What did 17th century food taste like?

I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it” was “still rather rare in France.” Likewise, Brussels sprouts don’t appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.

That is from a longer post by Benjamn Breen at Res Obscura.  And here is his post on when California was the Bear Republic.


And, endless thousands of species and sub species have faded into oblivion.. some farmers are re-growing obscure apples, not too edible, actually combining current and ancient apples are producing some brilliant new kinds of apple, BTW, how long until we create new humanoids?

They should be doing this with bananas. I've heard multiple times that Cavendish bananas are at risk of disease.

Yeah, I wonder if a lot of it isn't hype. I mean...there's probably a reason they faded into Bolivian: they just weren't that popular. Consider it a kind of unnatural selection. I remember when I was a teenager, my parents and their goofy hippy friends all going nuts over some obscure kind of apple that became all the rage for a few years. I remember trying it and not being all that impressed. Golden delicious>everything.

Pish posh! Honeycrisp dominates.

Oh, no, Pink Ladies are the best.

I know it's silly to be bothered when someone is wrong on the internet, but you're all wrong and Fuji apples are clearly the best.

When I was a kid, I liked Golden Delicious, because I didn't know any better. Today, we live in a golden age of apples.

Maybe, but you, sir, live only in ignorance.

Golden delicious? Nay, sir! FUJI! All the WAY!

BTW - when I was a kid we had an overgrown orchard behind our property. There was some antique variety of golden apple that WAS the best I had ever had - but they had a shelf life about about -10 days, and bruised if you looked at them cross-eyed. Fresh off the tree - could eat them all day.

Good replies here, Fuji's are good but I usually get Gala. Honeycrisps are annoyingly expensive where I live (or maybe that Galas are refreshingly cheap).

All are superior to the supermarket-variety Golden Delicious that many of us grew up with. In that sense we are indeed in a golden (heh) age of apples.

But those local apples that CorvusB describes tell us how it's possible that apples in the 17th century may have tasted better than what most of us eat today. They may've been hopelessly untransportable but delicious if you were lucky enough to live near a tree or orchard. I've read that mulberries are similar, so fragile that it's not economical to try to get them into stores or most farmers' markets. Maybe loquats too, I had a friend who had a half dozen loquat trees in his yard and he'd just go out and grab a few whenever he was hungry but I've never seen them in a store.

You must try medlars.

I must confess to total ignorance of medlars -- I assumed they were a variety of apple. But having read about them now, they do sound interesting. But evidently they have to be bletted before they can be eaten. That's literally the word, bletted.

My understanding is that most 17th century apples were too astringent to make good eating, but they were excellent for alcohol production. Hence, applejack.

Honeycrisps are expensive everywhere, because they are the yummiest.

MacIntosh are the best. You people just like sugar.

Well, when I eat fruit I sure do.

Northern spy is the last new apple I learned about, and find quite enjoyable:


Regarding the latter part of your question, evolution does not work on humanoids, so never.

Jeff R - July 17, 2018 at 2:50 pm 3

I mean...there's probably a reason they faded into Bolivian: they just weren't that popular. Consider it a kind of unnatural selection.

Actually taste has little to do with which varieties of plant or animal survive to the market place. English speaking populations especially just aren't that fussy. Industrial handling is much more important. It matters whether machines can handle the fruit or vegetable so there has been a push for standard sizes and tougher skin. It matters what it looks like in the freezer so they have to be big and shiny. The obvious example being strawberries. A nasty little thing to transport. They bruise easy. So supermarket-bought strawberries are large, hard, and flavorless. But they ship well. If you can get naturally ripened strawberries that were not forced under plastic, they taste completely different.

It is the same with pretty much everything. Jersey cows produce the best milk by far. But everything comes out of a Holstein. Their milk is fine but it is inferior to a number of other breeds. But there is a lot of it and milk companies pay by volume. Customers don't care. What matters in a pig is not the taste of the meat but the nick of the animal. For pigs and beef I doubt it matters much but for chicken it does. For eggs even more. But customers really don't care about the taste all that much.

I care about the quality of the car I drive. But I drive a Toyota, not a Rolls Royce. I don't need that much quality, and I don't want the expense.

One of my philosophical questions, to get some discussions going is:

If you had to choose to stay with either food originating in the old world or the new world, which one would you choose?

This would limit many combinations, as mentioned in article, no tomato for pizza or pasta, the heavenly combination of dark chocolate and coffee is no longer possible!

As a silly millennial, I have to go with the new world, since that is where avocados originated! Also, I seem to never get sick of potatoes...

Avocado is a great food, together with tomato it forms the basis for delicious salads. However, the avocado toast might be somewhat lacking without wheat.

I mean, that's what tortillas are for, bro.

That's a good tough question. My initial reaction is to opt for old world, e.g. I don't think the new world had chicken, pork, beef, or lamb.

But cuy or guinea pigs are new world and reportedly taste like chicken. And maybe I'd get used to eating say corn meal or polenta or grits instead of pasta and rice. And potatoes of course are new world, but I eat them only occasionally, less often than I eat wheat-based foods and rice.

Old world does get you Tea, Coffee, steak and potatoes, orange & apples, bread, cheese, milk/yoghurt.

Regarding cuy-cuy, the taste is great, but didn't remind me about chicken, but think about the chocolate!!! And pineapple. And dozens of tropical fruits from the Amazon jungle. And bison steaks. Llama and alpaca are good mutton substitutes. But no orange juice. And it would be hard to make good bread without wheat.

What about cornbread? Does that have a lot of wheat in it?

If you're a purist, I guess no wheat:


It's just not the same, but I am sure I would use cornbread as a substitute for bread:-(

New world. The aforementioned potatoes and tomatoes, along with chocolate and vanilla and lots of bean varieties for protein. The old world did NOT have potatoes.

Oh, yes, and turkey. Plenty can be done with turkey, especially since we could still perform mesquite smoking and grilling. If we get turkey and bison, you can keep your chickens and cows.

Sweet potatoes, squash, corn, quinoa, amaranth, avocados, chia... Yeah, some of this is hipster, but I'd be happy if it didn't.

Oh, yes, and nopales and tequila.

"The old world did NOT have potatoes." Intellectually, I know that, however having grown up in Norway and been served potatoes for dinner 6 days per week, I think about potatoes as from the old world, thus the slip in my comment about steak and potatoes.

Yeah, potatoes revolutionized food security and cuisine for Europe to the point that a Europe without potatoes is a bit too alien to comprehend. I'm right with you, there.

When I was a kid I read a truly terrible Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court type SF series, I only read the first four but in one of the later ones he went looking for Chocolate.

Personally I would have to go with the Old World merely for butter, wheat bread, and cheese. Whenever the absence of vanilla, chocolate, or chilis hit me I could cry in my beer, wine, whiskey, or rum. And if that dudn’t work I would at least have heroin. Corn beer is awful, cornlicker is barely better, and the less said or done with the Concord Grape...the better.

The Conrad Stargard series?

Yes, but in my defense I wasn’t old enough to drive.

New world does not have olives, hence no olive oil. That's enough for me to choose old world. Also, new world has no wheat, so no bread, no pasta, no beer -- and no good grape to make wine either. No rice, no chicken, no lamb, no beef. Very few fruits, and spices, and vegetables. No tea nor coffee. Sure, the old word has no potato nor tomato, which is sad, but really this choice is a no-brainer.

With a heavy heart, the Old World. No chilli or chocolate would sting but... No potatoes? Yams, parsnips, sweet potatoes (if Oceania is Old World here, since recent research shows it there for over 100,000 years). No maize? Rice, wheat, oats. No tomatoes? Eggplants, brassicas. And that's before we get to the unsubstitutable world of animal products. And losing the whole world of Asian and European herbs and spices (no coriander, no ginger, no black pepper, no cardamom); nothing in the New World kitchen can substitute.

Re: , sweet potatoes (if Oceania is Old World here, since recent research shows it there for over 100,000 years)

No. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are definitely New World. They made it to Polynesia via some sort of pre-Columbian contact but the earliest sample date outside the Americas is 1000 AD, though it probably made it across the ocean a couple of centuries before that.

Or maybe not - https://www.sciencenews.org/article/sweet-potatoes-might-have-arrived-polynesia-long-humans - "New genetic evidence instead suggests that wild precursors to sweet potatoes reached Polynesia at least 100,000 years ago — long before humans inhabited the South Pacific islands, researchers report April 12 in Current Biology." (which I'd read before making my comment of course).

The Bear Republic article was merely okay, but I was struck that their declaration of independence included a sketch of what their flag might look like. California's flag is indeed based on that (a grizzly bear and a red star on a white background). But man, that sketch looks like it was drawn by a 7-year old.

If you have ever seen early California flags they all look like they would be better drawn by 7 year olds. But it was only recently that the actual bear was standardized. Every flag used to have a different bear.

Bear FLAG Republic, not Bear Republic. But what's a little four-letter word among friends?

Author of the article here - interesting question! I think, if I had to pick one place and time prior to the Columbian Exchange, I'd probably go with Persia at the beginning of the Safavid era (c. 1501). I bet Venice or another major Italian city state in the same time period would be pretty good too - a lot of great Italian dishes predate the addition of tomatoes and other New World plants (i.e. Sicilian-style pasta with sardines and fennel, or squid ink risotto, or Ligurian pesto, etc).

But in terms of what would be the most interesting rather than most reliably good according to contemporary tastes, I'd have to go with whatever the elites were eating in Pre-Columbian Tenochititlan or Cuzco.

Since we have a distinguished historian present:

Would you venture to guess what a "chocolate breakfast" consisted of, in Alexandre Dumas' world of Paris in his own past:

"As to d'Artagnan, who as yet knew nobody in the capital, he only found one chocolate breakfast at the house of a priest of his own province, and one dinner at the house of a cornet of the Guards. He took his army to the priest's, where they devoured as much provision as would have lasted him for two months, and to the cornet's, who performed wonders; but as Planchet said, "People do not eat at once for all time, even when they eat a good deal.""


This is something I have wondered about since I was a kid in the 1970s.

PS, greatly enjoyed your article, also wondering how the wine of the ancient Greeks would have tasted.

Ben, you can still get most of those dishes today in rural central Mexico. They are delicious, but I could not eat them all the time either.

Speaking of fast food, I have a Whopper in my pants.

I don't have an actual citation, but I've read articles that said that the wines of the ancient Greeks would be considered undrinkable to modern tongues. It was more of a way of preserving grape harvests and having something non-perishable to drink and getting intoxicated than being something one would drink for the taste.

Just the fact that they diluted the wine with water before drinking it tells us that it's flavor can't have been all that great.

There is evidence that somethings resembling modern style reds were produced in western europe by the early middle ages, and whites were not all that different by the early modern period. The most durable wines were the most syrupy as that sort of thing lasts far longer with less than ideal storage as done with sweet sherry but most wine was consumed locally and a lot of older varieties produce very dry wine. The main thing we would notice would be the high acidity which is why they flavored and sweetened the stuff so much.

Also descriptions of Roman Falernian plus the clear obsession with increasing alcohol content suggest that flor/voile has been known for a very very long time. I guess if you think Tio Pepe is undrinkable you might hate the stuff.

I've heard that resinated wine (retsina) might be the closest analogue to what the Greeks drank, since the practice derived from storing wine in amphorae back before wine barrels were commonly used. Never had it myself, but it doesn't sound too bad.

I had the opportunity to drink homemade wine when I was in Shiraz, Iran last summer and it struck me as a very old style as well, and maybe something like Greek wine used to be - strong, semi-opaque, cloudy, almost vinegary, heady. In short the kind of thing that it would make sense to water down. I liked it though.

I think "chocolate breakfast" probably just meant a cup of drinking chocolate. There's a 17th century book by a guy named Henry Stubbe, "The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata" where (as I recall) he tries to argue that chocolate is so sustaining and nutritious that you could conceivably survive on it for the duration of a sea voyage. I don't think that idea ever took off, but it definitely was the case that chocolate used to be seen as more of a food with medicinal benefits than as a desert. A painting by Pietro Longhi called "Morning Chocolate" might give an idea of what Dumas had in mind: https://www.wikiart.org/en/pietro-longhi/early-morning-chocolate

I'd have to go with whatever the elites were eating in Pre-Columbian Tenochititlan or Cuzco.

Roast peasants? Maybe POW Tartare?

Pozole with "long pig"?

Shakespeare coined the phrase “hoisted on your own petard”: you screwed up ironically and it’s your own fault. But what most don't know is that "petard" is a small bomb used to break holes in doors and walls that entered use around 1590. The bomb’s name came from a much more organic kind of explosion: petard literally means to fart. No doubt the result of eating all that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens.

It’s actually “hoist with...”.

If Yards Brewing Company is telling the truth, you can taste what the Founding Fathers were drinking in Revolutionary times.

I guess that's why the American Constitution is so excellent.

I liked watching the cooking show "A Taste of History", where Walter Staib cooks dishes that purportedly at least were eaten during the Colonial Era, using colonial techniques (cooking over a big open hearth fire). He rather charmingly is clearly not from America originally (speaks with a German or Austrian accent) but loves the US and its history.

The recipes sometimes have a lot of hot peppers and seemingly exotic spices but Staib says that thanks to the triangle trade there was extensive contact with foods and recipes from the Caribbean.


He even opened a replica of the tavern where the Founding Fathers ate in Philadelphia, City Tavern, with an allegedly colonial-era menu. Philadelphia has a small army of re-enactors of historical figures, and "Henry Knox" came to my table -- but got distracted because sitting at the table next to me were a historian and his editor, so Henry Knox got enmeshed conversing with the historian Harlow Unger. He did however say to me that there are eight people in Philly who portray Benjamin Franklin, but he was the only Henry Knox portrayer.

James Townsend is a colonial reenactor with a youtube channel with 100+ 18th century receipe videos.

Enjoyed the Bear State article, but why does everything have to revolve around Trump? The obvious exclusion of any mention of the Russian settlement at Fort Ross was patently political. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Ross,_California

The Russian-American Company attempts to maintain a sea otter population in California, by the way, is very much something you might find in an Elinor Ostrom book.

I couldn't find any detailed descriptions online but several articles did mention that when the sea otter population plummeted, the Russian-American company did implement conservation plans. Apparently effectively too -- but then Russian sold Alaska to the US and American fur trappers resumed the onslaught until an international treaty in 1911 protected fur seals as well as otters. According to wikipedia it was the first international wildlife conservation treaty!

Pliny and "medieval Muslim botanists" are a solid thousand years apart. Gotta work that fashionable Islamophilia in there somehow, I guess.

My point was precisely that - that apparent references to the plant show up across a wide chronological range, but it doesn't seem to have taken hold as a widespread crop until relatively recently, in the early modern period. I find it weird that you immediately jumped to "Islamophilia" as the explanation for what seems to me like a very straightforward historical framing (would you have minded if I'd referenced, say, a 12th century French or German text?), but will stop there.

Fair enough, although I'd be suspicious the medievals were either copying Pliny or describing different plants because of language differences. Still, I did like your article overall. Well done!

"I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea." What an ignorant git. Is he a snowflake? Or has he got some other excuse?

This is actually interesting. Well done Tyler.

+1, yes an excellent post Tyler

Agreed. And it made me hungry.

+1, that whole blog is outstanding

I believe the first step to understanding historic cuisine is to imagine freshly-picked produce developed specifically for that microclimate, coarsely ground whole grains, “gamey” lean meats and lard, raw dairy products made with fresh cream, fermented or pickled items, and smoke infused everything, etc.

In other words, everything was bursting with fresh natural earthy flavor

Ideally, yes, but the 99% we're getting almost no meat whatsoever, probably few dairy products, and not a lot of fruit. In practice, think oatmeal and root vegetables.

Indeed. I am referring here to the segment who had the wherewithal to eat, reflect on it, and then write about it.

Although I think the gist applies either way. The food was naturally not bland, compared to what passes for flour or tomatoes now.

On the other hand, the use of chilies and stronger spices described above causes me to wonder about that

And it was always a mild day in July.

Consider, on the contrary, Kurlansky's story about how salt cod (which is eaten as a kind of rehydrated mush) took Europe by storm once the Basques figured out to sail imported boats with imported salt into the North Atlantic.

I enjoy having a long finger stuck up my butt.

Again, that’s food for the masses.

A more apt comparison would be fresh fish then - for those who had access - versus farm fish now

To clarify, I am not talking about the availability of meat or what different classes ate; I am speculating about what food might have tasted like, when it was available.

I think it is reasonable to imagine that food was more earthy and naturally flavorful. Unless preserved, in which case it may have been either salted to mush or bland as hell.

In fact, the practice of salting fish is precisely what I am talking about, along with making various salted and dried meats, hardtack type biscuits etc - all practices that are the predecessors to our contemporary lifeless processed bread flour, anonymous chicken breasts, and featureless tomatoes.

I am now curious; however, to find out what a backyard farm-raised hog, raised on wild forage and kitchen scraps, and then potted in lard tasted like.

I do know what a truly free range chicken tastes like, fed on bugs and forage and whole grains, then freshly butchered, and it is a different species than the stuff they call chicken at the grocer's.

> I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea.

Nature's natural GMO.


"""A large number of genes affected by presence/absence and copy number variation suggest that it may contribute to phenotypic and agronomic trait diversity. Here we show by analysis of the Brassica oleracea pangenome that nearly 20% of genes are affected by presence/absence variation."""


see if this work https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13390/figures/4

I first became aware of historical or even forensic research into recipes when I read an article a few years ago about Hoppin' John, a traditional New Year's Southern dish that I've never had. And probably wouldn't want to, because the article noted that the ingredients nowadays -- rice, beans, and bacon -- don't taste the way they did in the 19th century. Making Hoppin' John a bland mess, whereas if one uses Carolina Gold rice (which seems to have disappeared from cultivation but was recently resurrected using specimens from a seed bank), red cowpeas instead of modern black-eyed peas, and old-fashioned cured and smoked bacon, one gets a good-tasting dish.

I don't remember where I found that article but this one from Serious Eats tells the same story albeit somewhat verbosely.

Well people used to eat less processed foods and more whole and fresh foods back then (lots of vegetables). Although bread and potato has been always the most consumed food.

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