Samuel Pegge, The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery (Project Gutenberg, 1780)
In 1988, during my sophomore year in college, I took a course in Middle English. I never expected to have much of a use for it other then fulfilling the number of credits I needed in the English department to get my BA. I certainly didn’t expect that a quarter of a century later I would be drawing heavily on that old, almost-forgotten knowledge in an attempt to read a cookbook. Now, looking at it from the other end of the telescope: when I started reading Samuel Pegge’s The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery, I figured that at one hundred ten pages, it was going to be an easy one-day read. Instead, here I am a week later, having just finished it, and to tell the truth, I’m exhausted. That was a tough, tough read!
The title tells you pretty much everything you need to know here. (Note: “cury” is the medieval way of saying “cookery”; you’ll find nary a hint of garam masala here, though the 13th century British seem to have discovered turmeric, a common curry ingredient.) The book is comprised of two separate cookery manuscripts, one from the 13th century and one from the late middle ages (the 1400s, perhaps?; the language is more recognizably English, but the thorn was still in use), along with copious, sometimes contradictory, notes from Pegge. (“Rape: a dish that does not contain turnips.” …huh?) It’s mostly of archival/academic interest today, though it would be fun to try and make some of these recipes, assuming you can even get some of the ingredients these days (good luck going to the market and buying a swan!). But it’s interesting to note the differences between cooking then and cooking now. For example, almond milk was used almost exclusively in place of cow’s milk, fruit (especially raisins) was a common ingredient in main dishes, and the 13th century Brits had already discovered galangal—an Asian spice I’m not convinced America has yet discovered seven hundred-odd years later. (Basically, it’s a stronger ginger.)
Fun stuff, though if you haven’t ever studied middle English, you may have a hard time figuring out what’s being said at first. (Here’s a hint to get you started: that odd character that pops up in many words is called a thorn, and in modern writing you’d see a “th” there.) ***