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The Seven Centuries Cookbook, by Maxime McKendry

Would you like some roasted porpoise? Whale tongue? Perhaps heron or swan is more to your taste. Let's check the spice cupboard to see what we've got ... Oh dear, no cubebs, galyngale, or saunders! Whatever shall we do?

Actually, if one is a modern cook, one wouldn't have any of the above items in one's kitchen—nor would most people even think of eating the animals listed. But all of these items—and much more—were regular feast fare in medieval England. The Seven Centuries Cookbook provides an excellent overview of the evolution of English cooking. In doing so, McKendry also helps restore some pride to a cuisine that is much maligned in general circles, yet celebrated to varying degrees at Renaissance festivals and SCA events.

Later centuries are accorded a chapter each, with the 14th through 16th centuries combined to form the first chapter. Cookbooks were not common items in those days; between the expense of printing, and the general nature of recipes, that isn't surprising. Each chapter begins with an historical and culinary overview of the period before proceeding to the recipes. It's difficult to say which is more fascinating, the overview or the recipes themselves, as McKendry presents most recipes twice: its original version and an updated version in today's English and modified to modern standards. This encompasses not just measurements, but ingredient differences—back then, eggs were much smaller, and wheat and other grains quite different from their current industrially-grown counterparts. Even a mind accustomed to reading Shakespeare and Chaucer might have difficulty with instructions like these:

Take a crust inch deep in a trap; take yolks of eggs raw and cheese ruayn and meddle it and the yolks together and do thereto powder, ginger, sugar, safron, and salt, do it in a trap, bake it well and serve it forth. (p. 27, from The Forme of Cury, 1378)
That's for a brie cheese quiche, by the way—one of many unusual, appetizing recipes I'm longing to try. McKendry has tried many of the recipes, and frequently offers comments, or her own seasoning or garnish suggestions to them.

As a fairly serious home cook, I'm easily enamored by good cookbooks. The Seven Centuries Cookbook does appear to fall into that category, although I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I've not yet tried any of the recipes—largely because every time I open the book I find another one that sounds too good not to try! I suffer an overabundance of tempting recipes, many offering herb and spice combinations that are unusual by today's standards. However, being a good cookbook isn't a sufficient criterion for a review here; the book must be relevant to the mission I more or less keep to here, that of providing value to individuals who love freedom. The unusual spicings would probably intrigue other individualist cooks who prefer to find or create their own flavor combinations rather than what CorporoFoodHut churns out of their ovens and extruders, but that is just a bonus.

The primary reason I'm recommending this cookbook is for the potential survivalist value it offers. It's one thing to recall an old nursery rhyme of four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, but it's much more useful to have more information, such as small birds in a pie (p. 36), chicken with gooseberries or grapes (p. 77), or a pupton of pigeons (pp. 124-5). Not surprisingly, game recipes are plentiful, spanning fowl, fish, and mammal. The use of mushrooms, nuts, and lesser-known herbs and roots offers good reason to learn more about edibles available for foraging in one's area, or for growing in the garden where possible. While the appendix offers a few resources, today an internet search makes it easy to overlook the paucity of information there. To learn a good deal of food history, to expand one's use of everyday items (I lost count of the number of cooked cucumber recipes), and to prepare oneself for the possibility of someday needing to roast a peacock, or eat eels in order to survive, get The Seven Centuries Cookbook. (If you do, you'll have the boon of being able to present children of all ages with green eggs and ham!)

[Postscript: The sidebar lists books related to this one, rather than other books by McKendry, as it appears this was her only book. The only one I currently possess—and wholeheartedly recommend—is The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American. It's a wonderful book with excellent recipes.]

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