Long before Gourmet Magazine went out of business in 2009, collapsed under too many overwrought articles on bovine emissions, it had been an intellectual colossus in the culinary world. From the 1940s through the ’60s, it featured lush travel articles on world cuisine venturing into far-flung places such as Persia, Bhutan (“a taste of Shangri-La!”) and the Texas prairie. Only Gourmet Magazine could print recipes from ordinary folks in the Midwest (“Nicoise Salad Abramowitz”) to the finger food of the Whirling Dervishes. Its writing staff featured charmingly rococo names like Malabar Hornblower, Waverly Root, Doone Beal and Irene Corbally Kuhn all of whom had long literary and culinary careers. Waverly Root wrote the classic Food of Italy and Hornblower did major historical work digging into the eating habits of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. Gourmet took food and travel so seriously that articles were often published in two or three chapters over the course of several months no doubt incurring skyrocketing expenses that only post-war prosperity could support. In its last years, it played more to the penurious and attention-deficit youth market: store bought pizza dough recipes and textless photographs of Brooklyn mixologists. Where oh where had the monthly columns “Specialites de la Maison New York” and “Paris Journal” – undoubtedly written by tubby gourmands with napkins askew – gone?
Mario Micossi’s etching for “A Medieval Feast”
Luckily, that’s where Ebay comes in. For a pittance, one can buy ten old Gourmets and wile away a nostalgic hour or two remembering New York City or London restaurants one dined at in 1979. Still, I was surprised to see Gourmet time travel. While flipping through a 1976 edition, I came across an article called “A Medieval Feast” by the self-styled Pressure Cooker Queen Lorna J. Sass. Written in the present tense, it captures something of the heated expectations of the barons seated in King Richard II’s Great Hall and the hysterical mood of the chief steward, pantler and butler. Imagine two hundred cooks in the kitchen with slaughtered animals piled to the roof! Here is a list of some of provisions she cites:
“14 oxen lying in salt, 2 freshly killed oxen, 120 sheepheads, 12 boars, 13 calves, 100 marrowbones, 50 swans, 210 geese, 200 rabbits, 1,200 pigeons, 144 partridges, 720 hens and 11,000 eggs”
While the kitchen is in tumult, minstrels play and jugglers and acrobats wander among the noble and refined diners. “Like the Prioress in the Canterbury Tales, they are careful to leave no traces of grease on either their lips or their mazers (drinking bowls).” How those merry Yorkists could rock it!
Here are two slightly adapted recipes from “A Medieval Feast” that reinforces how our western ancestors applied the modern notion that savory and sweet can be combined in a delicious and sophisticated manner. Everything old is new again.
Try these during the Christmas season:
Pork Pie with Herbs and Spices
Make two pie dough crusts and drape one round over the rolling pin and fit it into a pie pan. Prick it with a fork and chill for 30 minutes. Do a blind bake at 400 degrees F (200 C) for 10 minutes.
In a bowl combine 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup each of minced pitted dates and raisins, 2 tablespoons of chicken broth, minced parsley and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, salt, sage, 1/2 teasoon of ground ginger and crushed saffron threads. Add 3/4 pound of boneless pork loin cut into cubes and combined well. Transfer to pie shell.
Place the second pie round over the rolling pin and unroll over the pie. Trim and crimp and paint with either milk or beaten egg. Prick the crust to allow steam to escape. Bake the pie at 350 F (175C) in the lower third of the preheated oven for approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes or until crust is golden.
Spiced Pear Puree
In a heavy saucepan combine 6 ripe but firm pears, peeled, cored and diced along with a cup of sherry. Add several cinnamon sticks (to taste), 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of allspice, mace and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce until pears are soft. Discard cinnamon sticks and puree the pears. Return to fire and cook until slightly thickened. Stir in homemade breadcrumbs or graham cracker/digestive biscuits crumbs and serve with sweetened whipped cream with a little nutmeg grated on top.
And while you enjoy these dishes, give a nod to the Plantagenets and their Yorkist cohorts who brought such joy and abundance to the Christmas season and a doleful sigh to the Tudors who brought them low.