Revisited Myth # 31: Spices were used to mask the flavor and odors of rotting food.

Francis C. writes: Please do post something about food myths – the one regarding medieval people heavily spicing their food to hide the fact that it was rotten is still around!

spices

My pleasure, Francis. This is a myth that targets people of many era from medieval Europe to early America. But never mind my words–here is author Bill Bryson, trying to debunk this myth in his book, At Home: “The only people who could afford most spices were the ones least likely to have bad meat, and anyway spices were too valuable to be used as a mask. . . people used them carefully and sparingly, and not as a sort of flavorsome cover-up.”

Because they came from so far away–the aptly named Spice Islands, aka the East Indies–spices were very expensive and, for many centuries, only for the richest Westerners. Not the sort of people who ate rotten meat.

Frank Clark, supervisor of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, and his staff hear this a lot from visitors to the historic kitchens. “I usually start by saying that, in general, the meat in those days was far fresher than ours,” he explains. “Then I explain that meat and spice were two of the most expensive foods available, and because of that, the wealthy often combined them as a way of showing off. I tell them that, although some spices do have some microbial properties that slow the rotting process, no spice can make tainted meat safe to eat.”

 

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2 Responses to Revisited Myth # 31: Spices were used to mask the flavor and odors of rotting food.

  1. This is very important to know. A lot of people take the spices/preservatives story to mean they can pour hot sauce on room-temperature meat and eat it safely, and it is not true.

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