Cooking across the Ages

Course No. 9237
Professor Ken Albala, Ph.D.
University of the Pacific
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Course No. 9237
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn about the ebb and flow of cuisine cycles, from complexity to simplicity and back again.
  • numbers Discover why only some historic cookbooks focused on recipes.
  • numbers Learn how cuisine has been influenced by trade and travel throughout the ages.

Course Overview

Does the fact that we depend on very exact, almost scientifically rigid recipes make us great cooks—or does that take the fun and creativity out of the whole experience? What was cooking like before the internet, before meat thermometers, grocery stores, and internationally standardized measurements? And more importantly, who were these cooks of the past and who did they cook for?

In Cooking across the Ages, award-winning Professor Ken Albala of the University of the Pacific takes us on a fascinating international journey through civilizations across the ages—showing us who we were, how we lived, and why—through the lens of cooking. In 24 fascinating lectures, you will learn:

  • About the values and flavor preferences of ancient peoples, in addition to the labor that went into their daily tasks;
  • How regional foods in the Middle Ages reflected travel and trade among Mediterranean peoples;
  • How regional foods in the Renaissance reflected unique relationships between far-flung nations;
  • Who turned to cookbooks for medical and romantic advice and why; and
  • Why mid-century Americans idealized canned foods as the height of luxury.

But in addition to learning about this history, you’ll have the opportunity to taste it and smell it, exploring cuisines of the past through a type of gastronomic time travel as Professor Albala prepares dishes and illustrates techniques in each lecture. Throughout the 24 lectures as he cooks, Professor Albala welcomes you into his own home kitchen, a cozy place where he encourages you to relax, experiment, and shed any gastronomic insecurities at the door.

Through the Pages of Cookbooks

For the vast majority of human history, learning to cook was accomplished in the kitchen, through observation and practice. As Professor Albala explains, cookbooks may not always be the best tool for learning how to cook, but they are an excellent entryway for discovering the tastes and values of earlier cultures. Our modern tools and techniques have distanced us from the textures, aromas, and flavor combinations that were very much loved in the past and just wouldn’t occur to us today.

In addition to cooking these recipes from the past, you’ll learn to explore the cookbook itself as a subject of historical study. Whether it comes from a painted palm leaf, a vellum manuscript inscribed with a quill and ink, or an internet website, Professor Albala shows you the impact of our ability to pass recipes and techniques across generations. When cookbooks came into being, they were able to transmit information to an audience beyond one kitchen. That information was often about much more than how to cook. Even stains left behind on a recipe can teach us something about cooking—and living—in the past.

Among the many cookbooks explored in Cooking across the Ages, you will discover the secrets of:

  • The Art and Craft of a Master Cook. Known as the Opera, and published in 1570 by renowned papal chef Bartolomeo Scappi, this was the first illustrated cookbook. In addition to recipes, this encyclopedic tome included full menus and described dishes for every ingredient known at that place and time.
  • Soopa Shastra. Contemporaneous with the Opera, this book was published a world away in the current state of Karnataka, India. Commissioned by a local magnate, it was written on palm leaf paper in the classical Kannada language in 358 stanzas and filled with a limited range of local ingredients.
  • Recipes from the Garden of Contentment. This exceptional book was written by the great 18th-century Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei. After having worked his way up into a high position in the Imperial administration, Yuan Mei turned his back on it all to travel, contemplate cooking, and tend his garden—before writing this classic of Chinese gastronomy.
  • American Cookery. Published in 1796 in Connecticut and New York in two separate editions, this book is considered the first truly American cookbook. Its author, Amelia Simmons, said the book was written for cooks of all social classes, from elegant households to the most humble farmer, showing the democratizing spirit of America in its cuisine.

While these cookbooks can give us a glimpse into the ingredients and techniques of the past, they can also tell us a lot about the places they came from, what people looked for in the foods they prepared, and how cuisine has changed over the centuries.

Not in Your Pantry?

Not surprisingly, some of the ingredients used in these centuries-old cookbooks might not be in your pantry. Some have become extinct—such as silphium, a favorite seasoning in Roman times. Others are proteins that seem shocking because we just don’t eat them now, including crane, dormouse, flamingo, hedgehog, ostrich, porpoise, and swan, to name a few.

Some ingredients in these books might be difficult to find at your local supermarket, but the internet has made them much more accessible. Many can be found at smaller, specialized shops and international markets. When necessary, Professor Albala offers alternatives while also teaching you about the way the original ingredients can open up a door to the past. From asafetida to zander, here are a few ingredients you might not have in your personal pantry ... yet:

  • Asafetida, a gum extract and pungent yellow powder, used most often in Indian cooking;
  • Garum, a fermented fish sauce that was extremely popular during Roman times, usually made from small fish that were left to ferment for months;
  • Grains of Paradise, also known as melegueta pepper, originated on the west coast of Africa and was once commonly used throughout Europe;
  • Jujubes, an Asian fruit that tastes similar to the dates we’re familiar with when dried, but not as sweet;
  • Mandioca flour, made from the cassava root and native to South America, used in all forms of Brazilian cooking today;
  • Pennyroyal, a minty herb that reached its height of popularity in the Middle Ages, and was also used to kill fleas and treat skin disease, among other ailments; and
  • Zander, a fish that has been enjoyed by Russians for centuries.

With Professor Albala’s welcoming attitude, easy-to-follow directions, and warm sense of humor, you’ll find yourself cooking with these ingredients and more—and enjoying wonderful foods from across the globe and across the ages. From a tasty bread salad of ancient Rome to the poured chocolate of the Aztecs, from a delicious German cabbage of the 19th century to Indian jackfruit soup, with Cooking across the Ages, you’ll get a taste of history like you’ve never experienced before!

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24 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Understanding Culture through Cooking
    What can you learn about different cultural groups of people through the lens of their cookbooks? A lot, as Professor Ken Albala illustrates by looking at two chicken recipes 200 years and a continent apart. Learn to cook a recipe from the 1748 French cookbook Le Nouveau Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, and another from The Can-Opener Cookbook of 1953. x
  • 2
    Ancient Rome: Cooking with Apicius
    Are the recipes in De re coquinaria—the oldest complete recipe book in the Western tradition—bizarre and disgusting, or do they reflect a time of elegance and luxury? Historians have expressed a gamut of opinions. As you explore its sala cattabia, minutal of apricots, and botellum, you might be surprised to find three delicious, and even somewhat familiar, dishes. x
  • 3
    Imperial China: Soybeans and Dumplings
    Examine the Chinese Wei dynasty’s Qi Min Yao Shu, an encyclopedic manual containing “essential techniques to benefit the people” and learn about Chinese agricultural practices going back to antiquity. Explore the fermentation practices of the time, using both bacteria and mold, and follow a scaled-down recipe to create an intensely flavored fermented black bean dish. x
  • 4
    Medieval Egypt: Chickpeas and Phyllo Dough
    From 14th-century Egypt, explore recipes that reflect the interchange between the many cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean of the time—Alexandria, Venice, and Constantinople, just to name a few. Learn to make the sweet Byzantine specialty known as himmas kassa, and a super light and flaky phyllo dough stretched to the size of a table, just as Professor Albala remembers his grandmother doing. x
  • 5
    Feast like a Viking with Meat and Beer
    Explore the oldest-known cookbook in Medieval Europe, the 13th century’s Libellus de arte coquinaria. With its terse recipes of meat, fowl, fish, and sauces, it seemed to be written for a noble audience, not the common cook. Learn to make “hunter-style” fish pie with animal bones—and beer, much safer than drinking water at the time. x
  • 6
    Medieval France's Touch for Sugar and Spice
    Meet the first celebrity chef—Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent—who served in the 14th century as master chef in the French imperial courts. His Le Viandier was not an introduction to cooking but served as an aid to help people remember how to cook the classics. Dive into his recipe for a polysavory white stew of capons, along with individual tarts with banners for your guests. x
  • 7
    Renaissance Italy's Sweets and Pasta
    Explore the earliest printed cookbook, composed in Italy in the early 15th century and printed around 1470—making it one of the first generation of books in print on any subject. Learn to create its blancmanger, a combination of capon breast, white flour, rosewater, sugar, and almond milk that still exists today in Turkish cuisine. And discover how to make pasta by feel and texture, no measurements allowed. x
  • 8
    Crafting Aphrodisiacs from the Renaissance
    Renaissance medicine promoted the idea that some foods made you hot, some cold, some promoted healthy libido and reproduction, and some not. Explore the 1560 cookbook of Domenico Romoli, which combined recipes with medical advice. Learn to make his chickpea fritters, zeppole, and sofrito of chopped beef. x
  • 9
    Aztec Tortillas and Chocolate
    While no written recipes exist from Aztec culture—either because they were intentionally destroyed by colonial invaders or accidentally by the passage of time—we can infer what they ate and cooked from other literature that did survive, and by studying the ecology of the area. Master the secrets of an Aztec specialty: drinking chocolate poured from on high to create a special froth, as well as their turkey tamales. x
  • 10
    Papal Rome: Meat Rolls and Eggplant
    Explore the encyclopedic wonders of the Opera, a 1570 cookbook by Bartolomeo Scappi. Unusual for its time, Opera was a cookbook written specifically to teach cooking. With directions and recipes from the Late Renaissance style, and using lavish and contrasting flavors, you will create delicious meat rolls, salami, and an eggplant dish. x
  • 11
    Dining with Don Quixote in Imperial Spain
    Spain became a gastronomic model for much of Europe in the 17th century, with its culinary influence becoming widespread even after suffering military defeat. As you cook its olla podrida, discover the riot of flavors—lamb, beef, pig’s feet, chestnuts, turnips, and more—in this “rotten pot” that became popular throughout Europe. x
  • 12
    Portugal and Japan: Cakes and Katsuobushi
    Explore the fascinating decades of exchange between Portugal and Japan in the 16th century-before Japan turned to cultural isolation-and discover which Portuguese foods are still part of Japanese cuisine today. Explore the process of creating fine dried fish flakes from skipjack tuna, and learn why the dried blocks of this fish are so prized that they're often even given as wedding presents. x
  • 13
    Vegetarian India: Jackfruit and Rice
    Explore the ethical vegetarianism of the Jain people in 16th century Kallahalli, today's southwestern India. As reflected in recipes from the Soopa Shastra, a cookbook commissioned by the local magnate of the area, the Jains used fresh, local ingredients to their best advantage. Learn to cook a stuffed cake, tamarind rice, eggplant, plantain, and a jackfruit soup. x
  • 14
    The Birth of French Haute Cuisine
    In every account of the birth of French haute cuisine, credit is given to Francois Pierre de La Varenne for charting the course forward. Among his many innovations was the creation of the roux, a combination of fat and flour used to thicken a sauce. Follow his lead in creating a flavorful bouillon from beef, mutton, and fowl; a potage of chickens garnished with asparagus; and soft cakes without cheese. x
  • 15
    Post-Puritan England: Hippocras and Cookies
    Did Lettice Pudsey create all the recipes in the 17th-century manuscript attributed to her? Or do as many as 13 others also deserve credit? Whatever the answer, Pudsey had great culinary skills and she wanted her peers to know it. Explore her hippocras, a delicious spiced wine, and the astounding flavors of her “capon in whit broth.” x
  • 16
    China's Last Dynasty: Elegant Simplicity
    Explore the fascinating cookbook of the great Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei. Writing Recipes from the Garden of Contentment as a reaction to the elite dining of the Chinese court, his recipes are relatively simple, traditional, and made to highlight the natural state of ingredients. Learn to cook his pork tenderloin, wheat gluten, and a simple rice porridge typically eaten for breakfast. x
  • 17
    Early America: Johnnycake and Pumpkin
    Amelia Simmons, universally recognized as the first truly American cookbook author, wrote recipes for “all grades of life,” from elegant households to the most humble farmer, in the democratizing spirit of the early Republic. Explore her recipes to create a cornmeal-based johnnycake, a type of corned beef, and a predecessor to the pumpkin pie. x
  • 18
    The French Canadian Tourtiere Meat Pie
    La Cuisinière Canadienne, published in 1840, was the first Canadian cookbook. The authors created the recipes they imagined the early 17th-century Quebec settlers would have eaten—and once in writing, they became the tradition. Discover the extraordinary flavors of the tourtière, a meat pie traditionally served on Christmas or New Year’s Day. x
  • 19
    Victorian Working-Class Meals
    Alexis Soyer, author of the 1855 Shilling Cookery for the People, gained popularity initially as the chef at a fashionable club in London, but later as an inventor and philanthropist who started soup kitchens during the Irish potato famine. Explore his recipes for vermicelli and macaroni, fried fish “Jewish fashion,” and beef pudding. x
  • 20
    Imperial Germany's Cabbage and Sauerbraten
    Henriette Davidis wrote the most popular German cookbook of the 19th century, Praktisches Kochbuch (Practical Cookbook). For the first time in history, with urbanization and the birth of a working class, she knew German women might not have learned to cook before marriage, so she wrote this book for them. Follow her recipes for a delicious red cabbage, sauerbrauten, and bread dumplings. x
  • 21
    Imperial Russia's Piroshki and Coulibiac
    Examine A Gift to Young Housewives by Elena Molokhovets, published during the Russian empire in the final decades before the revolution, featuring the foods eaten by the Russian elite. Learn to make pirozhki iz vermisheli, Salad Olivier (known simply as Russian salad outside the country), and the delicious sweet Blinchiki for dessert. x
  • 22
    Brazil and West Africa: Black Bean Stew
    Explore the rich cuisine of 19th-century Brazil with its indigenous American, West African, and Portuguese influences. From the Cozinheiro Imperial, first published in 1838, learn to cook vatapá with mandioca flour, green beans and shrimp, and a delicious black bean stew using every part of the pig, including tail and ears. x
  • 23
    America's Can-Opener Cookbook
    Discover the 1954 Can-Opener Cookbook, a reflection of the mid-century focus on all things convenient—a time when having a can on the pantry shelf was considered easier, more dependable, and more hygienic than fresh food. Follow the recipes to create quick crab meat Lorenzo, jambalaya, and a light blancmange made with instant vanilla pudding mix. x
  • 24
    The Foodie Era: Cooking with the World
    In the 1980s, when cooking became an official leisure activity and mark of cultural status, Nathalie Dupree, Jacques Pepin, and Martin Yan each had a television cooking show. These programs exposed people to great cooking and encouraged them to step into their own kitchens. Learn to create Dupree's macaroni pie, to bone a chicken Pepin style, and to cook the chicken thighs in a wok as Yan taught. x

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Your professor

Ken Albala

About Your Professor

Ken Albala, Ph.D.
University of the Pacific
Dr. Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he teaches food history and the history of early modern Europe. He is also a Visiting Professor at Boston University, where he teaches an advanced food history course in the gastronomy program. He earned an M.A. in History from Yale University and a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. Professor Albala is the author or...
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