Reformation Year 2017
The Year of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Food and Dining Culture in the times of Martin Luther.
“Warum rülpset und furzet Ihr nicht? Hat es Euch nicht geschmecket.” (Why don’t you burp and fart? Wasn’t it tasty?) This hearty saying is ascribed to Martin Luther who was known to have enjoyed a good meal and drink. It didn’t have to be anything fancy… just a good fried pickled herring and mashed peas (see recipe in the back), together with a “Pfloschen” (bottle) of Katie’s home-brewed beer made the Reformer happy. How much he actually did care for a good meal is obvious in Lucas Cranach’s portraits of Luther over time. And it is hard to believe what Martin’s friend Nikolaus von Amsdorf claimed: that Katie “provided the Doctor badly with food.”
So, what did people eat and drink in Luther’s time?
It seems that table manners were rather bad in the late Middle Ages, and countless pamphlets and articles around good table manners were published in that time. For example the author of the “Grobianus” (ruffian) writes in 1549: “Whatever was in your mouth don’t put it back on the dinnerware. Don’t throw garbage under the table. If you have to blow your nose don’t do it with the hand that touched the meat. One shall neither scratch themselves at the table, nor spit over the table.”
Already in 1200 public hand-washing was introduced at larger gatherings because cutlery comprised of only knife and spoon, and usually was brought along by the guests. Meat, fish, and vegetables were only served in large chunks. And so, anything larger than bite-size was cut on wooden plates or on flat breads, and eaten with fingers, or the knife, or the spoon. Nobles also ate with their fingers and occasionally would share their spoon and cup with their neighbor. Cooking was done in round-bottomed pots and tri-pod pans over open fire. And because meat and fish were mostly prepared on spits there was no gravy. Instead cooks made sauces from grape juice or vinegar, that were seasoned with herbs and spices, bread, nut flour, or egg yolk.
The variety of meats in the late Middle Ages was very similar to today’s: beef, pork, lamb and poultry. In the Luther household under Katie’s supervision lived 10 pigs, three piglets, five cows, nine calves, a goat, two kids, chickens and chicks, geese, ducks, and doves, and horses in the pasture.
Grains and bread were the main staple food in those times. The nobility owned the right to white bread whereas dark bread was poor people’s food.
Also, at the home of Luther’s parents, Hans and Margarette’s, archeologists were able to find out about their diet. They found tracks of grain, one of them rye, the “Herrenkorn”. (Master’s grain), and besides figs there were also evidence of plums, dill, elderberry, raspberry, hazelnut, wild strawberry, and grapes.
Generally, people ate what was produced by field, farm, and garden, but when money was not an issue one indulged in exotic foods like cloves, pepper, cinnamon, egg plant, zucchini, figs, almonds, and bitter oranges (pomeranze). Rice was already available, and pasta began to make its way from northern Italy onto German tables. Only the potato was missing. (It became widespread later, in the 18th century.)
Overall, vegetarian food was popular - as cookbooks indicate (and those were treated as bestseller in the late Middle Ages, too!), cabbage, beets, and beans made the top, and wild herbs such as common sorrel, lamb’s lettuce, dandelion, and lettuce were on vogue. Fruits were eaten raw, fried, or dried, or pickled in honey or vinegar.
Spices were believed to have healing properties… that they would even make immune against the great epidemics. Since Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century caraway was considered the spice of kings, and appreciated as the Viagra of the Middle Ages.
And already in the late Middle Ages German cooks were noted for their intense seasoning with garlic, caraway, or sage – presumably to preserve meals.
Water was only safe as well water. And so people drank a 2-3% mix of wine, but mainly beer. Brewing was mostly women’s business. It was part of the home economy like cooking and baking. Often, after they had brewed, the women would invite their female neighbors for an afternoon beer party. Katie, too, knew how to brew a good beer, and you can still check out its great quality to this day. In Wittenberg her successor of the 14th generation still brews Luther’s favorite drink, the “Katharinenbier” (Katie beer) using the original recipe.
To conclude this excursion into the culinary world of the Middle Ages Luther suggests, “Drinking without thirst, studying without joy, praying without fervor are vain endeavours.”
Based on a newspaper online article “Essen zu Luthers Zeiten” by Sylvia Weigelt, Thüringer Allgemeine, 14.07.2010