In historical fiction, sex may be seductive, combat thrilling, but food is always a draw: from peasant staples to sumptuous feasts.
Since people have been on the move throughout history, food in historical fiction sometimes requires detective work. Stews, soups, and porridges were European staples for centuries. In the historical mystery trilogy I’m writing, my two sleuths make a quick trip to Vienna circa 1570. In a tavern they order a stew of carrots, turnips, and potatoes. Second draft: “Potatoes! wait a minute…” Potatoes, a “New World” food, did not spread widely throughout Europe until the late 16th century.
Below: a mixed bag of food sites to whet your appetite for whatever period you’re reading or writing about.
Foodtimeline.org: The Ultimate Food Rabbit Hole.
Begun by a research librarian, award-winning Foodtimeline delves into the history of food. Its researched links begin at 17,000 BC. From Ancient Egypt to Mayan, Viking to Pilgrims, 20th century U.S…and more. Plus a helpful index. Sweet, squishy marshmallows that we roast over campfires? They started as digestives made from a plant: the marsh mallow.
The site displays menus and pictures of food and scenes from the 1912 Titanic disaster. Plus it lists foods and the menus of the Titanic’s last meals in third, second, and first class. First class: who could eat that much rich food? Even third class doesn’t look bad.
This historical-food supper club in Brooklyn—“bringing the past to life through food, drink and stories”—was started by a museum educator with a degree in history. The menus site offers ten menus with illustrations, including medieval Baghdad, Tudor England, and 15th-century Italy as well as iconic foods from the fall of four empires in “The Pride Before the Fall.”
How to cook a Medieval feast. Eleven recipes from the British Museum: Illustrations accompany each recipe. First, the recipe in Middle English, then in modern English, with a historical introduction to each dish, ingredients, and method. Recipes include mixed pickles, cabbage chowder, creamed fish, mushroom pasties, lamb stew, and rose pudding.
The Taste of Medieval Food at medievalists.net (a good site for all things Medieval) not only reveals what people in the Middle Ages were eating, but also the cultural and political aspects of eating, from art and artifice to favorite feast foods.
Crystal King’s historical novel The Chef’s Secret focuses on Renaissance Italy’s Bartolomeo Scappi, “the first celebrity chef.” King’s website has a robust section devoted to Italian Renaissance Food: where they ate, what they ate, pictures, and recipes such as braised beef, tortellini with peas, and cherry sops. Plus a free pdf with 27 recipes of Renaissance Roman food by food historians, bloggers, and authors, @KateQuinnAuthor among them.
A two-fer: King’s website also has a section devoted to Food of Ancient Rome.
Colonial and Revolutionary War Periods
What did colonists eat? Huntington History Society’s glimpse of eating during Colonial times
What Revolutionary soldiers ate. Succinct: a list of daily rations from bread and beef to milk and beer plus an explanation on how the camps were organized. It’s part of the National Museum of American History’s “Food History” blog posts.
VictorianWeb.org is a good site to know about for anything Victorian. Each box in the diamond-shaped image on the left is clickable and leads to a wealth of resources in whatever you choose: Victorian politics, science, religion, authors, etc. Although there’s no specific food box to click, the search function brings up lots of Victorian food-related information, such as how canning changed society’s eating habits..
Macclesfield Museums has a post on Victorian food. In concert with the VictorianWeb post on canned food, this one says, “Tinned meat was available from the 1860s (160 years ago). At first, this was mainly fat with just a few chunks of meat. It was a cheaper option for poorer people as it was less than half the price of ordinary meat. By the late 1800s there was a wide range of tinned food available.” Does not sound appetizing, but better than going hungry?
The Historical Novel Society’s popular extra at its national conference. Each conference highlights a half-dozen or so drinks through the ages and reveals their histories, from—say—mead to martinis. These six short film clips are from the 2021 HNS Conference.
Food Links in the Future: American indigenous food, Ottoman Empire food, coffee, chocolate, spices, the great Columbian Exchange, when Old and New Worlds started trading foods. So much more… in a later links post.
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Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.