December 17, 2010
Quite some time has passed since my last few entries. I guess I’ve been mainly occupied with writing rather than cooking lately. Anyway, a few days ago I had a discussion here in the café about the approach to historical reconstructions.
In short one can say that the extremes range from the so called A-copies in the museum – in which every detail is copied including the original faults that were unintended by the craftsman –, to reconstructions based on the notion ”it might have been possible”.
Generally speaking, when working with medieval, renaissance or ancient roman food, I tend to favour the former approach – trying to follow the recipes or descriptions as close as possible. However, from the Viking age we are limited to archaeological remains of the food and cooking equipment, and some scarce descriptions in later or continental texts, so I would have to reconsider.
While the anything goes approach is used to justify anything from pancakes or eggs and bacon for breakfast to more fanciful ideas, as the notion that since they went to the American continent one could have encountered/imported …. [insert any unlikely foodproduct here], the strict copying imposes restrictions that are far from historical correct.
While the originals and strict copies are important in order to in fact have an idea of the craft it self and to master the techniques it would be ahistorical for any craftsman to only do copies. While it certainly can be up for some debate, I would say that most creativity in crafts in historical times, would be a question of variations within a strict set of rules. This creativity of repetition can possibly be seen in most arts and crafts in any pre- modern setting, and need to be considered when one is trying to work beyond the actual copies.
The rules would limit the craftsman in material, patterns, combinations, and not the least techniques. As we are not native to the crafts we are trying to reconstruct we both need to approach the reconstruction from an intellectual point of view in which we break down the craft into an understanding of the limitations, preferences and requirements available and that we appropriate the techniques through repeated experience. I guess this approach is generally how I’d like to see more experimental archaeology.
In regards to cooking that would mean that I need both break to understand and appropriate the underlying factors that makes up a dish. While this may allow me to make dishes that could be plausible in a medieval context…it may first and foremost help me when trying to reconstruct a Viking cuisine.
Regionality, Even though there are much in common in the Scandinavian area during the Viking age, one has to be aware that there are regional differences, not only in what food is available but also how the food is cooked and what one would prefer – My thoughts about regional differences has to be developed in another post.
Ingredients; What food stuff were available at a certain place and time. From the Viking age, I will mainly have to rely on what archaeological finds that are available. However this poses a problem as not all things edible has been eaten at all times, and what we may consider inedible today, may have been consumed in earlier periods. ( A good example is common sorrel( Rumex Acetosa), which today is considered poisonous in most floraes, but were eaten in historical periods.
Cooking techniques; As in any craft, what we can make is limited to the techniques available and affordable at the time. Any dish that would require the 19th century iron stove can be discounted for. But when looking at the techniques of the time one would also have to consider in what contexts different techniques were used. Just because it was known and used in some circumstances, one cannot expect it be readily available. Factors like economy, the craftsmens preferences, local traditions and the inherent limitations of a particular technique has to be considered.
Senses; Although taste is the main sense by which we experience food, smell, texture, looks and even sound play an important role for the complete experience of any dish. While these certainly are a result of the preferences of the time, understanding the interaction of the senses and how the foodstuff were combined in order to produce the desired result is of outmost importance if we are to understand how a dish was composed. This is of course almost impossible to come to grips with through archaeology alone, though some may be indicated. Though we can perhaps get an idea of what basic tastes dominated the food, we need consider not only the different sensorical experiences but also the complexity that can be produced through a combination of different tastes, smells etc.
Preferences; In a sense the complexity all boils down to the preference of the craftsman, the consumer and of the time in general. However preferences may limit our options even more than the factors above, but should be considered in more general terms rather than individual. Preferences may rule choices beyond the practical and logical, but are important to recognise.
Context; the context of an object or in this case the food is extremely important; Who was supposed to consume it? Did it serve any purpose beyond the obvious? Was the dish or object supposed to convey a certain meaning or to include a certain group of people?
Variations in what we can observe will be dependent on the original context. Understanding how the context influences the result is therefore necessary.
It is first after we have a thorough understanding of the above that we can start to reconstruct and reinvent objects/dishes/activities. As we lack any remains to give us anything more than just brief glimpses of the Viking Age diet, any attempt at reconstructing or at least making suggestions of a Viking Age cuisine requires us to deconstruct the evidence according to the above scheme.
A good attempt at deconstructing the tastes of the Viking Age, was made here. http://vikingfoodguy.com/wordpress/2010/07/10/the-viking-food-aesthetic/
This said, would I be comfortable with deconstructing and reinventing medieval dishes? No, although we have a far better understanding of the medieval cuisine, I feel that it is far to complex for me to start doing so just yet. It is possible that one should have the same view of Viking Age food, while perhaps not as complex as the medieval cuisine it cannot be said to lack complexity. However, the lack of any proper surviving dishes, makes this approach more a way to understand and visualise theories about the period.
One should point out though, and this is important, in working with “what-may-have-beens” we run the risk of creating images and new truth that are spread without context.