The following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.
T’is the Season for yummy yuletide foods! There are tables groaning under the weight of roast turkey or ham, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes, stuffing and assorted vegetables. Mugs of hot buttered rum or apple cider are clutched and glasses of cold eggnog are passed around. Not to mention the multitudes of desserts. Mince pies, fruit cakes, pumpkin pies, cookies, gingerbread men, plum puddings, and cakes tick like calorie bombs on sideboards. Then there are candy canes hanging on the tree, and gingerbread houses to be decorated but never eaten because the gingerbread has become the consistency of cardboard.
There are many other foods, but these are considered some of the most “traditional” Christmas dishes, ala Charles Dickens and American television.
Many of these foods, especially those in the dessert category, are flavored with similar spices. These seasonal seasonings are the reason why the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves are so associated with Christmas that they are the primary aromatics used in scented candles marketed for the holidays. Even the onslaught of “pumpkin flavored” products that flood the market in the fall are more about the flavor of the spices commonly found in pumpkin pie than the flavor of the pumpkin itself.
But why those spices? Yes, they taste good mulled in your apple cider or blended into your mince pie, but there are other spices that would taste nice, too. Why are some foods so mentally linked with winter that people seldom eat them during the warm months? It’s not like they are less tasty in July. And what does any of this have to do with the Tudors?
We eat them in winter and at Christmas because those are the foods and spices that were considered by Tudor medical practitioners to “warm” the body.
The humoral theory of medicine that the Tudors used seems simple, at first glance. The human body was presumed to be made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Each element was supposed to have its own substances and attributes. Earth was cold and dry, air was warm and wet, water was cold and wet, and fire was hot and dry. Each element made a different kind of humor, or fluid, in the body. Earth made black bile, air made blood, water made phlegm, and fire made yellow bile. People’s health depended on the mixtures of humors inside of them, which doctors often referred to as a patient’s “complexion”, since the coloration of the skin was believed to be an invaluable diagnostic tool. A physician’s goal was to help people achieve “eukrasia”, or the perfect balance of humors for perfect health. In fact, most Tudors were always seeking to get their ever-changing humors back into the correct ratios.
How did the Tudors alter their humors to keep their internal systems in the perfect equilibrium?
As it turns out, mostly with food. According to science at the time, everything a person ate or drank were aspects of an element; thus a person’s diet would strongly affect the balance of their humors. It wasn’t a simple matter, either. The “rules” about food were variegated in the extreme. The element of a food could change depending on the season, the herbs used to flavor a dish, when the plants were harvested, the age of the animal to be eaten, and the method of preparation. It was also recommended that people change their diets in order to adjust their bodies to the seasonal effects of the weather. In summer the diet should emphasize cooling foods, like lettuce and lamb, prepared and served with cooling ingredients, such as rosewater, lemon and other citrus juices, or vinegar. In winter people were cautioned to eat foods that would heat them up on frosty days, such as beef and pork, and dishes made with “hot” spices, such as mustard and black pepper.
The association between warming spices and foods in during cold weather became so ingrained that those edibles became the “correct” things to consume at Christmastime, and now they are the “traditional” nibbles. For example, people believed that butter warmed the liver, and thus the blood (which was ostensibly made in the liver); thus hot buttered rum and brandy butter (AKA hard sauce). Any meat that was served was roasted, which was thought to be warmest preparation. Is roasted turkey for Christmas familiar to anyone? The stuffing served with that turkey is commonly flavored with sage and onion, both of which warm it up. Brussel sprouts were considered “little cabbages” and were therefore drying to combat the moist humor of cold weather; roasting them made them warmer as well.
Sugar was considered both medicinal and warm, so eating dessert in the winter was just what the doctor ordered. I think we can all agree that Christmas still comes with a few sweet treats? Sugar could also be added to anything that was considered to be cold, like red wine or apple cider, in order to give it enough “heat” to make it safe to drink, which is why recipes for today’s mulled apple cider or wine usually include a sweetener.
Warming spices, like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, were also added to foods to heat them up. Fruit was thought to be “cold”, so fruit cakes, which are an inescapable part of the holiday season, would be too “cold” for the winter if there weren’t an excess of these spices in them, plus large amounts of butter, eggs, and sugar. These spices are also added liberally to mince pies for the same reason. Eggnog, the descendant of the Tudor “posset” drink, contains lots of warming sugar and nutmeg.
This season, while feasting on traditional holiday fare (even if it is only in the form of a gingerbread latte or spiked eggnog or snowman shaped cookie) remember that you owe a flavor debt to the Tudor physician and his medical progenitors.