotic spices and had conducted a busy trade with India. It remains true today, despite our own recent curiosity about ethnic foods and the fact that spice imports to the US have risen steadily for over a decade.
Later historians and chefs, at a loss to explain this extravagant taste for spices so foreign to their own culinary customs, came up with an explanation whichalthough it is wronghas been embraced and repeated with great relish ever since: namely, that medieval eaters, poor dears, had to season their food heavily in order to disguise the unsavory taste of spoiled meat.
This theory allows us in the 20th century to feel a comfortable superiority to the people of the past (and often, we suspect, as well, to tropical regions in what we call the Third World.) We are modern, scientific, technologically advanced. They were backward, lacking refrigeration, modern canning technology, and any notion of the bacteria which were acting on their foods. Unable to feed their herds, we assume, through the long winters, they had to slaughter all their cattle in the fall and salt the meat in an attempt to preserve it. Even so, it went off, and would have been impossible to eat without a lot of potent spices, however bizarre the flavor that amount of seasoning might be. Our tastes are far more refined than those of the simple, undereducated, benighted souls of the Middle Ages, and thank Heaven, we don't have to eat that way.
Of course, many cultures today use a good many spices to produce rather tasty dishes. Spices are the splendor in wholesome, delicious, and, incidentally, often vegetarian, Indian food. The cooking of southeast Asia is another example of an extraordinarily fineand spicycuisine. And the tremendous popularity of fiery peppers in Mexican fare is virtually a mainstream taste in modern North America. Perhaps the cooking the Middle Ages was no so aberrant after all. It is time to take another look at our old notions about medieval, and later, seasoning.
Spices and spoiled meat: During the middle Ages, large market towns, and many smaller ones, controlled the quality of the goods sold there, and provided inspectors to enforce its laws. The records of regulations and court cases concerning the sale of putrid meat show that people were aware of the importance of freshness, and what's more they felt it was possible to ensure that they were given fresh meat. When in 1319, William Sperlyn was pilloried in London in front of two carcasses of putrid beef he had attempted to sell, there is no evidence of a resigned, "what-the-heck,-I'll-just-cover-up-the-off-flavors-with-spices" sort of attitude toward his product.
Medieval recipes do not suggest heavier seasoning for tainted meat than for fresh; indeed, the only author I know who mentions spoiled meat at all is Platina, whose De honesta voluptate was destined to become the first printed cookbook in 1475. Platina warns cooks to salt carefully the flesh of piglets "lest it start to spoil or taste rancid." In his section on ham, he instructs the reader to plunge a knife into the middle and smell it; if it does not have a good odor, one should let it alone.
Sir Jack Drummond in his book The Englishman and His Food, offers another alleged proof of the "tainted meat" hypothesis. Drummond quotes Hugh Platt's The Jewell House of Art and Nature, 1594, suggestion of wrapping "greene" venison in a cloth and burying it for a few hours to make it "sweet enough to be eaten." The word "green" was often used in past times to describe fresh foods, including meat, in this case quite probably venison not yet hung for flavor and tenderness.
In medieval cookbooks, meatless Lenten dishes are just as highly seasoned as meats and meat's sauces. Vegetables, too, are copiously spiced: chickpeas are cooked with cinnamon and sage, for example; mushroom tarts contain ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and grated cheese; and saffron, cubebs, cardamom, and mace flavor applesauce. To make hippocras, grains of paradise, long pepper, and sugarthen a rare, expensive substance which was also considered a spiceare added to wine.
Spices and preservation: Spices certainly contribute to the preservation process but their use in tropical cuisines has more to do with inducing perspiration, which helps cool the diner, than to preserve meat. Contrast the heat of tropical cuisines with those of hot, desert regions, where perspiration is not as desirable, and flavoring tends towards aromatic and herbal and avoiding extremes of pungency.
Finally, medieval methods of food preservation were effective and produced the same delicious products we produce today: bacon, salt fish, spiced sausages, and dried beef have remained popular over the centuries. Furthermore, spices in medieval quantities were abandoned in European cuisines long before the introduction of modern methods of refrigeration and preserving.
Spices and conspicuous consumption: Imported over long distances from Africa, India, Indonesia, or China, spices were indeed expensive. Yet surviving household accounts show purchases of vast amounts of spice, quantities which work out to a annual consumption per person far beyond what we consume today. Those who could afford to indulge themselves this extent could also afford to feed their cattle through the winter and so eat freshly slaughtered beef. Besides, the nobility also had year-round access to the wild animals in their game preserves.
What did medieval food taste like? It is difficult to tell. Period recipes do not specify quantities. Keep in mind that the long time spices spent in transit, coupled with the customary long storage periodup to ten yearsprobably made medieval seasoning much less potent than what we use today. But medieval dishes would not have been bland, for the flavor of the spice was the flavor of wealth and power. Conspicuous consumption was the feature at every medieval banquet, where precious silver pieces were routinely displayed on a sideboard and the host was honored by the placement of an elaborate salt cellar squarely in front of him. The music and entertainment, the elegant decor, the abundant foodpredominately meatsand the spicing thereof, were all designed to impress guests and onlookers.
Spices and the Doctrine of Humors: Spices were not limited to grand occasions. They were used at every meal, and their primary purpose was to ensure the good health of the master and his household. Since ancient times, the humoral system of health described all foods and even the physical natures of all human in terms of varying quantities of hot or cold, moist or dry, which had to be kept in balance. Disruption of the balance led to illness. In keeping with accepted medical theory, the cook carefully selected spices to add to food in accordance with its humoral make-up. For example, the potentially dangerous moistness of beef could be tempered by a dollop of a sauce redolent of dry spices, while the hot natures of the spices themselves would be balanced by the vinegar basis of the sauce.
There is a great deal more evidence for this argument than for the old spoiled meat explanation of medieval spicing. Every herbal takes great pains to list the humoral nature of each herb or spice. Medieval medical books, where we often find recipes, discuss diet at length. While these cookbooks contain no special instructions for cooking with fresh or spoiled meat, there are some variations in the sauce making methods for summer and winter, since according to the doctrine of humors, the seasons, too, have different qualities of heat and moisture.
In our age, in which physicians are largely oblivious to diet, we may be skeptical of the humoral theory, and find people of the Middle Ages were far more credulous than we are. But credulity depends on what one is asked to believe. Medieval people may have believed that cinnamon came from the nest of the phoenix, that serpents guarded pepper plants, that grains of Paradise grew in the Garden of Eden, and that spices could cure their ills, but they would laugh in amazement at the preposterous notion that they were using spices to disguise the taste of spoiled meat.
"The people of twenty generations ago knew perfectly well the difference between fresh food and rotten food. They knew of several very effective ways to preserve food over long periods, and they had enough common sense not to try to prepare or to eat rotten food by dousing it in strong spices.!" Terence Scully, Early French Cookery
On the food of the late medieval Britain "...for the gentry fresh meat, newly slaughtered on the manor farm, was in fact available through much of the year, while poultry was never killed until it was needed for the table. Regular spicing, however, became a habit; and once palates were accustomed to strong aromatic flavours, unspiced foods tasted insipid." C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain
A Typology of Culinary Fakelore
The Invention of Culinary Fakelore and Food Fallaciesi
When I began exploring the history specific culinary products years ago, I quickly discovered that some foods had been researched extensively, while others seemed to have been overlooked. Surprisingly, the tomato was one commonly-consumed food whose history had not been examined. But what was written about the tomato's history was intriguing: Many writers claimed that the tomato had been considered poisonous and was an aphrodisiac. Other writers offered stories about how the tomato entered into the American diet. One such story was preeminent: Robert Gibbon Johnson, claimed many writers, ate the first tomato in the United States on the court house steps of Salem, New Jersey, on September 26, 1820. Thousands of people watched him in horrified expectation that he would drop dead with his first bite into the poisonous love apple, or so the story goes. However, the authors who recounted this story offered no primary evidence and various versions of the story differed dramatically.
I found the story intriguing enough to visit Salem, where I examined newspapers from the period, books written about Salem in the 19th century, hundreds of articles in magazine and agricultural journals, memoirs, and other primary source material. Robert Gibbon Johnson was a prominent Salemite and much was written about him. Unfortunately, I found no evidence connecting him to the tomato. The first version of the story appeared in print 86 years after the purported event. All it said was the Johnson ate a tomato in 1820.iii Subsequent authors embellished the story adding extraneous information and the purported event was dramatized on national radio in 1949. Subsequently versions have appeared in numerous professional and scholarly journals, newspapers, and popular magazines.iv While it is impossible to say that something did not happen, based on all the evidence uncovered about Johnson and Salem in the 19th century, it is extremely unlikely that any such event occurred. I wrote up an article debunking the myth. However, the story acquired a life of its own and writers have continued to perpetuate the storyeven those who are well aware that it was not likely true. The Johnson and the tomato story has graduated to a national legend, not unlike the tale of Johnny Appleseed planting apple trees throughout the Midwest, dramatized by Walt Disney in cartoon format, and believed by most Americans.v
The Johnson story suggests several characteristics of how fakelorevi becomes enshrined as legends. First, the story rings true and is presented in such a way as to be difficult or impossible to disprove.vii Second, the story explains a real problem. Everyone knew that Salemites did not eat tomatoes during their early years, so a story that explained why they shifted from not eating tomatoes, provided locals with the solution to a puzzling mystery. Third, simple stories are more enjoyable than complex reality. Fourth, some Salemites believed the story gave their community visibility, and therefore promoted the story to magazine, newspaper and book writers. Finally, writers found the story attractive. As there was no primary source evidence, writers couldand didembellish the story to give punch to their writing.
Towards a Typology of Culinary Fakelore and Logical Fallacies
Since uncovering the Johnson fakelore, I've located hundreds of other undocumented food stories and I suspect that they are inherent in all culinary histories. Some contain statements that are easily disproved; others that are likely false; and still others that are possibly true, but undocumented. Part of the reason for accepting undocumented stories is the fact that historically food preparation has largely been based on oral traditions: cooks orally passed on techniques, recipes and lore to successor generations. This is particularly true in non-literate cultures, but even in literate societies, methods, traditions and rituals of food preparation and consumption were rarely recorded until the 20th century. And much of what was written down in cookery manuscripts or diaries has been lost, hence oral traditions may be the only sources available. Yet, undocumented culinary folklore cannot be accepted at face value without qualification: oral traditions change over time, with information dropped and other aspects added. While culinary folklore and oral traditions are important dimensions of food history and need further exploration, it is clear that many stories that purport to be folklore in fact have been invented in modern times for reasons other than historical accuracy, such as promotion of people, places and products.
Fakelore is not the same as mistakes made by authors. All authors make mistakes. However, factual or other mistakes are usually easily fixed. Neither are we concerned with genuine oral traditions, which may not be documented with primary print sources. Culinary fakelore specifically refers to invented stories that serve purposes other than historical accuracy. While stories that serve other purposes are not necessarily false, other motives coupled without documentation should arouse suspicions. The usual motivations that underlie culinary fakelore are:
1. Journalistic enrichment: undocumented accounts repeated by writers who want to spice up their stories with "exciting tales." Journalists usually do not invent basic information, but they do frequently add facts, dialogue and drama. The reasons for this are several. They frequently rely on interviews and often fail to check the information given to them with primary sources. Most newspaper and magazine writers are not historians. They are usually on deadline and need a story quickly, which usually precludes their examination of primary sources. Finally, journalists adore pithy quotes or sound bites with unusual twists.
2) Culinary jingoism: undocumented stories about cuisines intended to improperly attribute origins of particular dishes to a specific location, group, or nationality.
3) Great (usually white) men stories: undocumented attribution of origins of dishes to specific individualsusually white males. The Johnson story is but one example of this tendency to identify great men as the inventors, introducers, or originators of food, recipes and other culinary matters. Marco Polo is frequently credited with introducing pasta from China into Italy, but pasta like foods were already consumed in Europe before Polo was born. Thomas Jefferson is frequently credited, for instance, with introducing Carolina Gold rice, which, according to culinary historian Karen Hess, was grown in South Carolina well before Jefferson was born.xi
4) Commercial promotion: undocumented stories repeated by corporations in their advertising intended to sell commercial products. Almost all food advertising that makes reference to historical events is inaccurate. In this case, advertisers are interested in promoting sales, not in accurately telling history.
5) Health myths: medicinal claims for specific foods/products frequently repeated without solid scientific basis.
George Lang wrote in 1980 that "Culinary history is a collection of questionable happenings, recorded by persons of dubious credibility, about events no one cares about and people of no consequence."xviii Lang went on to prove this point by presenting many culinary stories as fact while offering no evidence for them. In fact, much of what has been written under the rubric "culinary history" has been collections of twice-told myths.
Food fakelore is frequently repeated because there are few easily accessible, accurate culinary histories. This general lack of serious work depends in large part upon the failure of academics to take culinary history seriously. Academic course offerings in culinary history are haphazard and sporadic. Partly at fault is the rigid departmental structure of modern universities. Since no departments of culinary history exist, courses must be tacked onto history or culinary arts departments. Most mainstream historianseven social historianshave little interest in food except as it relates to war, mass starvation, malnutrition, or an economic ingredient to trade. Few historians consider the cookbook an important primary source for information about people or about the times in which they live. Other academics in the arts and humanities do not consider food to be an art form, or certainly not a "high art," like painting, poetry, or music. Hence, food history is usually segregated into culinary schools or nutrition departments. Still, despite its shallow toeholds in academia, culinary history enjoys wide popular appeal, permitting amateurs, dilettantes, and popularizers to jump on the chuck wagon without any need to consult an established canon of knowledge.
Hence, anything goes in the culinary history fieldparticularly the telling of undocumented food stories, which become the grist for newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and even serious works that purport to be well researched. Myths gain reality through repetition, and unfortunately almost all modern food writers are guilty of the repetition at one time or another. However, if the field of culinary history is to thrive, it must promote higher evidentiary standards. Failure to do so will result in culinary history's relegation to the arena of fiction and trivia.
i. Adapted from Andrew F. Smith, "False Memories: The Invention of Culinary Fakelore and Food Fallacies," in Harlan Walker, ed., Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2000 (Devon, United Kingdom: Prospect Books, 2001).
ii. Andrew F. Smith teaches culinary history at the New School in Manhattan. He has written or edited ten books on food history. He is currently the General Editor for the University of Illinois's Food Series, and the Editor in Chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.
iii. Joseph S. Sickler, The Old Houses of Salem County (Salem, N.J.: Sunbeam Publishing, 1949), 40; Steward H. Holbrook, Lost Men of American History (London: Macmillan, 1946), 131; Salem Sunbeam, February 1, 1949.
iv. Jan Longone, "From the Kitchen," American Magazine 3 (Autumn-Winter 1987-88): 1; Salem Sunbeam, July 22, 1988; July 24, 1988.
v. Andrew F. Smith, "The Making of the Legend of Robert Gibbon Johnson and the Tomato," New Jersey History 108 (Fall-Winter 1990): 59-74; Andrew F. Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cookery (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).
vi. The term fakelore was borrowed from Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Fakelore (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976), 5.
vii. For more information about the introduction of the tomato into America, see Andrew F. Smith, The Tomato in America (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).
viii. Andrew F. Smith, "The History of Home-made Anglo-American Tomato Ketchup," Petits Propos Culinaires 39 (December 1991): 35.
ix. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Savoring the Past; The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1983), 42-48.
x. Andrew F. Smith, "The First Thanksgiving," Gastronomica (Fall 2003): 79-85.
xi. Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen; The African Connection (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), 19-20.
xii. Andrew F. Smith, Peanuts: The Glorious History of the Goober Pea (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
xiii. For instance, see [Louis Eustache Audot], La Cuisinière de la Campagne Vingt-cinquieme Édition (Paris: Audot, editeur du bon jardinier, 1841), 215, in which no tomatoes are mentioned in the recipe; M. M. et Fouret et Délan Viart, Le Cuisinier Royal (Paris: Gustave Barba, 1842), 298, which uses tomatoes as an ingredient and mentions the Napoleon story.
xiv. Andrew F. Smith, Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 3-5.
xv. Andrew F. Smith, Peanuts: The Glorious History of the Goober Pea (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
xvi. For a broader discussion of invented traditions, see Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
xvii. Andrew F. Smith, "Tacos, Enchiladas and Refried Beans: The Invention of Mexican-American Cookery," in Mary Wallace Kelsey and ZoeAnn Holmes, eds., Cultural and Historical Aspects of Foods (Corvallis: Oregon State University, 1999), 183-203; Andrew F. Smith, "Tomatoes, Peanuts and Okra: African-American Influence on Early American Cookery," forthcoming.
xviii. George Lang, Lang's Compendium of Culinary Nonsense and Trivia (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1980), 11.
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