Have you ever tried to cook from an old, old cookbook? One that doesn’t give measurements, calls for ingredients you’ve never heard of and is missing a bunch of pages?
That’s not hard. Translating a medieval cookery manuscript, that’s hard.
At least your average modern cookbook is printed. Back when books were copied by hand, a scribe might misread a word or write it illegibly. When he finished copying “fry the onions” and turned back to the manuscript he was working from, he might pick up in the middle of a different recipe that happened to include the same words. Oops! Tough luck for the reader!
So here’s a recipe that says to add olives--but does it really mean olives, or is that just a word meaning spices, misspelled? The recipe before this one called for olives but then didn’t use them; might the word have lingered in the scribe’s mind? Or hey, could this instruction be the misplaced conclusion of that recipe?
The manuscript he was copying from was probably full of mistakes to begin with--it might even have fallen apart and been rebound with the pages out of order, because nobody numbered pages in those days. And eventually, some other scribe would come along and make a copy from his copy, taking over all his errors intact and adding some new ones.
To clear up the fuzzy points, you can compare several manuscripts of the same text. Each of which will have its own holes and errors, of course. And pretty soon, you’ll think you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle in the Sargasso Sea.
Forgive me. I recently spent about a year and a half translating two manuscripts of a 14th century cookbook from Arabic, and sometimes, I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for myself. As everybody knows, a lot of Arabic letters look the same except for the dots the scribe places over or under them. The medieval cookbook-buying public apparently didn’t care to spring for careful, expensive copying, because both my scribes often left off the dots.
Not such a problem if you’re a medieval cook who’s sort of familiar with the dishes. Big problem if you’re a foreigner trying to understand a cuisine that’s been dead for half a millennium.
It’s not as though people didn’t notice all this. When a recipe was particularly screwed up, some scribe in the history of one of my two manuscripts would just throw up his hands and add the words “God knows best” at the end of it. (Subsequent scribes would carefully copy the screwed-up recipe together with the “God knows best"--or fairly carefully, anyway.)
It becomes obvious that even the older one, which was copied in 1373, represents dozens of generations of copying (oddly, it has more errors than the other manuscript, which is 300 or 400 years younger). Each successive scribe might drop some recipes or even add a few new ones he thought would make for a more salable book. The traditional way of writing a cookbook was like writing a joke book; you just included whatever you liked, from whatever source. So the history of any given recipe can be convoluted.
For example: Around the 11th century, somebody seems to have put together a collection of about 50 pastry, pudding and sweetmeat recipes which proved very popular--at least three medieval Arab cookbooks (my two manuscripts representing one of them) swiped recipes from it. One of those books even got translated into Latin by a certain Jambobinus of Cremona. But did the 11th century guy write these recipes himself (it doesn’t look like it)? If he swiped them from earlier manuscripts, where did they get them?
These are wearying thoughts. You start thinking you’ll have to trace it all back to the Big Bang.
But to look on the positive side, all this hot-rodding plagiarism gives us a sense of what a vigorous market for cookbooks there was in 14th century Cairo. We may not be able to trace any recipe back to its creator, but we can glimpse the exuberant variety of medieval cuisine.
It was strikingly unlike what we think of as Middle Eastern food today. There were no baklava-type pastries and no stuffed vegetables except for the occasional eggplant. Instead of grilling little chunks of meat on shish kebab skewers, cooks roasted whole legs or racks of lamb in tandoor ovens and served the meat, finely chopped up, on fruit puddings sandwiched between big flour tortillas. Stews were flavored with curry-type spice mixtures, fruits and nuts, three or four kinds of fresh herbs at a time and often a dash of soy sauce, sometimes grated cheese. Smoked meat was a common garnish. This was not what people like to think of as Mediterranean cuisine--vegetables play very little part in the recipes, probably because they were an everyday food and cookbooks tend to list party dishes.
On the other hand, this 14th century book actually has a sizeable chapter on vegetarian dishes. These are not Muslim dishes; unlike Christianity, Islam does not require abstaining from meat on any occasion. However, the caliphs of Baghdad happened to employ Christian doctors who liked to prescribe vegetarian dishes to invalids, so many medieval Arab cookbooks do include a few vegetarian recipes. But some of the vegetarian dishes in this book don’t seem to have any medical purpose, so they may actually be Middle Eastern Christian fast-day dishes.
That’s the kind of unexpected discovery that makes wrestling with these maddening old manuscripts enjoyable. That, and the antique charm of the recipes.
Charles Perry is co-author of ‘Medieval Arab Cookery’ (Prospect Books, London, $55).