Constance Hieatt, Yale University

title.none: Scully and Scully, Early French Cookery

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.009 96.11.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance Hieatt, Yale University, hieatt@yalevm.bitnet

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Scully, D. Eleanor and Terence. J. David Scully, illustrator. Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 377. $29.95. ISBN: ISBN Cloth 0-472-10648.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.09

Scully, D. Eleanor and Terence. J. David Scully, illustrator. Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 377. $29.95. ISBN: ISBN Cloth 0-472-10648.

Reviewed by:

Constance Hieatt, Yale University

The Public Lending Rights Commission, which pays Canadian authors a fee relating to the number of copies of their books found in a survey of libraries, excludes cook-books from the allowable types of books; they ought not to exclude this book. It is not so much a cookbook as a course in medieval French history and culture, with food as its central focus. The adapted recipes constitute only about a quarter of this decidedly long book. I can thus hope that the Scullys will enjoy a pleasant extra bonus as their book becomes available in Canadian public and university libraries.

But, unfortunately, I do mean that it is a "course" of study, as against either a cookbook or a book about food people will enjoy browsing in. The tone of the introduction (51 pages in a quite small type--ca. 40,000 words) is professorial, often hectoring: the reader is repeatedly reminded of his/her presumably lamentably uninformed views of medieval culture in general. This academic tone is reinforced by the "outline form" presenting this and most of the remaining sections, which does not deter the authors from repeating themselves again and again.

Tastes differ, and I suppose some people enjoy being so lectured and condescended to. The reviewer for the London Times Literary Supplement was generally enthusiastic about this book, despite some reservations about being asked to play the kazoo for fanfares, but I wonder how many others will relish a rather dry, humorless treatment enlivened mainly by a profligate use of exclamation points (!). Devotees of Strunk and White (like one professional editor to whom I showed a copy of this book: see p. 28 of that 'bible' of good American-English usage on the proper use of exclamation marks) may have their teeth put on edge. And this is not the only area in which the Scullys might well be referred to Strunk and White for an improvement in style: they certainly have not absorbed Rule 13, "Omit needless words."

It is true that the Scullys include an enormous amount of valuable information about medieval French food. But those who primarily want this background might do better to read Terence Scully's The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, a far more comprehensive work (including a great deal of information on European cookery in general in the period), often summarized in Early French Cookery. But the former is largely free of the latter's added dose of what looks markedly like French chauvinism.

The reiterated claims for the superiority of specifically "French" cuisine in this period are bound to irritate those who know the other regional cuisines, especially those of us who are familiar with English traditions, who may well resent the Scullys' appropriation of Anglo-Norman recipes as "French." Consider, for example, the characterization of our earliest A-N manuscript as "probably written in England" (p. 9.). While there can be no doubt that most of the recipes in that early collection were imported from the continent, they were certainly written down in England: and at an earlier date than any of the collections the Scullys are so certain must have preceded them. That these recipes were surely French in origin is quite another question, and one to which I have proposed other answers.

Some of the pronouncements here are, at the least, questionable. Rabbits, included in the section on "game," were actually raised in rabbit hutches on the premises of even fairly modest manor houses. Whatever may have been the case in the pious household of a future pope, eggs and dairy products were not generally forbidden on lean days outside of Lent; an English recipe for a tart for an Ember day, one of the four brief seasonal fasts, calls for eggs and butter, and one fifteenth-century English household book, that of Dame Alice de Bryene, shows frequent purchases of eggs and cream on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (out of Lent). The Menagier's soup for a fish day (given here on p. 108) is thickened with eggs. And while white peas may have been favored as a sauce base, there were also green peas available in the later Middle Ages; according to John Harvey's Medieval Gardens (London: Batsford, 1981), "pisa virida" "are named as early as 1325" (p. 121).

On the other hand, fresh ginger root, here called for in a number of adapted recipes, was unlikely to have been used in Paris. What the Scullys describe as such in one of the Menagier's recipes (pp. 232-33) is very evidently dried, since it is to be ground in a mortar, not grated ("ayez premierement ou mortier .ii. cloches de gingembre"). Pichon's note to this passage says "Sans doute gingembre de mesche"; Brereton and Ferrier identify this as meaning ginger from Mecca: quite a distance for fresh ginger root to travel! The only alternative type of ginger mentioned by the Menagier was from Malabar, also far from local.

Other incongruities in the recipe adaptations include the suggestion of substituting turmeric for saffron--an error Sharon Butler and I made in the first printing of Pleyn Delit twenty years ago, but hurriedly withdrew after more knowledgeable cooks objected. The earliest reference to this spice cited in the OED is from the late 16th century, and I have never seen it mentioned in a medieval culinary recipe. Adding orange juice to the Hypocras, even "in the interest of moderation and safe, sober driving" (p. 58) is obviously inauthentic, as is substituting stale cake or vanilla wafers for bread in a dessert recipe (p. 296).

Such lapses seem strange in the work of authors who constantly advise us to use ingredients most of us would find all but impossible to obtain. There may be West African neighborhoods where one can obtain grains of paradise, but I do not know where they are, and I have searched spice catalogues for such items in vain. Where does one find almond oil? There is none at my local A&P, although it has vast shelf space devoted to every other kind of oil I have ever heard of. I did once obtain some dried hyssop from a health food store, but it was not in the least pleasant and I suspect it must have been the wrong kind. And it is pretty optimistic to expect many health food stores to provide tansy; seeds are available for anyone who would like to grow it, but it's a pretty invasive addition to the herb bed.

The adapted recipes are largely usable and attractive, with ingredient lists in the current Canadian style giving metric and U.S. standard measurements in two columns--but the U.S. (cup and spoon measures, not pints and ounces) column is somewhat misleadingly labelled "Imperial." Sometimes, however, the adaptations, like some of the ingredients, stray rather far away from the medieval originals. For example, a recipe for a Poitevine sauce (p.135) calls for sauteing chicken livers before grinding them, whereas the Old French clearly calls for the livers to be ground raw. A more extreme example is the recipe for "Composte" on p. 273, where a recipe for making preserved fruits, vegetables, and nuts is turned into one for vegetables glazed with a little honey, to be served hot.

Much of the rest of the book consists of quotations: from medieval medical authorities on the subject of diet, and from a manual on table manners. The final chapter on "Menu Suggestions and Meals" makes some pretty strenuous demands on hosts and guests, who are (for example) to be instructed on how to make costumes and asked to engage in parlor games of various sorts; presumably this will have particular appeal for members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. To all this is added a lengthy (about 50 pages) appendix, which is a fictional account of a day in the life of a medieval master cook, "Chiquart's Day." Admirers of Brother Caedfel may enjoy this.

Those who are interested in what this book has to offer will certainly be getting it at a very fair price. It is surprising that a university press can provide such a long, complex book, with what is clearly a lavish and expensive layout, at only $30.00 for a hardback edition.