Food as History, or, Sniffing Out the Snickerdoodle

Over the millennia, the acquisition and preparation of food has immensely changed.  There was a day when it was the primary occupation of human beings; now, for most people, it’s a sidelight, and a great many people never touch the food they eat except when it’s served to them.  Researching a historical period, for the historical writer, often means understanding the food people prepared and consumed.  Food distribution, food habits and beliefs, availability and ethnic interest–all of these are the mundane details that make the past come alive.

I spent significant amounts of time working in the twelfth century, and found a fabulous resource in a book called The Medieval Kitchen.  I was stunned at how sophisticated the menus could be in the castles and palaces of the time.  I could write about the meal served to Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Convent of Fontevrault with absolute confidence.

Now that I’m working in the 1920s, and in America, I search out differences between menus of that decade and those of our own, hoping to accentuate the historical feel of the novel.  As with most recent-era research, it can be tricky to get it right.

I needed cookies!  It’s a small thing, trivial, really, but I wanted it to be right.  Fortunately, researching cookies–which will receive only the briefest mention in the current novel–brought me to a fabulous blog, and to a writer who cared enough about the lowly snickerdoodle to track down its century plus of history.  You can read about it here:   American Food Historian  Cookies are a long-established kitchen item, of course, but did you know that the most popular one, for Americans, wasn’t invented until 1930?  That would be, of course, the Toll House or chocolate-chip cookie–but I can’t use it.  Most readers might not notice, but I would know, and so it won’t work.  Oreo cookies, on the other hand, made their debut in 1912, but I wanted something homemade, something that helps make my character come alive.  As I searched for my choice, I found another great resource:  The History of Cookies!  Amazing.  Did you know there were people who do research only on cookies?

I do hope it’s not only we writers who care about these tiny, telling details.  We can, of course, get lost in details, and forget to tell our story.  Chasing down historical facts can become a compulsion.  And, of course, I may have to try some of these recipes.





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