Friday, September 14, 2007

Author/Book Report - Ken Albala

The author actually has a blog on this same system. He might find this and read it sometime. I hope so; it would be wonderful to be in touch with him.

This is a loose opinion piece on two books by Ken Albala. I have not completely read either book, and so it will be by nature slightly loose and cannot be considered a thorough study of either book. I have not had the opportunity to read any of his other works. There, all the caveats.

I also just discovered that the author has a blog called Ken Albala's Food Rant. I recommend it, if only for the image on the latest (September) page of the pipkin cooking in his fireplace full of a 16th century rabbit recipe. He has a nice, personal, insight into food and food culture, so far.

Now, on to the books. From the my local library system I got two of his works:
Food in Early Modern Europe, by Ken Albala. 260 pages.
Greenwood Press, 2003. ISBN: 0313319626
Cooking in Europe, 1250-1650, by Ken Albala. 153 pages.
Greenwood Press, 2006. ISBN: 0313330964

(I am apparently the first person to ever check these books out, as some of the pages weren't thoroughly trimmed and I've had to gently separate them at the edges.)

The first is a treatise on the subject. The second is a cookbook of sorts. I'll deal with each volume separately.

Food in Early Modern Europe
His historic scope seems to be 1492 with the discovery of the New World to 1800+, which makes much of the book post-period. It doesn't suffer any for this, however, and is still a resource for the SCA's time period.

I respect the author for his interest in food and culinary history, but would not recommend this book as more than a casual source. Unlike other books in this genre, the author opines on various subjects without giving sources for his information, and I have caught at least one serious factual inaccuracy. I also find myself a bit dismayed at the lack of actual bibliography, the scarcity of notes, and the conspicuous absence of certain well-established sources from his Further Readings list.

Albala states that table manners were invented in the early modern timeperiod, without any reference to where he got his information. [1] This would likely come as a surprise to Thomasin of Zerclaere, an Italian from Trieste who in about 1215 wrote Der Wälsche Gast (The Italian Guest) for a German audience in which a great many table manners were outlined [2]. Although Albala couldn't have listed Strong (my source) in his Suggested Further Readings as it postdates his book, he does list Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massino Montinari's Food: A Culinary History which states specifically, "Numerous normative texts devoted to good manners began to appear at the beginning of the twelfth century." [3] Honestly, I find this a bit annoying.

Another point of interest factually is his insistence that bowls were for soup from an early period. While this might be so, he doesn't give any sources for this claim, and everything else I've read thus far has indicated that bowls were for drinking and that pottages and other runny foods were sopped with bread from the trencher. If there is evidence for bowls for runny foods early on it would have been a good thing to provide the source information; as it is I find myself wondering if he's over-generalizing or misinterpreting sources.

However, I do like this book, even if I recommend using caution and comparison to information from other writings in the food history genre. For one thing, there is a nice listing of ingredients and another of cooking methods. Both are pleasant additions to a book like this, though again I find myself bemoaning the lack of footnotes or source links and appearance of personal speculation over interpretation of information. And second, Albala cares about what he's presenting. He has obviously dabbled in actually preparing food from primary sources, and in fact states that he will not interpret nor present 'modern' versions of recipes for the reader, instead giving us the original text in a readable-by-modern-English-speaking-persons format. I respect that.

He also lays out modern food culture and those things which have caused great changes even in the last century in contrast to how things were in history with insight I find myself thoroughly appreciating. This man recognizes how things have changed and wants the reader to, also. Over-generalized, perhaps, but touched on in a manner I haven't seen so plainly addressed before.

In summary, read the book and enjoy but be aware that his facts might or might not be accurate. I highly recommend checking anything he says (yes, anything - in my eyes one or two mistakes potentially taint the whole thing) against other works. But do trust him to present recipes in as close to the original format as is feasible for the scope of his book.

Cooking in Europe 1250-1650
I want this book! This volume is part of a series, Daily Life Through History, and concentrates entirely upon recipes from primary sources. Unlike Food in Early Modern Europe it is both well-annotated and has a fine, fine bibliography. And like that other book, he hasn't given any modern version of any recipe, not even measurements. The contents are arranged by time period, broken down into the middle ages, Renaissance, and late Renaissance/Elizabethan eras, but he has also (joy!) given us lists of recipes by country (modern, period geographical region), type, and listed recipes for special occasions (including food for the sick). And if that's not fine enough, the index is by subject including ingredient. You can look up onions and get page numbers for every recipe which includes onions.

Every recipe has a bit of information beneath it. Sometimes this is insight from Albala's personal knowledge as a historic cook, sometimes it's factual information about ingredients or other intricacies of cooking. And each and every recipe is presented in as close to the original format as can be while translating it into modern English. He doesn't omit ingredients, he doesn't act as though his readers are
too dumb to go out and find verjuice if they need it. He respects his readers and writes for those of us interested in food history rather than making it 'seem medieval' using whatever we can get at Albertson's.

This is a later volume than the other book and I think Albala is shaping up well as a food writer for we in the SCA interested in truly cooking period food. The book is probably somewhat overpriced at $40.51 (alibris .com) to $53.50 ( but I still want it.

- Teceangl

[1] Albala, Ken, Food in Early Modern Europe, p. xv: "Even such
apparently commonplace things as forks and table manners were first
introduced in this period."
[2] Strong, Roy, Feast, ppg. 68-69 referencing William Michael Rossetti, Italian Courtesy Books.
[3] Flandrin, Jean-Louis and Massino Montinari, ed., Food: A Culinary History, in the article 'Mind Your Manners: Etiquette at Table' by Daniela Romangnoli, pg. 330.


Ken Albala said...

Hey There, I did indeed stumble on this while randomly browsing. I'm glad you enjoyed these. Or mostly enjoyed them. You are right about they're being overpriced, and that I played a little loose with some of my sources, but keep in mind these are meant to be reference works for students. And they wouldn't let me have a huge bibliographical apparatus and notes.

As for manners, I agree with you. Manners are of course mentioned in print through the middle ages, you're right. But they, and forks, don't really become widespread until about the 16th century. At least according to Norbert Elias, Margaret Visser and others. I wish I could visit and prove them wrong though.

But really, if you want some hard-hitting academic stuff, footnoted up the wazoo, please do take a look at my other monographs: Eating Right in The Renaissance and The Banquet, which just came out this spring. I think you'll like them.

Yours, Ken

Teceangl Bach said...

Wow. I must be in the big time - the Author has found me and responded to my comments.

Thanks for the two new titles. As I believe I said, I'm very interested in what you're writing. The SCA is a ready audience for pre-1600 food writings, and I hope that people use this space to learn about new resources. And yes, we certainly do like hard-hitting academic stuff, footnoted up the wazoo. Primary sources and solid secondary ones are well appreciated, and tertiary sources which lead us back to primary works valuable.

For manners my references are Peter Hammond, where I first discovered early 15th century treatises, and Roy Strong with the Thomasin of Zerclaere reference. I'm in the middle of his _Feast_ and looking forward to even more information of that sort.

The Banquet, hmm? I sense a trip to my favorite bookstore soon.

Appreciate the commentary.
- Teceangl