[Sca-cooks] Spices: a thought and a question

lilinah at earthlink.net lilinah at earthlink.net
Sat May 2 11:47:55 PDT 2009

Thorvald wrote:
> I was reading "The Taste of Conquest" (M. Krondl) and a thought
> occurred to me.
> Might a small, but not negligible, contributing factor towards
> the period consumption of spices have been to mask, while eating
> a meal, the smell of *humans* and their habitations?

(Snipetty doo dah)

- Intro -
I ought to be at Beltane (our Spring Coronation event), but the car i rented had a problem and by the time City CarShare found me another that was big enough to hold my SCA camping stuff and available all weekend and the cab finally showed up to take me to its location, 2 hours had passed. Then i got a phone call from the friend i was going to camp with that the rain on the road was atrocious, the traffic was moving at 12 mph, and she was planning to spend the night in a motel, and maybe just go come home Saturday morning. So i decided not to go. Cold and wet for 48 hours is not my idea of a good time. Anyway, so here i am. 

- Comments -
Others have cited mentions in Medieval books on cleanliness, and i assume that those who could did try their best to keep clean.

I've lived in a 3rd world tropical country with lots of animals around, plenty of water and multiple daily cold baths - and no matter how clean one is, the tropics are full of intense odors. And spent a month traveling in Morocco, with very limited access to water (not all rough country villages have hamams) and LOTS of wet animals in close quarters -- old medinas are very like the proverbial "twisty little passages that all look the same" from computer games of the 80s -- and many are only about 2 donkeys wide. I've never seen so many donkeys in my life - it seemed very... uh... medieval to me. Mmm-mmm-mmm, wet donkey... And not to forget, wet mules and wet camels and wet sheep and wet goats and...

Anyway, what i was getting at is that i think one gets used to the ordinary smells of one's surroundings. The nose is well-known to get used to pervasive environmental smells ("olfactory fatigue"). So one tends only to really notice them when they change drastically.

And from the short periods of time i've spent around lots of animals - during which one comes to find the smells normal and generally not stinky - i get the impression that people who spend their lives around animals get used to the smells to a large degree. I think they're not going to claim they don't smell, but for the most part, the smell is normal and natural, and not foetid and disgusting.

With our modern factory farms concentrating large numbers of animals in small quarters, with the concomitant concentration of various types of excreta, well, many of our modern "farms" are very smelly. But a typical farm of the past wouldn't have so many beasts so close together. And with transhumance, most sheep and goats were out wandering around in the wide open places. They just wouldn't have been as vilely smelly as modern animals farms.

In the end, i, too, doubt that the food of the wealthy was highly spiced to cover the smell of the other diners.

On the other hand, i think you suggest another point worth mulling over, which is that, besides using many spices to add flavor and as "conspicuous consumption", people may just have enjoyed the scent of the spices during dinner.

- Afterthought -
Americans have an amazing fetish about baths. Don't get me wrong, i enjoy a long, deep, hot bath or Hollywood shower, and i've got all sorts of perky bath gear for fun and cleanliness and good smells. And for daily use i've got a nice scentless deodorant and toothpaste and mouthwash. So i'm not opposed to cleanliness.

But unless one has an unusual condition that causes extreme BO or does hard physical labor daily, humans really do not need to bathe every single day. Heck, in grad school, i had a housemate, a shy gentle soul, who bathed THREE times a day - when he got up in the AM, after exercise or sports in the afternoon, and before he went to bed (and, no, he was not having any particular "exercise" in the night - he was good-looking, but shy and very studious). To my way of thinking, the one after exercise would have been enough.

OK, enough crankiness. Time for more coffee.

Urtatim (that's err-tah-TEEM)
the persona formerly known as Anahita
who does do a LOT of hand washing when cooking for others
and nowadays with the flu out and about

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