Millet cooked in a sack, from the Oeconomia

A return to the Oeconomia for some culinary geography and a fuel-saving trick.

(…) For people invent ever other and other dishes and different ways of serving foods, and one person may want to use one or the other, that is up to them. Each coutry also has its own way of cooking and to feed people (abzuspeisen), as I have said above, which is truly not of bad taste if you are used to it, (and) which young wanderers (Wandersleut) should write also learn (mitlernen) and write down on their journeys, we cannot understand/know everything here.

Once I was travelling through the Wendish land (Wendische Land) when my host in a village served me yellow millet porridge in which a whole capon had been cooked for a midday meal. When the dish felt unfamiliar to me and also did not taste quite pleasing to me, but the host still often admonished me to eat, I was made to do something against my will, but I noted in my mind (in meine Sin), if I had wanted to have it (the capon) dressed, I would have left the millet porridge on its own and also have treated the capon differently. Then it would have tasted as good or better to me as it did to the Wendish farmer with the millet.

Thus the people of the Altmark (Mercker) and of Mecklenburg have their cabbage and bacon, who would not eat (fressen) that, they say, the devil may strike him down (den schlage d Dödel). Item the green cabbage with ram’s heads, sausages and millet: The Mecklenburgers their big bowls full of beer soup which they empty out after being filled full again several times, and afterwards each eats a large cheese with bread, then follows a side dish (Zugemüsse) for a meal, they eat this up with spoons and bite bread with it.

You can also cook millet porridge in a sack if you first leave the millet to soak (einquellet) in milk so that it softens, and afterwards set the milk by the fire on its own and make it boil. And when it is nicely boiling along (daher seydt) in the pot, you pour the soaked millet into the boiling milk and cover the pot firmly at the top. Wrap a sack around the pot on all sides many times (vielseitig umb den Topff umbher) so that the pot stays nicely warm. Thus the millet cooks fully, and it is then called: millet cooked in the sack.

This snippet comes at the end of Coler’s long-winded explanation why he was bent on writing yet another cookbook, and it is rather interesting. First because he specifically refers to wandersleut, itinerant journeymen, as carriers of culinary information. Many German craft guilds in the Early Modern period began requiring journeymen to spend a certain number of years abroad, serving different masters in other towns, and he clearly expects them to bring back, among other useful knowledge, recipes. Secondly, for the little piece of culinary geography on the food habits of the peasantry in Mecklenburg (the western Baltic shore), the Altmark (roughly the region between the Havel basin and the lower Elbe) and the Wendland (on both banks of the Elbe upstream of Hamburg). And thirdly, for recording his wheeze on saving fuel when cooking millet. A similar technique was rediscovered and widely publicised in the twentieth century as the Kochkiste or Strohkiste. While the exigencies of war and the following reparations regime led to coal and gas shortages then, in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, Germany suffered a widespread shortage of wood of all kinds. Techniques that saved firewood would surely have been appreciated.

Johann Coler’s Oeconomia ruralis et domestica was a popular book on the topic of managing a wealthy household. It is based largely on previous writings by Coler and first appeared between 1596 and 1601. Repeatedly reprinted for decades, it became one of the most influential early works of Hausväterliteratur. I am working from a 1645 edition.

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