[Sca-cooks] Myth of Spoiled Meat

Ian Kusz sprucebranch at gmail.com
Fri Nov 20 23:47:15 PST 2009

I read your article, and here are my caveats.

On Fri, Nov 20, 2009 at 11:57 AM, <edoard at medievalcookery.com> wrote:

> 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 agree that the reasoning is flawed, and that you are MOST LIKELY right,
but even a clock on its side may be right twice a day (assuming it doesn't
run), so even a person who reasons badly may be right on accident.  For the
following reasons, I don't want to dismiss the possibility without further

>  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).
Well, that's a poor argument.  You can completely obliterate your food with
garlic without making it toxic, and a combination of other strong tastes
(onion, mint, horseradish, etc.) can overpower just about anything, without
making me sick.

I agree that most spices were expensive, and that IMPORTED spices would not
have been used this way in medieval times...at least, most likely.

> 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?
> Well, supply and demand works in a city or town, possibly even a large
village.  But what about rural life?  Also, we've heard tales of mini ice
ages, and overtaxation and poverty, famine or malnutrition.

In these cases, mightn't meat have been scarce?  Especially if your access
to meat was subject to the whims of a feudal lord....

> 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.

Granted.  But that doesn't change the question of what was COMMON; the
situation that normally existed for the non-ultra-wealthy.  I know there
aren't as many recipes for that, but wasn't there a book of recommended food
for a farmer?  It listed menus for everything down from nobility to
peasantry, if I recall....what was that reference?  Also, there might be
non-direct sources, like legal writings, farming records (what
herbs/flavorings were grown), and so forth.

> 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.
> Well, yes.  But even the situations of the rich would have had some flex
according to economic reality; pirates and bandits affecting trade,
embargos, wars, etc.

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

This, I'll grant.

> 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
Well, actually, the legal injunction against serving spoiled food argues
that it happened at least once; one should keep in mind the existence of
unscrupulous people.  How much did enforcement vary?  How often did people
circumvent the law (or unsuccessfully try)?

Would open-air market stalls have had spoiled meat to sell to the rubes who
you might not have to answer to, because a.) they weren't local, and had to
go home after selling their produce, or b.) you weren't going to be here
tomorrow, or c.) being outsiders, they were unlikely to be listened to
(their status might come into play, here)?  How common was this practice?

>From William FitzStephen:

"If friends arrive unexpectedly at the home of some citizen and they, tired
and hungry after their journey, prefer not to wait until food may be got in
and cooked, or "till servants bring water for hands and bread", they can in
the meantime pay a quick visit to the riverside, where anything they might
desire is immediately available. No matter how great the number of soldiers
or travellers coming in or going out of the city, at whatever hour of day or
night, so that those arriving do not have to go without a meal for too long
or those departing leave on empty stomachs, they can choose to detour there
and take whatever refreshment each needs. Those with a fancy for delicacies
can obtain for themselves the meat of
guinea-hen or woodcock – finding what they're after is no great chore, since
all the delicacies are set out in front of them. This is an exemplar of a
public cookshop that provides a service to a city and is an asset to city

So, I know the kind of traveller's food shop that I'm thinking of existed.
And, having clientele that is here-today-gone-tomorrow makes it a lovely
place to break laws.

Now, I'll agree that it might be unlikely for the selling of spoiled meat to
be common enough to be considered the "common practice," and that, thus, the
argument that "medieval meat was spiced to hide being spoiled" refers, not
to the rich, but to the situation that commonly pertained is probably
inaccurate, but I can't rule it out, entirely.

Can someone help me out, here?  I'd love to put these doubts to rest.

>  --
> Ian of Oertha

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