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Medicine

What Did 17th Century Food Taste Like? (blogspot.com) 197

Benjamin Breen, an assistant professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, looks at art history to figure out what people cooked in the 1600s, and wonders whether it is possible to ascertain the taste of food. From a blog post: What can we learn about how people ate in the seventeenth century? And even if we can piece together historical recipes, can we ever really know what their food tasted like? This might seem like a relatively unimportant question. For one thing, the senses of other people are always going to be, at some level, unknowable, because they are so deeply subjective. Not only can I not know what Velazquez's fried eggs tasted like three hundred years ago, I arguably can't know what my neighbor's taste like. And why does the question matter, anyway? A very clear case can be made for the importance of the history of medicine and disease, or the histories of slavery, global commerce, warfare, and social change. By comparison, the taste of food doesn't seem to have the same stature. Fried eggs don't change the course of history. But taste does change history. Fascinating read.
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What Did 17th Century Food Taste Like?

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Food was extremely hard to come by and cook. Most people didn't have jobs where they could easily go to the grocery after. Almost 100% of Americans would starve within the week if they were transported to 1776.

    • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

      Food was extremely hard to come by and cook

      Yeah farms and fauna were hard to come by and we didn't know how to make fires. I'm pretty sure your claim is valid.

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @02:37PM (#55555947) Homepage Journal

      Most younger Americans transported to 1950 would starve unless they were sent back with a large supply of cash, in which case they would be at a high risk of food poisoning. One of the reasons for the rise of restaurant chains in the 50s was to make it possible for travelers to know where to eat without getting "ptomaine poisoning" (most people didn't even understand the microbial nature of foodborne illness).

      Until the 1970s most Americans cooked nearly all their own food from scratch, other than bread. I'm old enough remember in the 1960s the tail end of the process of re-educating Americans to "cook" with prepared food. It was the Age of the Casserole, because the food industry was spending huge bucks in training people to dump cans of cream of mushroom soup into "chicken a la king". In seconds a can of cream of mushroom soup replaced spending hours making stock and thickening it by whisking it into a roux.

      But it wasn't just convenience; looking back on these product-oriented recipes, it's astonishing how dreadful many of them sound to us. How does combining canned fruit cocktail, mayonnaise, and mini-marshmallows sound to you? I can tell you how it sounded back then, it sounded exciting.

      I think the marketers tapped into a pair of contradictory but deep-rooted impulses in human diet: familiarity and novelty. If you look at hunter gatherer societies you see both eating patterns: pursuing go-to calorie sources along with lots and lots of opportunistic foraging.

      • by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @06:52PM (#55557933)

        "How does combining canned fruit cocktail, mayonnaise, and mini-marshmallows sound to you? I can tell you how it sounded back then, it sounded exciting."

        How dare you mock my inner childs beloved "marshmallow salad"; I still make it from time to time, and I still like it.

        " It was the Age of the Casserole, because the food industry was spending huge bucks in training people to dump cans of cream of mushroom soup "

        Along with a can of tuna, noodles.... bake for a bit... and 'tuna casserole'. I actually had that for lunch today... leftovers.

        Nothing wrong with a few 10 minute to prepare meals in your arsenal that are throw backs to the 60s and 70s. Plus all the essential ingredients keep well for months.

        On a cold fall day between school, the kids extracurricular activities, and both of us working... Plus its a kind of nostalgic comfort food. We make it about once a year so its hardly like we live on it.

        • by Vreejack ( 68778 )

          "How does combining canned fruit cocktail, mayonnaise, and mini-marshmallows sound to you? I can tell you how it sounded back then, it sounded exciting."

          I have never heard of this beast, but I am intrigued. When did it go extinct? And where can I get a recipe? Or should I just begin experimenting?

        • by hey! ( 33014 )

          Well the irony is that Americans now eat worse than our supposedly horrible diet of the 1960s and 70s. The reason is that sheer amount of refined carbohydrates that have replaced fat calories.

          Personally I believe you can eat healthy, and eat whatever you want, the key is moderation. Prioritize real food first, and once you've made that your base if you want to occasionally have a casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and potato chips as ingredients, enjoy.

      • At the time, most of you were living in England. Don't forget that.
      • Food from the 1850's tasted better than today's gmo products.

        My example is the tomato
        10 years ago, a tomato from the grocers was deep read, juicy, and flavourful. Today it is crunchy, durable, can handle rough handling in the grocery bag, and tasteless. It seems that gmo'd tomatoes were engineered to be insect resistant and dry.
        I remember slicing a pre-gmo tomato and the juices were leaking over the saucer/plate. Today, I can slice a tomato, and the saucer/plate doesn't even get wet.
        Our forefathers had b

        • Food from the 1850's tasted better than today's gmo products.

          Except that it was on the verge of rotting by the time it got to your kitchen. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. (I'm trying to get a kefir culture going to make my milk go sour.)

    • It would depend if they were in rural or urban areas.
      In rural areas it may be tricky for many because they will have to grow their own food. But if you took people from the 1600 and teleported then in the middle of nowhere with no supplies they would die out too.

      If we took people from today give them a few months of supplies. Chances are if teleported to the 1600 they would be able to survive.

      In an urban environment we would just need to find a job that would be a good match to our future skills.

  • People with actual practical experience do it already:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      One thing that NO reenactment community accurately portrays is the constant presence of raw, exposed sewage, particularly in urban areas like London or Paris.

      People managed to get through their daily lives, walking along canals of sewage, or with chamber pots stinking up the interiors without so much as an eieeewww, because they were used to it, or as we say today 'Nose Blind'.

      I have to wonder if this single olfactory impact would have a significant effect on taste and flavor

      • by laie_techie ( 883464 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @03:37PM (#55556477)

        One thing that NO reenactment community accurately portrays is the constant presence of raw, exposed sewage, particularly in urban areas like London or Paris.

        People managed to get through their daily lives, walking along canals of sewage, or with chamber pots stinking up the interiors without so much as an eieeewww, because they were used to it, or as we say today 'Nose Blind'.

        I have to wonder if this single olfactory impact would have a significant effect on taste and flavor

        I spent 2 years in Brazil and passed through many places where there was a raw sewage river on the side of the road. I learned not to make faces in order to not offend the locals. I also got used to not putting toilet paper in the toilet (lack of water pressure meant clogged toilets). You get used to whatever your normal is.

      • by sycodon ( 149926 )

        That's not really an issue until you get a large concentration of people.

        Rural communities are dispersed enough to avoid that kind of thing.

        Sewage and water treatment plants are necessities of urban living.

        • That's not really an issue until you get a large concentration of people.

          Rural communities are dispersed enough to avoid that kind of thing.

          Sewage and water treatment plants are necessities of urban living.

          Only since the outhouse building projects of the depression's WPA. Before that open sewage and disease were major problems to the health of rural Americans.

    • None of the foodstuffs in that video look anything remotely what vegetables looked like 400 years ago.
  • by zifn4b ( 1040588 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @12:49PM (#55555067)
    Chicken
    • by TWX ( 665546 )

      Actually there's fairly strong evidence that the bland, almost flavorless chicken we now eat is a distinct change for the blandness compared to chickens of-old. As chickens have been selectively bred for a myriad of characteristics that benefit the farmer, the flavor of the meat has been lost. Chicken is the vodka of animals raised for their meat.

      • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

        Chicken is the vodka of animals raised for their meat.

        You had me right up until there. So what you're saying is, chickens have been purposefully genetically mutated for the purposes of inducing inebriation? Whoever says it was better in ye olden days is obviously wrong! Beer budgets were much larger back then.

        • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

          Beer budgets were much larger back then

          Yes but that was because drinking stored water was often hazardous. So the brewed lots and lots of small beer. Between the presence of the good yeast and the small amount of alcohol they did produce it drove a lot of the nastier bugs off.

          So everyone especially children were given beer when the water was less than fresh.

          • Between the presence of the good yeast and the small amount of alcohol they did produce it drove a lot of the nastier bugs off.

            Actually, the carbon dioxide driving away the oxygen is more important than the yeast (and not because a bit of global warming never did anyone any harm).

          • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

            Yes but that was because drinking stored water was often hazardous. So the brewed lots and lots of small beer. Between the presence of the good yeast and the small amount of alcohol they did produce it drove a lot of the nastier bugs off.

            So everyone especially children were given beer when the water was less than fresh.

            Check out the documentary How Beer Saved the World [vimeo.com] if you haven't seen it already.

      • by jrumney ( 197329 )
        Most of the flavor loss comes from their short lives spent in a cage barely bigger than their own body being force-fed on grains. If you eat free range chicken brought up on a more varied diet, you can still get a bit of the flavour back.
    • Unseasoned chicken if they where europeans.
  • ... then probably very similar to that. Tho I can't remember when potatoes became common.

    • by OzPeter ( 195038 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @01:18PM (#55555339)

      ... then probably very similar to that. Tho I can't remember when potatoes became common.

      Except we have spent the last 400 years actively changing breeding stock - hence the flavors of what we eat today are fundamentally different from those of yesteryear.

      Case in point is the way that meat chickens have changed in just over the last 60 years since they started to be bred for more and more white meat.

      • Case in point is the way that meat chickens have changed in just over the last 60 years since they started to be bred for more and more white meat.

        Not just chickens, turkeys too. Back in the '50s, when I was a child, dark meat on both birds really was dark, and had a much stronger, richer taste than it does now. If you want to find out how good dark meat can taste, make sure that this year's turkey is free range, because without the mobility that allows, the legs don't get used enough to develop the me
        • Yea, dark meat today has an almost watered down chocolate milk color and tastes way less irony and more fatty. Duck meat braised with some butter or lard is about as close as I can get to the succulent dark turkey/chicken meat of my childhood.

      • I imagine chickens were bred for egg laying first and you only got to eat the older hens or older roosters. I suppose their meat was tougher to chew.
        • by dryeo ( 100693 )

          You eat the roosters pretty early as they fight and take resources away from the hens. A couple of roosters is all that is needed.

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @03:27PM (#55556387) Homepage Journal

      You can do a lot more than most people would imagine with beans and root vegetables, although the addition of new world peppers and tomatoes was a huge post-Columbian boost to cuisine worldwide. What potatoes added was a very calorie and nutrition dense (if you eat the skin) crop that could in intensively farmed. Potatoes have twice the protein by weight as turnips and rutabagas which it largely displaced in late 1700s Europe.

      Most European cuisines have a basic go-to flavor combo used to liven up boring but nutritious calories like beans or the stewed cheap bits of an animal. In France this is mirepoix: diced onion, carrot, and celery. Take your boiled beef, and instead simmer it in stock made from bones with mirepoix. While the water is heating you have plenty time to go out and pick the weeds you need to make a bouqet garni: thyme, bay leaves and sage. Add that to your stew and result isn't boring, tasteless meat mush. It's something you'd pay money to eat if someone else took all the trouble, and all it takes is stuff that grows wild on the edges of your fields.

      In Germany and the low countries you might add dried peas, leeks,celeriac and turnip to your stew -- flavors which might not be so attractive alone but which in concert accomplish something close to flavor alchemy. In Italy you have soffritto: onions and garlic browned and cooked down with herbs, and that's not boring either. In the Eastern Meditteranean you might combine garlic, spices like turmeric and cardamom, herbs like mint, and lemon juice.

      As long as you stick to vegetables, legumes, roots, and spices the flavors of pre-modern times are fairly easy to reproduce in the modern kitchen. What's harder to reproduce are the flavors of the actual meat people would have eaten. Beef would have been grass-fed and relatively lean -- that has a very different flavor although you can still obtain lean grass-fed beef from local farmers in many cities I've also had wild hog, which is very likely what the domestic pig tasted like before it was selectively bread into the massive, lean, relatively tasteless pork we're used to now; all I can say is that it tastes intensely swine-y. Old style chicken is as far as I know impossible to obtain as meat. Chicken as we now know it, with grotequely huge breasts and very little dark meat didn't exist until WW2.

      • by gfxguy ( 98788 )
        Yeah, I suppose it's possible to replicate some dishes, but even the grains we use for bread are different than what was common back then (and worse for you).
        • by hey! ( 33014 )

          I shouldn't think there would be much difference in white flour. Aside from the loss of protein and fiber, the other macronutrient difference between white and whole wheat flour is whole wheat has five times the fat. Fat carries a lot of the flavor subtleties of food.

          The lower fat content contributes to white flour's very long shelf life. Whole wheat flour should only be purchased as needed, because the fats in it flour go rancid.

          • by gfxguy ( 98788 )
            It's not just a matter of white vs. wheat - the wheat itself is different. The vast majority of our wheat comes from from semi-dwarf wheat. Semi-dwarf wheat debatably saved us from mass starvation in the 60s and 70s, because it grows so much denser and is very resistant to insects and disease - crop yields of wheat are many times what they used to be. But dwarf wheat is not as good for you as other wheats... you know those amber waves of grain we sing about? Not anymore.
            • by hey! ( 33014 )

              I'm aware of the dwarf wheat change; I'm just saying that from a sensory standpoint once you've removed most of the flavor components it probably doesn't make any culinary difference.

          • by dryeo ( 100693 )

            What percentage of the population would have regularly eaten white flour in the 1600's? At that, how much flour was ground from wheat, rather then rye etc.

            • by hey! ( 33014 )

              Before 1870 or so 0%. The technology needed to remove the endosperm from the germ and bran on an industrial scale did not exist.

              The bread we eat, even most "wheat" bread, is made up almost entirely of the endosperm. So my point is that the variety of wheat hardly makes any difference compared to the changes in how we prepare it.

              There are some people who believe that semi-dwarf wheat -- whose thicker stalks allow for a much heavier seed head -- is responsible for the rise of gluten intolerance. It's an Int

  • Fecal matter. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pecosdave ( 536896 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @12:55PM (#55555123) Homepage Journal

    There were some sanitation issues back in the day and if you weren't super rich with a manor full of servants to do the butchering and cleaning there were some serious sanitation issues. If you traded in the open market, and many did, you were probably buying something that would give the common person of today all sorts of shits and puking. Fortunately there were also many who did their own hunting and and small villages were on the whole cleaner than the cities for the most part, but I'm not sure I would want meat from that era. Veggies on the other hand - that's back when they were still nutritious and had the vitamins and stuff they were supposed to unlike our nice looking empty filler of today.

    • Re:Fecal matter. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @01:20PM (#55555359) Homepage
      So, so wrong. Humans are omnivores, we can eat just about anything without getting sick. Our immune systems are voracious monsters, capable of beating back just about anything. Even vegetables cut on the same cutting board as raw chicken, just like my grandmother did her whole life. Speaking of vegetables, they are better than they've ever been today, hundreds of years ago they were tiny and almost flavorless. Apples were the size of today's plums. A serious case of silly looking backwards and assuming anything that came before today must have been horribly wrong.
      • by TWX ( 665546 )

        Yet we have numerous examples of masses of people getting violently ill with diseases of the bowel in individual incidents.

        • Sure, and the fact that they're newsworthy proves my point. We used to eat maggoty bread, rotten meat, and drink brackish water all the time. The idea that food must be squeaky clean before eating is simply wrong. In fact, if food is too clean, our awesome immune system doesn't have anything to fight against, so we develop allergies. A toddler in New York City just died because someone gave him half a grilled cheese sandwich.
          • by dryeo ( 100693 )

            Do you have any idea how many toddlers died from eating grilled cheese sandwiches 400 years ago? You're talking about the people that were tough enough to survive to adulthood, which meant about 5 years of eating the stuff you're talking about.

          • 1. Many disease risks have increased. Hundreds of years ago, people rarely travelled 250 miles, let alone intercontinentally. The microbes their village maggots had were already familiar to their immune system. Maggots themselves are quite benign - the French, even city folk, like to eat maggots with butter.

            These days, you are constantly fighting diseases of next county, next city, next state, next country and next continent ; much much more than your ancestors did.

            2. Squeaky clean food is also required bec

      • by msauve ( 701917 )
        "hundreds of years ago they were tiny and almost flavorless. Apples were the size of today's plums."

        Not so in this 1600's engraving [alamy.com] of Isaac Newton. Nor in even older paintings [courtauld.ac.uk]. Even its wild progenitor, Malus sieversii [wikipedia.org] is of similar size to modern apples.
        • "hundreds of years ago they were tiny and almost flavorless. Apples were the size of today's plums." Not so in this 1600's engraving [alamy.com] of Isaac Newton. Nor in even older paintings [courtauld.ac.uk]. Even its wild progenitor, Malus sieversii [wikipedia.org] is of similar size to modern apples.

          American apples typically were smaller and sour. These are the apples that made Johnny Appleseed famous and they were mostly used for making apple cider, not eating. With prohibition, those apple trees got cut down and with supermarkets, the larger apples for eating became more popular.

      • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

        Even vegetables cut on the same cutting board as raw chicken, just like my grandmother did her whole life.

        I do that all the time now and have never gotten sick. If I'm making fajitas or an asian-style dish or something, I'll cut up the meat, rinse off the cutting board and knife with just water, then cut the onions/peppers/etc on the same board with the same time while the meat is cooking.

      • Sure, raw chicken is fine, unless it has salmonella. In which case you are pretty much definitely getting ill.

        It might be the case that our grandparents didn't worry about it, because salmonella was much rarer then with different farming techniques, but that doesn't mean that you can ignore it *now*...

        Also, food poisoning sucks sooooo much I'd rather take some precautions than risk it again...

      • Not if we've been eating more or less safe foods all our lives. If you grow up eating shit on shingle you'll probably be fine, but if you suddenly eat it after eating nothing but food served by a germ-o-phobe hypochondriac all your life you're probably going to have a problem.

      • Speaking of vegetables, they are better than they've ever been today, hundreds of years ago they were tiny and almost flavorless. Apples were the size of today's plums.

        Growing up on the farm we had a large wild apple tree growing next to the house. The fruit was small and tasted bitter, we'd pick the larger ones for Mom to make applesauce, with plenty of sugar added in to sweeten it up. Think of a Granny Smith but twice as bitter, and half the diameter. Many of the apples were about the size of a golf ball, my brothers would tee them up to practice their swing. A good swing meant the apple made a nice splat on the golf club face and the debris spread nicely centered d

    • More often than not I've heard about people get sick or even killed from improperly washed greens.
    • by c ( 8461 )

      Veggies on the other hand - that's back when they were still nutritious and had the vitamins and stuff...

      ... and gardens were fertilised with human shit, and then the veggies were either eaten unwashed or washed in... well, have you read about the sanitation issues they had back then?

  • but strange fare for Slashdot.

  • According to the researcher:

    "This might seem like a relatively unimportant question. "

    Gee, ya think?

  • I really think that article is crap, just like my comment.

  • I arguably can't know what my neighbor's taste like.

    Misread as : "I arguably can't know what my neighbor tastes like" and wondered if people were part of 17th century diet....

  • This same basic argument was pointed out in Doctor Who back in '89 in "Remembrance of the Daleks".
  • Stupid asshole bosses always making you eat lobster all the time.

    • Lobster used to be poor folks' food. When servants in pre-Revolutionary Boston went on strike one of their grievances was how often they were served lobster. They got contracts stating that they would only have to eat lobster twice a week.

  • I still don't care
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @01:58PM (#55555661) Journal
    Among the South Indian brahmins, one of the important rituals they perform every year is the death anniversary ceremony for the departed parents. It is considered very important, and I go to India every year to perform it for my father. It is quite strenuous, jetlagged after 28 to 32 hour flights and lay over, ritual goes on till about 2pm and I can not eat anything since previous sunset, had to be seated in front of the fire for 3 hours, ...

    The food served in that feast excludes all the vegetables and spices introduced recently into the country. So we do not use green chillies (just recently brought by the Portuguese in 1500s ) or onions or potatoes or garlic or tomatoes, french beans, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower .... It is mind boggling to me that we have preserved through family practices, never written down anywhere, the knowledge of which foods were native and which were "recent arrivals" for some 500 years. It is very hard to imagine Indian food without chillies, onion, garlic, tomato, potato. But I do get to eat a huge meal every year that is somewhat similar to what my ancestors ate back in 1500s! It features rice, two kinds of lentils (the toor dhal and the urad dhal), black pepper, ginger, snake gourd, cluster beans, plantains, some roots, curds, solid molasses from sugar cane, mangoes both ripe and unripe, mustard seeds, white pumpkin, red pumpkin, coconut, ...

  • by QuietLagoon ( 813062 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @02:00PM (#55555671)
    Did the taste buds of the 17th century provide the same taste sensations as taste buds do nowadays?
  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @02:03PM (#55555701)

    Unless you were lucky enough to have roasted meat, probably most everything you ate was some kind of stew or porridge. It was an easy way to extend what meat and animal fats you have while supplementing it with grains or vegetables when they were available. If you kept adding water, it stayed edible for a while over the fire, extending how long you could eat it without a lot of preparation.

    And let's not forget that a good soft stew is about the ideal food when your teeth are half rotted out of your head.

    Local herbs were probably the most common flavor enhancer, since they were local. And you probably salted the shit out of it if you could afford the salt in some attempt to make it all palatable.

    • And let's not forget that a good soft stew is about the ideal food when your teeth are half rotted out of your head.

      Why would your teeth be all rotten? Tooth decay and the need for so much dental treatment is the result of all the sugary foods that you people eat today.

      Go back to the 1700s, and sugar was still very expensive. Much of the sweetening in food would have come from natural fruits, whose varieties at that time were less sweet than modern varieties, or from honey, which would still be fairly expensive.

      Cane sugar got going with the colonies in the Americas and West Indies, and the associated slave trade, making

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2017 @02:07PM (#55555723) Journal

    "Is bland food eaten without salt? Is there any taste in the white of an egg?" -Job 6:6

    When you talk about the taste of food, it is really easy to relate to people from 4000 years ago. Biologically they were just like us.

  • ...it's a cookbook!
  • Like now, food was flavored to the taste of the cook, and whoever was paying them. We know actually quite a lot about what people were eating when, both because it has always been a fantastically popular subject to write about and because we've found actually quite a lot of evidence left behind and studied it quite a lot in order to get clues to the pasts of various cultures. In some cases, you can actually just ask people, because some of them are still around. The last really knowledgeable natives of many

  • Europeans of the era traveled to virtually every known corner of the world in search of spices. I think it's only reasonable to think that we can guess how their food tasted. Bland. It tasted bland.

    LK

  • With no refrigeration it tasted between rotten or just spoiled.

  • Most food and fruit bred so intensely for sugar that the flavours are mostly gone.

    Tomato is a horrible sugar bag nowadays, with very little "zest" or bite as it had when I was a kid.

    It's frustrating.

  • In 11-22-63, he said

    This fifty-years-gone world smelled worse than I ever would have expected, but it tasted a whole hell of a lot better

    (that was 1960 compared to 2010, taste wise 350 years was also probably more tasty)

  • It is hard to imagine how food tasted in the 1600s as the stench of death was so think that it amazes me that anyone could eat anything. Dicken's novels mentioned graves that were only one inch lower than the next body heaped upon the plot. Enemies of law or the crown were left handing about as a grim threat of what could easily happen to any citizen at any time, In my youth we used to speak of country air. What we meant was the stink of cattle or hogs oozing from barn yards that one inevitably ran

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