How Medieval is Thanksgiving?

Not entirely, to be sure!  Turkey is a new world bird:  indeed, I was just talking to a professor last week who was telling me that Syrian refugees in Europe have been turning up their noses at processed turkey sandwiches because the meat is unfamiliar to them, and they can't be sure it is halal.  Chicken is known in the Middle East, and well known, but turkey is still unfamiliar.

All the same, it turns out that the answer is "somewhat."
In other words, the Englishmen who landed in Massachusetts didn’t eat turkey because it was the only local food available. Rather, they’d been quite familiar with it back in England, where it was even common to remove the skin and feathers, cook it and serve it with the feathers replaced, as if it were still living – a standard medieval trick.

The side dishes also date back to Europe, with flavor profiles that are actually medieval in origin.

Take cranberry sauce. In medieval Europe, sour fruit sauce with wild fowl was a popular combination, one that balanced a cold and moist condiment with a hot, dry meat. In the mid-17th century, for example, the famous French chef La Varenne served turkey with raspberries.

But the real connection between Thanksgiving and the medieval feast is in the spices. Although today we use the blanket term “pumpkin spice” to characterize variations of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger (and they show up practically everywhere in cheap artificial form), these flavors were the backbone of medieval cuisine, appearing in a wide array of sweet and savory dishes, from chicken to pasta.

Back then, it simply wasn’t a lavish meal without a riot of spices (which, because they needed to be imported from Asia, were wildly expensive). Today the only one of these spices that stays on the table year-round is pepper. But their pivotal role in Thanksgiving again is a reminder of the tradition’s remote origins.


Texan99 said...

Those spices show up on our table more often than on Thanksgiving! We regularly use everything in a quite large spice cabinet, and almost never find anything in a recipe that we don't stock as a matter of course.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and I hope you had some good pumpkin and/or sweet potato pie with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. We had two neighbor households join us, potluck style. We all made way too much food, of course, but we split up the excess, so my frig is full of a wild variety of leftovers that I'm looking forward to for the rest of the week, not to mention turkey soup with the carcass.

Eric Blair said...

Those spices are further an echo of Ancient Roman cooking--which also liked those combinations, and curiously, it was a 19th century cooking innovation to dispense with those spices for the more "natural" flavors of the food items themselves.

douglas said...

Interesting, so I guess that I prepared Venison Loin marinated according to a recipe adapted from Apicious' "On the Subject of Food", was even more on point than just that it was surely on the menu for the Pilgrims.

Came out pretty good, too.

Texan99 said...

We had venison last week, too. A doe tried to jump a neighbor's fence and broke her leg getting tangled, so another neighbor went over and destroyed the poor thing. Then he butchered the carcass and shared the meat with us. My husband braised it with cranberries, shiitake mushrooms, and walnuts.