Most of the recipes I publish on my blog are traditional German food. Right? That would be the most natural way to classify them. However, you might be surprised by how many “traditional” German dishes are very recent inventions.
Some of the most common dishes of German cuisine with the year when they were invented are:
- Maultaschen (middle of the 15th century)
- Spätzle (1725)
- Rouladen (1740)
- Goulash soup (beginning of the 19th century)
- Wiener Schnitzel (1831)
- Black forest cake (1915)
- Currywurst (1949)
Expect for Maultaschen, all of these dishes date back for no more than 300 years. I have to admit that 300 years is a pretty long time span. I have no problem with calling Black forest cake a traditional food even though it was invented just about 100 years ago during World War 1.
But what did people in Germany and Europe eat before the 17th century? The answer might be quite shocking to you. You probably wouldn’t be able to recognize any of the most popular dishes of the 16th century.
Today’s eating culture in Europe has its roots in the 17th century. This is the time when the foundations of modern chemistry were set and revolutionary medicinal concepts drastically changed our eating habits.
What European food looked like in the 16th century
Have you ever wondered why dessert is usually the last course of the meal and why there is such a strict separation between sweet and savory dishes in Western cuisine? A German living in the 16th century would find that ridiculous.
Back then, meals were typically centered around a sweetened porridge that usually consisted of grains like rice, oats, or millet. However, it was not eaten in the way we eat sweet porridge today. It wasn’t a breakfast treat with blueberries and honey. Instead, it was eaten with fried chicken or pork.
A typical sauce of that time would be the Sauce Kamelin which consists of grape juice that is thickened with bread, raisins, and almonds. The typical spices for the Sauce Kamelin are cinnamon and cloves. In contemporary German cuisine, this sauce doesn’t exist anymore.
Almost all the sauces present in German cuisine today are fat-based and pretty bland in comparison to the food of the middle ages. If you’re having a dish with sweet and sour sauce nowadays, it’s usually Chinese food. But how did it come that Europeans became so averse to spices and sugar in their meals?
The reason why Germans eat less spicy than 500 years ago
It has nothing to do with the economy. For the upper classes, it didn’t really matter how expensive spices or sugar were. The royals could afford anything while the lower classes only had porridge with boiled vegetables every day. It’s the upper classes that defined the eating culture.
And they changed it drastically because of the medical revolution of the 17th century. That’s the time when the foundations of modern chemistry were set and medicine started to become science-based. The nutritional theories of that time are obscure if you look at them today. But we still eat according to these alchemist theories until today even though they are nonsense.
Eating healthy back in the 17th century was even more important than it is today. Medicine wasn’t what it is today. For many diseases, there wasn’t a cure. Food was the medicine of the people. There’s a famous quote in Andrew Boorde’s book The Brevyary of health (1547):
A good cook is half a physician.Andrew Boorde (1547)
The guiding principles of nutrition prior to the scientific revolution
The guiding principles of nutritional science prior to the 17th century dated back to classical antiquity. They were first formulated around the year 400 before Christ. The two main concepts were:
- Cooking is a symbol of all life processes. Plant seeds cook under the heat of the sun and thus grow to be a plant. Humans could eat these plants and digest them by cooking them with the heat of their bodies. Everything indigestible was discharged with the feces and a new cycle started.
- Four liquids are circulating in the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. For optimal health, an equilibrium of these four liquids has to be achieved by proper nutrition. These four liquids represented the four elements of the earth:
- air (blood, which is regarded as hot and damp),
- water (phlegm, which is regarded as cold and damp),
- fire (yellow bile, which is regarded as hot and dry),
- and earth (black bile, which is regarded as cold and dry).
Optimally, the human body was slightly warm and damp. The constitution of one’s body depended on many factors such as age, gender, and ethnicity. Older people, for example, were classified as colder and drier than younger ones, while Southern Europeans were seen as warmer than Northern Europeans. Scandinavian people could get more extroverted by eating hot food, while cold foods helped people in the Mediterranean countries to calm down.
Ancient Western medicine is remarkably similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine
Food was classified as either hot or cold and damp or dry. For me, this was one of the most fascinating things to ever learn about. I don’t know how familiar you are with Traditional Chinese Medicine but it is widely used until today and many of these concepts are remarkably similar. While the Chinese never let go of their ancient knowledge, Europeans just forgot about it when modern science started to become a thing.
Here are some examples of how foods were classified according to the ancient European nutritional theory prior to the scientific revolution:
- Black pepper: Hot and dry
- Vinegar: Cold and damp
- Carrots: Dry and cold
- Mushrooms: Cold and damp
- Melons: Cold and damp
The cooking method also had an impact on how foods were classified. Roasts and stews were, for example, hot cooking methods, that could balance the coldness in root vegetables. Dry foods had to be cooked in water so the meal isn’t too dry while wet ingredients like onions had to be fried or roasted to decrease the dampness of a meal.
According to this theory, sweetened porridge with chicken was a perfectly balanced meal because it is slightly warm and damp, which is the ideal condition for a body to be in. The same is true for the infamous Sauce Kamelin which combines warm raisins with hot and dry pepper which is balanced by the coldness and dampness of the grape juice.
How a Swiss doctor’s theories radically changed the Western eating culture
One man’s theories were about to change the whole way we look at nutrition today. These were the theories of the Swiss doctor Paracelsus. He didn’t believe in the four Aristotelian elements of the earth. Instead, he believed in the existence of three elements:
- and salt.
These elements didn’t resemble chemical elements as we know them today. Instead, they were used to describe the “character” of a substance. All three of these elements contributed to the taste and appearance of food.
- Mercury: liquid-volatile substances (responsible for the odor and aroma of food)
- Sulfur: oily-flammable substances (responsible for dampness and sweetness of food)
- Salt: solid bodies (responsible for the taste and consistency of food)
It is assumed by historians that these elements are based on distillation experiments. Distillation is a separation technique by which a complex multiphase system can be separated into different fractions. A simple distillation apparatus is just a flask containing the sample which is then heated to evaporate the volatile liquid. Scientists at that time observed that complex substances usually consist of three fractions:
- a volatile liquid (classified as mercury)
- an oily fraction (classified as sulfur)
- a solid residue (classified as salt)
The rise of fermented products
But it’s not just the elements that Paracelsus changed. He also challenged the belief that digestion is a cooking process. In his eyes, food wasn’t cooked in our body but fermented. He observed that the fermentation of food led to the formation of gases and assumed that the same thing is happening in our body. I mean we all need to fart from time to time, don’t we?
This theory was supported by the renowned British doctor Thomas Willis who was one of the founding fathers of the Royal Society of London. He believed that the acidic gastric juices in our stomach decompose food into a milky substance to which alkaline gall is added. This mixture then starts to ferment and turn into a salt-like substance that our body can then convert into blood and other body liquids.
According to the new theory, fermented foods were seen as beneficial to health because they were easier to digest. Also, they didn’t necessarily need to be cooked to make them digestible. The 17th century is the time when eating raw food and salads started to become a thing in Europe. Some of the most popular foods of this time were oysters, sardines, cabbage, mushrooms, and fruits because they were very easy to ferment.
Sauces started to become fat-based because fat (the sulfur element) was believed to be able to combine the mercurian and salt element. The invention of the roux to thicken sauces dates back to the year 1651. A sauce thickened with a roux was seen as a combination of flour (salt element) and wine or broth (mercurian element) which was held together by butter (sulfur element). In the year 1699, the invention of the vinaigrette followed.
Why dessert is served after the main course
Another thing that changed drastically in the 17th century is the way how we view sugar. Doctors at that time knew that sugar is bad for the teeth. Sugar lost its reputation as a universal remedy and was even classified as a poison by some doctors.
Cooks at that time obviously didn’t want to feed poison to their guests so that sugar wasn’t added to the main dishes any more. Instead, dessert as a separate course was invented. Sugary desserts were prepared in a separate kitchen and only served after the meal to guests who were fine with eating sugar.
The amount of spice used in food was also drastically reduced. The reason for that wasn’t a change in the palate of people but rather the belief that “pure” food is the noblest form of food. A famous essay of that time states:
The work of a modern chef closely resembles the work of a chemist. Cooking is the art of unlocking food and extracting its quintessence.“Die Gaben des Comus”, Paris 1739
The theories of Paracelsus spread all over Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia. The rest of the world, however, remained untouched by these ideas. Nowadays, we would never classify curry or sweet and sour chicken as Western food when in fact that is how the food of Europe looked like prior to the 17th century.
Why didn’t Europeans revolutionize their eating culture after Paracelsus’s theories have been proven wrong?
By the end of the 18th century, Paracelsus’s theories were already proven wrong and became obsolete. But people in Europe didn’t go back to their old ways of eating. Historians believe that one of the reasons for that is a change in how we think about food. Food wasn’t seen as medicine anymore. The main focus of food research wasn’t about how to improve the health of the upper class but how to feed the starving lower classes.
The new way of eating has proven to be very beneficial to cheaply feed fabric workers during the industrial revolution. Spices are expensive and contain no calories so they weren’t reintroduced. Fat-based sauces make you feel stuffed quicker and the less you cook food, the less energy you need to heat your stove.
What will Western food look like in the future?
Did the ideas of Paracelsus change the way we eat for good or bad? Well, I’m sure the opinions differ on this subject. I won’t deny that Paracelsus’s theories were a great source of innovation. A lot of my favorite foods are based on his ideas about nutrition. However, our food became a lot less diverse because of some false claims that quickly proved wrong.
Who knows what people 300 years from now will think about the way we eat today. Will they recognize any of the dishes published on my blog? Will they still thicken their gravies with a roux and enjoy their creamed spinach? Will there still be separate courses and strict dining etiquette or will our eating style become more communal and informal? Which spices will form the foundation of German cuisine?
I will probably never find out the answer to any of these questions. However, I do hope that our descendants won’t forget about all the dishes which make up German cuisine today the next time our eating habits get revolutionized. It would be a shame to dismiss hundreds of years of culinary knowledge as has happened the last time.