The Medieval Cook.
By Bridget Ann Henisch.
Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, February 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1843834380, $47.95. 200 pages.
Review by Stephanie Plummer, Bowling Green State University
Medieval foodways, as shown in popular film or understood in the popular imagination, rely on motifs of abundance and lack. Regardless of the historical accuracy in film, or its scarcity, what is frequently missing in these images is an interpretive framework for understanding what it meant to eat in the medieval period. Foodways scholars, anthropologists, and cultural analysts have worked to build such a framework, providing useful ways to approach what might otherwise be a forgotten force in the progression of history. In particular, the anthropologist Sidney Mintz and American Studies professor Warren Belasco, among others, have worked to outline the power, hierarchy, and cultural markers present in our understanding of taste and even our daily meals.
Although food studies has made great strides toward creating unified theories about food, this scholarship has tended toward an analysis of a particular contemporary culture, as part of far-thrown anthropological fieldwork or consumerist critique. Bridget Ann Henisch, in her fourth book, The Medieval Cook, departs from the tendency toward exoticizing food or focusing on a single food item while reinforcing the previous work of foodways scholars to link social and economic class with food consumption. As Henisch states in her preface, the goal of The Medieval Cook is to illuminate the context of medieval kitchens and dining rooms, and the individuals who participated in those activities. The Medieval Cook examines much of Western Europe beginning roughly with the Norman Conquest and extending into the early 1500s. Thus, The Medieval Cook pieces together the literature, art, and visual culture of the medieval period to construct an image of chefs and cooks, abundance and lack, banquet halls and cottage hearths.
In this way, Henisch eschews heavy-handed analysis while clearly outlining in six chapters the borders that marked the medieval “haves” from the “have-nots.” Chapters such as “Fast Food and Fine Catering” discuss those areas of medieval life, the market stalls, taverns, guest houses, bakeries and butcher shops, which betrayed one’s class, position, and to some medieval Europeans, one’s questionable moral character. The final chapter, “On the Edge: the Cook in Art,” deviates from the general purpose of the other chapters by discussing works of art that feature medieval kitchen workers or specific medieval foods, such as pancakes. This chapter is less about the general mood and activities of people in the middle ages and more about the visual culture which remains from that time. Nonetheless, this chapter describes the visual, medieval context of the culinary arts; thus, it fits well into the overall goal of The Medieval Cook. In this chapter Henisch also outlines The Medieval Cook’s conclusions, that medieval cookery was not entirely appreciated as an art, that food’s central position in daily life meant it could not be excluded from art and literature and that medieval cooks knew the difficult work of improvisation. That this chapter includes the author’s end remarks is not entirely clear until the last few pages of the chapter. As a result, Henisch’s condensed conclusions leave the reader wanting more guidance about the book’s overall meaning.
Henisch has charged herself with no small task considering the challenges inherent in gathering information recorded over the six centuries discussed in The Medieval Cook. Illiteracy, most common among the lowest economic strata and those also most likely to be household workers in the medieval period, means that a picture of medieval cookery could only ever be partial. Furthermore, dealing with delicate and potentially deteriorating documents certainly must have been a challenge in achieving a complete image of medieval foodways. Even determining the medieval period’s beginning and end dates could be difficult given the contentiousness which surrounds academic definitions of exactly when and where medieval society was situated.
Although The Medieval Cook might have benefited from addressing issues such as time frame or regional difference more closely, Henisch provides readers with a vivid description of food and preparation methods, subjects which can be especially difficult to transmit to readers. Furthermore, it is clear from the vivid language in The Medieval Cook that Henisch enjoys writing about food. This may be the reason that several recipes for medieval fare appear in The Medieval Cook for the adventurous food lover to try out. Additionally, the descriptiveness and excitement in her writing transforms what could potentially be a dry subject into a lush treat for readers. Despite The Medieval Cook’s accessibility, some excerpts taken from medieval literature could prove a stumbling block for readers unfamiliar with Middle English. Henisch combats this in some areas by providing a direct, modern translation, while keeping these excerpts to a minimum and often using their presence to enhance the drama and tension which surrounded medieval household management.
What is given to the reader, then, is a fair opportunity to scrutinize for him or herself the management of medieval kitchens and foodways or at the very least, the way these things were represented by medieval artisans and writers. As a result, The Medieval Cook may be of interest to chefs, home cooks, and those interested in history or the culinary arts. However, the conclusions and research in The Medieval Cook would also be helpful to art historians, literary scholars, medievalists, cultural anthropologists, and popular culture scholars. In particular, Henisch’s research adds to a large body of work on the interaction between foodways and social and economic class, while giving readers a rather comprehensive description of the jobs, dishes, ingredients, and utensils present in medieval kitchens.