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by Mistress Elaina de Sinistre
I know there are perfectly pleasant vegetarians out there in the Knowne World. I’ve even met some! Baron Tibor comes to mind right away. And Duchess Caterina de Forza who spent several hours in my kitchen with raw chicken liver and bacon making rumaki. I don’t know why it is, then, that the thought of vegetarians at an SCA feast gives me a cold grue. But it does.
There are really two questions involved here, I suppose. How far should a cook preparing a meal for a hundred or more people go to accommodate the five or six who cannot or will not eat meat? And, perhaps more important, how can we all manage to be polite to each other about the whole thing?
Let’s deal first with the idea of information as opposed to accommodation. All food allergies must be taken seriously, whether we make accommodation for them or not. Cooks need to take care to know exactly what is in each dish, and to answer inquiries literally. An excellent cook of my acquaintance once made another friend very uncomfortably ill by telling her that there was no pepper in a certain dish because he only used “a little” and was sure that it was not so highly spiced that it would bother her. People with serious food allergies, like Master Conrad von Regensburg’s anaphylactic reaction to garlic, could die if they eat something containing the substance to which they are allergic. Frankly, there’s probably more likelihood of an SCA death in the feast hall than on the tourney field. So the first rule here is clearly: “Know exactly what is in each dish and disperse that information freely and frankly.” If a person cannot eat a dish that you have prepared, better for them to forego it than to be ill.
The real difficulty comes into play when you attempt, or you are asked to attempt, to prepare food different from that prepared for the rest of the hall to serve to those who have a food allergy or preference. This marks the wide gap between having a person who cannot (or will not) eat a certain food avoid eating that food, and having the cooks plan and prepare their feast around the food allergies or preferences of a small, but often vocal, minority. Although any number of people have food allergies or preferences, this problem most common occurs regarding vegetarians. Just how far should a cook go to accommodate the needs of those who cannot (or will not) eat the feast as generally prepared?
Most feast announcements that I read - in any of the newsletters for the various SCA kingdoms - tend to have a rather standard statement that those with special dietary needs should contact the cook before the event. Personally, I have made this kind statement for every feast I’ve cooked in the past ten years or so. Your mileage may vary, but the number of people who take the time to contact me before an event is almost nil. The number, however, who show up in the kitchen mid-afternoon, to find out what they can and cannot eat, tends to be much higher. Now I have no problem with those who simply want information. My ‘beef’ is with those who, when they find they cannot eat some major portion of the feast, ask, “Well, what are you going to feed me?”. Having tried a variety of answers to this question over the years (from “I’ll make you something special.” to “I’ll make one of these for you with no meat.” to ”I’ll ask the autocrat to refund your money.”) my decision has been to settle on that final reply as my standard answer.
Knowing that vegetarians are common in our area (perhaps as many as one in every dozen folks attending some feasts) I try to come up with menus that include non-meat items. This is not at all difficult, since the corpus is full of recipes or adaptations of recipes, to be served “in Lent”. I usually send to table at least one and often two dishes in any course that contain no meat. Recently, however, I’ve had to deal with more and more lacto-ovo vegetarians who not only won’t eat meat, they won’t eat milk, cheese, or eggs. When it reaches this point, I tend to throw my hands in the air, both figuratively and literally, and suggest that folks ask the autocrat to return their feast fee.
Now we come to the second question raised above. How does a cook manage to do this politely? Ah, there’s the rub! I try to be polite. Honestly, I do! But sometimes I feel my veneer of courtesy stretched to the breaking point. Not to say that all vegetarians, or others with dietary restrictions, are rude - far from it! But, since vegetarianism is often an ethical choice, many vegetarians feel the need to proselytize. While I am willing to engage in a debate about medieval diet at various times and places (ask my apprentices or my guild, I’ll usually do this at the drop of a hat), I am not willing to have that discussion at four o’clock in the afternoon with the first course of a feast due out in two hours. I find I strongly resent having someone try to tell me that my feast is not “period” because everyone knows that people in period ate very little meat. So perhaps this editorial is as good a time as any to answer that contention.
Did our medieval counterparts follow a largely vegetarian diet? Personally, I do not think so. Certainly the poorer classes ate less meat. Certainly the time of year had much more effect on what, and how much, meat people ate - both from availability and from adherence to the fasts of the Church calendar. But by and large the diet of the upper classes, especially on a feast day, was much heavier on meat dishes than the average SCA feast. How do we know this? We can look at specific cookery books, like Le Menagier de Paris and Forme of Curye (the C and J manuscripts), that begin with lists of the dishes to be served for a meal. The vast majority of these are flesh dishes. Even those menus set for a “fishye day” tend to include items with eggs even when they avoid milk or cream or substitute for it with almond milk. It tends to be a matter of all or nothing - if the feast is served on a “fleyshe day” then all or nearly all of the dishes will contain meat, broth, milk, cheese, eggs, or all of the above. To serve a feast that includes a variety of non-meat dishes, I need to break from the use of period menus to serve, at the same feast, dishes for a flesh day and dishes for a fast day. In general, I don’t have an “authenticity” problem with doing that, but I do recognize what I am doing. To be told that a feast is not “period” because so many of the dishes have meat or animal products does disturb me.
The only authentic alternative to a feast without meat would be to serve a meal planned for a fast day. Such a meal would (depending on the day) include no red meat but vast amounts of fish - fresh, salted, baked, fried, stuffed, in soup, and in pastry. It would include various dishes using almond milk to substitute for the milk or cream in sauces and sweets. It would probably not contain any more vegetable dishes than a meat feast, but those dishes would be prepared with almond milk or fish broth rather than the more common milk, cream, or mutton broth. Now it has been my experience that most folk simply will not eat fish served at a feast. The only exceptions have been certain well-prepared salmon dishes. To serve a whole feast of fish would not only wreck havoc with one’s reputation as a cook, to would certainly result in throwing away vast quantities of food returned from table.
As an alternative to the (very modern) idea of simply stating that you are a vegetarian and expecting vegetarian alternative foods to be offered, I offer this much more period suggestion. Mistress Dorothea of Caer-Myrddin once commented, “In order to maintain a vegetarian diet at events, you do not have to invent an ancient Greek Pythagorean or Hindu persona. You just say, ‘I eat no flesh food. It is my penance.’ And you can then invent some amusing sins that you are supposed to be doing penance for, or smile and leave them guessing.” I like this idea because it places the difficulty of not eating what is served squarely where it belongs - on the feaster not on the cook!
In writing about the abbot of the monastery at Bury St. Edmonds, one of his monks tells us that although the abbot himself ate no meat he always had his cooks prepare a serve the usual variety of meat dishes at his table. This allowed him to demonstrate his charity by giving those dishes to those at lower tables and to have the leftovers served to the beggars at the door. The idea here is that although the Father Abbot himself ate no meat, he did not want to inflict the rigors of his own fast on those around him. Rather than have many special dishes prepared that he would be able to eat, he managed with the few things normally served were within his dietary requirements.
If more vegetarians would adopt a similar policy, I could foresee the day when their presence at a feast table would be eagerly sought. “Verily, my lady, I have arranged for us to sit with Lord and Lady Vego de Vega for the feast this evening.” “How thoughtful of you, my lord! You know how much I enjoy Cook’s way with a roasted pygge. Now there will be enough for double servings all around!”