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An Early Meal

Page history last edited by Chuck Ehlschlaeger 10 years, 11 months ago

Review of "An Early Meal - A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey" by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg


Review by Charles Ehlschlaeger


An Early Meal can be purchased online at http://potboilerpress.com/ for $45 before shipping and tax for those of us in the United States. While An Early Meal is not the only "Viking Cookbook" out there, see http://cathyshistoricfood.blogspot.com/search/label/viking for the Table Scraps' blog posts on other Viking food books, it is a great resource for many types of people: Northanhymbrian & Scandinavian reenactors of the Viking Age, SCA feast planners, and general people in love with Scandinavian culture and history.


My interests in the book is as someone who likes to learn about historical cultures mainly through their diets, prepare authentic Anglo-Saxon meals for friends and members of Regia Anglorum, as well as throw the occasional SCA feast. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert on Viking Age Scandinavian culture: so I cannot account for the accuracy of the kit or cooking techniques in the book's many photographs using Viking Age reenactors. My academic background, previously a tenured associate professor of geography and currently a researcher of population and society representation, gives me the confidence to state that the material in An Early Meal is supported by the evidence of that era. With my interest in Northanhymbrian cooking, An Early Meal is now one of the best books I own. It does a great job of briefly describing the cultures at seven locations throughout the North. Those locations, each a great archaeological site, are given about a half dozen recipes. If you are interested in exactly where specific information comes from, you will be disappointed as the book doesn't use footnotes. But, it does have a bibliography of several dozen sources. The authors use seven types of information to base their recipes from: archaeological finds, experimental archaeology, contemporary Scandinavian sources, contemporary continental sources, Scandinavian chronicles and sagas, and later medieval culinary literature.


An Early Meal is broken into three sections: 1) A discussion on food preparation, what the Danes ate, and how they ate food under various conditions. 2) A cookbook of 44 recipes. 3) And a large appendix of very useful information.


The food preparation section was 27 pages long with many high quality illustrations and photographs from Viking reenactors. If you are new to studying danish culture and food, this section is the appropriate length. If you have been studying Viking Age culture for years, you would be better served with http://www.amazon.com/The-Mead-Hall-Feasting-Tradition-Anglo-Saxon/dp/1898281548/ by Stephen Pollington. Pollington often cites Nordic sources so don't be put off by the use of Anglo-Saxon in the title. (This is the second edition while I have the 1st edition, but can only assume the 2nd edition is even better than the version I own.)


The recipe section is probably the most valuable to reenactors of the Viking Age. Every recipe has photographs, often showing period preparation techniques. After the recipe, the authors explain the historical context to the food, its preparation, and its ingredients. If you wanted to prepare an authentic Viking feast, you could get all the variety you desire from just this book. However, if you want access to the primary sources for specific ingredients and techniques, you would want to own http://www.amazon.com/Anglo-Saxon-Food-Drink-Distribution-Consumption/dp/1898281556/ by Ann Hagen, http://www.amazon.com/Inglysch-English-recipes-Society-Supplementary/dp/0197224091/ by Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler, and http://www.amazon.com/Libellus-De-Arte-Coquinaria-Renaissance/dp/0866982647/ by Rudolf Grewe and Constance Hieatt. An Early Meal outshines these other books in the variety of recipes to choose from. (Hagen has no recipes while the other two are mostly meat and fish recipes.) Finally, An Early Meal's recipes are heavy on the meat and fish, and less so on the grains and vegetables. To be fair, historical sources will always focus on the best and spectacular, not on the mundane so detailed information on bread or porridge is not to be expected. Rene Redzepi's http://www.amazon.com/Noma-Time-Place-Nordic-Cuisine/dp/0714859036/ has a very artistic look as Scandinavian foods as seen through the eyes of a chef. Though impractical for an American explorer of Viking culinary culture, Redzepi's book provides a better understanding how the "other 99%" lived because more of the ingredients come from foraged foods available in Scandinavia. The spread of recipe choices in An Early Meal is fantastic, covering the range of foods available as well as the cultural significance of these foods.


The appendix has a great encyclopedia of terms as well listing birds, fish and plants mentioned in the book. The listing is fantastic as it contains the English, Latin, German, and four Scandinavian names of each foodstuff. In addition, all the plants are listed in a table containing whether they were found at the seven archaeological sites or not. Before An Early Meal, Hagen's Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink used to be my "go to" source for determining whether a food is period or not, An Early Meal draws on more recent archaeological research making its appendix the first place I'm going to look. This attention to nomenclature decreases the likelihood we would use the wrong ingredients or mistakenly assume a dish would have a taste to an English named foodstuff that is not what the Scandinavians would have used.


In conclusion, this is a "must own" book for anyone who loves Viking Age culture and its food. It will definitely put you in the right frame of mind. If you want to prepare an authentic Viking Age meal or feast, you should refer to this book (and Hagen's, as well as the two books co-authored by Hieatt). I finally have a book that I can take to reenactment or SCA events to quickly demonstrate foods and techniques to lay spectators or non foodies.


On the other hand, if your needs are mostly academic and history centric, An Early Meal will would make a good gift for your non-academic friends and family to help explain to them what you do for a living.



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