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To paraphrase Descartes: “I eat, therefore I am”

Given the title, this post is mainly going to be about food. (I think. My posts tend to live a life of their own at times… ) I am a food person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a whole lot of other things person as well (mainly books & tea ) but food is definitely a top priority for me, which is probably why I find it so interesting to find out what people ate back then – you know, before the advent of such basic joys like ice cream and Feta cheese.

still life
Still Life by Wilhelm Claezon Hedda, depicting a table most 17th century people could but dream about


As a child growing up in Latin America, I always found it strange when my parents sighed and spoke of food they were missing. “Herring,” my father would say. My mother would sigh and nod. Inevitably, this would lead to a long list of all the foodstuffs they missed, now that they were so far from home.
It’s strange, how much of “home” is defined by food, isn’t it? Milk abroad never tastes like it does at home, neither does the bread or the cheese or the… The point I’m trying to make is that should you be yanked out of context, away from home, you’d definitely miss food! Ask Alex(andra) Graham, my rather reluctant (if by now reconciled) time traveller; she has a list as long as her arm of all the edible stuff she longs for.

And there you are, happy landing on a chocolate bar … sang Shirley Temple, her face dimpling into a glittering smile. Except that if you’re transported back to the seventeenth century (like Alex) you can forget about chocolate. Ha, says the well informed reader, chocolate originates from Mexico and had therefore already been “discovered” by the Europeans. Dear reader; I’d like to see you drink a mug or two of this chocolate drink without having your mouth shrivel into a desiccated raisin. Chocolate in the seventeenth century was very rare – even in Spain. And where it was used, it was prepared as a drink so bitter it would make modern day chocolate freaks weep. In general, anything with sugar in it was rare; sugar was a luxury commodity, so whatever comfort food the people of the seventeenth century resorted to in periods of angst it was probably far healthier than what we binge on today.

For the coffee and tea addicts among us, I have bad news. Coffee was a futuristic dream outside the larger cities and tea had only recently begun to make its way to Europe, this thanks to the Portuguese. Not until the Restoration would tea become a common beverage in England.

 tea coffee and chocolate

Coffee, tea and chocolate side by side, represented as exotic and new-fangled drinks. (Philippe Sylvestre Dufour)

But hey; most of us can live without chocolate, or coffee or tea. Absolutely (however depressing the thought) but how about a life without potatoes? Pasta? Pizza? Tomatoes? Oranges and bananas? Avocados – can anyone live without avocados? Once again, the well informed reader might protest; the Spaniards came upon both the tomato and the potato in South America back in the fifteenth century. Yes, they did, but for some strange reason these plants were often considered poisonous (to be fair, some members of the solanum family are poisonous) and not until the late eighteenth century was the potato to become a staple crop in Northern Europe.

So what did they eat then, these people that were deprived of so much of what we enjoy and like today? Was it all porridge and pea soup? The quick answer to that is … YES. For the majority of the population, porridge was the cornerstone of their diet. And what was left over at one meal was reused in the next – or the day after. Many homes in Scotland and Northern England would have a porridge drawer, into which the leftovers were poured and left to settle. Yummy, yummy; cold, solidified porridge is just the thing to set your saliva flowing, right? (Sometimes the leftovers were fried to vary the taste somewhat.) This rather dull diet was complemented by bread, beer, the odd piece of smoked and salted meat or fish, eggs while the hens were laying, vegetables such as onions and carrots, turnips, cabbage and kale –  and even more beer. But mostly it was porridge. Very much porridge.

Alex has days when she daydreams about chocolate cake, about crisp French fries and juicy hamburgers. She closes her eyes and is whisked back into a reality containing salads and baguettes, antipasto from Italy and steaming Thai curries. She opens her eyes, and it’s back to porridge and rye bread, to an existence where cooking is a long, tedious process with not a tomato in sight. Does she mind? Of course she does, but given the choice between going back to her time or staying with Matthew, she would choose her man any time.

“Dead easy,” she says when I ask her. “I can live without tomatoes and bagels. I’d die without him.” Her eyes drift over to where her husband is busy with his horse. She laughs. “God; did I just say that? Makes me sound like quite the clinging little wife, doesn’t it?”
“Yup.” I grin at her and she sticks her tongue out. Out in the yard Matthew laughs, and Alex whips round to look at him. Her entire body softens, the slightest of smiles tugging at her mouth.
“I guess I am,” she says in a voice so low I have to strain my ears to catch it. “He’s all I need, all I want, however hackneyed that might sound.” For some seconds she is sunk in contemplation, studying her man. His tall frame dips and turns as he unsaddles the horse, the low winter sun throwing elongated shadows that dance round man and beast. She calls his name and he turns, breaking out in a smile. Their eyes meet. He straightens up, places his hand over his heart and mouths her name. Blood rushes like wildfire up her neck, her cheeks. She throws me a look. “I’ve never thanked you, have I?”
“Not as such.” Mostly Alex has harangued me about my temerity in having her torn from her comfy modern day life to the far more primitive and dangerous existence in the seventeenth century. I clasp her hand – well, try to, the woman doesn’t exist except in my head.
“But you know, right? That not a day goes by without me giving thanks for him.” She leans against the doorpost, eyes stuck on her husband.
I just nod. “Now, back to this food thing…”
Alex laughs, a loud bubbly sound that has Matthew raising his head in our direction. “Not comfortable with the mushy stuff?” she teases.
“Not unless it’s mushy peas,” I mumble. “This post is supposed to be about food, okay?”

In Like Chaff in the Wind, Matthew Graham suffers the iniquities of being sold as a slave, which has anything but a positive impact on his diet. Porridge becomes gruel, meat a rare food group that mostly appeared in the guise of salted pork, bread and other baked goods rarely graced the table, and fresh fruit … forget it! In combination with exacting days on a tobacco field, it quickly reduces him to a walking wreck, a shadow of his former self.

Alex, of course, has no choice but to go after him. She needs her man like fishes need water, like we all need air. He is the pillar of her existence, the rock of her life, and without him by her side she fears she will shrivel up and die, wafting away like an ephemeral dust cloud. And during her perilous journey to find her man, let me tell you there are plenty of days when she would have murdered for a Snickers bar – or a Big Mac. Instead, all she got was biscuits with weevils and … porridge.

This post was written for Books, Belles and Beaux, but as I couldn’t reblogg it from there (this is me admitting to being technically challenged) I posted it here as well. once again, Joanne, thanks for hosting me!



3 thoughts on “To paraphrase Descartes: “I eat, therefore I am””

  1. This is great, Anna. I studied the history of my family recently because I found I had a food allergy. What I found was remarkable. What our ancestors ate is really important to know regarding our health. My ancestors ate buck-wheat and corn and maze. Because the wheat I have been eating all my life is durum and comes originally from India, my body is trying to build up a resistance to it and I’ve developed an allergy. I guess you could relate this to societies that have never had alcohol and are suddenly introduced to it. Because it hasn’t been a staple diet for many generations it can cause a lot of problems. I think this may be why many people nowdays have food allergies (they’re moving around the world and shifting away from foods their ancestors have already built a resistance to).

    Sorry about moving off topic here, but I’m really interested in his subject! 😉

    1. Interesting topic, Diane, but i’d like to add a little something re alcohol: Sweden, along with a number of other northern countries, have a tradition of drinking spirits made from wheat and potato. Interestingly enough, this penchant for over-imbibing has over the centuries NOT built up a resistance but rather increased the genetic predisposition to become an alcoholic… To tie this back to the seventeenth century, in Sweden infants were swaddled and on occasion hung off a hook in their swaddling with a little rag dipped in alcohol stuck in their mouth. Needless to say, these were very “pacified” babies.

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