Rediscovering Poland’s culinary past

Historical dinner in Lublin, August 2017
Historical dinner in Lublin, August 2017

How would you like to know how your ancestors ate? Wouldn’t it be fun to experience the flavors and the aromas of the past? As it is also happening elsewhere (Renaissance fair, anybody?), a growing interest in historical cooking has recently emerged in Poland, running the gamut from scholarly work to restaurant menus and special events. On one hand, philological and historical academic work, such as Professor Dumanowski’s at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, is based on the accurate reading of recipes, paired with an understanding of their social and political context, as well as the material culture in which they developed. A new generation of scholars is looking at food and wine with new interpretive lenses, as the upcoming conference Food and Wine as Symbols at the Pedagogical University of Krakow seems to indicate. At the same time, a budding interest for bygone foodways seems to have also emerged among Polish food professionals. Chef Maciej Nowicki, for instance, works at Museum of King Jan III's Palace at Wilanów in Warsaw, helping visitors recreate ancient recipes and better understand the world in which they existed. His activities are part of the museum public programming, which also include the publications of Prof. Dumanowski’s critical editions of historical cookbooks. In his Gothic Café, located inside the Teutonic Castle of Malbork in Northern Poland, Chef Bogdan Gałązka, a doctoral student of Professor Dumanowski’s, works on an array of Teutonic Knights documents, including accounting ledgers and warehousing lists, to recreate dishes inspired by what the Templar Knights may have consumed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Historical dinners are organized to mark important events from the past. In August, a culinary event took place in Lublin during the Europejski Festiwal Smaku to commemorate the 1569 union between Poland and Lithuania. Various chefs worked on recipes from that period to recreate a banquet with dishes that, although adapted to the modern palate, would have made sense at the time. Prof. Dumanowski and I collaborated with the chefs to interpret the recipes, putting them in context, clarifying the use of ingredients and techniques that were prevalent, as well as illustrating their cultural and social meanings.

It is easy to understand the academic relevance of exploring the foodways of the past as a crucial component of any historical period and as a way to possibly gauge long-term dynamics and short-term phenomena that other kinds of documents and artifacts may not reveal. Moreover, food history allows us to achieve a better understanding of today’s food systems and customs. For chefs, ancient recipes provide interesting material that connects their present as culinary professionals to generations of cooks who one can imagine were trying to achieve visibility in their business and recognition from their employers and their peers. In reality, the authorship of recipes is not so clear-cut: the employers themselves may at times have compiled or participated in the collection and writing of recipes to provide guidance to their employees or to show their culinary refinement. Working with historians and exploring recipes from the past also provides chefs with a sense of legitimacy for their occupation at a time where their role and relevance is being increasingly recognized, allowing them to move up the social ladder. They are covered in media, enjoying levels of unprecedented celebrity and becoming the darlings of growing numbers of cosmopolitan foodies in Poland. In fact, the fascination with their culinary past is also shared, although in different forms, among the growing segments of the population that look at food and restaurant going - an activity sill relatively infrequent for most Poles - as an increasingly significant part of their social identity. Century-old recipes go beyond the nostalgic and often imagined interpretations of old school, countryside cooking that in past decades were embraced as the culinary history of Poland. They contribute to a sense of national identity and pride that is likely to grow under the current government and in preparation for the 100-year anniversary of Polish independence in 2018. However, a careful reading of historical cookbooks and the their critical analysis cannot but question easy conclusions about what Poland and the Poles are. When it comes to food, recipes, techniques, ideas, and values have constantly traveled across borders, social classes, and religions, blurring political boundaries and cultural categories. This is a basic understanding of historical development that all actors involved in the rediscovery of their culinary past should constantly remind themselves of, in order to avoid the temptation to provide fodder to ideological rigidity and authoritarian tendencies.

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