Stanford researcher cooks up the courtly culture of Europe in the 1600's
Study of 17th-century food and dining practices yields compelling cultural information about a society struggling to rebuild after the Thirty Years War. Note: They ate a lot of meat, and everyone drank beer.
In 1654 the Prince of Brandenburg went to great lengths to acquire a Dutch candy called "Druike Franze Confituren." According to a letter he wrote to one of his agents in the Netherlands, the Prince's mother-in-law expected this particular candy to be waiting for her at court when she arrived for a visit.
At first glance, the historical anecdote about a sweet tooth might seem inconsequential. But for Stanford Early Modern European History graduate student Molly Taylor-Poleskey, food tales like this provide a vital window to understanding the cultural values and networks of 17th century Europe.
Although it's difficult to study something as transient as a meal, Taylor-Poleskey has uncovered an array of pertinent artifacts in Berlin, Germany: the Prussian State Secret Archives.
By examining even the most mundane kitchen details (such as food orders or ingredient lists), Taylor-Poleskey has gained insight into the early stages of modern Europe. Because food choice is influenced by both fashion tastes and necessity, Taylor-Poleskey said, studying food and dining practices illuminates a culture's values.
For the past six months Taylor-Poleskey has been in Berlin studying the archival records of Brandenburg in the period immediately following the Thirty Years War. She has found that documentation about the ceremony surrounding the preparation and consumption of food adds detail to the history of a rapidly changing society.
For her, the food consumption habits serve as "the concrete source for answering the larger questions of how the culture of Brandenburg-Prussia changed over the course of the 17th century." Learning which foods were enjoyed and how they were prepared allows her to address bigger questions such as "Who made the decisions about what 'Brandenburg culture' would be?" and "Which political or confessional allies and rivals strongly affected those decisions?"
Charting history through a study of menus
In the 17th century, the territory of Brandenburg was faced with the enormous challenge of rebuilding after the destruction of the Thirty Years War. The fundamental question of Taylor-Poleskey's dissertation asks, "How did an early modern state rebuild its culture after a considerable rupture?"
A print of the prince-elector and prince-electoress presiding over their pleasure garden in Berlin in the mid-16th century. Engraved by Johann Sigismund Elsholtz.
The answer, she found, could be found in the territory's kitchens. There she discovered that food lists reflect the evolution of the restructuring period. Taylor-Poleskey hopes her study of food ingredients (such as the introduction of New World products like the potato or squash) and objects (like the number of utensils used or dishes served) will indicate "when the shift from a Renaissance to a Baroque dining culture took place in the Brandenburg court. "
She looks for changes in the presentation of the food and the order of the dishes during a meal. "The Renaissance diet included many more spices (loads of them), very few utensils and a mix between sweet and savory within dishes and throughout the meal," she said. "A Baroque cuisine was much more ordered with set procession of dishes. Quality (i.e., expense) came to be demonstrated in the skill of preparation and presentation rather than in the cost of the ingredients."
"Star chefs are not an invention of the 20th century," she said, "and there were more specialized utensils and dishes that people at court had to know how to use properly in order to demonstrate that they belonged to elite society."
One document Taylor-Poleskey found especially interesting was a 1674, hand-written order from the Prince-Elector, Frederich William detailing who got to drink which wines at meals at court. Apparently, in an effort to save money, the Prince-Elector ordered that most of the 500 people at court (the servants and councilors, etc.) would get French wine because it was cheaper. The princes' tables and the tables of the ladies of the court, however, would be given the more expensive Rhine wines.
Taylor-Poleskey found this fascinating "because it says nothing about the taste of the wines, only the relative expense of them. In this way the hierarchy of wines was another way of reifying the social hierarchy of the ruler and his servants. Political culture was therefore also being acted out in the consumption of food. "
Fortunately, studying food does not necessarily mean eating it. Taylor-Poleskey describes the flavor palettes she encounters in her research as "not particularly appetizing."
"The flavors that they were accustomed to are not part of our palette anymore, so even if I tasted them, I would not be able to say much about how a 17th-century person would have experienced them."
What Brandenburg's kitchens reveal about ours
Surprisingly, Taylor-Poleskey says that her research has led to observations about contemporary social views on food. One contrast that fascinates her is the value of food in both eras. "Food was a much more valuable commodity in the 17th century that it is for us today," she elaborates, "They did not have problems with food waste."
In 17th-century Berlin, unneeded food could be repurposed as a gift, or as in one case Taylor-Poleskey found, extra wine was doled out as payment for debts. Their appreciation of food as a resource highlights the flaws in what Taylor-Poleskey refers to as "our current, imbalanced global food system."
What was eaten at court? Huge amounts of meat and fish, such as deer, oxen, cattle, sheep, goats, lambs, rabbits, chickens and doves.
There was no tea or coffee yet and nobody drank the water. Beer was what everybody drank, even to wake up in the morning, and even by the young pages. Those of the upper ranks at the courtly table consumed "Lordly Beer" (Heeren Bier), and wines from Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, France, the Rhine and Mosel River regions, as well as some local vintages. Fabulous and expensive sugar sculptures decked the courtly table and were meant to delight guests.
Taylor-Poleskey's research is also leading her to challenge ideas about traditional foods in contemporary societies. Like today, early modern period food trends and dishes circulated widely. For millennia, humans have been moving food from one place to another; sharing insights about farming methods and modifying plants to suit weather patterns, human tastes and nutritional needs. "If you think about it, there really are no "traditional foods," she said.
With this in mind, Taylor-Poleskey hopes to continue to uncover more evidence of how political, diplomatic and financial ambitions confronted the beliefs, priorities and abilities of the wider population on the dining table.
Camille Brown is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.
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