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SPICES: SPOILED MEAT & MEATLESS FRIDAYS

 

QUESTIONS:

Hello Chef James,

I love the Foodreference.com website!!
I have a few questions.  I can not seem to find answers anywhere. With your vast knowledge of food, I was hoping you might be able to help!
 
In college a professor taught me  that because of no refrigeration they often served spoiled or meat that was about to spoil, thus the evolution of the French sauces? Basically he said they developed them to cover the taste of the meat. It made sense to me.  Do you think this is true? Perhaps point me in the right direction.
 
Second question, I was also taught that the practice of no meat on Fridays for Catholic's was the churches way to reduce sickness from consuming rotting meat. Again this would be due to lack of refrigeration.  I know this is not the sole reason for this tradition but I was taught it was a contributing factor. Again this seemed logical but I find no reference to this either. I would be very grateful if you could shed some light on these questions.
In advance I thank you!! - Christopher

 

ANSWERS:

Hello Christopher,

At first both theories may seem logical, and they have been widely accepted for a long time.  But facts to back them up just aren’t there.

1.  The use of spices or French sauces to cover the taste of spoiled meat:

A) Humans have been using various techniques for preserving meat for a very long time before refrigeration was invented. Salt, vinegar, dry curing, etc.  Eating spoiled meat was very rarely necessary.

B) Spices were extremely expensive until very recently.  Black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg etc. were imported from Asia and Africa.
Those most likely to resort to eating spoiled meat would be those who could not afford fresh meat: the poor.  Someone who could not afford fresh meat would also be the least likely to afford expensive spices.  The spices were more expensive than the meat! 
French sauces are time consuming and expensive.  The same facts apply to them.

C) If spices and sauces were used to cover the taste of spoiled meat, where are the recipes or instructions for doing so?  If this was a common practice there should be a wealth of written material, instructions or recipes dealing with ‘spoiled’ meat from the period.  The few references I have seen are mostly misinterpretations (‘greene’ meat or cheese actually means fresh or unripe, not spoiled).

D) Spices/Sauces actually cannot cover the taste of spoiled meat.  Try it yourself (if you don’t mind food poisoning!). It is almost impossible to cover up the taste of spoiled meat.


2.  Meatless Fridays

The practice of eating Fish on Fridays has no connection with avoiding rotten meat or reducing sickness.

A. If spoiled meat was such a problem, why avoid it only one day a week?  Avoiding meat for 6 days a week would make more sense.

B. Christ died on Friday.  Meatless Fridays are a variation/evolution of the tradition of fasting to commemorate the suffering and death of Christ.  Fasting traditions have evolved over the years and have settled into not eating meat on Friday as a compromise.
(The tradition of fasting or abstinence is not limited to Catholics, Christians, or modern times. Fasting in one form or another has been practiced for all of recorded history. Eating fish to honor various gods also has a long history. The ancient Romans ate fish to honor the goddess Venus).

Chef James, FoodReference.com
 

A few references:
Yale Center for the Study of Globalization
We can dismiss the most widely disseminated explanation for the medieval demand for spices: that they covered the taste of spoiled meat or they were used to preserve meat. Not only is there no evidence for this, it cannot be squared with common sense. Spices were much more expensive than meat. Besides, fresh meat was readily available, which is proved by the many extant records of municipal ordinances prohibiting butchers from throwing unwanted animal parts and blood in the streets. Butchers received meat on the hoof and were responsible for all the processing now done off-site. Medieval purchasers consumed meat much fresher than what the average city-dweller in the developed world of today has at hand. Moreover, spices are not in fact effective preservatives, especially compared to salting, smoking or drying meat.
ALSO:
Medieval Cookery: www.medievalcookery.com/notes/drummond.pdf
Food History News: www.foodhistorynews.com/debunk.html#rotten
Catholic Encyclopedia: Lent - www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm

 

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