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Monday, January 18, 2010

The History of Food by Allison Knight

  I'm fascinated with the history of food; what people ate, how it was supplied, preserved and stored. Okay, since I'm a chemist and also a Home Economics teacher, back when we taught cooking and sewing, the fact shouldn't surprise too many.  However, there is something intriguing to me about this history. Unbelievable are the number of items that didn't even exist a few years ago. More about that another time.
  People have had to eat to live since the beginning of time, and to learn how they went about supplying their food and keeping it available presents some problems, especially to a historical writer.  As a teller of tales, I like to get the facts right, but something as common as food consumption and storage wasn't considered worthy of recording. We have learned some facts, simply from drawings and diaries, or sales records. If a soldier of the 13th century wanted to take food with him into a battle, he had to wrap it in cloth or put it into an animal skin. One of the reasons women went with the men into battle was the need to have them available to cook because an army had to be fed. The men hunted or found the food, and the women prepared it.  Daily! 
  We know the spice trade was developed because the safe storage of food was difficult, if not impossible, so people ate tainted food. Spices covered up the taste. A pleasant thought. After all, nobody knew anything about bacteria, or the process of spoilage.
  While vacationing in Barbados, I took a look at old church records looking for ancestors who supposedly died in Barbados in the 17th century. I couldn't believe the number of deaths attributed to indigestion. After I thought about it, it made sense. A warm climate, no method of preserving food, the obvious overuse of spices. Yep, people would have died from food poisoning. A yucky thought! But think about it. Salt was a precious commodity, so few salted their food. There was nothing like refrigeration. Some localities had winter ice, but only for a short time.
  Sugar was also something only the wealthy had, so preserving fruits in jellies and preserves was only for those who could afford it. Drying food was the method of preference. And, storing food? Imagine today trying to exist without plastic bags, and wrap, inventions from the 20th century. 
  So what did people of earlier times do? We know that very early on, jars and pottery containers were used, as well as animals skins. (I agree - not a pleasant thought). Grains were stored in caves and later in buildings. There were rooms in the castle to keep supplies, and enemies made an attempt to get to those areas where the stores where kept. After all, everyone needed food to survive. Since water was often a source of illness, ale and wine were also stored in jars or animal skins. Barrels came along later.
  Food preservation and storage have certainly come a long way. What would we do without our freezers and our plastic wrappings? We'd have to do like our ancestors did. Hunt and fish everyday, and pray the food we set aside wasn't going to kill us.

Title:  Heartsong
Release Date:  August 2008
Author:  Allison Knight
Author Website: www.AllisonKnight.com
Publisher:  Champagne Books
Genre: Historical romance, medieval romance

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Allison Knight.  Another year is upon us. I can hardly believe it’s 2010 when I so vividly remember the Y2K scare! What did the first decade of this century mean to you?
I've been very busy. We moved further south in '04. Been through three computers. I'm not fond of Windows systems redoing their operating system all the time. I've published six books, written two more, which I'm polishing, served two years as president of our local RWA chapter and lived through three hurricanes. Not bad for a country girl from Indiana.
 Your blog post touched on food preservation of our ancestors. With this in mind, do you have a favorite period of time you like writing about?  
I love the medieval time period, but I also like the early colonial time period as well.  Actually any thing before 1900. Terrible that I can't pin myself down to a certain time.
 Reading about? 
Again, I really like medieval romance, but anything before 1900 is good.
Is there any period of time you would’ve liked to have lived in? Why?  
I've done too much research for my historical romances to want to go back. I like this time period.  Maybe the innocence of the time after the second World War, but certainly not the times I write about. We have too many advantages today that didn't exist years ago.
What are your plans, as far as your writing goes, for the New Year? Any hot releases coming up? 
Battlesong, the sequel to Heartsong is coming in August.  This is the story of the youngest brother of the family and boy, does he get into trouble.  I have a gothic short coming from Red Rose Publishing in March. I'm currently polishing a tale about two very different people, forced to wed by the King, which is a lot of fun. Judith is probably going to be my all time favorite heroine. I'm also tackling another contemporary. So I have lots more going on.
Thank you for joining me, Allison. Is there anything else you'd like the readers to know? 
I'd love to know which one of Rhianna's brothers I should write about next. She has five of them and Arthur's tale is Battlesong. I'm toying with brother number three right now. But I could do the oldest one or perhaps number four.  It's a 'puzzlement'!


  1. An enlightening post about food. The idea of eating spoiled food then dying of food poisoning is just UGH! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi AK, my favorite TCG. Big Mike here. Did you know that canning food came about because the military needed a way to feed their troops. Being a southern boys, we all learned how to can and preserve, even me as a boy, and I still smoke and dry my deer meat. When we were first married, finances were really rough. I had a farmer friend that allowed me to garden and hunt his property. We lived by canning. Plus I used to harvest a bushel of blue fin crabs every two weeks off a pier near where we lived and stored the meat for winter crab cakes. Even today, where I live now, the local extension service runs a community canning operation out of the school so locals can can there produces and meat. Some of us old timers can't break with the old ways.

    Michael Davis (Davisstories.com)
    Author of the year 4/09

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  4. Jeanie said...

    Interesting post, Allison. Today we have 'sell or use by' dates. Have you ever opened a package of chicken or pork after the expiration date and smelled that funky smell? Whew! And people used to disguise that smell and the rancid taste with spices! It's a miracle anybody lived!

  5. Loved the post. We modern folks in the western democracies are living longer, healthier lives in spite of the chemicals we eat and the polluted air we breathe. We are also taller than our medieval ancestors. Foor preservation made it happen.

    In medieval romances the heroes all seem to be six feet tall but have a look at medieval armour. The men were more like five feet tall. We likes them all with perfect teeth. There food must have been well preserved. Thanks for the post.

  6. Allison, I enjoyed your post on food. My husband and I visited Williamsburg during Thanksgiving one year when they had the reinactment. A woman demonstrated canning food using a pig's bladder to stretch over the lid. It was interesting to watch but am glad I live in the present. Oh, I taught home ec for 30 years.

  7. Allison, this was so interesting. I'm a total history nut! I adore learning everything and anything about how they lived back then, but I never even thought about how they preserved food, except for maybe beef jerky. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge and please let us know if you post anything like this again. Oh, and by the way, I'm in love with the cover of your book. I have a think for castles, too!

  8. Hi Allison,
    I enjoyed your post very much. It reminds of the story my late mother told me about her life as a young girl in Italy. Everyone drank weak wine for water purification. Love your book cover.
    LoAnna aka Cierra James

  9. I enjoy medieval romance too and look forward to reading your work. Thank you for taking the time to blog about an unusual subject that made for interesting reading. Very glad I found you!

    Natalie Acres