On May 11, 1963, a Los Angeles couple named Ron and Phyllis Patterson held a weekend-long radio station fundraiser they called a "Renaissance Pleasure Faire," giving birth to a whole new entertainment industry based on corsets, meat pies, and stilted faux-Shakespearean English. This month, to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Ye Olde Renaissance Festival, we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to drop by and give us the scoop on what really went on during the Middle Ages. He's going to get medieval on your ass…umptions.
The Debunker: Were Spices So Valuable Because They Hid the Taste of Rotten Meat?
The spice trade between Asia and Europe, from classical times up through the Age of Discovery, has shaped the history of both continents. Cinnamon, ginger, and pepper from India and China lit up taste buds in the Middle East and eventually Western Europe. Fortunes were made or lost on the stuff, which could be worth well more than its weight in gold. Dutch traders could mark up a shipload of nutmeg as high as 60,000 percent and still sell out.
The grammar-school retelling of this economy almost always begins with this "fact": Europeans needed spices because otherwise their food would taste rancid and gross. In a pre-refrigeration age, the only way to choke down spoiled meat would be to load it with plenty of cardamom or cloves. But as a moment's thought will reveal, the most serious problem with rotten meat is not that it should taste more like cardamom. Human beings have known since prehistoric times that eating spoiled meat was unsafe: it could lead to violent food poisoning and even death.
The myth about disguising spoiled meat is a modern invention. Medieval Europeans knew plenty about preserving meat: they could dry it, salt it, and smoke it. We have records of butchers being pilloried for selling bad meat. Cookbooks of the time recommend the same elaborate spicing for veggie dishes as they do for meat, and the only food writer to mention meat spoilage, Bartolomeo Platina, simply recommends using salt to cure pork, and advises readers to toss any ham that smells funny. Rotten meat was no more an everyday snack in the Middle Ages than it is now.
So why the high prices for dry spices? Medieval food was indeed much more heavily spiced than European cuisine is today, as you probably already suspect if you've ever tried British food. Food historian Alice Arndt lists three reasons for the popularity of spices. First, some (like nutmeg, cumin, and cinnamon) were used as preservatives so meat wouldn't spoil. Second, their rarity made them a showy marker of wealth, like those $100 burgers today that come with foie gras and gold leaf. "The poorer classes sure can't serve lamb that tastes like this!" you'd be telling your guests. And finally, cookbooks often recommended specific herbs and spices for medicinal (or at least psuedo-medicinal) purposes. According to the theories of the day, the right taste or texture of spice, when added to a dish, could help balance the body's "humors." Something to keep in mind next time you're choosing a dipping sauce for your McNugs.
Quick Quiz: What was the only first name shared by two of the Spice Girls?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.