Edited by Sherry Nourian
Today, and most days, you eat better than a King, the ruler of a country who presided over a population of millions. You eat better than him. Yes, you. You poor student. You low wage earner. You bad cook. You too-poor-to-afford-a fancy-dinner reader. Even you, person who may be out of work right now: You eat better than a King.
Perhaps not a modern King, but certainly better than the majority of Kings or rulers who have ever lived.
How is this possible? Well...
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1) Spices were not readily available. Entire economies were shaped by this trade, militaries were assembled for the purpose of acquiring them, many people died in search of them. In 1519, the King of Spain sent five ships in search of spices, but only one, that of Ferdinand Magellan, ever returned -- because the King did not have access to the spices he wanted. In the grocery store aisle, we have rows of hundreds of spices. The men of Spain died for some of the very spices you can now purchase for a few dollars.
2) The methods of transportation: air, train, ship, automotive, are all relatively new inventions, and prohibited the transfer of food from all corners of the world in a reasonable time without spoilage. Medieval England had not been introduced to a number of foods that might be among your favorites, including chocolate, coffee, tea, turkey, vanilla and broccoli.*** Beef did not make its way into China until about 2500 years ago, and bread was not available there until 800 years ago. While I am certain that the rulers had an abundance of food choices at each meal, it likely did not compare to what you have a standard Las Vegas Buffet or Souplantation.
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3) Modern refrigerators, the machines you use to reliably keep your food fresh were not invented until the 1900’s. Some cultures would keep ice from the winter to keep foods fresh, though it this may not have been possible in a number of climates and regions. As a result, food lost flavor, taste, and texture in the process.
4) Meat and fish were preserved by burying the food in salt or a thick saline bath. The resulting meal would inevitably be extremely salty, and had to be prepared with additional sauces to disguise the taste.
5) Other foods had to be sundried - exposing the food to airborne microbes and diminishing the aesthetics of fresh foods.
6) Modern dentistry, what you likely think of dentistry (drills, fillings, implants, etc.), didn’t exist until the last 70 years, causing a great deal of pain for everyone - kings included. King James I (16th Century) lost most of his teeth, while Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome was also known to have very bad teeth.
7) Common painkillers and antibiotics were not accessible to alleviate dental pain. King Louis XIV of France underwent a truly terrible ordeal: they removed all the teeth from the top layer of his mouth, then punctured his palate and broke his jaw. This was all completed without anaesthesia, the king being fully awake throughout this procedure. The most powerful man in Western Europe was helpless before the primitive medical knowledge of his time. At least the wounds were kept clean on this occasion – cauterised with red-hot coals*
Next time you are eating at an average quality cafeteria, consider what King David would have been thinking if he had time-space warped into your body for that meal. Genghis Kahn might have murdered you for such a feast. Perhaps the Egyptian Pharaohs would have considered it a meal from the Almighty. Every day of your life - you are eating a meal fit for Julius Caesar. Now Chow Down!
*Sir Edward Creasy, Fifteen Decisive Battles Of The World: From Marathon To Waterloo
** Barbara Krasner-Khait, The Impact of Refrigeration
*** Susi Vaasjoki, Food and Drink in Medieval England