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Asking Historians About Food

This post first appeared on my Food History blog on 14/9/2007

I get asked about historical background for fiction by quite a few writers. I hear “I want a Renaissance/Medieval/Victorian dinner – tell me what to do” from an increasing number of people. It’s about time I explained certain basics. Sensible people take these basics into account before they ask me anything. People who are less sensible often don’t get the answers they want or need.

Know the level of historical accuracy you’re comfortable with.
First of all, what level authenticity do you want? If you want something approximate, why ask an historian? Why not buy one of the many popular books and work something out for yourself? If you insist on asking an historian, you might want to choose carefully, as you don’t want to have sad eyes following you because you had to include chili in your Ancient Roman dinner party because a meal isn’t complete for you without chili.

If you only want a sense of the past, and you don’t mind about things not being exact, then consulting popular books is more sensible than asking a specialist.

Secondly, think very carefully about the place and time you’re reproducing. Things you need are: a country, a date.

“Renaissance” is not useful, because people ate different foods in different regions. “Renaissance Chinese cuisine” is a nonsense, because historians of China use different period descriptions. “Renaissance Italian” is better and “Venice 1564″ is best of all. With “Venice 1564″ you can find all the extant recipes and food descriptions that have emerged from that environment and go from there.

We all have our dialects when we look at the past. If you want to ask an historian a question, learn enough of their dialect to make the question something they can work with.

If you think in terms of ‘period’ costume and ‘period’ food, then you may want to think about the particular periods you are implying. Three times this last year, I’ve asked “What do you mean by ‘period’? I’ve been told ‘pre-1600′ or ‘pre-1700.’

In terms of human lifestyles, including food, I can’t make sense of these terms. They include places and times that really don’t have a lot in common. Even if you take it from, say, the Carolingians to the Tudors and stick to Western Europe and the Mediterranean, the range is too vast.
Precise places and times are a great help.

I would rather be told ‘England in 1030′ and then have to admit there are no cookbooks extant (or maybe even possible) from England in 1030. It’s how my mind works. “No cookbooks extant” doesn’t have to be an endpoint, but “I want to cook period food for my dinner party” is a bad starting point for talking to a specialist.

If you want to be inventive, then why ask a specialist?
If there are no recipes and very few food records from your place and time, it’s generally not a good idea to ask an historian to invent some for you. The best approach when there are no recipes and not much in the way of food records is to change your place/time, or to move to something more general (”Venice, middle of sixteenth century” then “Italy, middle of sixteenth century”).

Start with the precise place/time you want and then move to the more general if there isn’t enough material.
If you choose a place and you don’t read the languages and there is not much in translation, be very, very polite to your historian, because you are about to ask them to do an awful lot of work for you.

I have a little spiel prepared for times like this (since so many people want me to do their legwork and so few are willing to do mine). “If it’s a five minute answer, I’ll do it now. If it’s an hour-long answer, I’ll do it when I can because you’re a good friend or because I really care about your project. If it takes longer than that it displaces my own research and income, and you might want to think about paying or about asking someone else.”

Occasionally people ask “Why should I pay you?” I have various names for these people, and sometimes these names are polite.

If you don’t appreciate that professional historians have between four and nine years university training plus experience at their job and that the discipline is a tough one (Medievalists usually read from four to fifteen languages, for instance), then ask someone else. And if you find one who will do two weeks or a month of fulltime work for you without pay, then please respect that work. It can be quite humiliating to help on someone’s writing project and then not even be thanked in the acknowledgements.

Now you know why I started charging for inquiries above a certain level of complexity: it means that the questioner takes my expertise seriously and does just that much more of their own thinking.

My favourite historical novelists and re-enactment folk do their groundwork first, ask sensible questions and give back as much as I give them. It becomes an exchange between professionals.

My favourite dinner party/wedding banquet queriers, are also prepared to put the work in. I did the Regency Gothic banquet design gratis, partly because having all those people testing recipes enabled me to understand the cuisine of early nineteenth century Southern England much faster than if I had done hundreds of trial recipes all by myself: it was a win-win, or maybe a learn-learn. Every tester annotated their tests and I was able to discover quite a few things I didn’t know about changes in ovens and ingredients as well as changes in taste and palate.

Use the comments section, if you want to explore the topic further. I’m perfectly happy to discuss this again, and to talk through some of the issues. There are a lot of background assumptions I haven’t talked through and many ideas that can be explored. I haven’t even talked about sources, for instance, or what popular and semi-scholarly and scholarly books there are on various subjects.

NOTE: This is not an attack on anyone – this is me trying to sort out how people can get the information they want and often need without getting trapped in futile arguments.

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