> Is it good? Accurate?
Well, it depends. From an SCA-Cooks perspective, it's not very helpful
because it doesn't have period recipes. :) But I found it helpful
However, this is what I said when I reviewed it for Slovo:
Dembinska, Maria. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania, 1999.
For those who have been ravenously searching for material on medieval
Polish (and Eastern European) foodways, this volume is good news and bad
news. The good news is, it's the best resource on eating habits in Poland
available in English. The bad news is, it has several serious flaws, the
biggest being that the recipes given in the text are neither reproductions
nor redactions of period recipes, but attempts to re-create dishes using
period methods, documentation from menus and purchase records, and foreign
cookbooks of the time.
The original work on which this volume is based was the 1963 thesis of
Maria Dembinska, one of the most well known Polish food historians, who
died in 1996. William Woys Weaver worked with Ms. Dembinska to adapt the
translated work, removing some of the larger sections of tables and
footnotes, and adding appropriate material from her later works, as well
as adding material on Cypriot and other possible influences. Weaver does
an excellent job in the introduction of explaining which parts he added.
The body of the book is in four chapters. The first, "Toward a Definition
of Polish National Cookery", gives a good review of the underlying
assumptions of the book and a description of living conditions and foreign
influences on medieval Polish foodways. But it also exposes the main
methodological weakness of the work: the emphasis on a "national" cuisine.
This work would be even more helpful if Dembinska had simply outlined the
material on cookery of related cultures at her disposal, rather than
trying to squeeze it into a definition of 'Polish' cuisine, and perhaps
relied a little less on modern Polish ethnography as well. Nonetheless, it
is a helpful review of the literature and gives some useful insights, such
as the role of meat in peasant diet, the question of standard of living
rather than social class as a distinguishing feature in diet, and the
Byzantine, Italian, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish and Russian influences on
The second chapter, "Poland in the Middle Ages", gives a tidy little
history of Poland, but includes some interesting sidelights of economic
history, such as the change to "German law" land tenure, the polyglot
nature of late medieval Polish culture, and the role of the lesser
nobility. Of special interest is the analysis of the congress at Cracow in
1364, though materials on what the assembled royals ate at their feasts
are, sadly, not available. (There's a good discussion of forks, though!)
"Dramatis Personae of the Old Polish Table", the third chapter, is a gold
mine for SCAdians. Not only does it give a detailed listing of the
officials and servants (and their titles) who were involved with food
preparation in the Jagiellonian royal entourage, but it gives vignettes of
specific instances of food consumption. It's fascinating that all but the
very highest at table ate leftovers from the high table; that at least one
academic dinner was just as overpriced and underbudgeted as modern ones,
and that the legendary "highly-spiced" medieval food may have been made
that way to encourage digestion of large, heavy meals. In addition,
Dembinska lists the names and descriptions of a wide variety of kitchen
tools and equipment known in the inventories of the Polish kitchens.
The final chapter, "Food and Drink in Medieval Poland," covers each type
of food and drink in turn. We learn that the two main meals were the
prandium (eaten between 9 and 10 a.m) and coena (eaten between 5 and 7
p.m.), and that they were generally similar; that Wednesdays and Fridays,
and Lent, were meatless days, but special feast days were, well feasts.
The most common drink, Dembinska says, would have been wheat beer and
small beer, followed by wine and mead. Poles ate meat on a daily basis --
bacon and pork the most, followed by beef, poultry, and, on meatless days,
a wide variety of fresh and salt fish. Game was not common, but highly
esteemed and used as gifts and rewards. The majority of the diet was made
up of grains, either in bread or cooked as gruels. Millet was the primary
grain dish either as groats or flour, oats being an 11th century
innovation, and barley a 15th century import. Bread was generally made
with rye and wheat flours, and wheaten rolls were for sale in the streets.
Vegetables were common also: "the daily menu in Poland included at least
one vegetable, either as a side dish or as an ingredient in a one-pot
recipe." Dembinska lists onions, lentils, field peas, cabbage, fava beans
and bean greens (among peasants), kale, white carrots, beets, parsnips,
alexanders, skirrets, turnips, radishes, cucumbers and melons, as well as
mushrooms. Curiously enough, beet soup was not documented, but a
borsht-like soup made from cow parsnips was eaten. Sauerkraut is common,
but pickled cucumbers can only be documented to the 16th century. Neither
modern bigos (game stew) or pirogi (dumplings) can be documented to the
period either. Most fruit was eaten cooked -- apples, pears, plums and
cherries were the most common, with wild strawberries and blueberries
showing up in the records also. Dembinska also highlights many of the
The second half of the book, "Medieval Recipes in the Polish Style" by
Weaver, is a fascinating yet frustrating experience. Each recipe includes
wonderful information about the ingredients and techniques, and is
carefully detailed, making the recipes easy to follow. But the sources and
inspirations are not documented. Especially educational are the notes on
"Wroclaw Trencher Bread," giving details on how bread was baked,
regulated, and made into trenchers; the "Thick Beer or Sourdough Starter;"
and the directions for spit-roasting in "Hungarian-Style Spit-Roasted
Shoulder of Venison"; as well as directions for making "Saffron Wafers"
over a charcoal grill! So far, I've only tried the "Pears Stewed with
Cucumbers and Figs" but, documentable or not, they are delicious (though I
keep wanting to add more spices than the recipe calls for; so much for the
overspiced food discussion!).
The multitude of illustrations -- including many of period kitchen
equipment, either from woodcuts or drawn from archaelogical finds --
greatly adds to the value of the book. Though most of the books in the
bibliography are not in Polish, it is still an excellent resource; and the
UPenn Press apparently invested well in a good index to the entire volume.
While it would be lovely to have the excised footnotes, and to have period
recipes and documentation, this work still far outstrips the nearest
competitor, Maria Lemnis's Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the
Table, which gives tantalizing sections of information on Polish food
habits interspersed with undated recipes, and which has neither
bibliography nor useful references. As a starting point for constructing a
medieval "Polish" meal, or talking about the foodways of Eastern Europe,
Jadwiga Zajaczkowa, mka Jennifer Heise jenne@...
disclaimer: i speak for no-one and no-one speaks for me.
" Whatsoever might be the extent of the private calamity, I hope it
will not interfere with the public business of the country." -Sheridan