“I’m up to my deaf ears in cold breakfast trays…”

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and as Americans gleefully rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye, consider this culinary conundrum: what the heck happened to galangal?

Native to Asia and more pungent than the ginger it resembles, galangal was a princely part of the medieval European spice rack. Chaucer mentioned it, Hildegard of Bingen praised it, and 14th-century kings kept it on their shopping lists. I don’t know why Europeans later downgraded this noble root to medicinal status, but I’m gung-ho to explore the question in my next book, the 800-page Galangal: How a Rhizome Saved Civilization and Invented the Medieval World (and So Can You).

Since it’s been too long since my previous exercise in medieval cuisine, and because I’m eager to spearhead the Great Galangal Revival, I flipped through medieval cookbooks, shuddered at all the recipes for lampreys, and decided to cook “Goose in Hodgepodge,” a recipe from Kalendare de Potages Divers, circa 1420:

A goos in hogepotte. —Take a Goos, & make hure clene, & hacke hyre to gobettys, & put yn a potte, & Water to, & sethe to-gederys; þan take Pepir & Brennyd brede, or Blode y-boyled, & grynd y-fere Gyngere & Galyngale & Comyn, & temper vppe with Ale, & putte it þer-to; & mynce Oynonys, & frye hem in freysshe grece, & do þer-to a porcyon of Wyne.

Motivated by stinginess, I substituted the $40 grocery-store goose with a fattier $14 duck, assuming my readers don’t mind the quack-quack, and the legs all danglin’ down-o. (I would have gone with lamprey, but it wasn’t on sale.)

People say you can’t replace a goose with a duck, but that’s just a canard.

“Take a Goos Duck, & make hure clene…”

“& hacke hyre to gobettys…”

(Out of consideration for my more sensitive readers, I’ve chosen to illustrate the hacking process with this magnificent image of galloping unicorn from the cover of a 1980s Trapper Keeper.)

“& put yn a potte, & Water to, & sethe to-gederys”

After sethyng for two hours, the duck stock smells wonderful. (Although its smell probably isn’t as distinctive as lamprey stock. Did you know a mature lamprey can grow to nearly four feet long?)

Arise, my Cauldron-Born!

After discarding the bones and occasional pieces of skin, we’re left with a respectable pile of tender duck meat and tons of rich, delicious stock for next week’s soup. (Speaking of rich: during his time as an exile, Havelok the Dane took lampreys to market. It’s medieval literature, people!)

“þan take Pepir & Brennyd brede, or Blode y-boyled…”

Surprising, isn’t it, that boiled blood should be a suitable thickening substitute for burned bread? I’m not squeamish about cooking with blood, but I am squeamish about how blood curdles when it overheats. There aren’t enough unicorn pictures in the world (or enough lampreys to eat the mistakes).

“…& grynd y-fere Gyngere & Galyngale & Comyn, & temper vppe with Ale, & putte it þer-to.”

While the bread soaks in the ale, let’s grate the fresh rhizomes, gather up the cumin and the pepper, and introduce the whole gallimaufry to Sir Braun de Hand-Mixer.

To distract you from the sight of that gravy, I’ll tell you that Henry I of England reportedly died from eating “a surfeit of lampreys.” (Today we know that you should never serve a lamprey to guests unless you’ve taken care to remove its surfeit.)

“…& mynce Oynonys, & frye hem in freysshe grece, & do þer-to a porcyon of Wyne.”

So yeah—add the meat and the gravy to the wine, grease, and onion base, and that’s what you get: duck hash. Add more gravy, and you get duck stew with the consistency of curry. Add even more gravy, and the meat vanishes in the glop.

And how does it taste? It’s hideous. Pepper, ale, and damp toast overwhelm the other flavors. Leave out the thickeners and all you taste is the cumin, even if you reduce the amount. The ginger and the galangal—which by itself tastes like a strong, perfumey mustard—barely register. Blood would not make it better.

So does that mean medieval people would have liked this slop? No: it means I botched it. I tried three times to vary the proportions and concoct an edible sauce, but the recipe is lacking. Like many medieval texts, it assumes a contemporary reader and omits crucial information for the ages: in this case, the secret to blending nearly a dozen disparate ingredients. I’ve learned my way around a kitchen—I can cook decent curries, tasty Chinese entrees, and a wide range of Western dishes—but without further experimentation and costly trial and error, I can’t help but find the medieval English kitchen as distant and exotic as Araby or Inde.

So this year, be thankful for the here and now, for the familiarity of turkey and New World tubers, and for the fact that I’m not at your door with a bundle of ducks in one hand and a medieval cookbook in the other. Although I can be, on pretty short notice, and with a casserole I like to call Medieval Surprise. The recipe is secret, but let’s just say its main ingredient rhymes with “famprey”…

9 thoughts on ““I’m up to my deaf ears in cold breakfast trays…”

  1. Jeff,

    I love these cooking posts of yours.

    Too bad that the flavor of the duck didn’t work out. Canard is wonderful when done right.

    Have you checked out the book “The Medieval Kitchen: recipes from France and Italy” by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi ?

    I haven’t tried anything in it mind you, but there’s great history in the front of the book and the recipes come with historical notes and cooking tips utilizing conveniences as abound in a modern kitchen such as your.

    Oh and your avocado green smiley face dinner ware is faaaaar out.


  2. SK – Indeed, but by the time I started mucking around in the kitchen by myself, the generation of my family that was comfortable cooking with blood was mostly dead.


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