The ONE dish to rule them all
Honorable Lady Sosha Lyon’s O’Rourke
Creating the ONE dish that makes people at an event stop and stare does not happen over night. There is a great deal involved in creating a piece of edible art. This class is an exploration of ideas, ingredients, techniques, research and display.
Every stunning dish starts with an idea. That idea can be anything edible. One idea is faux candy grapes. Also known as purple marzipan balls with green marzipan vines. Marzipan is a great medium for doing faux food. (hint: this is very period to!) Perhaps a scaled down size of a mostly edible elephant. (This too is a period idea…documented too! Which we’ll get to a little later). And now for the bain of my existence in trying to recreate…I give you the Turducken. Yes…Turkey is period but only the VERY wealthy could afford this.
Above we have three ideas listed. First one is simplistic. A little almond flour, sugar, and food coloring and voila! You have a display. The second idea requires a little more work, a wooden frame with some chicken wire, ground meat to cover (a really big oven!!) and perhaps mulmak barding for the saddle and parsnips for the tusks. The third idea requires a LOT of work. A turkey, a chicken a duck and 9 quail walk into a kitchen. Oh and don’t forget the rabbit(s) and HUGE pastry shell. If this sounds like a bad joke, it’s not. It just takes two days of prep (6 hours each day) and then a third day for the cooking.
So…the first order of making a supreme dish is to figure the level of expertise you have for making stuff. And by stuff I mean artistically and patience wise bending food and accessories to your will. Period cooks, the wealthier the household the bigger the cook’s kitchen and staff as well as access to esoteric supplies/items that could be bought.
An example of wealth, supplies and over the top cooking is the wedding of the Grand Duke Fernandino I de’Medici to Christine de Lorraine just the niece of French king Henri III and granddaughter to Catherine de’Medici. The wedding demanded planning and resources to accommodate thousands. Because the Grand Duke was the Grand Duke and he had great power/money the wedding planners co-opted all the ingredients of the markets for one month. No one could buy or sell anything that the wedding might need first. http://gherkinstomatoes.com/2009/11/16/14994/ Now that was a wedding feast of extreme pomp and circumstances with HUGE kitchen space and lots of sous chefs at the head chef’s beck and call.
If you aren’t up for wood working and wrestling chicken wire (which will have to be documented) but you can form balls and leaves from playdoh or clay, go with the basic marzipan idea. If you can carve 100 year old oak stumps into designer bowls using your fingers and a pen knife, take that marzipan and carve out St. George slaying a dragon on a horse in 3D! If you can debone a duck but don’t have 6 hours deboning 12 birds, do a stuffed duck in a pastry shell with lots of dough artwork. i.e. braiding on the side or cut out pastry leaves with veining and vining.
The closer and idea is to looking almost impossible or weird (to our modern eyes but period) the better off your display has of being noticed.
The ingredients you use, need to be as close to organic as much as possible. Using the same type of ingredient found in period i.e. Ethiopian coffee beans when doing a coffee roasting display for example as opposed to a Costa Rican bean. Yes they are both coffee beans but the idea is to use what was available to the area and time line of your magnificent dish.
If an item is not available an explanation is owed as to why. Roman dishes were notorious for adding/dropping ingredients on whim. So fudging a little in the Roman way is ok, however questions will need to be answered WHY the work around happened and the item wasn’t bought with your first born child. Well other then the whole CPS really frowns upon that sort of thing. Trading children for piglets! What is this world coming to!
Technique isn’t research, though the two dovetail a bit. Technique is what you do to achieve your project. i.e. forming dough by hand instead of using a mixer. The technique used for making and cooking your dish, needs to be as close to period as possible. HOWEVER this does not mean you need to go out and build a mud and brick beehive oven. You don’t. I would suggest noting in the research part why you didn’t/couldn’t. i.e. Homeowners association had a fit the last time you tried to build a period burning man with wicker and goats. If you can build the beehive oven, you’ll get extra credit points though. Hell that could be a really cool idea all on it’s own for A&S!
Researching an item isn’t just “Hey they stuffed pig’s heads and ate ‘em!”. Research takes a little more work. If you are displaying ONE dish. Everything from the type of pig used for a stuffed pig’s head used, to the type of wood used to fire up the English oven’s and the type of oven used to roast the head in. Research on a 4×4 index card is no longer an acceptable means of telling What, When, Why, Who and Where a project came from. Research consists of everything used to make this item, everything used in this item, everything used on this item, everything used to display this item and every one who would be seeing/eating this item. Every statement in the documentation has to be backed up with a point of fact. Two or more points of fact would be better as a point of reference.
Information from the internet needs to be viewed with jaundice eye. Not everything is believable or useable. Use caution when using online information.
To quote one of my favorite movies:
“Oh, there’s a difference between you and me. You’re a villain alright. But I am a super villain.”
“What’s the difference?”
“PRESENTATION!” Cue dramatic music and lighting.
A presentation can make or break any display. Don’t just throw food on a table (especially not a rickety table!) and expect people to go “Wow! All this work is perfect!”. The likely response will be “Eh…tasty enough but it looks like a Denny’s breakfast bar.”
Table set up:
Start with a table cloth (clean and unstained). Plain will do but make sure the color is vivid. Brocades can work but do not let the material speak louder then the dish.
The dish you present your work of art in/on should be just as unique and fitting as the edible art is. Wood, silver, and pottery dishes are period ways in which to display the tasty food on. If the dish is for a noble’s table, go for a silver tray or well thrown pottery. Wood tray’s or bowls are good ways to display either ingredients or for more common tableaus.
Silver trays and wooden bowls/plates can be found at Goodwill for a fraction of buying new. With all the organic food items used or rare spices, every penny counts! For those who don’t throw pottery, Etsy is a very good website in which different potters can display their wares for public sale. Or collect pieces from the different SCA wars from excellent vendors; who you can chat with and touch their pottery before buying. Also check out different city festivals i.e. Pecan Festival in Austin.
If possible raise the dish up. Put a stable platform underneath the table cloth, and then add the dish.
Have small plates, forks, spoons, cups at the start of the table. Have 2 sets of documentation ready for reading. At the end of the table open a paper trash back lined with a plastic trash back so that there is a convenient trash receptacle for plates/cutlery etc when the tasting is done. Be ready to discuss any and all sections of your research including the occasional esoteric tidbit. Most people are hesitant to step outside their normal eating habits, be ready to talk up beef tongue. Different doesn’t mean disgusting. Emphasize the good things not the weird. i.e. sugar and spices in the comfit not the ground up bug parts you used to get the period red color in your food.
Find an idea that is right for you. Some thing that is fun but not usual. Some thing that can be made with ingredients that are accessible and period. Practice making the ONE dish at least once prior to the big day. Research everything. Leave nothing to be questioned. Provide pictures if you can of the steps taken to get from point A to point DD. Have fun! Remember this project should be both edible and fun. If it makes you giggle thinking of some one eating it, you’re probably on the right track.