18 September 2012

Feasts: Medieval Feasting in the 21st Century

With most of the people I talk with about things medieval, any glimmer of interest they have is satisfied by a sentence or two of describing research I’ve done, books I’ve enjoyed, or places and people I find intriguing. If I go on, more often than not their eyes begin to glaze, they feel a sudden need for something from the kitchen, or spot another person they meant to talk with. Papal politics of the late 13th century seems to leave them cold.

I shared my excitement with some friends after attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan as a treat for my fiftieth birthday. One friend stared, incredulous, as I described the delights of the world’s largest gathering of medieval historians. “When I turned fifty,” she said, “I went to Disneyland.”

Same thing, really. To me.

Count Thomas the Heartless Bastard and
Lady Winnifred the Longsuffering,
with Brother Vern and the hostess,
Lady Alessandra of Frykhaven
However, one effort to share my medieval mania was a smashing success: a Michaelmas feast. Using a fancy font like Old English Text, I sent this invitation: “Lord Vern and Lady Alessandra of Frykhaven request your company for a celebration to mark Michaelmas, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel.” Following the details of date, time, and location, I included this note: “Medieval garb is encouraged, but not required.”

Perhaps you should know that I don’t take readily to playing dress up myself. My husband is the actor—in fact he is on stage tonight in the leading role of a play about Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach. But I was determined to be as medieval as I reasonably could, and began sewing a bodice as the basis of a costume I planned to wear. Then I found some maroon Naugahyde and made a hat, and ordered a costume Vern chose: a Franciscan monk’s robe.

The menu was developed mainly from sources on the internet, and was provided to the guests.
* First Remove  *
Bread, butter, blackberry jam
Cheese selection
Figs and dates
*  Second Remove  *
Roast Chicken with Cameline Sauce
Wortes in Marrow Boats
Gingerbread and walnuts
*  Third Remove  *
Pork loin with Blackberry Sauce
Brie Tarts
Pickled onions
*  Fourth Remove  *
Blackberry-Apple Crumble
Blackberry Pie
Apple Rice Pudding

St. Michael slaying the dragon;
Source - Wiki Commons
The emphasis on blackberries in the menu allowed me to explain the legend—the medieval truth—that when Michael the Archangel cast Satan from heaven, he landed on earth in a blackberry bramble, and cursed the berries. It became the rule of thumb that blackberries must be picked prior to Michaelmas, September 29.

The menu called for some additional explanations of medieval food. What is frumenty, anyway? It’s a cracked wheat dish, something like bulgur, though I omitted the porpoise one recipe called for. Cameline sauce? A spicy wine sauce thickened with bread crumbs. Wortes are green leafy vegetables, and I served them in giant zucchini (marrow) boats.

The costumed revelers enjoyed the feast
perhaps a bit more than the others!
I had the most fun making the sotelty, or “subtlety”, a sculpture made from edible ingredients, not necessarily intended to be eaten, but meant to delight the guests with a visual treat. I made a castle of sugar cubes, topping the towers with bright striped candles.

Perhaps you are wishing—I certainly am!—that I had taken photos of the food, but sadly I did not. I was distracted by the demands of serving a four course meal to 35 guests. But neither the guest list nor the menu need to be so elaborate, to create a fun evening when your medieval enthusiasms can have free reign. And there are plenty of feast days throughout the year to play with.

I also prepared a quiz of ten questions about Michaelmas.

1.       Michaelmas has been celebrated since:
a.      Daniel prophesied about Michael (Daniel Chapter 10).
b.      he appeared to an Italian bishop in 492 on Mount Gargano.
c.       the French chivalric “Order of St. Michael” was founded in 1469.
d.      Michaelmas daisies were discovered in Africa.

2.      The traditional meat for Michaelmas is:
a.  rabbit stew             b.  wild boar    c. goose     d.  venison

3.      Michaelmas was one of the medieval “quarter days” of the year when:
a.      rents were collected
b.      debts were paid
c.       fairs were held
d.      all of the above

4.      The angel Michael is known for:
a.      leading the worship of God in heaven.
b.      announcing Mary’s pregnancy to her.
c.       wrestling with Jacob.
d.      casting Satan out of Heaven.

5.      Michaelmas marked:
a.      the end of fishing season.
b.      the completion of the annual harvest.
c.       the beginning of winter curfew.
d.      the time to hire new servants and laborers.

6.      True or False?  Michael is recognized in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and New Age religions.

7.      True or False?  The name Michael means “Who is like God?”

8.     True or False?   Michael is commonly depicted is artwork with a raised sword, holding Satan to the ground with his foot on Satan’s neck.

9.   True or False?   “Harvest Moon” is the full moon nearest to Michaelmas.

10.  True or False?   Michael is the patron saint of England, grocers, paratroopers, the German people, soldiers, the city of Brussels, Papua New Guinea, and the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington.

The kitchen staff, Vassal Braden von Dungeness
and Sir Soren of Queen Anne,
provided vital help with serving the meal.
As our guests arrived, we were delighted to see how many had made some concession to costume, and for those who hadn’t, we provided hats for a medieval photo op anyway. I loved having the opportunity to immerse my friends in the medieval history I enjoy so much, and to have the extra reward of their enjoyment too!

(Answers to the quiz: 1-b, 2-c, 3-d, 4-d, 5-b, 6-T, 7-T, 8-T, 9-T (but keyed to equinox, not the feast), 10-F (but yes to grocers, paratroopers, Brussels, and Papua New Guinea)