Turns Out Almond Milk Is Medieval – And I Made Some With A 14th-Century Recipe

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So, there I was in the middle of researching 16th-century Bolognese tortas, going about my business, reading food histories, trying to understand the regional gastronomic and cultural character of Italy before unification, traipsing down a route that led me to the origins of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, when a throwaway statement in something I was reading blew me completely off course.

Here it is.

Are you ready?

Almond milk is a medieval innovation.

(At least in Europe.)

That’s right. The dairy alternative that’s raised the passion and ire (and apathy, because let’s not overstate things) of a foodie generation isn’t the peace, love, and turmeric-infused product Angelenos like myself might believe it to be. Medieval nobility were lapping up milked almonds long before it became a favorite beverage of sun-soaked, quinoa-bedded gastronomy.

But let me slow down for a second just in case I’ve inadvertently gotten so far into the weeds that you can no longer see me. Here’s what I mean: I think animal substitutes often get written off as inauthentic, touchy-feely modern inventions. At best, they are regarded as trendy alternatives to something you might be allergic to; at worst, as in the piece I linked above, they’re written off as a vacuous hipster drink that is also destroying the environment. Somewhere in the middle of those poles, it’s just the stuff suburban kids pour on their cereal when they have a mom who shops at Whole Foods.

Does this information blow your mind? It did mine. In two ways: first, it seems to me that animal “substitutes” get attributed to modern palates and New-Age ontologies of food, so it’s very cool that this particular plant-based “dairy” product has deeper roots than those articulated in the popular imagination. Centuries-old almond milk unsettles what we believe about the timeline of food and food preferences. It works against our received understandings of cuisine in the Middle Ages, which pop culture conjures as rotten, greasy meat hidden behind a veil of spices and sad-looking soups with a single, gray bone floating in them. That just wasn’t the case.

However, the other mind-blowing thing about medieval almond milk is that it had similar class inflections to those associated with its 21st century analogue. Then, just like now, almonds were expensive, so almond milk was a delicacy reserved for the affluent, the noble. Part of the reason scholars know that almond milk was the province of the upper classes is the fact that it shows up in recipe collections from the period, which is a fact that’s packed full of meaning. To be able to use a recipe collection – to literally be able to read and understand it – one had to be literate. To be literate, one had to have some sort of education. To acquire an education, one had to have time and resources. To have time and resources, one basically had to be an aristocrat. So, recipe collections were circulating through the kitchens of the upper classes on the continent. Oh, and – just to reiterate – almonds were really expensive.

However, almond milk did jump its class sometimes in a surprising way. It was believed to have health benefits and was prescribed for the sick, so even those who were not able to consume it on a regular basis might have had it prescribed in a special situation. Which – okay maybe I lied, and it was actually three things that blew my mind – is a lot like the way almond milk is viewed in some circles now: as an all-natural health aide, especially when it’s mixed with some other earthy substance believed to have restorative properties, like turmeric.

And it’s actually in the context of medicine that almond milk is first recorded in Europe – in a 12th-century medical text from Salerno, Italy. Of course, almond milk was not endemic to the Continent; the 13th-century Arabic cookbook known as Al-baghdadi, the name of its author, documents the use of almond milk in Arabic cuisine. And, Arabic cookery manuscripts from as early as the 9th century refer to “milking almonds.” However, it appears that “almond milk” is a European neologism and that it may have occupied a more central culinary role there, where it really hit its stride during the High Middle Ages (1,000-1,300 CE) as the preferred Lenten animal milk substitute of the upper classes. At the time, Lenten fasting rules were something more akin to a vegan diet than the “no meat” interpretation practiced by many contemporary Catholics. Animal fats, eggs, and dairy were all abstained from throughout all 40 days of the Lenten season, not just on Fridays as is

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Aquinas thinking about fish. Source: Wikimedia Commons

common today. Though, I should point out, fish was permissible just as it is today because, as St. Thomas Aquinas pithily noted in his Summa Theologica from ~1270: “generally speaking, eating flesh meat affords more pleasure than eating fish,” and the purpose of the fast was to deny the kind of pleasure that meat, eggs, and dairy could bring but low-fat content fish could not. In addition to the 40 days of Lent, there were lots of other fasting seasons and days peppered throughout the liturgical calendar. So, put simply, there was a lot of fasting, and thus a need for a palatable and functional milk substitute: enter milk derived from almonds.Having made it, I can say with some degree of confidence that medieval almond milk is quite different from the stuff we buy in cartons at grocery stores. It’s salty, sweet, and rich, more like a cream or a thickening agent than something to drink by the carton-full or pour on cereal.

Here’s a 14th-century recipe for almond milk (with amounts derived from modern kitchen testing) from one of the best-known recipe collections of the Middle Ages, Le Viandier by Taillevent:

90 g (3/4 cup) ground (or whole) almonds, 400 ml (13.5 fl. oz) water, 2-3 tbsp sugar, 1/3 tsp salt

If you have whole almonds, grind them into as fine a meal as possible. For the real medieval experience, you can use a mortar and pestle; however, a food processor is a viable and expedient substitute.

Bring the water to a boil; add the almond meal, the salt, and the sugar, and lower the heat to a bubbling simmer for 15 minutes, stirring and scraping the sides of the pot occasionally. While it’s cooking, prepare a bowl or jar with a cheesecloth for straining. After the meal is finished cooking, strain it through the cheesecloth, removing all the almond particles for a nice, smooth liquid.

Voila! Medieval almond milk as recorded by Taillevent. It’s rich and delicious. It also produces an extremely small amount of liquid, and the salt, sugar, and almond/water ratio give it more of a savory – dare I say umami – flavor than the slightly sweet drinkable stuff most of us are used to.

I also slightly modified this recipe, just to see what would happen if I added more water and less sugar because: 1) wow, that uses a lot of almonds, and almonds are expensive; and 2) I’m not big on lots of sugar in the things I drink. What did I learn by doubling the water and halving the sugar? That it tasted almost exactly the same, still delicious, rich, and creamy – and still just a little too much for casual drinking. So, after playing with the ratios of 14th-century almond milk as a drinkable substance, I decided to use it as a dairy-replacement, thickening agent.

00100dPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20180307181306277_COVEROf course, that meant I needed something to thicken. For that, I made a simple carrot soup with a medieval almond milk base. As a result, it was a “vegan” dish steeped in food history. And it was delicious. To me, there’s something really exciting about finding historical food routes that allow us to travel back in culinary time while feeling connected to the commitments, concerns, food availability, and flavor palates of the present moment. I think there’s something deeply vital about medieval almond milk. It’s a sort of connective tissue that – even if you have “modern” dietary restrictions, ethics, or preferences – enables you to feel rooted in a tradition much deeper than the food trends of the moment. If you go looking for it, you can find alternatives in the historical record to the sort of “rustic,” meat-centric dishes that get touted as the supreme examples of historical authenticity. I’m not saying that almond milk is somehow more historically “real” than dairy milk, but I am saying that it is just as real.

Here’s how I made the carrot soup, by the way:

 2 large shallots, diced; 2 lbs (5 cups) carrots, diced; 1 stalk celery, diced; 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil; 2 cups vegetable stock; 1 tbsp dried thyme; 14th-century almond milk, prepared beforehand and chilled; salt and pepper, to taste

Beforehand, dice the carrots, the shallots, and the celery. Once that’s done, sauté the shallots and the celery in the olive oil, just until they’re soft and fragrant; add the thyme and gently stir. Add the carrots, the vegetable stock, and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 25 minutes. When that’s done, use an emulsion blender to make the mixture smooth; stir in almond milk; salt and pepper to taste.

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It should come out smooth, rich, creamy, carroty, and full of thyme. Perfect for eating with some nice, crusty bread on a cold winter night. Extended reveries about the many generations who’ve enjoyed a similar dish are encouraged.

If you’re interested in further reading:

Klemettilä, Hannele. The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History With Recipes. London:      Reaktion Books, 2012.

I Found A Torta, But (SPOILER) It’s Not In 15th-Century Florence. Oh, And I Did Some Feminist Food Analysis.

“The Florentines are of sparse diet, but wonderful clenliness [sic]” – Frynes Moryson, an English Grand Tourist of the 17th century

800px-Annibale_Carracci_The_BeaneaterAnnibale Carracci, The Beaneater, ca. 1583-1585

This is a post about torta. If you were very interested in the veracity of the “traditional Carrarino cake, focaccia, made of sifted wheat flour, eggs, pine nuts and raisins” or “the heavy-crusted bread, the soft insides scooped out and refilled with fish in tomato sauce” from the original post, I’m just so sorry (Stone 587, 586). Maybe another day, another post, or another life will bear out that research. Because here’s the thing: over the course of investigating the historical roots of the meals Irving Stone chooses to include in The Agony and The Ecstasy, I encountered a conflict of tortas. It seems they didn’t exist in 15th-century Florence, at least not in any form close to the one Stone depicts.

While tortas do have a rich and well-recorded history, it doesn’t take place in the birthplace of Michelangelo. So, perhaps this error isn’t so much a conflict, as it is an inaccuracy in Stone’s rendering of (maybe my favorite?) moment in the novel. Here’s a reminder of said moment to warm us up:

“[Michelangelo’s] stepmother [Lucrezia degli Ubaldini da Gagliano] was making her beloved torta: the chickens had been fried in oil earlier in the morning, ground into sausage with onions, parsley, eggs and saffron. Ham and pork had been made into ravioli with cheese, flour, clove, ginger, and laid with the chicken sausage between layers of pastry, dates and almonds. The whole dish had been shaped into a pie and was being covered with dough, preparatory to being placed in the hot embers to bake” (Stone 13).

Irving, Irving, Irving, what have you done? I’ll tell you what he’s done, reader; he’s cited some of the most well-known Silk Road spices that were making their way into kitchens all over Italy in the period, and he’s taken the arguably most famous Bolognese dish of the Renaissance and placed it in a 15th-century Florentine kitchen, and, well, that’s something, isn’t it? Stone did craft the text with painstaking research methods (remember, he lived as Michelangelo for years just to better understand the artists lived experience). And, to forge this torta it seems he plucked a dish from an adjacent state and snuck it into Lucrezia’s morning kitchen rituals, which operate against the craftsmanship of the rest of the novel.

“But, wait.” you say, “How can you be certain that Lucrezia didn’t make this torta? How do you know Stone got the wrong torta here?” Well, a 15th-century Italian humanist and gastronomist told me. Bartolomeo Sacchi, AKA “Platina” or “Bartolomeo Platina,” gave us the first printed cookbook, and he identified some Italian regional dishes in the process. This cookbook, De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On honest indulgence and good health), was originally printed around 1465, and it was translated and disseminated throughout various parts of Europe over the next century. Significantly for the Cucina, Platina – in this very first cookbook – gives a recipe for torta d’herbe, the prized dish of Bologna. He also gives us recipes for Roman dishes like “veal ‘grilled with coriander or fennel,'” “noodles ‘with cheese, butter, sugar, and spices’ and ‘cabbage, wrapped with well-pounded lard'”; Sicilian macaroni; and eggs Florentine (Varriano 45).

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A page from a 1494 Venetian reprint of De honesta voluptate et valetudine
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Here’s Pope Sixtus IV appointing Platina a Prefect of the Vatican Library in a 1477 fresco by Melozzo da Forlì.

While all of those things sound delicious and would be ~ quite the experience ~ to construct from a 15th-century recipe, it’s significant that Platina locates the torta in Bologna because that makes Lucrezia’s creation of one a dubious prospect. And it’s not just the torta either; Bologna was known for one other thing: its renowned sausages. Writing in 1584, gastronomist Giovanni Battista Rosetti noted in Dello scalco: “the large sausages in Bologna… were ‘the best [he’d] ever eaten'” (Varriano 47). That’s right: when we look back at the gastronomical writing coming out of medieval and Renaissance Italy, there is an almost surprising consistency of #braggingonbologna for its torta and homemade sausage. Art and food historian John Varriano in his studied exploration of the connection between art and food in the Renaissance, Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy, sums Bolognese cuisine of the period up this way:

Then, more than now, olives were cultivated around Bologna, and especially revered throughout Italy, but the  most frequently cited prepared foods in Renaissance books of cookery are herb pie (torta d’herbe) and large sausages (salciccioni). Surprisingly, tagliatelle and tortellini––the pasta dishes now most associated with Bolognese cuisine––made only rare appearances on early Italian menus, although both were popular locally (60).

Lucrezia prepares homemade sausage and ravioli in her entrance into the novel and folds them into one beautiful – and, I realize now, overwrought – torta. I mean, she allegedly put ham and pork ravioli and chicken sausage into a single torta, which, mind you, history suggests was most commonly a vegetable dish (invented in Bologna!). Odds are, this would never have happened.

Moreover, when we look back at the historical record, we don’t only have to rely on gastronomical writers, at least in the case of Bologna. A tradition of “gastronomic realism” in painting arose there in the Renaissance, too. If you look closely at the foreground of the painting at the beginning of the post, you can see a Bolognese torta d’herbe in renowned Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci’s The Beaneater (ca. 1583-1585), which serves as both an example of this aesthetic and further evidence to underscore the provenance of the dish.

So, why this seemingly glaring error in an otherwise fastidiously researched and constructed biography?

Indulge me for a second. In the quote I included as an epigraph at the beginning of this post, a 17th-century traveler remarks on the clean sparsity of the Florentine diet. And writings from Michelangelo’s lifetime attest to the same. Eggs florentine and bistecca alla fiorentina (the Etruscan hand-me-down method of preparing porterhouse steaks for which the region has become famous) were the most remarkable dishes coming out of the region for gastronomists. But, here’s the thing about simple, not entirely colorful or exciting cuisine: it’s not the most helpful in constructing a character’s loving, maternal persona. The first moment we, as the reader, meet Lucrezia, Stone intends us to understand her love and care for the family (despite her status as a stepmother) through the effort and care she takes in selecting and preparing dishes for Lodovico Buonarroti and his boys. The sensorium of the overwrought torta – the colors, richness, and flavors that it conjures in its existence as words on a page – demonstrate, in the time it takes to read a list of ingredients, that Lucrezia is in this thing. She just made homemade sausage and ravioli from scratch, and she’s putting those inside a torta seasoned with some of the finest, most expensive spices available in Italy at the time. Just the saffron, the most precious spice that traveled the Silk Road to Venice, would have made a dent in Lodovico’s oft-mentioned, oft-mourned coffers.

In other words, throwing research to the wind and inventing a beautiful, ahistorical dish in Lucrezia’s kitchen makes her love legible. She’s a flat female character (as are all the female characters Michelangelo encounters in the novel), and food – a traditionally feminine discipline that takes place in a female coded space: the kitchen – often operates as an expression of women’s work, labor, and love. To Stone’s credit, there’s very, very little in the historical record about Lucrezia degli Ubaldini da Gagliano’s life other than the fact that she married Lodovico Buonarroti with a dowry of 600 florins (a sum that exceeded what his first wife brought to the union), and he, out of necessity had to construct a character out of absence. Regardless, it stands to reason that the possibility of building a loving woman through food may account for the regional mashup of the torta.

Or, maybe Irving Stone had his very own reasons for creating the dish this way. To be honest, I care less about those reasons than I do about making Platina’s torta d’herbe recipe, which is what’s going to happen in the next post. In his “definitive recipe,” Platina “calls for mixing ground cheese with chard, parsley, marjoram, and eggs, seasoned with pepper and saffron, and cooking the pie in fat or butter until the upper crust is raised” (Varriano 63). Even though Platina says this recipe “causes blockages, generates stones, and is bad for the eyes and nerves,” I’m cooking his 15th century dish in my 21st-century apartment kitchen next.

Works Cited:

Varriano, John. Tastes and Temptations: Food And Art In Renaissance Italy. University of California Press, 2009.

I Just Read The Agony and The Ecstasy, And Now I Want A Torta Time Machine To 15th-Century Florence

Technically speaking, Irving Stone’s The Agony and The Ecstasy from 1961 is a “biography” of Michelangelo Buonarroti; it recreates the artist’s life in painstakingly fine-grained, 800-page detail, taking the reader from a 13-year-old Michelangelo’s fraught entrance as an apprentice into the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio (fraught because, as the reader will see many times throughout the tome, Lodovico Buonarroti, Michelangelo’s father, isn’t happy with artistic pursuits that don’t fatten the family coffers) through his coming of age under the patronage of Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” Medici and the tempestuous whims of what feels like 100 different popes to Michelangelo’s eventual decline. The final pages allow Michelangelo to make a meandering mental journey through his most significant works, reminding the reader of all they have seen created over the course of the book.

To compose The Agony and the Ecstasy, Stone went as method as is probably possible for a writer – he moved to Italy, became a stone quarrier, apprenticed himself to a sculptor, and had all of Michelangelo’s correspondence translated from Italian into English, some of which you can read here. It’s in Stone’s deep research and commitment to historical veracity that the novel’s relationship to the Literary Cucina can be found. If Stone literally moved to Italy, became a marble artist, and spent years in the archives of Michelangelo’s writing all to create an accurate biography, doesn’t it stand to reason that his food scenes (Michelangelo’s gotta eat after all) reflect banquet tables and foodways in both the highest echelons and lowest marble quarries of turn-of-the-16th-century Italian society? (P.S. It wasn’t really “Italy” then; it was a bunch of sovereign states that were constantly at war with one another. But, for our purposes, I’m just gonna go with “Italy” as a shorthand.)

Certainly, a food tour of Tuscany and Rome (with a dash of Bologna) isn’t the purpose of the biography, but, in his telling of Michelangelo’s longstanding and incredibly manic relationship with the house of Medici and in Michelangelo’s deep love for his Florentine birthplace, food can’t help but come to a quiet fore of Stone’s story (if you’re a reader interested in food, that is). Whether it’s the “heavy-crusted bread, the soft insides scooped out and refilled with fish in tomato sauce” (Stone 587) that Michelangelo takes on a trek to survey the gleaming white marble in the mountaintops above Pietrasanta or the “traditional Carrarino cake, focaccia, made of sifted wheat flour, eggs, pine nuts and raisins” (587, 586), Michelangelo’s world, as rendered by Stone and his careful research, is at once a visual and a gustatory one. As the reader, you can see the David as Michelangelo brings it into existence, and you can taste the sole as he eats it with the nobility.

One of the many things that interests me are the class distinctions that can be discerned in and through the food that Michelangelo eats. As an artist of relatively good social standing (Buonarroti is a good name, after all, regardless of their contemporary circumstance), Michelangelo has the unique ability to move in and through social strata, giving the reader a slice of many different kinds of life as he does so. In other words, because of his status as an artist of mostly respectable blood, Michelangelo is in a particularly ripe position in the text (and in his life) to move between and among different social classes, permeating the world of the aristocracy at the same time he moves in and out of meals with humble farmers and apprentices. In her cookbook The de’Medici Kitchen, Lorenza de’Medici explains that “traditionally a primo piatto [first course] comprised the whole meal for all but Italy’s well-to-do classes,” and primo piatto “are the pastas, available in scores of shapes and sizes – in narrow ribbons, thick rods, fine nests, as filled rounds or squares” (de’Medici 11). Through Michelangelo, we get a window through which to view the variety of course-levels on the Italian table.

Early on in the 800 pages, we’re introduced to Michelangelo’s stepmother Lucrezia, the woman his father Lodovico married after the death of his first wife and the mother of his four sons. As she flits in and out of the narrative, Stone – primarily vocalizing through the thoughts of Michelangelo – characterizes her as someone whose love and familial devotion she expresses through the food that she makes. She’s up before dawn, combing the local marketplace for the best of everything, and her work for the day is done after the lunchtime repast. Perhaps her most stunning (or at least mouth-wateringly described, hunger-inducing) masterpiece is the chicken sausage torta she whips up in the opening pages of the text. Let’s pause and take this in together. Michelangelo has just entered his father’s house, and he notices:

“His stepmother was making her beloved torta: the chickens had been fried in oil earlier in the morning, ground into sausage with onions, parsley, eggs and saffron. Ham and pork had been made into ravioli with cheese, flour, clove, ginger, and laid with the chicken sausage between layers of pastry, dates and almonds. The whole dish had been shaped into a pie and was being covered with dough, preparatory to being placed in the hot embers to bake” (Stone 13).

Before I go careening into all the things this description makes me feel (like how clove in places you don’t expect it just does something to me), though, let’s talk about the other primary places that ol’ Miche does his eating in the book:

1) While out looking for marble, painting frescoes, or carving, and this is usually just a piece of bread that he dips in something. Don’t get me wrong bread dipped into something is a real passion for me, but it’s not the most exciting thing to read about culinarily.

Exhibits A and B

2) The years that he possesses a servant or apprentice. Michelangelo’s monetary woes make it so that he doesn’t always have a guy around to learn from him and cook for him (since these two things seem to go hand in hand), but sometimes he does. In these passages, rustic soups predominate, sometimes described favorably, sometimes not so much; the food prepared by servants most often mirrors Michelangelo’s mood. In short, good mood = good food description (and vice versa). For example:

“That night, alone in their empty, echoing carriage house, Michelangelo and (his servant/apprentice) Argiento were unable to eat the stufator Argiento had thrown together” (488).

3) Okay, here’s where things get pretty exciting – at the Medici palace (and among the Catholic and Italian elite more generally). More than once, Stone takes us from the (seemingly interminable) politely barbed conversations of the massive dinner parties and down to the feast table. Here are a couple moments to savor:

“The musicians began to play Corinto, the music of which had been set to one of Lorenzo’s poems. Two servingmen who stood at the lifts began hauling up the food. As the waiters passed among the diners with heavy silver trays of fresh-water fish, Michelangelo was staggered to see a youngish man in a multicolored shirt pick up a small fish, put it to his ear, then to his mouth as though talking to it, and after a moment burst into tears… The fish dish was removed and he was served fritto misto... [then the] servants at the lift took off young suckling pigs roasted on a spit, with rosemary in their mouths” (111-112).

…and

“‘What refreshment does one serve the Holy Father and his train? I have never seen a Pope before, except in procession’ [said Michelangelo’s apprentice Urbino]. ‘I wish that was the only place I had ever seen one,’ grumbled Michelangelo. ‘Buy passito and biscotti, raisin wine and cookies. Use our best Florentine tablecloth'” (676).

So, where does all of this bring the Cucina? Honestly, it brings us to a torta filled with chicken sausage and delightfully unexpected, autumnal spices. And then it might bring us to homemade biscotti and raisin wine. First, down the foodways and spice routes that the ingredients might’ve traveled and then into my 21st-century apartment kitchen. From there, who knows.

I’m an expert reader and an inexpert cook – welcome to my blog.

Bread

Hello!

Welcome to the Literary Cucina blog, a place where I attempt to create ~ in real life ~ the most delicious meals described in literature. Above, you will see some bread and an Italian coffeemaker positioned in what I believe is a pretty appealing arrangement; I hope they add gravitas to this otherwise amateur affair and inspire you to keep reading.

What’s the Literary Cucina?

The idea for the Literary Cucina is a pretty simple one, born from the moments I’ve spent salivating while turning the pages of some of my favorite historical novels. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been transported somewhere – maybe it’s Hemingway’s Spain; maybe it’s Michelangelo’s Florence – and, while you’re totally invested in what’s happening in the characters’ development, you’re suddenly super into what the characters are eating. I mean, isn’t that some of the beauty of realism? Real people have to eat, right? And for a novel to give the impression of real lived lives, then some of that eating should make its way into the text. If an author has done their historical due diligence then what those characters are grubbing on should be reflective of the time and place the work is set. That series of assumptions is the starting point for the Literary Cucina. If you read Anna Karenina and didn’t immediately start putting jellies in your tea, did you even really read the novel?

This blog aims to bring to life – through deep historical research and amateur cooking skills – some of the most arresting and transporting meals in the literary works that I consume. I’m an erstwhile Lit. PhD, meaning I (#humblebrag) consider myself a pretty skilled reader and researcher. When it comes to the kitchen, I have taken two cooking classes total in my nearly 30 years on this planet, so I am not what you might call a seasoned chef. I am, however, a pretty seasoned eater.

So, the basic premise is this. I read things. I encounter food in the things I read. I dig around in some archives and try to figure out the historical accuracy of said things, asking are they really what people in that time and that place would have been noshing on? If so, HUZZAH! It’s time to create. Each post will be scratch cooked for your reading pleasure.