Common food for common people

July 24, 2011

A constant question that has haunted me since I started to study past food cultures is cuisine of the common people. In general most cookbooks are aimed at the upper echelons of the medieval/renaissance society with even the dishes that might be considered simpler including exotic spices or some other ingredient that will make it a bit to expensive to be considered something that the majority could afford. Though the renaissance and baroque cookbooks are increasingly aimed at a reader from the middle-class, the simpler dishes are still (with a few exceptions) not easily found in the cookbooks.


In order to get closer to the food that might have been eaten at the time I have mainly been looking at four sources;

The implications found in later cookbooks

Vague references in other texts

Indications found through description of handouts to soldiers

Archaeological evidence & historical context


Though most cookbooks are aimed at the upperclass or wealthy middle class there are some dishes that can be considered to be upgraded versions of more simpler dishes. In some of the cookbooks we may find pea soups, groat porridges, bean dishes or soups based on turnip greens but with a twist, such as saffron to make it a bit more prominent. In the cookbooks from the end of the period or the baroque we start to find inclusions of what can only be considered to be part of the more everyday meals. In a Danish cookbook from 1616, dishes such as salted herring and kale porridge are included, in the latter case we are told that the best examples of that dish are made in farmers kitchen.


Other, non-culinary texts, may give us a hint to dishes eaten by workers, farmers and the like. In an Italian text from the 15th century we learn that farmer preferred turnips or onions baked in the embers. Similar small tidbits of information can be found if one look through non culinary texts.


Although reflecting very special circumstances and being a bit later than the studied period some good input into the contents and sizes of a more common meal can be found through old navy documents stating what and how much food the sailors were issued daily. Though the diet and compositions of dishes may have changed somewhat, it is illuminating as it indicates to what extent the food was based on porridges of either barley or peas.


Archaeological evidence can if mapped out geographically and socially give us an idea as to what the preferred or most common ingredients were, although this in fact only tells us so much about the finished dishes. However, archaeology is still valuable in order to pinpoint the food of the ordinary people. Through analyses one may find indications of deficiencies of various minerals or if a marine diet was preferred. If related to the social status of the remains one may also gain a further understanding of the diet of the time. Historical contexts are also very important in the understanding of the food of the period. Not only do we know that fish was very important from a religious perspective, but also that the trade of salted herring and dried cod were important for Scandinavia yet wellspread throughout the social stratas.


In my hunt for some simpler dishes I am trying to find the dishes that may reflect what the sum of all of the above sources may indicate. In short I am looking for dishes that includes, porrridges, simple soups, kale, turnips or salted herrings. The dishes ought to be boiled rather than fried or roasted.



One Response to “Common food for common people”

  1. John K. said

    My train of thought leads back to seasonal, local fare. You’re going to eat what you can fresh and preserve the rest for later.

    That being said, it’s too easy to take a random group of ingredients and make something edible or even delicious. In my line of thought, it’s simple to take some variety of grain and boil it in a pot, then add aromatics and other vegetables to compliment the dish. Finish with available protein source and eat.

    There’s more to it than that, but that’s the simplest idea in the simplest terms.


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