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New kid on the (writer’s) block: A history of writer’s block through food

Here’s a funny joke: writer’s block when you’re not a writer.

I know I write but as I don’t do it for a living I really thought I’d get only the fun and none of the pain with this hobby.

For a week or so I’ve been wracking my brains: could I write about the history of spoons? Seasonal vegetables? Dare I attempt another goat recipe? Nothing captured my attention and the more I tried to sit down and get something – anything – down, the more I found myself sinking miserably into season 6 of Schitt’s Creek instead.

So in true writer’s cliche style I’m attempting to break my writer’s block by writing about writer’s block and its relationship to food. Feel free to switch off now because I’m pretty sure this will be painful to write and even more painful to read.

Have you tried going for a long walk?

Yep. It didn’t work.

In fact I walked all the way back to ancient Greece, figuring that the culture which developed Western philosophies and art could surely shed some light on my congested creativity.

Ancient philosophers weren’t only writing to be read, they were writing to be heard, too. Plato wasn’t standing on his soapbox spontaneously spouting out his beliefs about mankind and nature; rhetoricians constructed their arguments beforehand so as to be most convincing and engaging before they gave their speeches.

Jonathan wished Dave wouldn’t get so lairy at these things.

This made for a polished speech, but it meant that ancient writers didn’t grapple with the notion of writer’s block in the way we do today. Firstly, as Irene Clark points out, speakers would be addressing current events or topics with a view to ‘solving’ issues and were therefore imbued with a sense of purpose beyond really wanting people to know about the history of spoons.

Secondly, and in terms of creative writing rather than speechwriting, how people viewed ideas and inspiration was different to how we do today. For many, inspiration was a gift from the muses – you were either worthy enough of this gift or you weren’t. Great creative writing was therefore divinely ordained and nothing to do with a mortal’s ability to imagine new ideas and convert those ideas into writing.

If we were back in Ancient Greece my malaise – or its symptoms – would probably be classed as ‘melancholy’ – a humoral diagnosis that school textbooks will tell you meant depression but also covered more general lethargy, wistfulness and restlessness too. This term was coined by the 5th century BC physician Hippocrates who noted that bouts of melancholia were more likely in springtime, along with “epileptic disorders, bloody flux, quinsy, coryza, hoarseness, cough[s] [and] leprosy…” …Yay.

Though Hippocrates had no cure for writer’s block per se, he did recommend a cure for “anxiety, yawning [and] rigor” which was to drink a glass of wine mixed with an equal amount of water. However, I decided that my case was so great that I could probably forgo the water.

Winebottle in hand, I sat down to see if there was any other ancient wisdom that could help me.

Seneca, the 1st century CE philosopher wrote about feelings of ennui which were perhaps closer to my emotions than melancholy.

Who Is Seneca? Timeless Wisdom from the World's Most Controversial Stoic
It took a team of four strong men to bathe Seneca.

“Here comes…a thousand waverings of the unsteadfast mind, which is held in suspense by unfulfilled hopes, and saddened by disappointed ones: hence comes the state of mind of those who loathe their idleness [and] complain that they have nothing to do.”

While I’m not sure I could describe an unwritten blog post on the history of spoons as an “unfulfilled hope held in suspense”, the sentiment was there – my mind was idle. So what was Seneca’s remedy?

“Occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs and the duties of a citizen… to benefit individual men and mankind alike, both with intellect, voice and advice.”

I’d never thought of my blog benefitting the whole of mankind before, but I had to admit my chest puffed up a bit when I read Seneca’s words. The whole of mankind, eh? Well, when you put it like that…

Nice to see your ego hasn’t been affected by this block

Shut up, inner voice.

Trouble was, Seneca was a Stoic who believed that food was just a vehicle to stop hunger. He advocated for a very simple diet and turned his nose up at over indulgent or rich foods. Even more, he suggested that luxurious eating could cause certain illnesses and argued that to seek out expensive and lavish food rather then eat what was cheap, simple and readily available was the real sign of mental imbalance: “A hankering after delicacies is a sign of self-indulgence; by the same token, avoidance of those comforts that are quite ordinary and easy to obtain is an indication of insanity”.

The trend of linking food and melancholy continued through the ages. By the 15th century, scholars such as Marsilio Ficino ruled out certain foods which were believed to bring on bouts of melancholy, such as “burned food” and “old cheese”. No hardship to avoid these, but instructions to abstain from fried food, rich food and wine might be slightly harder to stick to.

And then, in the 17th century, something quite remarkable happened – the first full length look at melancholy as a subject in its own right.

In 1621, English writer Robert Burton published a book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Or to give it its full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. Which would have intrigued me, had I not been suffering from melancholy and lost the will to read on half way through the first title-sentence.

The Anatomy of Melancholy - Wikipedia

Luckily for me, Jonathan Sadowsky (a medical historian at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio) has read and dissected Burton’s work, which was so popular that it was republished multiple times over the first few decades of its existence. Like me, Burton wrote about melancholy “by being busy to avoid melancholy”.

Burton thought of melancholy as something more than an imbalance and viewed it as a deeply complex range of emotions, including “…heaviness or vexation of spirit…and lumpish[ness]” Again, there was no reference to writer’s block specifically but after a quick glance in the mirror I had to admit that after a week of consolatory biscuits my ‘lumpishness’ could not be denied. Perhaps his book was what I needed after all.

“Member II” of the book contained a list of foods to avoid if trying to get over a bout of melancholy/lumpishness. A long list. A very long list. If you have time you can read the full list here but the headlines include beef, pork, goat (thank God), venison, rabbit, milk, chicken, fish, cucumber, cabbage, melon, ALL FRUIT, ALL PULSES, honey, ginger, pepper, sugar, bread made of anything but wheat, wine and beer.

T’would appear Burton’s remedy for lumpishness was starvation.

Getting off topic…

By the 18th and 19th centuries, writers were back on the idea that inspiration could be given or blocked by unknown forces.

In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month – O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!”

English Romantics like Coleridge were pretty aware of the effects of writer’s block but had no definitive way to cure it, other than sighing despondently and looking out of rainy windows. I’ve tried both, neither works.

But writing just after the time of the English Romantics, the British doctor George Blandford may have had some idea of how to cure the poets’ ailments:

“Before getting out of bed in the morning, [nervous or depressed patients should drink] rum and milk, or egg and sherry; breakfast of meat, eggs, and café au lait, or cocoa; beef tea, with a glass of port, at eleven o’clock; and a good dinner or lunch at two, with a couple of glasses of sherry; at four, some more beef-tea, or an equivalent; at seven, dinner or supper, with stout and port wine; and at bed-time, stout or ale, with the chloral or morphia.”

I’ve actually tried beef tea before and let me tell you: never again. Nevertheless I felt it was at least worth exploring the medical properties of Blandford’s multi-course regime of alcohol and meaty dinners.

Sadly for pre 20th century writers, it wasn’t until 1947 that writer’s block even had a name. Coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, the idea of suffering from lack of inspiration or motivation became less about airy fairy ideas of tortured artists denied by gods, and more about science.

Edmund Bergler
No you’re not imagining it – he is judging you.

Amazingly, Bergler also believed that writer’s block was inherently linked to food – of a kind. A huge Freudian theorist, Bergler argued that writer’s block was caused by mothers who refused or were unable to breastfeed their babies. Trapped by rage towards their mothers, people who grew up to suffer writer’s block were – in Bergler’s mind – experiencing a physical representation of the emotional starvation they had experienced as children.

“I have never seen a ‘normal’ writer” Bergler declared. All writers were, to him, megalomaniacs “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life.” Moreover, he wrote that “every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.”

Er…

So are you still blocked?

Who knows. Maybe that spoons post will see the light of day, maybe not. At the end of this all I know is three things:

  1. Writer’s block, or the associated emotions, are not new.
  2. Despite the literally thousands of years people have had to figure it out, no one has come up with a watertight solution to it.
  3. I probably shouldn’t mention this post to my mum without deleting Bergler’s comments first.

And on that note, I’m out.

E x

“Tinder for the 20th century” Dumb Cake: 1911

Yesterday was the 24 April – St Mark’s Eve.

Normally I don’t keep track of whichever saint we are celebrating on whatever day, but a Twitter post by Foods of England made me sit up and take notice of St Mark.

Just Mark, sitting on a lion while a disembodied hand waves at him from above.

Because, you see, St Mark’s Eve is the chance of a year for women to see into their own future, in a limited sort of way. Specifically, it’s a chance for unmarried women to get a glimpse of their future husbands through the use of *~*ritual magic*~*.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m already married. And while that may be true, the opportunity to check that there wasn’t a future husband out there was too good to pass up. Perhaps one who was willing to build me a replica Roman kitchen in our garden rather than moaning about “building regulations” and “fire hazards” and “parental responsibility to spend our money on school shoes instead” blah blah blah…

The ritual

According to Foods of England there are a few versions of Dumb Cake and the ritual that goes with it. The name may come from the Middle English word “doom” which originally meant “fate” or “judgement” – as in the Domesday Book (sometimes spelled Doomsday).

Anyway, the basic principals of the ritual were the same: unmarried girls had to bake some sort of cake together in silence. They would either eat the cake themselves or give it to another girl to eat, and that night would dream of the man they were to marry.

Cake before bed was an idea I could get behind. Though there seemed to be a few versions of the cake, many of them had missing ingredients or required the use of more girls than my family of 3 could accommodate.

In the end I settled on the 1911 recipe from Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District by Charles Dick. It seemed most appropriate – a complete (if very plain) recipe requiring the use of only 2 girls and, as Peterborough is not that far from me, semi-local.

Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future.

Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm.

Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken.

Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.‘ by Charles Dick (1911)

The process

I had to make peace with the prospect that this might not work. Firstly, I was married and in every case the ritual stressed it was for unmarried girls. Secondly I intended to rope my husband into helping me; the recipe said it should be two girls making it, but I thought that he might appreciate the chance at seeing if there was a future husband for him too.

As the recipe made it clear the girls should go to bed as soon as the cake had been baked and eaten we decided to make it relatively late, so as not to waste our evening. Personally, I’d have quite liked an evening of silence.

We began by finding things we had never stood on before. I chose two books and spent much of the following hour slowly descending into the splits as the books slid further apart on the tiles. My husband, being a bit more practically minded, put one foot in a gift bag and one foot in a bag of our daughter’s toy blocks.

He was very smug about this. I mean, he couldn’t say anything, obviously, but the whole time we were cooking he just radiated smugness.

Then we began our cake in silence. Together we scrubbed a bowl and dried it. We each put a spoon of flour, a spoon of water and a pinch of salt into the bowl and mixed it up to a dough.

We rolled the dough out and shaped it into a circle. Then we scored it down the centre with a knife and added our initials to each side. The cake (although let’s be honest – it was bread dough really) was baked for 12 minutes while we shuffled around each other without saying a word and trying to make as little noise as possible. Of course within three minutes I’d slipped off my book-shoes and pulled a pile of plates off the side as I fell.

Once it was cooked we took it out of the oven together and very solemnly broke it in half. We ate our halves in silence, then, walking backwards, made our way upstairs (if you’ve never walked up steps backwards you’d be surprised at how tricky it is. I looked like a broken marionette, exaggeratedly lifting each leg because I couldn’t judge the step height.)

When the cake’s this plain, how good a husband are you hoping to attract?

But did it work?

This morning the first thing I asked my husband was what he’d dreamed of. His reply was “you”. Lovely, I thought.

“But…”

“But?”

“We were having an argument, and I decided I didn’t want to be married to you anymore.”

Ah.

My outcome was equally disappointing. Rather than a dashing prince, or an exciting adventurer (or even my current husband I guess I should add), I dreamed of Jim Henson. You know, the guy who invented the Muppets and who passed away in 1990.

Trouble was, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Jim Henson, so what I actually dreamed was that I met a man in a full body banana suit – like the ones people run in for charity – who told me he was Jim Henson.

Bloody dumb cake indeed.

E x

“Your worthiness is the result of chance”: Kanasu Broth c. 1700 BC

Language is a funny thing. Most of us know what good writing looks like, but few of us can actually write good.

That’s partly because writing is so subjective; what’s funny, moving, interesting to one person is awkward, vapid, dull to another (apart from the work of Terry Pratchett which is universally fantastic.)

Sumerian is the oldest written language and was spoken in regions of ancient Mesopotamia. Clay tablets dating as far back as 3200 BCE have been found bearing Sumerian writing and, like the writing of the late great Sir Pratchett, much of the content found on the various tablets is pretty inspiring:

“A heart never created hatred; speech created hatred.” “Fate is a raging storm blowing over the land.” “A good word is a friend to numerous men.”

When the writing wasn’t being insightful it was being practical.

“Putting unwashed hands to one’s mouth is disgusting.” “Before the fire has gone out, write your exercise tablet!” (guess kids have always resisted doing their homework). “The owner of a house should reinforce the windows against burglars.”

But just to balance it out so that no-one became too self-confident or capable, the Mesopotamians also had language to remind you of your place in society.

“Your worthiness is the result of chance.” “Your role in life is unknown.” “The battle-club would not find your name – it would just find your flesh.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a civilisation so adept at putting ink to paper – or more accurately stylus to clay – would go hard when writing recipes.

Not quite.

Kanasu Broth

Leg of mutton is used. Prepare water add fat. Samidu; coriander; cumin; amd kanasu. Assemble all the ingredients in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed garlic. Then blend into the pot suhutinnu and mint.

Recipe 23, tablet A. The Babylonian Collection at Yale University.

So why so brief? Let’s break it down.

Firstly, Ancient Mesopotamians were writing on clay tablets, not papyrus or paper. Because the letters were pushed and embedded into the clay, rather than scratched on, each tablet had to be fresh and pliable before writing. This meant that someone had to make the tablet and carve out the stylus before any writing could occur.

Secondly, the script used was cuneiform. This script (which was developed by the Sumerians), underwent a huge number of transitions during a 2000 year period (3000 BCE – 1000 BCE), developing from pictograms to glyphs to horizontal and vertical wedge shaped lines. Recipe 23 dates to about 1700 BCE, placing it in the middle of the Old Babylonian era, and uses cuneiform script but is written in the ancient language of Akkadian.

The Akkadians were another Mesopotamian civilisation who, according to linguist Guy Deutscher, developed a culturally symbiotic relationship with the Sumerians which included widespread bilingualism. By 1700 BCE, Akkadian had just about taken over Sumerian as the main spoken language of Mesopotamia, but Sumerian cuneiform script continued to be used. However, Sumerian was structurally inconsistent to Akkadian. To combat this, (and save time developing a brand new script), the Akkadians began to write out their texts phonetically using the Sumerian cuneiform symbols that most closely corresponded to the Akkadian sounds.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Akkadian cuneiform was also pretty wild to look at. As time went on the Akkadians altered cuneiform script into highly abstract versions of the original pictograms, some of which contained as many as 20 separate marks. Furthermore, some of the signs could be read either logographically or syllabically, making their true meaning more difficult to decipher.

This is confusing.

Basically it boils down to this: cuneiform script could be relatively time consuming to copy out and the meanings could be pretty unclear.

Also, recipe writing simply wasn’t that important to Mesopotamians, be they Sumerian or Akkadian. As Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson point out, most ancient texts dealt with numeracy and were quantitative in nature, focusing on administrative matters; wages, accounts and contract. How to make the perfect pavlova or a lasagne to wow the in-laws just wasn’t a major part of the Mesopotamian literature.

That’s not to say that Mesopotamian food was simple, far from it. In fact, you could argue that the annoyingly sparse succinct nature of the recipe suggests that Mesopotamian cooks were so adept that they knew, as standard, what phrases like “prepare water add fat” meant without needing extra hints and tips.

In addition to this the Mesopotamians enjoyed an abundance of fruit and vegetables, baked over 300 types of bread and made many types of cheese. They recorded their bounty on stelai and relief panels which show fruits like pomegranate, apricots and apples, vegetables such as radishes, lettuces and leeks, and meat including wild fowl, goat and cattle – hardly the range of inexperienced chefs.

Babylonian relief carving. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock
“Do you serve chips though?”

The problem for modern historians trying to recreate these recipes, though, is that we don’t share their common knowledge. Knowing that the ancient Mesopotamians were experienced cooks who could understand the nuances of “prepare water add fat” was all well and good, but I still ended up in my kitchen boiling five kettles just in case and having a breakdown over whether to use lard, butter or olive oil.

And what the hell was samidu? Kanasu? Suhutinnu? Even Waitrose didn’t sell these ingredients (and they stock seven different types of salt and pepper!)

“Hey Google, translate ancient Akkadian”

Google translate was no help at all. It failed to detect any translation for samidu, told me that suhutinnu meant “mouthwash” and that kanasu was a “dream”. Reluctantly I accepted that I was going to have to do some proper research.

The authority on Mesopotamia was Jean Bottéro. He wrote the first book on cooking in Mesopotamia, The Oldest Cuisine in the World, and provided translations for some of the words found in the recipes.

Bottéro translated the samidu and suhutinnu as allium vegetables, like leeks or shallots. However, the food historian Laura Kelley believes that some of Bottéro’s translations are incorrect, and that rather than being a vegetable, samidu was more like semolina.

Her argument for this is based on similar words from nearby regions: The Syrians used the word semida to mean “fine meal”. The Greek word semidalis meant “the finest flour”. And “a fine flour [was] called semida in the Talmud (Pesachim 74b, Shabbat 110b, Moed Katan 28a.)” Similarly, Kelley argues that the word semida “is the Targum Yonatan translation for solet – also meaning “fine flour”.” The University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary also defines semidu as semolina.

Kelley translates suhutinnu as some kind of root vegetable, but cannot be more specific. She suggests carrot, turnip or parsnip (but not an allium) based on the fact that tablets tell us nothing more than suhutinnu is “dug up”.

Bottéro gave no translation for the word kanasu (other than “a kind of edible plant”, which doesn’t really narrow it down), but Kelley believes it refers to emmer wheat flour. Emmer was one of the earliest crops domesticated in the Near East, growing naturally throughout the Fertile Crescent before domestication.

This amazing document is a field plan of a property in the Sumerian city Umma showing the acreage of each parcel of land. c. 2100 BC – 2001 BC

Making Kanasu Broth.

I gathered my ingredients: mutton was sourced at a local farm shop (I had to get diced rather than a full leg), emmer wheat was bought from a specialist mill, and semolina was found lurking on a back shelf in Waitrose, resentfully eyeing the more commercially successful rice pudding grains.

But how to cook it?

In his book A History of Food in 100 Recipes, William Sitwell points out that when the collected recipes are examined together, myriad cooking techniques are mentioned: “slicing, squeezing, pounding, steeping, shredding, marinating and even straining.” He suggested that despite the thousands of years separating us from the ancients, cooking techniques and food preparation hadn’t changed all that much.

So I followed my gut. Would I want to eat meat boiled in water without having been seared first? Not really; searing helps build flavour. I assumed, then, that the ancient Mesopotamians had a similar thought process.

With the meat seared and set aside I began work on the water and fat. Assuming I was making a stew rather than a broth after all, I added just 200ml of water to a pan .

The fat mentioned in the recipe was likely to have been sheep tail fat, which I couldn’t find anywhere at all at short notice, so I used olive oil. I figured that since olives had been cultivated in Mesopotamia from around 5000 years ago it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility that oil might have been used in place of animal fat when needed.

As the water and oil mixture heated, I crushed coriander and cumin seeds with a pestle and mortar and mixed the spices with semolina and emmer flour. Then the whole lot was tipped into the water and oil mixture and stirred to prevent lumps.

Once the sauce had thickened a little, I returned the browned meat to the pot. I added crushed garlic, sliced parsnips and a handful of mint and then let the whole thing cook on a low heat for just over an hour.

Final thoughts.

This meal was probably intended for the wealthy. The ingredients and tools needed (knives, caldrons, mills or grinders), to make it suggest it was probably cooked in palace or temple kitchens, rather than bog standard houses. Though literacy among Mesopotamians wasn’t just the domain of rich men, the idea that ordinary people would see the value in writing out recipes such as this just for personal use is also far fetched.

And the food itself? Delicious! Far more stew like than broth in my opinion, which I actually preferred. The mutton gave it a stronger flavour than lamb, but it wasn’t too dissimilar. The mint worked exceptionally well (who would have thought that the lamb/mint combo stretched back so far?!) and the spices were subtle enough to add depth, but not so overpowering that they drowned out the other flavours. In fact, I could probably have added half a teaspoon more than I did.

If you’d like to watch how I made this then please see the video below (and hang around til the end where I attempt a visual joke that made my husband declare he would “divorce me within 20 years” when he saw my preparations for it.)

E x

Kanasu broth

500g (1 pound) of mutton or lamb (I used diced but the original recipe refers to a leg. I give instructions below for both methods but if you are using a 1kg (2 pound) leg of lamb you will need to double the rest of the ingredients.)
200ml (6.7 fl. oz.) water
2 tablespoons of flour (any type will do)
1 tablespoon of semolina (or another tablespoon of flour if you can’t find semolina)
1 parsnip
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
Handful of mint

  1. Sear the meat in a pan if using diced meat. (If using a full 1kg leg, cut holes in it and rub with olive oil and salt before roasting in an oven at 220C / 200C / gas mark 7 / 425F for about 45 minutes and then skip ahead to step 3. Remember to double the quantities for the rest of the ingredients!)
  2. When the meat is browned, remove it from the pan.
  3. Add the water and oil to the pan and heat.
  4. Grind the coriander and cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar and then add the flour and semolina to them. Grind everything together and then add to the water and oil. Keep stirring! (If cooking a leg, skip to step 6.)
  5. As the sauce thickens, add the diced meat back to the pan to allow it to cook through.
  6. Chop the parsnip into chunks and add it, along with the garlic and some torn mint, to the pan.
  7. Cover the pan with a lid and cook on a low heat for about an hour if using diced lamb or until the leg of lamb is cooked if using a leg. Keep checking on it regularly to stir it and add more water if it gets too thick.
  8. Serve! (If using a leg of lamb allow the lamb to rest for 15 minutes or so after cooking before pouring the sauce over it.)

Easter bunnies and Killer Hares

Do you know what’s one subject you don’t want to take at GCSE if you’re not very good at it?

Art.

Unfortunately for 15 year old me, all my friends wanted to do art and I wasn’t very good at the alternative option either (Design Technology – I think the exam had something to do with birdhouses, or ashtrays, or ashtrays for birdhouses?) so art it was.

Big mistake. In French I could mumble my way through the verbs I’d spent my weekend not revising. I could play with enough enthusiasm during music lessons that my teachers didn’t mind that most of the notes were wrong. But art? Each week I’d have to pin my feeble attempts at fruit bowls on my easel for all to see. And worse still, everyone else’s attempts (which were also pinned up at the end of each lesson) were always so much better.

“You have a very medieval way of drawing people”, my teacher told me once.

“Is that good?” I asked hopefully.

“It’s certainly… distinctive.”

I dropped art as soon as I could, but my teacher’s comments stayed with me and a couple of years later I applied to study medieval history at university, citing the moment I realised I had a “medieval” style of drawing as the moment I realised I was interested in medieval history.

What has this got to do with Easter?

Today’s post is basically just a way for me to prove my art teacher wrong by making my shoddy drawings the star of the show. But I’ve cunningly disguised that fact by pretending it’s all about the festive topic of the Easter bunny.

The Easter bunny’s origins are a bit vague. A commonly held belief is that as abundantly fertile animals, rabbits represent new life which ties in nicely with the religious message of Easter, but it’s really not as simple as that.

Our modern bunny is a commercial creature with his soft floppy ears and non-threatening, chocolate-loving persona. This creation is, unsurprisingly, thanks to America. When German Lutherans arrived in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought the tradition of the “Osterhase” with them. This tradition stated that children would be judged every Eastertime by a hare. If they had been good, they would be rewarded with a treat. Over time the tradition grew and developed until it became the sugar-fuelled, garden-destroying day we all know now.

Some people argue that the Easter bunny’s origins date back even further to the pagan festival Ēostre which used the hare as a symbol of renewed life. However, this might be wishful thinking; A Dictionary of English Folklore states there’s little evidence of any links between Ēostre and hares – and even if there were, these links would have been unlikely to have survived the subsequent centuries of invasion and Christianisation of Britain.

Despite the ambiguity, it’s likely that hares originally had more to do with Easter than rabbits. In Leicestershire there was an annual hare hunt held every Easter Monday, the first recording of which was in 1668. The 1620 Calendar of State Papers recorded that “…huntsmen say that those who have not had a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.” And in Warwickshire the parson supposedly offered a groat, a calf’s head and one hundred eggs to the man who presented him with a hare before 10:00am on Easter Monday.

A hare hunt featuring either an absolutely massive hare or a couple of ridiculously tiny hunting dogs.

A many-anused beast…

But people were interested in hares long before the 17th century.

“Hares are seldom tamed…”, wrote Pliny the Elder in The Natural History. “In the hare, the number of cavernous receptacles in the body for the excrements always equals that of its years.” Basically, hares were not pets you’d want to keep indoors without protecting your soft furnishings from their many “cavernous receptacles for excrement.”

By the middle ages, hares and rabbits were relatively luxurious commodities. Manorial lords would have an automatic “right to warren” on land they owned and would often grant tenants leases to maintain their warrens for them.

Sometimes the lords would complain about the abundance of rabbits or hares outside their warrens, as in the case at Freckenham in 1551 when rabbits were condemned for “increasing and multiplying on the common land” and the lessee of the warren was ordered to block up all the rabbit holes on the common land.

Hare was also a popular dish for the rich; as far as I can see there are two separate recipes for hare in the 14th century English cookbook Forme of Cury and about seven or eight from the contemporaneous French text Le Menagier de Paris.

In addition to food, rabbits and hares were seen as good gifts and in 1345, the Prior of Ely sent sixty rabbits to Edward III – an enormous display of wealth. In fact, by the 14th century rabbits were seen as such a status symbol that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt “hares in the field.”

Despite this, hares and rabbits were seen negatively in some circles. In medieval art and literature hares were sometimes seen as symbols of promiscuity. Even more concerningly, some thought hares were linked to the occult; the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German text on witchcraft, commented that witches had the ability to transform themselves into hares.

Malleus Maleficarum. Fun fact: a large amount of this text talks about the many ways witches can steal a man’s penis.

Later, when the witch-crazes swept Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Scottish woman called Isobel Gowdie confessed to turning herself into a hare by chanting:
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.

Having confessed to the crime of witchcraft, the law stated that she be executed, but there’s no firm evidence whether this happened to Isobel or whether she was acquitted. Perhaps she really did turn herself into a hare and hopped away?

Killer hares

Whether witches in disguise or the real deal, you messed with hares at your peril.

The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where hares enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.

In this highly decorated manuscript there are numerous drolleries – fanciful drawings meant to titillate and amuse the reader.

Often these images depict imaginary mash-ups of animals; snails with human torsos or birds with elephant heads. As well as the more usual ones, the ones in the Smithfield Decretals also depict what can only be described as killer hares enacting revenge on the humans who would destroy them.

In one image two hares flay a bound man alive, starting at his feet. Rather than watching the unfortunate victim, the hares’ unfeeling, bulbous eyes are askew – an artist’s comment on nature’s detachment from human suffering or, (like my own arty shortcomings) an inability to draw perspective? You be the judge.

In another, a hare carries a trussed up man on a stick while another triumphantly blasts a tune on a hunting horn. In yet another, a hare is seen with a ridiculously long sword, beheading a man. It’s probably worth noting that medieval people didn’t do realism in their art (in case you’d not worked it out.) This included realistic facial expressions – so rather than screaming in agony, the man being beheaded is just frowning sadly, as if the whole thing is slightly inconvenient (take a look at the images at the end to see what I mean.)

Rather than being a crafty design to get people to go vegetarian by forcing them to confront the reality of their hare-hunting ways, these images represented the idea of the world turned upside down; the hunted becomes the hunter. Just think on that while you’re searching for your eggs on Easter Sunday.

Who wants a biscuit?

I could have written a post about hot cross buns or tried making another Simnel Cake. But I didn’t fancy any of that. Instead, I wanted to draw some art and I wanted art that celebrated the mighty Easter bunny in all its glory. And I wanted it to be delicious.

So this Easter, in addition to my foil wrapped egg(s), I’ll also be tucking into some very special Easter biscuits depicting the more unusual aspects of the human/Easter bunny relationship. The images are taken from a variety of texts so even though the recipe isn’t medieval the artwork, according to my teacher at least, sure is.

Who’s “not suitable for A Level art” now, Mrs Haworth?

Happy Easter!

Ex

“For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina”: Advice on motherhood through the ages

When you have a baby everyone gives you advice. Some of this is excellent (to this day the best thing I’ve ever been told in regards to child rearing is “lower your standards. If things are still hard, you didn’t lower them enough” – as a result my carpets rarely get hoovered and we pretend not to see the ‘best before end’ date on food, but my sanity has remained intact.)

Much of the advice is well meaning, but hopeless: “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a lovely phrase but what should I do if she doesn’t – ever?

Most of it, though, is tripe: “enjoy every second”, “don’t complain, it all goes by so fast.”

I just couldn’t understand those who spouted out the tripey advice; what was it I was supposed to enjoy, exactly? My daughter, like all other newborns, was distinctly useless at first and completely unable to help me out in any way. At bathtime I ended up bent over the tub like Quasimodo, one arm frantically scooping water onto her chest and one arm doing the job her neck should have been doing, which was holding up her gigantic, lolling head. I had similar problems getting her into the car, getting her dressed, changing her nappy: limbs flailing madly, none of them in the right direction, and most of them, somehow, covered in poo.

As time went on my daughter’s neck started pulling its weight and I didn’t rely on hours of physio after every bath time so I started to enjoy motherhood. But no sooner had we worked out how this small dictator child worked, then the advice changed again.

“Don’t wean her too soon or she’ll end up with underformed bowels.” “Don’t let her sleep in your room or she’ll never move out.” “Don’t wean her too late or she’ll be a fussy eater.” “Limit TV to only 30 minutes a week and even then only allow her to watch bilingual educational videos.” “Let her sleep in your room until she’s an adult woman – insist that she raise her own children there too.”

It got me thinking about motherhood advice through history. Were there medieval pamphlets on the pros and cons of cloth nappies? Tudor ‘yummy mummies’ on Instagram showing us how to whip up vegan, organic, zero-waste baby-friendly smoothies? Not quite, but almost.

Getting pregnant (AKA the fun bit)

So you’ve decided you don’t need to sleep or shit alone again for the rest of your life.

The 2nd century Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed he’d come up with a good indication of female virility so that prospective partners could make the best decisions when picking a mate. According to this highly learned doctor, women “from the ages of fifteen to forty” who were “not mannish, compact, oversturdy or too flabby” had been endowed with a natural virility.

If finding such a woman by physical appearance alone was problematic, Soranus had a solution: an alternative way to check a woman’s fertility was to inspect her uterus. To conceive a child a woman’s uterus should be “neither very moist or dry, not too lax or constricted.” I don’t know how one was supposed to check out a woman’s uterus before committing to her (though I imagine it made for a pretty awkward date night activity) but it clearly struck a chord with those in the medical profession; Soranus’ writings set the precedent in gynaecology and obstetrics for almost 1,500 years.

In contrast, women with small heads and eyes were more likely to struggle to conceive. Likewise, women with protruding foreheads were best avoided if one was hoping to start a family (Rouselle 1988, p. 22).

If Soranus’ ideas haven’t put you off relying on ancient science to conceive then you might also want to consider the work of the Greek physicians Hippocrates (c. 460-c.370 BC) and Galen (129-c.210 CE).

Hippocrates

Though centuries apart, these two men together shaped much of the medical knowledge found in medical textbooks and universities up to the 16th century. Hippocrates – whose influence on medicine remains so great that the now defunct Hippocratic oath was named after (but not attributed to) him – is chiefly known for developing humoral theory. This was the belief that the human body was made up of four key fluids (blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile) which, when disrupted or imbalanced, caused mood changes and even illness. This theory would crop up in most Western medical teachings for the next two thousand years or so.

Hippocrates was also preoccupied with female fertility. Out of 1500 or so recipes for medicine in Hippocrates’ work, 80% of them relate to gynaecology (Totelin 2009).

Unfortunately, Hippocrates’ teachings tended to place the burden of conception squarely on the shoulders of women; male infertility was not something he considered a likely issue in problems with conception. Among others, Hippocrates wrote that some of the problems women faced when trying to conceive included:

  1. A too narrow passage between the vagina and cervix which may also have become blocked by the retention of “old” coagulated menstrual blood and thus prevented sperm reaching the uterus.
  2. An “inability” of the uterus to retain the sperm due to its failure to “close” shut once the sperm had entered. 
  3. A humoral imbalance in the woman which led to conditions that were too hot or cold in the uterus, thus “overcooking” or “[drying] out” the sperm (Verskin 2020, 138).

‘For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina’ was basically Hippocrates’ attitude.

Hippocrates also advocated for a “two seed” theory; that in order to make a baby, ‘male seed’ and ‘female seed’ were necessary. In both cases, the seed could only be produced during arousal. This led physicians who followed the ‘two seed’ theory down some pretty ropey conception theories: husbands were encouraged to ensure their wives enjoyed sex, so as to ensure a fruitful production of ‘female seed’ and therefore increase the chances of making a baby. So far, so sex-positive. The negative aspect to this theory was of course the issue of conception arising from non-consensual sex. Though rape was condemned in most ancient societies, the ‘two seed’ theory allowed some to argue that pregnancy was evidence of a woman’s enjoyment of sex and, therefore, evidence of her willing participation, even if she hadn’t consented.

Writing some five or six hundred years after Hippocrates, Galen sought to add weight to the ‘two seed’ theory by attaching to it the ‘one sex’ theory (stay with me now, I’m almost done.)

The ‘one sex’ theory promoted the belief that women’s reproductive organs were an interior version of a man’s, but that due to an absence of necessary heat while the woman was in her mother’s womb, they failed to turn outside, rendering women a sort of inferior version of men (Schleiner 2000).

I don’t know what the thing on the far right is. Maybe a floating scrotum? Credit here.

It made sense to Galen, then, that women produced semen in much the same way as men did, though the semen was produced inside their bodies which, because of the aforementioned defectiveness of female organs, could lead to problems. Galen believed that menstrual blood was a both a consequence of female defectiveness and also a necessary element of conception as it provided the uterus with texture, without which the “male seed” would slip out before it could mingle with the ‘female seed’. A woman who therefore suffered irregular periods or had gone through menopause, Galen argued, was far less likely to conceive than a woman who “enjoyed” regular periods. Galen was playing quite fast and loose with the word ‘enjoy’ there, I think, but we’ll move on.

But what if both partners enjoyed sex and a baby wasn’t made? Well, for those diagnosed with infertility Hippocrates had a variety of solutions. The most common ones included pessaries of herbs, fumigation or probing of the vagina to remove “blockages” and changing one’s diet. In his empathetically entitled treatise On Barrenness, Hippocrates also advocated eating boiled puppies and/or fumigating one’s vagina with smoke from their burned carcasses. The argument was that puppies supposedly had a laxative effect, which would dislodge any coagulated menstrual blood and allow the passage between the cervix and vagina to open (Verskin 2020, 139). You’re welcome to try it, but the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Britain is five years; you’ll miss the cute chubby toddler years and be landed with a stroppy school kid by the time you get out.

Pregnancy and childbirth

So let’s assume all your puppy-eating has paid off and you’re with child. Congratulations.

But no sooner does that little red line appear on the pregnancy test then a whole host of other questions and problems come to the fore: what food can I eat or not eat? How much exercise should I do? Was that a twinge of labour or do I just need a big fart (it’s always a big fart – even when you’re actually in labour, it will still be a big fart.)

The Trotula, a 12th century compendium of the medical conditions of women, states that when a woman is just starting out her 9 month journey it’s vitally important that no one mention in front of her the long list of things she is not allowed to eat (Green 2002, 77).

“What is this? Don’t care – can I eat it?”

Trotula argued this was to prevent pregnant women from becoming fixated on out-of-bounds food, not just for their own health, but the sake of their unborn child, which was apparently as risk of miscarriage if they ruminated on smoked salmon or soft cheese for too long.

On the subject of farting, Trotula had a remedy. Taking celery, mint and cowbane and mixing it with a combination of mastic, cloves, watercress, sugar, honey and wine (as well as other herbs) could apparently cure even the guffiest mother.

To reduce the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy, the 15th century manuscript Sloane 2463 recommended making a paste of bean-meal flour, vinegar and oil and anointing it on the areas that were swollen (Rowlands 1981, 153). Some lucky women might have got away with only needing to apply it to their fingers or ankles; for me I’d have needed a full body cast.

The last trimester of pregnancy is often one of the hardest, and women have resorted to all kinds of tricks to induce labour and kick their ever expanding lodger out.

For women in their final month eager to meet their screaming bundles of joy and light, taking a bath with herbs could apparently help speed labour along, especially if the woman drank an ounce of balsam sap in wine afterwards. If she couldn’t afford balsam sap then she could make do with a cocktail of bull’s gall and wine instead, or “the water from a man’s skin after he has washed his hands”. If bull’s gall and bathwater wasn’t her thing she could try a combination of hyssop juice and mercury which would “cast out the child alive or dead”. Well, quite.

Assuming that these drinks worked, what was one supposed to do when the birthday arrived? By the 15th century there were plenty of European manuscripts detailing the medical problems of women, but relatively few that dealt in detail with childbirth itself (Rowlands 1981, 22).

This was probably down to the fact that midwifery was usually the domain of women, and the writers were usually men who either didn’t know how to help women give birth or, more possibly, didn’t care.

Women’s health wasn’t always counted as ‘proper’ medicine worthy of book writing – and in 1421 a petition was put forward to the English parliament banning women from practising as physicians (Green 1989), so chances for women to elevate the status of midwifery remained slim.

In fact, so limited was the information on how to help women give birth that one 14th century treatise recommended that women should be encouraged to sneeze the child out. Similarly, the 15th century work Inventarium also recommended labouring women sniff pepper, which would induce sneezing. It hardly goes without saying that both authors were male. Guy de Chauliac commented “because the matter [of childbirth] requires the attention of women, there is no point in giving much consideration to it.” I bet he wasn’t brave enough to say that to a labouring woman, though.

Anyway, Sloane 2463 does cover what to do when giving birth. Chapter 10, “sickness that women have in childbearing”, covers a great deal of potential problems which it divides into two types: ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.

With a natural birth the child should “come out in twenty pangs…head first.” So far, so simple. If the child was a stubborn bugger, however, and refused to come out within twenty “pangs” (bless) or headfirst, this was termed an ‘unnatural’ birth. There were apparently 16 ways a child could be born ‘unnaturally’ and, in diagrams that were simultaneously helpful and hilarious, the writer had provided sketches highlighting the ‘unnatural’ ways. The three here are my favourites.

Raising the buggers

Assuming you’ve survived childbirth (research is ongoing but it’s estimated that among the lower classes in England during the 14th – 16th centuries, between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 women died either giving birth or from complications afterwards), how should you go about raising them to be decent humans?

For this section I’m jumping forward several centuries to the trustiest of Victorian cooks, Mrs Beeton. Her book Household Management wasn’t just a collection of bland restrained recipes, it also contained practical advice on the rearing of children.

Almost immediately I began to suspect that Mrs Beeton’s experience of motherhood was slightly divergent to my own.

“The mistress [of the house]” she began, quoting Proverbs XXXI “eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed…” (Project Gutenberg 2003)

I thought back to this morning when my child had arisen at 5:30 and waddled into my room, calling for the iPad instead.

One piece of advice that might raise a few eyebrows today was the instruction to breastfeeding mothers to drink large quantities of malt liquor. Mrs Beeton believed that the strength of this alcohol had certain reinvigorating qualities which would aid production of milk and help stave off maternal exhaustion. “To the lady accustomed to her Madeira and sherry, [malt liquors] may appear a very vulgar potation for a delicate young mother to take…”

In fact, Mrs Beeton spent rather a lot of time discussing alcohol and motherhood. As any mother will tell you, this isn’t that surprising.

According to Mrs B, brandy was less beneficial than wine for nursing mothers, though would do if there was nothing else in. Be careful of port, though, as that could affect the baby’s bowl movements as it passed through the milk.

But the very best alcoholic beverage a breastfeeding mother could drink was stout, of which mothers were instructed to drink no less than half a pint, three to four times a day.

No photo description available.
As a “delicate young mother”, sitting alone in the babycage playpen, I preferred to drink white wines rather than port.

Her advice on drinking and breastfeeding might have been a bit out of touch with today’s standards, but there were moments where her tips were surprisingly modern. She gave pretty thorough and sympathetic advice to mothers who were bottle feeding their child (“hand rearing”, as she called it) and, as someone who bottle fed her own child, I found much of what she said was less judgemental than 21st century advice: “A child can be brought up as well on a spoon dietary as the best example to be found on those reared on the breast; having more strength, indeed, from the more nutritious food on which it lives.”

As the child grew, Mrs Beeton’s advice changed. She recommended a fairly bland, milk heavy diet for young children. This was common for the time, the belief being that children’s stomachs could only deal with uncomplex flavours and nothing too heavy. One of the few times Beeton strays from the advice to give children milk, however, was when serving a drink called Negus which involved mixing pints of port, sherry or white wine with water and sugar and serving at children’s parties.

Another Victorian book, How I managed my children from infancy to marriage by Eliza Warren stressed the importance of teaching children to obey from a young age. “A babe of three months, when I held up my finger and put on a grave look, knew that such was the language of reproof…” (Warren 1865, 27.) (I have tried this on my child – it does not work.)

The way to achieve this level of obedience was through repetition – Ms Warren stated that children must learn that crying was “useless” and that if they wanted something they should wait patiently, or do without.

But perhaps the most amusing thing from How I managed my children was the account of mealtimes with young children. Like Mrs Beeton, Ms Warren followed a milk heavy, reasonably bland diet for her children, apart from one day of the week when the meal that was served was “always hailed with delight, and always looked forward to.” What was this magical, awe inspiring dinner? Boiled onions.

As if that wasn’t a treat enough, Ms Warren recounted gleefully that the children were also allowed chives on their bread and butter with this meal too. The whole meal combined, she said, was an excellent cure for worms. Nice.

If you’re thinking that there’s really nothing here useful to new parents and that people throughout history have just been muddling along in the dark when it came to childrearing, you’d be right. But before I finish, I’ll leave you with this one final piece of advice from Ms Warren that I know I’ll struggle to accept as my daughter gets older and her world gets bigger, but that I must: “…if we[love] our children we must give up our own selfish feeling of desiring to have them always with us and so place them in positions that we should be enabled to feel life again renewed in their happiness.” (Warren 1865, 57.)

Happy birthday, G.

E x

Bibliography (yes, I actually did one this time but no, it’s not in alphabetical order because if I have to spend any longer on these bloody citations I will actually die of boredom.)

Rousselle, A. 1988. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Totelin, L. 2009. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth and Fourth Century Greece. Boston: Brill.

Verskin, S. 2020. Barren Women: Religion and Medicine in the Medieval Middle East. De Gruyter: Berlin.

Schleiner, W., (2000) Early Modern Controversies about the One-Sex Model. Renaissance Quarterly [online]. 53 (1), 180–191. [12.06.2020]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2307/2901536

Green, M. 2002. The Trotula. Pennslyvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rowlands, B. 1981. Medieval Women’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Green, M. (1989) Women’s Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe. Signs [online] 14 (2), 434-73. [27.03.2021] Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174557

Project Gutenberg., (2003) The Book of Household Management [online] Project Gutenberg. [Viewed 27.03.2021] Available from: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10136/pg10136.html

Warren, E. 1865. How I managed my children from infancy to marriage. London: Houlston and Wright.

“No jokes please, we’re British”: Surprise Potato Balls 1940s.

I realised I’d been neglecting my 20th century history, so today’s experiment is an attempt to rectify that.

In all honesty I chose it because of the title: surprise potato balls. What’s not to like?

The recipe came courtesy of the Ministry of Food, which was the government department tasked with rationing during World War Two.

Technically, the original ministry was established in 1916 to regulate food stocks and deal with supply and trade issues. This first ministry was disbanded in 1921 and for the next 18 years Britain was presumably overflowing with unregulated cheese and never-ending supplies of luncheon paste.

But alas, with the dawning of World War Two the nation was plunged into desperation again, and the second ministry was set up in September of 1939. Its role was similar to the first one, but as well as rationing it was also tasked with researching ways food could be used and preserved.

Ration books were issued to every person in the land with different coupons depending on your age and health. Pregnant women and nursing mothers, for example, were allowed a supply of 1 pint of milk per day when (by 1942) the typical allowance for others was 3 pints per week.

By the end of the war the only things not covered by rationing were fresh fruit and veg. The government, eager to encourage the use of as much of these non rationed foodstuffs as possible, published leaflets with an array of questionable and unappetising enigmatic and inventive recipes for desperate cooks to try out at home. And the veg with the most potential? The humble spud.

Oh, how the ministry loved potatoes. Perhaps Lord Woolton, the minister for food during World War Two had shares in a potato farm. Perhaps he just loved chips. But the ministry churned out pro-potato propaganda as if people’s lives depended on it. Which, I guess, they sort of did.

A superfood?

“There is no vegetable more useful than the potato”, one leaflet cried. The potato provided “fine energy” as well as being a “protective food”, crowed another. People were advised to eat at least 12 ounces or even 1lb of potatoes a day, in any form they could stomach.

Don’t get me wrong – I love potatoes. Any type of potato is fine by me, but I have to admit that even I’d begin to find a never ending diet of mash, chips and roasties a little dull. So, to prevent people getting too bored, the government created the not at all creepy character Potato Pete – a cheeky, slightly pervy potato cartoon who they hoped would appeal to housewives everywhere.

Why are your eyes so red, Potato Pete?

Potato Pete even came with his own potato recipe book, complete with brightly coloured pictures of him spouting out catchphrases, or linking arms with delighted and presumably lobotomised human women who skipped off giddly into the sunset with him, a potato.

Do you remember Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete?
Who knew the pied piper of housewives was a potato?

Making Surprise Potato Balls

One of the recipes in Potato Pete’s recipe book is for Surprise Potato Balls. The writers of the booklet did at least have the wherewithal not to call them Potato Pete’s Surprise Potato Balls, but I still found them hilarious, because I have the sense of humour of a ten year old.

They were straightforward enough: mashed potato with grated carrot and parsley, rolled into balls. I peeled the potatoes, which was a mistake because the ministry actually encouraged people to eat the skins to minimise waste.

One the balls were done, each one was filled with a teaspoon of Branston pickle and then rolled in breadcrumbs and baked for 15 minutes.

The surprise was obviously meant to be the shot of sweet and tangy chutney, but in reality it was how underwhelming these were. I’m not sure what I expected, it being a wartime recipe and all, but the potato was extremely bland. The recipe had said to use milk only if it was absolutely required, which it wasn’t, so I hadn’t. There was no butter or margarine included. This meant that the flavour was quite lacklustre and a little watery.

I served the potato balls with brown gravy (another war time staple, for fashion reasons as much as culinary ones) and the whole effect was of a meal of filling, hot, beigeness. And I suppose that was the point: war was not luxurious. People were making the best of what they had and if a meal could manage to fill you up without tasting outright awful then that was cause to stick it in a recipe book and encourage others to try it.

Potatoey, gravy, chutney goodness.

If you’d like to see Potato Pete’s Potato Balls in full swing (gross) then head over to YouTube where you can watch me make these.

E x

This post is part of Twinkl’s VE Day Campaign, and is featured in their Best Wartime Recipes to Celebrate VE Day from Home post”

Surprise Potato Balls

450g or 2 cups of potato
A jar of sweet pickle, such as Branston’s
1 large carrot
Teaspoon chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Breadcrumbs

  1. Chop and boil your potatoes. (For a more authentic WW2 experience don’t peel them first.)
  2. Once they are soft, drain the potatoes and mash them with a fork.
  3. Grate the carrot and add it to the mashed potato.
  4. Add the salt, pepper and chopped parsley and combine fully.
  5. Roll the mixture into balls that are slightly smaller than the size of your palm and place on a baking tray.
  6. Make an indent in each ball with your finger and dollop a teaspoon or so of pickle into the hole.
  7. Reseal the holes and roll each potato ball in breadcrumbs.
  8. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees C (356 F) for about 15 minutes.
  9. Serve with brown gravy.

“Tooth decay for the whole family!” White Gingerbread: 1591

Today’s experiment is for those who enjoy the sweeter things in life. Quite literally, because if you eat too much of this recipe your teeth will melt and fill the leftover indents in your gums with brown tooth-and-sugar sap which will eventually dribble down your chin and onto your chest, ruining your favourite shirt.

Quite an image.

I’m only half joking, too. No, there isn’t some sort of bone dissolving ingredient – but the recipe is about 75% sugar, so you have been warned: eat in moderation.

I bought Sam Bilton’s book First Catch Your Gingerbread late last year and have wanted to do something gingery ever since. If you haven’t got it yet, you should; it’s a really thoroughly researched, well written and accessible read which covers the history of gingerbread not just in Britain but the rest of Europe as well as Asia too. Plus it has loads of recipes to try out, from sweet to savoury and modern to ancient. Most of the info for this post comes from her, so thank you Sam!

When did people start eating ginger?

I don’t have an answer to that.

In fact, I’m not sure anyone does really. Ginger has been used in food for millennia: the Romans had a dish called tractomelitus which was a paste of honey and ginger and could be used in sweet and savoury dishes. Apicius, the 1st century writer, also lists ginger among the spices that should be kept in every kitchen store cupboard, along with myrtle berries and Indian spikenard (I don’t know why I’m telling you this; I’m sure these are everyday staples for all of us, right?)

As well as aqueducts and roads, the Romans also popularised gingerbread men and candycane houses.

Ginger was also used in medicinal remedies. According to ancient Greek thought, the body was made up of four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Sickness was caused by one of these humors becoming unbalanced, and there were certain foods that could redress the balance because they stimulated the production of specific humors. Galen, the 2nd century physician who developed the 4 humor theory, stated that ginger could help reduce the amount of phlegm in the body, for example.

Ginger was thought to increase the amount of blood in the body. This isn’t a completely illogical conclusion to make; being hot and spicy, fresh ginger could cause the skin to flush slightly red when eaten raw. And, because the human mind has always loved the gutter, people throughout time have associated this physiological reaction to carnal attraction. Yes, ginger earned its place as an aphrodisiac fairly early on; the 1st century Persian physician Avicenna recommended mixing ginger and honey into a thick, sweet paste as a cure for impotence and by the 13th century the intriguingly named “Sultan’s Sex Potions” by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi included a ginger-based recipe to “strengthen the sperm and invigorate[s] intercourse.”

Okay, but what about the origins of gingerbread?

You’re not going to like this either, but yet again, I have no answer.

That’s partly down to etymology. The word ‘gingerbread’ isn’t to do with baking; our English word has roots in Old French gingebras which has roots in Latin zingebra: ginger – nothing to do with bread at all. Even more confusingly, once we had the word ‘gingerbread’ it wasn’t used as a description for one specific type of food, but rather alluded to any kind of preserved ginger treat: cakes, biscuits, sweets, pastes and sugarwork. Finally, and just as confoundingly, some of the earliest gingerbread recipes we have don’t contain any ginger.

A 14th century recipe for gingerbread in Curye on Inglysch gives a delicious recipe using breadcrumbs and honey – but is conspicuous in its omission of ginger. Similarly, a 15th century manuscript for ‘Gyngerbrede’ includes spices such as saffron, pepper and cinnamon – but again, no ginger.

My very first historical cooking experiment was the ginger-less gingerbread in Forme of Cury. Modelled here on my kitchen floor. Ah, the early days!

These recipes (as well as others that contained ginger) were often made in large slabs which then sliced into strips or lozenges, rather than baked as individual cakes. In fact, they often weren’t baked at all, meaning that the texture was a sticky, treacle-tart like consistency rather than a hard biscuit.

Some gingerbreads were more like sweets – a 14th century recipe for ‘Pynite‘ (pine nut tarts) has a ‘gingerbread’ filling which is essentially a toffee made from honey and spices.

By the 16th century, banquets had become fashionable for the rich. Contrary to every historical film where Henry VIII tears into chicken legs with his bare hands and rich ladies bat their eyelids over plates of unidentified meat, banquets were sweet-only affairs and referred to a particular course rather than the entire meal itself. These sugar banquets, laden with marzipan constructions, candied fruits, crystallised flowers and sugared nuts, were an opportunity to demonstrate the skill of the household cooks as well as the vast wealth of the host.

Why ‘white gingerbread’? Can you answer that at least?

Yes!

It’s at banquets that we find the type of gingerbread I’ve attempted here. By the 16th century there were two main types: red gingerbread (often a dough like mixture containing breadcrumbs) and white gingerbread (a marzipan/sugarpaste combination). Red gingerbread included sandalwood which gave it a deep red colour, whereas white gingerbread used the whitest sugar a cook could source, hence the name. Today’s experiment, which is in the 1591 work A Book of Cookrye by the anonymous ‘A.W.’ is of the white variety.

To make White Ginger Bread

Take Gumma Dragagantis half an ounce, and steep it in rosewater two daies, then put thereto a pound of sugar beaten and finely serced, and beate them well together, so that it may be wrought like paste, then role it then into two Cakes, then take a fewe Jordain almonds and blaunch them in colde water, then dry them with a faite Cloth, and stampe them in a morter very finely, adding thereto a little rosewater, beat finely also the whitest Sugar you can get and searce it. Then take Ginger, pare it and beat it very small and serce it, then put in sugar to the almonds and beat them togither very well, then take it out and work it at your pleasure, then lay it even upon one of your cakes, and cover it with an other and when you put it in the mould, strewe fine ginger both above and beneath, if you have not great store of Sugar, then take rice and beat it small and serce it, and put it into the morter and beat them altogither.

A Book of Cookrye, ‘A. W.’

Making 16th century gingerbread

First of all, I was surprised to see that gum tragacanth was used. I’d only seen it in the specialities section of supermarkets with the likes of glycerin and had therefore assumed it was a relatively modern invention. Perhaps in its highly refined powdered form it it, but it appears the Tudors were well aware of gum tragacanth and its benefits to sugar modelling.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what it did. A quick Google threw up some worrying results to do with leatherwork and cigar-making and I almost backed out of this experiment. Once I read a few more pages I saw that as well as being used for some pretty macho activities, gum tragacanth was also used in cake decorating to make sugarpaste more elastic and malleable.

It’s likely that the gum tragacanth used in the recipe was in a more solid form than the fine white powder I had, hence the instructions to leave it steeping in rose water for two days, presumably to soften it. As it was, I ended up leaving my powder to absorb some rose water for 1 day, by which time it had swollen to breadcrumb sized granules and could be pressed into a hard paste with the back of a spoon.

Dried gum tragacanth (Sainsbury’s didn’t stock this so I had to use powdered instead.) Credit here.

The sugar paste was very straightforward and identical to the kind of sugar paste you get on Christmas cakes (only, ironically, without glycerin – have I used ironically correctly? Probably not.) Once it was made I split it in two and sandwiched a delicious paste of ground almonds, icing sugar and fresh ginger between the two halves. Then it was time to set it in a mould.

Gingerbread moulds were an artwork in themselves. Often quite large, intricate and carved from wood, they would be left by the fireplace to allow the gingerbread inside to set. This presented me with two main problems: one, I didn’t possess a large, intricate gingerbread mould and two, I didn’t have a fire.

File:Traditional gingerbread mold 2 (Piotr Kuczynski).jpg - Wikimedia  Commons
Imagine biting the head off one of these.

Always resourceful, I shaped my gingerbread in what I did have: a silicon cake tin, shaped like a dinosaur. I think it was a Stegosaurus. Instead of a fire I popped it into my boiler cupboard and left it to dry out over a day or two. Hey, it wasn’t authentic but I got points for effort.

Once it had completely dried out I turned my gingerbread out and daubed it with edible gold paint. Tudor sugarwork, including gingerbread, was impressive not just because of the fiddly shapes, but because they were often beautifully gilded with gold leaf and suchlike. Once I was finished my steggy shone like the regal gingery reptile it was.

And there it was! It looked great and tasted good too. The icing shell was toothachingly sweet (and perhaps a tad too thick) but the filling was amazing. Fresh ginger and creamy almonds combined well to make a tangy, punchy frangipane like filling that I could have eaten all day. As it was, the block I made was too large for one person to finish in one sitting, but these could work well in smaller sizes – perhaps made in chocolate moulds.

If you don’t feel you’ve wasted enough of your time reading through my nonsense and have another 10 minutes you never want back, why not head over to my Youtube channel to have a look at the process in full glorious technicolour?

E x

White Gingerbread

100g or 1/2 cup icing sugar (plus an extra spoonful)
25g or 1/8 cup blanched almonds
A medium piece of ginger (about the size of your thumb.)
Teaspoon of rose water
Teaspoon gum tragacanth
50ml or 1.6 fl. oz. water

  1. Put the gum tragacanth in a bowl and add half of the rose water. Leave it to sit for 12 – 24 hours to allow the tragacanth to absorb all the rose water.
  2. After the tragacanth has absorbed the rose water, sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and add the water and tragacanth. Knead to a solid, smooth ball of icing.
  3. Grind the almonds in a pestle and mortar. Transfer to a bowl.
  4. Peel the ginger and crush it to a pulp in the pestle and mortar, along with the remaining rose water.
  5. Combine the ginger and almonds and add a spoon of icing sugar and combine to form a stiff paste.
  6. Split the icing ball in two and roll out into two discs.
  7. Spread the almond paste on one of the discs and then place the other disc on top, sealing them together.
  8. Push the gingerbread into a mould and leave to set in a dry place for 24 hours or until it has gone hard.
  9. Turn out and decorate with edible gold or whatever you fancy.

“What the hell is sparging?”: Sumerian beer c. 1800 BC

Today’s experiment is something that I’m sure homeschool-weary parents all over the country will be interested in, because it involves alcohol. Beer, actually.

Not just any beer either – 4000 year old beer.

Okay, fine: technically it’s not 4000 years old and technically it’s not what we would recognise as beer, but hey – it’s as good a hook as any.

After a previous semi-successful foray into ancient beer brewing, I decided to give it another shot. This time I wanted to tackle the oldest ‘recipe’ for beer that historians know of, which is found in the 1800 BC Sumerian poem Hymn to Ninkasi.

Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja!

Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.

Your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.

It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.

It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.

It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).

It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.

It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….

It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.

1 line damaged:
You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.

You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Hymn to Ninkasi, trans The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature

Some recipe, right?

Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing. Since beer was an absolutely vital element to everyday life as well as the drink of the gods, it’s likely that she was pretty highly revered.

Hymn to Ninkasi, the song she’s best known for (or as well-known as an ancient Mesopotamian goddess can be) is a cross between a poem and an instructional manual. The formulaic nature of the poem has led scholars to argue it was intended to be said aloud, perhaps as an aid to teach brewers the correct steps needed to make a perfect batch of beer.

Although the poem dates to 1800 BC, the brewing process it documents may well be older. Paul Kriwaczek argued that the techniques within the poem were actually in use about 1000 years before 1800 BC which supports the argument that the poem was originally an oral song which was written down later.

Lapis lazuli cylinder seal
You thought a pint was a large serving size? The Sumerians drank from vases…

Sumerian beer: what do I need to know?

Making the beer was a pretty involved process. Don’t try this if you’ve only got a day or two spare – you’re going to need to check up on various elements of the beer every day for just under a week!

Because the poem was a little vague (to say the least…) I ended up having to make up guess a few of the steps. Luckily I had stumbled across the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, which had this brilliant article by Peter Damerow breaking down some of them.

According to him, the early Sumerians had at least 9 types of beer, which developed as the period went on. By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC cuneiform tablets mentioned characteristics of beer, such as “golden”, “dark” and “sweet”. Early wine critics, if you like.

However, there’s one ingredient that stands out in Sumerian records: bappir. The true meaning of this term has been lost and caused scholars a lot of debate. Some think it refers to a type of bread which was added to the beer before the fermentation process. Others think it was a byproduct of the beer, which was then reincorporated to future brews. Regardless of how it created, my understanding of it (based on a frantic internet search) was that it was some sort of barley dough/grain mixture which contributed to the mash.

The symbol for bappir was show in Cuneiform tablets as two signs inscribed on top of one another – one representing barley and one representing a beer jug (𒋋).

This led to bappir being known as ‘beerbread’, but Damerow suggests this term may be misleading. For one thing, the term bread implies it was edible or at least similar to other breads, which it wasn’t. Secondly, whenever bappir appeared on records it wasn’t listed like other breads (i.e. in quantities), but appeared as if it was grain (i.e. by capacity.)

Was bappir less of a bread and more of a grain? I had no idea and to be honest was quite out of my depth. As a no-win compromise, I decided to bake my bappir like a bread and then immediately break it up afterwards like a grain, before adding it to water to create a cold mash.

Mash? As in sausage and…?

As someone who has no experience of brewing, I found I’d been thrust into a world of new words and confusing terminology. Mash, wort, malt – what did they all mean?

My basic understanding of it is that mash is the liquid you get when you add grains to water. Usually this is heated to a specific temperature to let the sugars do some enzym-y mojo and break down, after which you can add yeast and begin the fermentation process.

The trouble was the poem wasn’t clear about the mashing process. The line “the waves rise, the waves fall” may allude to the mashing process and the addition of water to grain, but there was no mention of heat, although later lines reference a cooling the mixture. This raised the possibility that two types of mashe were used: a hot mash, as is standard today, and a cold mash – where grain is added to cold water and left to sit, unheated, for a few hours.

I began some research into cold mashes to see how I should begin. An online beer forum told me that after the cold mash had been completed it needed “sparging”.

Okay, not to panic, that’s what Google was for, I thought. I typed in “what the hell is sparging” and waited.

“Sparging is a part of the lautering process…”

I started again: “What is the lautering process?”

“The lautering process consists of three steps: mashout, recirculation and sparging.”

I took a quick break from research to scream into a pillow.

In the end I decided to refrain from getting too technical, arguing that the Sumerians were hardly likely to worry about exact temperatures and processes. I split my beer into two mashes – a cold one and a hot one – to cover all bases and after both mashes had competed their individual mashing (no idea if that’s the right term) I combined them.

Making the beer

Making the beer was a long, fun, messy process. If you fancy seeing how it was done (and what it tasted like) then give the video below a watch and please consider boosting my already over inflated ego by subscribing to my YouTube channel.

E x

Pancake Day…with a twist

Yesterday was pancake day – a day as good as Christmas, if not better.

Think about it: there’s no wrapping or unwrapping to be done. There are no strange men clambering down your chimney to judge you for being bad or good. Most importantly – for me, at least – there’s a distinct lack of glitter or loud toys for my daughter to rip into and play with for hours and hours.

Instead there’s just warm pancakey goodness. Topped with sugar and lemon (the only acceptable way to eat them, in my not-so-humble opinion), or golden syrup, pancakes are one of my favourite foods and pancake day is one of the best days of the year.

This year I tried a new type of pancake – a 19th century recipe that used snow instead of eggs. I managed to collect a bowl of (clean!) snow from the garden before it melted away and spent a day experimenting. In another twist I videoed my experience, which you can watch below if you have nothing better to do with your time.

Don’t worry, fans of the written word (and fans who can put their love of the written word to one side in order to support this blog), I’ll still be writing. I’ll probably write about food history a little more often than recipes, but the odd one may slip in occasionally.

In the meantime, enjoy my dulcet tones and enjoy any leftover pancakes!

E x

Breast or thigh?: A history of cannibalism

Last week I wrote about aphrodisiacs, which was a fun pre-Valentine’s date-night foray into the type of food history I don’t usually do. If, however, your ideal date night ends with you deboning something instead, perhaps today’s offering will be more suitable…

(I’m not sure I can get away with that joke. Sorry, mum.)

Cannibalism is a topic that seems to interest a lot of people; there’s a whole Wiki page dedicated to ‘cannibalism in popular culture’. Not to mention an entire horror movie subgenre called ‘cannibal films’. I haven’t seen any of them because I’m still recovering from watching Shaun of the Dead, which puts my tolerance for horror at roughly that of a seven year old child. Nevertheless, I remain very intrigued by this topic.

Is it technically food though? Not to get too Merriam-Webster about it, but the dictionary counts food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” In some circumstances, such as the ones I outline below, I think some forms of cannibalism can be seen through a food lens.

Er, would now be a good time to ask how your husband is?

He’s delicious. Sorry, I meant fine. He’s fine.

The word ‘cannibal’ comes from the Spanish word for an indigenous West Indies tribe called the Carib, who practised it. Incidentally, we also get the word barbeque from the Carib tribe too.

Girolamo Benzoni’s La historia del Mondo Nuovo. Credit here.

And here is where I encountered my first problem with the topic. The practice of eating people without ascribing the term ‘cannibal’ to it is prehistoric – human bones dating to 14,700 years ago bearing butchering marks have been found at Cheddar Gorge in England. And that’s relatively modern, too; some Homo Sapiens bones have been found dating to around 600,000 years old that bear similar marks.

It’s when people begin to slap terms on the practice of eating other people – especially when one civilisation uses the name of another to describe it – that things get messy. Messier.

And that’s because a lot of the earliest accounts of cannibalism are exaggerated. Herodotus wrote about cannibalism being practiced by a tribe called the Androphagi in his 5th century BC work The Histories. He describes them thusly:

The Man-eaters are the most savage of all men in their way of life; they know no justice and obey no law. They are nomads, wearing a costume like the Scythian, but speaking a language of their own; of all these, they are the only people that eat men.

Herodotus 4.106 trans. A. D. Godley.

Not one to hold back his feelings, Herodotus.

He was also not one for telling the truth. Many of his accounts in Histories – especially when concerning other civilisations than Greece – are exaggerated, vilified or just plain made up. So whether or not the Androphagi were truly ‘savage men eaters’ is up for debate.

Well what about later accounts?

Unfortunately it seems hardwired in humans to appreciate a good story over accurate history.

Many early-modern European accounts of cannibalism are also wildly exaggerated. They’re stories travellers brought back to make themselves seem more heroic and to make whatever violent acts they committed seem less serious. Think about it: if you’re a 15th century explorer retelling the story of your travels to your kid what would sound better? “I burned a civilisation to the ground and stole its riches for no other reason than greed and the hope that the queen would bang me” or “I destroyed a monstrous community of cannibals while also furthering our economy in the hope that the queen would bang me.”

Probably neither is appropriate for small children, but you get the picture.

Isabella of Castile patronised Christopher Columbus’ voyage to ‘discover’ America – much to the surprise all the people already living there.

That’s not to say that some civilisations weren’t cannibals, by the way, just that accounts of their desire for human flesh and how often they actually consumed it were misrepresented. Actually, (just to confuse things further) sometimes these civilisations, when they came into contact with Europeans, exaggerated stories of their cannibalistic ways to appear fiercer or just for their own amusement.

My point is, it’s not possible to take every early European account of cannibalism at face value.

No-one expects the Spanish… conquistadors.

Perhaps the most famous civilisation to practice cannibalism was the Aztecs (here referring to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan – now Mexico City.)

The Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo fought alongside Hernán Cortés to destroy the Aztec Empire in Mexico during the 16th century. His account of what he saw there is perhaps one of the biggest pieces of pro-Spanish/anti-Aztec racist propaganda there is, but also shows how gripping these kinds of tales were to people.

Indeed hardly a day passed by that these people did not sacrifice three or four Indians [Aztecs], tearing the hearts out of their bodies to present them to the idols and smear the blood on the wall of the temple. The arms and legs of these unfortunate beings were then cut off and devoured, just the same way we should fetch meat from a butcher’s shop and eat it: indeed I even believe that human flesh is exposed for sale cut up, in their markets.”

The Memoirs of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, trans. John Ingram Lockhart.

Castillo also talks about how the Aztecs cooked people with “the salt, the pepper and the tomatoes.” The idea of Aztecs selling human at meat proto-farmer’s markets alongside artisan cheeses and homemade jam might have been fabricated, but that they ate people definitely wasn’t. Archaeologists have found butcher marks on human bones along with scorch marks to suggest roasting and even staining that shows the meat was cooked with certain spices. Fun fact: Castillo’s gory cannibal recipe is also the first recorded Western recipe that uses tomatoes.

“Human legs! Get your human legs, only £2 per kilo!”

Del Castillo was at least honest about his reasons for being in Mexico; he admitted that it was to “serve God and also to get rich or die trying.” And so he always links cannibalism with heathenism (which must be eradicated) hoping that people will see a connection between the two.

Culture or survival?

Del Castillo’s account of Aztec cannibalism reads as though it was an everyday part of their culture and religion. But was it purely ritualistic?

Well, no.

It’s true that cannibalism was practiced as part of ceremonies and rituals but, according to author and historian Tom Nealon, one other reason for it might come down to a good old fashioned Malthusian threat.

Basically this is the principle that suggests that sudden population growth will eventually lead to disastrous food shortages, ultimately ending in famine and extinction unless something stopped it. Usually this would be something like a war or the development of really tip-top birth control but in this case it might also have been… eating people.

There’s evidence to suggest that this is what happened to the Aztec empire. In Food Fights and Culture Wars, Nealon asserts that by the 16th century, the population had grown so rapidly that food was in short supply. Maize was the staple and most common crop, but the Aztecs didn’t domesticate any animals like pigs or sheep, and most people lived pretty precarious lives in various states of malnourishment.

Combine a nutritionally-unstable diet with a deeply hierarchical and rapidly growing society where no-one questioned the leader (and add in a few vengeful Gods who could only be appeased through human sacrifice) and you have near-perfect conditions for cannibalism.

In the end it boils down to this: if you’re going to sacrifice someone to please the gods, and there was the constant risk of food shortages, you’re kind of going to end up eating people because, well, waste not want not.

If you and your friends were trapped on a desert island, who would you eat first?

It’s a game we’ve all played before (haven’t we?) If you were trapped with your friends and nearing starvation would it be better to eat Toby (whose dedication to the gym could make for some pretty juicy burgers), or Sarah (whose over-enthusiastic use of peach body spray might give a fruity picancy to kebabs)? Choices, choices…

Cannibal survival stories are very common. Distressingly so. I cover the Donner Party with my GCSE groups and we often spend time picking apart the survivor accounts and discussing the perils of the journey to west America in the 19th century. For those that don’t know, the Donner party was a group of American pioneers who travelled westwards to California in 1846. Unfortunately they ended up stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range halfway through their journey. In freezing conditions, with winter setting in, they had no option but to stay put in an inhospitable territory and, as the days turned into weeks and months, eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Patrick Breen, a member of the Donner party, wrote in February 1847 “Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt & eat him. I don[‘]t that she has done so yet, it is distressing.”

It’s a theme echoed in the horrific accounts of the 1972 Andes flight disaster, which saw survivors of a plane crash in the Andes resort to the cannibalism of their dead friends and relatives in order to stay alive.

But rather than just retell these well-known events I want to talk about another survival story, one that often gets overlooked.

The case of the hungry sailors and the unfortunate cabin boy

In 1884 the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, England to Sydney, Australia. There were four men aboard: Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brook and Richard Parker.

About two months after setting sail disaster struck and a wave partially destroyed the yacht. The captain – Tom Dudley – ordered the crew into the lifeboat.

“That’s it: the more the merrier. We can get a really good stew going now.”

They survived for about two weeks by eating tins of turnips, the carcass of an unfortunate turtle, and by drinking their urine. By the third week 17 year old Richard Parker was slipping in and out of consciousness, possibly due to extreme dehydration.

The other men now faced a choice: die of dehydration themselves or kill Parker and drink his blood. When Stephens protested, Dudley reportedly responded “the boy is dying. You have a wife and five children and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before.” Nice.

Parker was killed on around the 25th July and his blood was caught in a chronometer case and passed between the three men to drink. They (a bit weirdly, I think) then chose to eat his heart and liver straight away, saving bits of his arms and legs for later.

On the 29th July – only 4 days afterwards – they were saved by a German ship. Interestingly this ship was called the Moctezuma, named after a famous Aztec leader who was himself a cannibal. Funny, right? I mean probably not for poor Richard Parker, but he got the last laugh when Yan Martel named the tiger in his novel Life of Pi after him (the novel also touches briefly on the idea of cannibalism.)

The men were pretty honest about their actions and almost as soon as they arrived in England they were put on trial to find out whether or not they had committed an unforgivable murder or whether their need to survive – their need for food – was an acceptable excuse to kill and eat someone.

The case – Regina v Dudley & Stephens, as it was known – was a huge case at the time, despite being a total shambles. 

Firstly, the judge basically instructed the jury to find them guilty saying that the law “could not recognise necessity as justification for killing”.

But the jury wouldn’t find Dudley and Stephens guilty. So the case was moved to a higher court where a panel of 5 judges found the men guilty. The men were sentenced to death but the Home Office intervened and reduced the sentence to six months imprisonment – a pretty huge climb down if ever there was one.

Ultimately though, the verdict wasn’t overturned. The Home Office agreed with the courts that despite the men’s argument, the killing of Richard Parker could not be deemed a defence of necessity. Notice here that it’s not the cannibalism that the judge had the biggest issue with, but the killing of the boy in order to eat him. Had they waited until he was already dead, perhaps the verdict would have been different. But perhaps they would have been dead by then too. Choices, choices indeed…

Is anyone else getting hungry?

And this is where I’ll leave it for today.

I’ll do a future post on cannibalism in mythology because that’s where things get really crazy, but it seemed sensible to start with the stuff that actually happened first.

For now, I seem to be overcome with desire for fried liver with a nice chianti. Or even better: steak tartare with salt, pepper and tomatoes. Bon appétit!

E x

(I promise my husband is fine.)