[Sca-cooks] A curious question about the rotted meat mythos

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Wed Mar 12 18:47:11 PDT 2008

On Mar 12, 2008, at 8:53 PM, Kimberly Vallance wrote:

> Greetings list,
> Ok I know that Rotten meat myth is a big thorn in most of our sides.  
> But how
> much of a myth is it really? This question comes from me watching  
> Bizarre
> foods which presents unusual cultural foods. recently it was on what  
> would
> be rotted meat to most Americans, hakarl (rotten shark meat).

Americans have no problem with Cheddar, a.k.a. rotten milk
Wine, a.k.a. rotten grape juice
Beer, a.k.a. rotten grain-based syrup
Bread, a.k.a. [usually] rotten dough
Corned Beef, a.k.a. rotten beef
Summer Sausage, a.k.a. rotten [usually pork or a mixture] sausage

All of the above are examples of controlled fermentation, as is  
haakarl, which is cured under conditions not too different from those  
for gravlax, requiring careful drainage and refrigeration, both of  
which tend to retard spoilage in the most classic sense, and which are  
employed deliberately; it's just a different fish and for a longer  
period of time, until enzymes in the muscle act to break down the  
fibers. Of course, Americans don't tend to describe their traditional  
foods as rotten, even if they're rotten in the same sense and to the  
same extent -- only other people's traditional foods.

> There are many
> culture that use various fermented meats.

Yes. Ours, for instance.

> Could this be also what permeated
> the myth that medieval food was heavily spiced to hide "rotted" meat?

Honestly? It appears that some of what a lot of people assume medieval  
people knew about salting foods, or drying them, is not necessarily as  
old as we might think in all areas of the world. For instance, it  
appears that there were breakthroughs in the production of salt fish  
in the Middle Ages that suddenly allowed fisherman to go a lot further  
from their native shores than they had done previously. Without that,  
there's probably no Hanseatic League, possibly a different face for  
both the Catholic Church and the New World, and various other  
differences. But it's not entirely clear to what extent some salted  
foods are fully salted, and quickly, to prevent this type of partial  
fermentation, and which are partially salted to allow for a certain  
tangy quality to develop.

> A note on the bizarre series, Mr. Zimmerman doesn't do the whole  
> lets make
> it weirder then it is he shows cultural food that most Americans would
> consider bizarre and out of the norm he also does a good job of  
> showing what
> many tourists over look.

I haven't seen it, but based on their description of the Moroccan  
preserved meat dish, versus others' description of the same dish which  
differ somewhat, what possible motive could they have for using terms  
like "fermented" or "rotten" when apparently no one else is doing so,  
and the process they describe is quite similar to the relatively  
"normal" French preserved meats stored in fat, or for that matter,  
English country sausages stored in lard, potted meat stored under  
butter, etc.?

If it's not that they simply are misapplying these terms because they  
don't understand them, you have to wonder why they do use them.

> I don't mean to upset anyone but seeing some of the fermented and um  
> unusual
> meats it got me to thinking.

One little snippet of evidence that might help establish perspective  
between the evident myth of spiced-rotten-meat and the more likely  
reality is in the late 13th-Century French text entitled  
"Enseignements", which refers to sauces (many of which have some, but  
not that many, spices, generally) applied to specific foods and dishes  
when served fresh -- and if salted, let the sauce be mustard.  
Sentences like this probably appear fifteen or twenty times in that  
source alone.

They, at least, don't seem to discuss different degrees of salted or  
fresh; either the food is fresh or it's not, but in either case  
they're not dousing bad food with expensive spices when it would be  
cheaper to buy fresh food.


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