Tasting History: A Hit YouTube Series Shows How to Cook the Foods of Ancient Greece & Rome, Medieval Europe, and Other Places & Periods

The food of our ances­tors has come back into fash­ion, no mat­ter from where your own ances­tors in par­tic­u­lar hap­pened to hail. Whether moti­vat­ed by a desire to avoid the sup­pos­ed­ly unhealthy ingre­di­ents and process­es intro­duced in moder­ni­ty, a curios­i­ty about the prac­tices of a cul­ture, or sim­ply a spir­it of culi­nary adven­ture, the con­sump­tion of tra­di­tion­al foods has attained a rel­a­tive­ly high pro­file of late. So, indeed, has their prepa­ra­tion: few of us could think of a more tra­di­tion­al food than bread, the home-bak­ing of which became a sweep­ing fad in the Unit­ed States and else­where short­ly after the onset of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic.

Max Miller, for exam­ple, has baked more than his own share of bread at home. Like no few media-savvy culi­nary hob­by­ists, he’s put the results on Youtube; like those hob­by­ists who devel­op an unquench­able thirst for ever-greater depth and breadth (no pun intend­ed) of knowl­edge about the field, he’s gone well beyond the rudi­ments.

18th-cen­tu­ry Saly Lunn bunsmedieval trencherPom­pei­ian panis quad­ra­tus, even the bread of ancient Egypt: he’s gone a long way indeed beyond sim­ple sour­dough. But in so doing, he’s learned — and taught — a great deal about the vari­ety of civ­i­liza­tions, all of them hearti­ly food-eat­ing, that led up to ours.

“His show, Tast­ing His­to­ry with Max Miller, start­ed in late Feb­ru­ary,” writes Devan Sauer in a pro­file last year for the Phoenix New Times. “Since then, Tast­ing His­to­ry has drawn more than 470,000 sub­scribers and 14 mil­lion views.” Each of its episodes “has a spe­cial seg­ment where Miller explains the his­to­ry of either the ingre­di­ents or the dish’s time peri­od.” These peri­ods come orga­nized into playlists like “Ancient Greek, Roman, & Mesopotami­an Recipes,” “The Best of Medieval & Renais­sance Recipes,” and “18th/19th Cen­tu­ry Recipes.” In his clear­ly exten­sive research, “Miller looks to pri­ma­ry accounts, or anec­do­tal records from the peo­ple them­selves, rather than his­to­ri­ans. He does this so he can get a bet­ter glimpse into what life was like dur­ing a cer­tain time.”

If past, as L.P. Hart­ley put it, is a for­eign coun­try, then Miller’s his­tor­i­cal cook­ery is a form of not just time trav­el, but reg­u­lar trav­el — exact­ly what so few of us have been able to do over the past year and a half. And though most of the recipes fea­tured on Tast­ing His­to­ry have come from West­ern, and specif­i­cal­ly Euro­pean cul­tures, its chan­nel also has a playlist ded­i­cat­ed to non-Euro­pean foods such as Aztec choco­late; the king­ly Indi­an dessert of payasam; and hwa­jeon, the Kore­an “flower pan­cakes” served in 17th-cen­tu­ry snack bars, or eumshik dabang. He’s also pre­pared the snails served at the ther­mopoli­um, the equiv­a­lent estab­lish­ment of the first-cen­tu­ry Roman Empire recent­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. But how­ev­er impres­sive Miller’s knowl­edge, enthu­si­asm, and skill in the kitchen, he com­mands just as much respect for hav­ing mas­tered Youtube, the true Forum of ear­ly 21st-cen­tu­ry civ­i­liza­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Did Peo­ple Eat in Medieval Times? A Video Series and New Cook­book Explain

Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dat­ing Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

Watch a 4000-Year Old Baby­lon­ian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Har­vard

Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Cooks 4000-Year-Old Recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, and Lets You See How They Turned Out

How to Make the Old­est Recipe in the World: A Recipe for Net­tle Pud­ding Dat­ing Back 6,000 BC

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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