9 Bizarre Foods That People Actually Ate Throughout History, From Ancient Rome To The 1950s
When we think about history, we tend to think about major events and important people. In school, we learn about royalty and succession, wars and revolutions, but we don’t hear a lot about how people actually lived their every day lives: What did people wear during the Victorian era? What were American pioneer homes like? What did they do at night without TV? What did women do when they were on their periods? What did they eat? I find these types of questions fascinating because they can tell us a lot about both how we are similar to people of other eras, and how we are incredibly different. Food is especially fun to learn about because it makes up such an important part of our daily lives, and it makes the past relatable: I might not be able to identify very directly to a soldier in the trenches of World War I, but I can relate to someone sitting down to dinner, or having a cup of tea, or trying to sneak away with sweets. That said, a lot of food of the past is, by today’s standards, undeniably weird, and therefore fun to know about, if not to actually eat. Here, I’ve gathered nine examples of the strangest foods of (mostly British) history.
Much of my inspiration for this post comes from The Supersizers Go…, a hilarious BBC series that explores food through the ages. Hosts Giles Coren and Sue Perkins eat their ways through a different historical era in every episode, and it is THE BEST. Seriously, if you have any interest in history, food, or humor, you need to check it out right now. You can watch it for free on Hulu, so there’s no excuse. Here’s a taste:
Onto the weird foods!
Garum is a fermented fish sauce made of fish intestines and blood that are combined with salt and herbs and left to sit in the sun for up to three months. Garum was extremely popular among the ancient Romans, and production of the paste was a major part of the economy in cities like Pompeii. Apparently, the fermenting garum smelled so bad that people were only allowed to make it outside of the cities. The part that’s really strange for a modern palate is that the Romans put garum on everything—from meat, to eggs, to dessert. Yes, dessert. Here you can find a recipe for a pear dessert that includes a dash of the fishy, salty sauce. Uh, yum?
Humanity has a long history of imagining hybrid animals. The griffin (body of a lion, head of an eagle) and the chimera (body of a lion, head of a goat, with a snake’s head as a tail), for instance, combine multiple animals into single, fantastic forms. The Tudors (1485-1603) went a step further: They actually created hybrid animals they could eat. One popular version was the cockentrice, which was created by literally sewing a pig and a capon (a type of rooster) together.
3. The Helmeted Cock
Another entry into the “Weird Things To Do With Animals” category: In the medieval French cookbook Le Viandier de Tailleven, Guillaume Tirel has a description of a dish that features a capon sitting astride a pig, as if the bird were a knight and the pig were his steed. The capon is also be outfitted with a helmet, lance, and armor. Find out how to make one for your next holiday party here.
4. Rôti Sans Pareil
Move over, Turducken. In 1807 Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, the world’s first restaurant critic, published a recipe for a meat monstrosity called the “Rôti Sans Pareil” (Roast Without Equal), in which 17 birds are all stuffed inside each other. In order from smallest to largest, the birds included a warbler, a bunting, a lark, a thrush, a quail, a lapwing, a plover, a partridge, a woodcock, a teal, a guinea fowl, a duck, a chicken, a pheasant, a goose, a turkey, and a Great Bustard. Whew!
5. Toast Sandwich
While perhaps not as insane as a 17-bird meat bomb, the toast sandwich is nevertheless endearingly odd. It is, you guessed it, a sandwich consisting of one piece of dry toast, stuck between two pieces of buttered, untoasted bread, with a bit of salt and pepper. The recipe appeared in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1861. In 2011 the Royal Society of Chemistry declared the toast sandwich to be the cheapest meal in the U.K., with a price of 7.5 pence.
6. Stuffed Dormice
Dormice (yes, that cute little thing above) were a delicacy in Ancient Rome. The Roman Cookery Book (6th century) features a recipe for stuffed dormice, which calls for a dormouse to be stuffed with minced pork and minced dormouse-meat. The stuffed mouse would then be cooked in the oven.
7. Pies full of live animals (and people)
In the 15th and 16th centuries, huge pies containing live animals were popular as show pieces during major feasts. In 1626, Jeffrey Hudson, a seven-year-old dwarf, was served inside a pie during a feast in honor of Charles I. The huge pie was brought to the king and queen, and Hudson broke through the crust, wearing a tiny suit of honor. Eighteen inches tall, Hudson stood on the table and bowed before the queen. (He then became a favorite of Queen Henrietta Maria, pictured with him above). A 16th century Italian cookbook features instructions for filling a pie with live birds, so that when someone pierces the crust, the birds all fly out. This type of spectacle may have been the inspiration for the nursery rhyme,
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
8. Calf’s Foot Jelly
Calf’s Foot Jelly was popular in Victorian kitchens, especially for the ill or weak. It is, essentially, Jell-O made out of meat. It was made by boiling calves’ feet and extracting their natural gelatin. Then spices and sugar might be added for flavor.