Chefs Resurrect Ye Olde Culinary Arts

Tired of cooking chicken 101 ways? A growing cadre of chefs feels the same way, and is looking to history for inspiration. Historical cooking is gaining popularity, as chefs resurrect the culinary arts of yore from ancient cookbooks. But history isn't always pretty, and chefs often find themselves toeing the line between authenticity and good taste.

Culinary Art Hits and Misses

Historical cooking is still in its experimental phase, so results range from the interesting to the inedible. Fourteenth century England has proved an unlikely goldmine, with such long-forgotten medieval favorites as 'boiled sheep innards stewed with egg yolks and saffron' and 'swan gizzard sauce.' Roman statesman Cato the Elder offers a killer onion dip recipe. Another hit is the American cowboy specialty 'Texas Rattlesnake Chili.'

And then there are the misses. Should you fancy a taste of the World War I trenches, The Doughboy Cookbook features 'Rations for Trench & Field,' possibly the only recipe to include 'cigarette' as an ingredient.

Profile of a Culinary Historian Career

Fritz Blank, chef at Philadelphia's Deux Cheminees, has built his culinary career on recreating historic menus. He draws on a library of 10,000 historical cookbooks to develop menus "rooted in the diverse culinary traditions of Europe and America." This description doesn't do justice to the range of his eclectic menus, which have included a period stew of turtle meat and pumpkin, Jaegermeister ice cream, and a Sicilian salad of calves' feet and cucumber pickles.

But How Does it Taste?

For all Chef Blank's culinary arts triumphs, the calves' feet salad was a failure. Intended as a period dish for Verdi aficionados, it was by all accounts too authentic. Blank had come upon the essential challenge of the culinary historian's career: how to maintain the balance between authenticity and good taste.

Here's where the chef's personal culinary artistry comes in. A culinary historian's career depends on the ability to capture the spirit of the original without compromising the eating experience. As one chef puts it, "good cooking is good cooking, regardless of which century it comes from."