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Vintage Cookbooks: Average peasant's diet in Y1K marked the gastronomic dark ages

Thursday, January 06, 2000

By Alice Demetrius Stock

"I wish you luck in the coming year. A pocket full of money, a cellar full of beer and a good, fat pig to last you all the year."

As 2000 approached, I thought of that Victorian salutation and wondered what Europeans were eating in Y1K. What I learned was just how gastronomically dark that age was.

After the end of the Roman Empire, about 500 years before Y1K, the roads they had built, the orchards and vineyards they had planted, the civilized manners and cuisine they had imported throughout Europe all fell into disuse until about the 14th century when the Renaissance began. Then, people rediscovered the classics. Art, literature and the beginnings of modern science flourished.

But Y1K was a superstitious, fearful time without science, technology or any of the culinary benefits the Romans enjoyed.

Ten percent of the population of Y1K were nobility or clergy enjoying some bodily comforts. But life was extremely difficult for the other 90 percent who lived their lives close to the earth for sustenance and close to their farm animals for warmth in winter. They also shared the straw they slept on with lice and fleas.

The possibility of famine and starvation was always present and when crops failed, children might be sold into slavery or become victims of infanticide.

Of those who survived infancy, few lived longer than 40 years. If they didn't die of accidents, infections and diseases, such as leprosy, smallpox and tuberculosis, they worked themselves to death. Still without the horse collar that kept horses from choking in harness, farmers who didn't own oxen pulled plows themselves. Food historians estimate First Millennium peasants might have worked off 6,000 calories a day. The modern, average daily requirement is about 2,000 calories.

Their "staff of life" was flat, unleavened, whole-grain bread, usually eaten with broth. They also made cheese from the milk of a variety of animals. Much like the Victorians, beer and pork were also household staples. In fact, people drank beer or ale or cider for breakfast. Coffee, tea and chocolate weren't as yet introduced.

And, when they could get it, they hashed and mashed the stringy pork or tough mutton or rubbery chicken (only after it had stopped laying eggs) into "soft," curry-like dishes. Their teeth were worn to stumps from gnawing bones and munching coarse grains or else so full of cavities it was too painful to chew anything stiffer than peas porridge, a sticky mass of dried legumes they made into dumplings then steamed in a linen cloth hung from a hook above the ever-simmering soup.

Most kept poultry so they could count on (very small) eggs from their own flocks, as well as from the nests of any and all wild birds -- from swans to sparrows.

They fished the rivers when they weren't frozen and hunted deer and small game, adding whatever they had to the one large pot they owned. The only other kitchen utensils were a dagger-like knife, a ladle and a shallow, probably earthenware, frypan. They had no ovens and few Roman "cookbooks" had survived though even if they had, not many besides clergy could read.

There was no pasta, no potatoes, tomatoes or corn; no spinach, broccoli or brussels sprouts. But they had cabbage, spinach, watercress and kale, which they referred to as "herbs." They had most of the root vegetables we know today, as well as onions and leeks, which they grew were supplemented with wild plants and grasses. These they foraged from local forests full of hungry bears and wolves also out foraging -- sometimes for peasants.

There was no sugar or maple syrup with which to make desserts, but they enjoyed a porridge called frumenty, made from boiled wheat berries. It was served cold with cow's or ass's milk and honey.

Everyone in a household ate out of the same wooden trencher using unwashed fingers or a wooden spoon. The two-pronged fork, imported from Turkey, wasn't known in Europe until 1071.

Now I'm wondering what people will be eating in Y3K.


Eggs were as important a food in 1000 as they are today. There were no egg beaters or even forks then, so cooks blended raw eggs by "drawing through a strainer" probably made of horsetail hair.

6 eggs, beaten
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, coarsely chopped small
4 tablespoons butter
Salt to taste

Slowly melt the butter in a heavy skillet and gently sauté onions and parsley, until onions are golden yellow, not brown.

Pour on beaten eggs, mixing them together with the onions and parsley and fry.

Flip the omelet, if desired, to crisp both sides or serve like scrambled eggs. Salt to taste.

"Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony," Madeleine Pelner Cosman, 1976.

Pfeffernusse note: Last month's column on the pepper nut cookies elicited a call from a reader. The cookies can, indeed, start out hard as rocks (or nutshells). Like some other European bisquits, they are softened either by dunking them in coffee as they are eaten or by storing them for a few days in a tight-lidded container, along with a piece of fresh bread, a chunk of apple or a damp tea bag until they become soft enough to chew.

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