Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Medieval Diet - What They Did Not Eat

The medieval diet, unlike the modern American diet, did not have meat as the central event.  Aristocrats ate a lot more meat than did the peasants, but for everybody bread was the single most important item in the diet.

Today I will point out a few things that they did not eat, mostly because these foods were not found in Europe in the Middle Ages.  In a future post I will discuss what they ate instead.

There was no corn in medieval Europe.  We tend to think of corn as corn on the cob, or a major ingredient in corn tortillas and corn bread.  But in fact corn is a significant part of the American diet.  Look on almost any box or can, and you'll see corn starch or corn syrup.  And of course we use a lot of corn to fatten up cattle before slaughter.

There were also no tomatoes.  Like corn, tomatoes are a New World plant.  In fact, they were originally introduced into Europe as an ornamental plant that grew attractive red fruits believed to be poisonous.  It was a century or two before someone was brave enough (hungry enough?) to eat a tomato, find it tasty, and not die.

Hard as it may be to imagine, medieval Italy had pasta and pizza without tomato sauce.  You also couldn't put ketchup on your French fries.

Part of the reason of course is that there were no French fries!  Potatoes, like tomatoes, are a New World plant.  We tend to think of potatoes as having something to do with Ireland, because of the potato famine in the nineteenth century, but that is because the Irish had been replacing wheat fields with potato fields, because potatoes grow much better in Ireland's cool, damp climate than does wheat--at least until it gets the blight.

The potato, like the tomato, has prospered in modern Europe as in the US, because it also grows well in lots of places besides Ireland.  (See more here on potatoes and tomatoes.)  Russia grows a lot of potatoes--and indeed uses them to make vodka.

Medieval Europeans however did not have hard liquor.  This is not because they were Mormons!  Rather, distilling was not invented until the very end of the Middle Ages.  The major alcoholic drinks were beer and wine.  Without modern bottling (also a later invention), neither will keep very well, and last year's wine had pretty much turned to vinegar by the time of the grape harvest in the fall.

Tea and coffee were also unknown in medieval Europe, even though these are not New World products.  Both reached Europe for the first time in the early modern period, tea coming from China and India, coffee from the Arabs.  Without coffee and tea, no orange juice, and no corn flakes, medieval people might start the day with a hearty mug of beer.

Finally, there was no chocolate.  Yes, I know, it's hard to imagine.  Chocolate comes from South America.  I have seen it suggested that the reason the ancient Greeks invented tragedy is because they did not have chocolate….

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