Joys and Perils of Eating the Past

Kage Baker was an avid historian. She was also a good cook. At the intersection of these two passions were the period recipes she liked to recreate and serve t0 her friends. The main goals were curiosity and attention to detail: how did bread taste with peas, beans and boiled rye in it in it, and would it play better to the eye than a hunk of sour dough?

When she began writing, those same urges applied to the foods she described in her books. If it was ancient or exotic, she had to try it; not just tasting it, but sourcing the ingredients as accurately as possible, and making it as close to the original fashion as she could.

There are plenty of cookbooks out there these days with period recipes from various ages. A lot of them are in translation, though, with the original instructions translated into something a modern cook and kitchen can manage. Kage considered that cheating, even though the best of them are successful in achieving a non-modern taste treat. However, Kage liked to play it as close to the original as possible – even if it meant learning to joint a rabbit (which differs anatomically from, say, a chicken, in interesting and hilarious ways), or stewing turnips in a ceramic pot on the edge of the living room fireplace. Cream of soot, yum.)

This mania is common to the more creative kind of re-creators, by the way. In our own group, it has led to learning how to bake bread and perfect scones over a wood fire (we will never forget them, Shannon!), and discovering that parsnip tarts are a pastry worthy of the gods (thank you, Neassa!), as well as one memorable afternoon where Kimberly produced Yorkshire pudding over the open fire in the Innyard: she had tourists leaning over the fence drooling around their cameras.

It can be taken too far, of course – one of our dear friends, the late and much-lamented Kevin Brown, managed by dint of cleverness and iron nerves to reproduce Roman fish sauce, aka garum. Go ahead, look it up on the aether, Dear Readers. But make sure you pick one of the really authentic recipes, not one of the sissy versions that say it’s not as bad as you might think. Those always leave out the entrails and the solar stewing in a clay jar. But Kevin did all the traditional things. It was an historical triumph, and every bit as ghastly as you might expect.

Kage drew the line at garum, but only because she hated fish and didn’t want to share houseroom with extravagantly undead bait fish. Many of her experiments were divine. I still adore her pottage of leeks, which is guaranteed to curl your toes with delight and initiate serious cholesterol poisoning. However, as I have mentioned before, a lot of the foods in the Company books were tried out on me – sardine tacos. Maize pancakes with creme de leche. Creamed turnips, and eel soup with poppy petals. Oranges  in brine, ham with buttercream frosting, marzipan locusts. Maraschino liqueur.

Maraschino liqueur, incidentally, is disgusting. Forget sweet little cherries on ice cream sundaes; maraschino looks like vodka and motor oil and tastes like rancid buttered Brazil nuts. There is nothing remotely cherry-esque about it. Kage resorted to trying several brands, and then making it herself finally; the only person who could drink it was her, but mirabile dictu! Kage loved it!  So she drank maraschino and I ate sardine tacos, and we sneered at one another and she got to write really authentic food scenes.

In illustration of the kinds of things Kage liked to try, here is a link to the many fruits and vegetables that are believed to have made their way across Asia into Europe via the Silk Road. ( There are lots of interesting things to try here. Kage was always fascinated with the idea that apples and roses – so quintessentially English! – were brought into the Blessed Isles by the Romans: who, as it turned out, got them in turn via the Silk Road.

A slight turn to one side from the above article brings us to a recent tragedy, which happened because people forgot old food information. ( This involved a Mongolian couple, whose people – like most folks near the Silk Road – once had very specific rules about when it safe to eat marmots. (Hint: it’s not.) Evidently forgetting this, and relying instead on imported Chinese traditional medicine, they ate a marmot’s kidneys in order to ensure good health. But, guess what? The marmots along the Silk Road are the natural reservoir for bubonic plague! Did Chinese traditional medicine know this? Nope. And this couple promptly died of plague; and I don’t think most of their friends and relations know the connection to the ancient lore …

This is the other reason to find out how and what and why people used to eat. Sometimes something fatal is mixed up in the old stories, and it’s nice to figure out what it was before we chow down on the local rodents, or wet rye flour.  Or before we condemn all moldy bread to the waste bin, when it might cure syphilis. Or even hang on to the blue moldy cheese, because it just might taste lots better than that 2-week old crap made with rennet and a cow’s stomach fat …

Just steer clear of the garum and and the maraschino liqueur.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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4 Responses to Joys and Perils of Eating the Past

  1. buggybite says:

    When notification of this blog entry appeared in my Inbox this morning, I thought it said, “The Joys and Perils of Eating the Post.” I was intrigued. Then I found my computer reading glasses….

    Letters, bills and packages are now safe from my roving appetitie. Mind you, I do know a dog who routinely eats the post and seems to enjoy it a lot.


  2. Elizabeth Howell says:

    And her venison was a wonder! Fir for a Queen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate says:

      Liz – that was tasty stuff all right. And it was a weird sort of fun to watcher carve faceted jewels out of kumquats and baby beets and gumdrops, to decorate it.


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