What Did People Eat Back Then?

I participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a worldwide educational organization which focuses on studying the arts and sciences of pre-1600 CE. We study the martial arts (armored combat, fencing, archery, and thrown weapons), clothing, embroidery, brewing, calligraphy, and so many other topics. If you can name something the ancients did, we probably study it.

At one time, I tried my hand at making my own garb, but I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I managed to sew some outfits together, by hand. I don’t know what time period they represent, if any. All I was trying to do was basically fit in. At SCA events, everyone wears garb from the past. I made an attempt, and that’s all that’s required – that you attempt to look the part of the Middle Ages (or earlier).

Me, in one of the dresses I made and embroidered

I tried embroidery. I’m an archer. I’ve done Viking wire weaving. I’ve worked with a lucet (a type of primitive one-handed weaving instrument with a handle and two prongs). And I’ve done calligraphy. But my main focus is on cooking.

A few years ago, my local chapter (shire) of the SCA had some inquiries from a couple of people interested in cooking. I decided to start a medieval cooking group in the shire. Several people joined me, and we cooked several feasts from different time periods and cultures. We lasted about a year, but due to space and time restrictions, the group fizzled out.

An Idea is Born

About 2 weeks ago, someone in the group suggested we put together a little cookbook. This would be for group members to refer to when planning to cook historic meals. I grabbed hold of that idea and just ran with it. By the end of that first day, the little local cookbook idea expanded. It now had plans to be a book on the history of food for several different time periods and cultures and to publish it on Amazon. I also offered to use this book as a fundraiser for my local group.

Photo of a 9th Century copy of The Book of Apicius, written in the 4th Century. The copy is at the Fulda Monastery in Germany.
This is a 9th Century copy of a 4th Century book, The Book of Apicius. It’s the most ancient cookbook ever found, from the Roman Empire The manuscript is in the Fulda Monastery in Germany. Photo owned by the New York Academy of Medicine./Wikimedia Commons

Since I’m a copy and content writer, I figured I would spearhead the project and write most of the entries in the book. This book will cover food traditions with some recipes from the Roman Empire to the Elizabethan Age.

I solicited some help from members of my shire. One person will do research for Germany, ca. 13th-14th centuries. Another member gave me a recipe for Spanish paella. Someone else is in the process of making a soapstone griddle and iron cauldron in order to create and test Norse recipes. I have a bunch of Viking recipes as well.

In essence, this book will have about ten chapters. Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Norse/Viking, Celtic, Imperial Japan, Mayan, German, Spanish Inquisition, North African, Tudor/Elizabethan, and possibly (east) Indian and Slavic. As a group, we’ll get to try out some of these recipes soon.

Working on the Book

I completed the chapter on the Roman Empire, including recipes, in about a week. That’s 22 pages, about 7,000 words. An editor friend of mine looked it over; I made some technical corrections and added pictures. Now it’s great, he said. So many people already can’t wait to read the final product.

I figure if I can keep up the pace of a chapter in about a week, I should have the final edition of the book available on Amazon by the summer of 2019. The working title is “What Did People Eat Back Then? Food Traditions and Recipes from the Roman Empire to the Elizabethan Age.” I’ll probably stick with that title when it gets published on Amazon.

This book will be geared toward people with a general interest in the history of cooking. It’s not meant to be an authoritative book about any one era. Rather, it will give a “taste” of how and what people ate back then. Also, it will not be an official publication of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or any of its Kingdoms (regions), baronies or shires (large or small local groups). Rather, it’s a book written by me with contributions from a group of friends to be used as a fundraiser for our group.

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