[Sca-cooks] Myth of Spoiled Meat

edoard at medievalcookery.com edoard at medievalcookery.com
Fri Nov 20 11:57:23 PST 2009

> -------- Original Message --------
> From: Ian Kusz <sprucebranch at gmail.com>
> I have a question, though, about the availability of spices.
> Not all things used to flavor food are, necessarily, imported.
> Garlic can be grown throughout most of the world, and is included in many
> old recipes.  Sorrel has a strong flavor.  Mint is also quite strong.  I
> wonder if one can use these and other herbs (too many to list), as "spices"
> to cover the other flavors of meat, whether it is gaminess, or what have
> you.  Also, wouldn't these be more available to the poor?

True, not all of the herbs and spices were imported, but the cost of
spice is only partially relevant.  

The myth would have one believe that the meat was spoiled, and that
great amounts of spice were added to cover the bad taste.  I cover the
flaws in reasoning in the paper I've put online, but here's a summary:

1.  Cost:  why use $200 worth of spices on a $2 chicken?

As you noted, not all spices were that expensive, but I suspect if you
used enough herbs to cover the taste of putrescine then the herbs
themselves would make the food inedible (and possibly toxic depending on
the herbs in question).

Note that some of the most commonly called for spices in 14th and 15th
century English and French cookbooks are spices like saffron, ginger,
cinnamon, and cloves - which are all imported.  These are the cookbooks
and recipes that are being pointed to by those "authorities" repeating
the myth.

2.  Supply and demand:  records indicate a great quantity of meat was
being sold and consumed on a daily basis, so why would it all be left to
spoil before selling and/or eating?  

3.  More supply and demand):  surviving recipes (the ones that
supposedly called for so much spice) were intended for the wealthy, so
if only some of the meat was spoiled then they could afford the fresh
stuff, and therefore wouldn't have been using so much spice.

4.  Even more supply and demand:  accounts of feasts in surviving
cookbooks detail hundreds of animals being slaughtered, why would this
need to be done so far in advance that they spoiled?  Note that one
source specifies to not slaughter animals until the very last minute so
they don't go to waste.

5.  Bad premise:  Given that extremely few surviving recipes list any
measurements at all, there is no proof that medieval foods were "highly

In short, the idea that medieval cooks used spices in this way has no
evidence to support it, and is not at all consistent with what is known
about medieval life and culture.

- Doc

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