Just as you wouldn’t expect to see a scullery maid in Regency England wearing a mini skirt, you wouldn’t expect to see her eating a popsicle or a slice of pizza, either. Over time, fashions and tastes have changed in food, just as they have in clothing. We can’t necessarily predict what people will be eating in the future, but we can look back and see what foods and flavors were popular in the past. Some might seem odd by modern standards, and some, in my opinion, verge on truly repulsive. But they’re all interesting.
To begin with, I want to clarify that when looking for “odd” foods that used to be common, I looked primarily at English and American cuisine from the late middle ages through the early nineteenth century. In other words, these were foods that might have been eaten by that scullery maid and her ancestors – or more likely, her wealthy employers and their ancestors. In addition, I was looking for food that was ordinary and desirable, not cases where starving settlers resorted to eating their boiled moccasins.
Now that the disclosures are out of the way, I’d like to look first at ingredients and flavors that used to be popular but can’t be found in most kitchens these days. At least not as food. Although we might see violet leaves might in a vase or rose water in perfume, today we generally don’t eat flower parts the way people did to in the past. But cooks in Elizabethan times frequently used violet leaves as seasoning; later violet leaves appear more often pickled with salad vegetables. Cowslips, borage, marigolds and carnations (called “gillyflowers”), along with buds from a variety of other flowers, were also pickled for winter salads. And of course two of the most popular flavorings for sweet dishes, rose water and orange flower water, are also flower products. These two flavorings were as common in old dessert recipes (spelled “receipts”) as vanilla is today.
In addition to flower flavorings, there were greens that have fallen out of fashion like sorrel, purslane and tansy that can’t really be compared to any flavors most of us are used to. One flavoring that was common in the seventeenth century has disappeared so thoroughly that experts aren’t entirely sure what it was. Verjuice has been described as a sour cider made of crab apples, but records also indicate that it may have been the juice of unripe grapes. Either way, it would have been pretty sour. At the opposite extreme was “bastard wine,” a wine sweetened with honey or sugar which was sometimes used to refresh pickled food that was past its prime.
The flavoring that I found most unpalatable to my modern tastebuds was ambergris, the morbid (dying) secretion of a sperm whale. Although it appears in recipes well into the 18th century, experts contend that no one was still actually using it much past the middle ages. Perhaps others found the concept as unpalatable as I did. It also became extremely expensive. In any case, to find out whether cooks were really using it, we’d have to travel back in time to do some taste testing. Frankly, if I had a time machine, I’d be searching for other things.
In addition to flavors that have fallen out of fashion, there are animals or animal parts that we just don’t eat much anymore. These days, lamprey and carp are more likely to appear in an aquarium than a refrigerator, but both were very popular in English recipes, especially through the middle ages and Tudor era. And one popular meat you don’t hear much about anymore is humbles. In our modern language, we think of “humble pie” as something denoting humiliation, but humbles the food actually comes from the Old French word noumbles, which is a dish that appears in The Forme of Cury, the book compiled by the master chefs of Richard II.
So what is this royal dish? The heart, liver kidneys and other internal organs of a deer. Venison was reserved for nobility or even royalty in England, since the only people who could legally obtain it were those with a lot of land that could support deer populations. As deer became increasingly scarce in the 17th Century, recipes appear that were designed to make beef taste like deer. Nevertheless, by today’s standards, the internal organs of deer or any animals are considered little better than dog food. Today, humbles would really be humble.
Calves also don’t get the attention that they used to. We still eat veal today, but not too many people make calves feet and heads into pies, soup, or jelly anymore. Of course, back when I was in high school, I do remember once finding a jar of pickled pigs’ feet in the refrigerator, so I guess the taste for animal feet hasn’t entirely disappeared from our culture. Similarly, beef tongue and ox tail still have a few fans, although sheep and pig tongues aren’t around much.
We also don’t eat the variety of birds that chefs used to prepare in centuries past. Old recipes abound for pigeon, squab, doves, partridge and a variety of wildfowl. There is even a legendary 16th Century Italian recipe that calls for baking stunned songbirds in a light piecrust so that when the pie was cut, the birds would fly out to delight the dinner guests. That would be the “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” from the “Sing a Song of Sixpence” nursery rhyme. If this worked, it would drive the cats crazy.
Of course, in looking through the old “receipt” books, what really strikes me is not so much the individual ingredients themselves but the way they are combined. For example, ketchup as a condiment appears in the English language as far back as 1690, but it was originally made with mushrooms, pickled oysters or walnuts. The tomato version didn’t appear in written recipes until the 1820s.
One of the most difficult concepts for me to find appealing is the use of sugar and sweet spices with foods that I usually associate with salt. I recently made an onion pie from an 18th Century recipe that called for sliced onion, boiled eggs, apples and potatoes. And this combination turned out to be pretty good. But the primary seasonings were nutmeg and mace, which gave everything the faint aroma of Christmas cookies. So while I enjoyed eating a piece or two of this onion pie, the leftovers sat in the frig untouched until I decided I needed the space for a pitcher of sangria or something. I think I just didn’t want nutmeg on my potatoes.
This recipe could have been even stranger if it had had as much sugar and fruit as many old recipes. Would you like a dish of calves foot, rosewater and currants? How about leg of mutton with half a pound of sugar, cloves, egg yolks, and nutmeg? Or carp roasted in its own blood with nutmeg and ginger? Or gooseblood with oatmeal, sugar, currants and cloves? Liver pudding with currants?
And then of course there’s mincemeat. One very old form of this dish included minced veal or neat’s tongue, suet, raisins, apples, rosewater and candied orange peel.
Just as main dishes frequently included sweet ingredients, the old recipes for desserts often included some rather un-dessert-like ingredients. While I like bread pudding, I don’t think I’d care for the version with bone marrow and artichoke bottoms (which are listed as interchangeable with apple slices). How about a tart made of lettuce and prunes? Or parsnips, rosewater and wine? Chard and spinach also found their way into piecrust, although most likely not as dessert.
This has been a fascinating study and I can see myself adding to my list of “gross-out” dishes for years to come. So in keeping with my spirit of ridiculing the tastes of the past, I thought I’d close with the most unusual, unappealing combination I’ve found so far. This would be for a “white leach of cream,” which is sort of like a 17th Century Jello®. It consisted of a pint of cream flavored with rosewater, mace and musk. These ingredients were boiled with isinglass (a type of gelatine made from a sturgeon’s bladder) to make a stiff pasty loaf that could be sliced when cold.
They say there’s always room for Jello®, but I think in this case, I’d say I was full.
For more information about old recipes, ingredients and cooking techniques, I highly recommend Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, an old collection of English family recipes transcribed and thoroughly annotated by Karen Hess (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).
Other valuable sources on the subject include:
Bullock, Helen. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 1938.
Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal Housewife. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999.
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1997 (first published in England, 1747).
Huesken, Sue and Mercy Ingraham. Colonial Burlington Cookery: A Book of Receipts April 1770, Polly Burling. Riverside, NJ: Good Impressions, Inc., 2008.
The Pennsylvania Housewife: English Household Receipts in the Middle Colonies. Philadelphia: Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts, 2003.
Rombauer, Irma S. and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1931.
Simmons, Amelia. The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of “American Cookery,” 1796. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1958.