Science

What did our great-grandparents chow down on?

Cesspit recipes

Archaeologist Merit Hondelink studies poop collected from cesspits from the early modern period. She wants to know what the common people of that era ate.
By ChristienBoomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Merit Hondelink became an archaeologist only to find herself elbow-deep in poop. She doesn’t study ancient Roman treasures or potsherds from the Funnelbeaker culture. She wants to know what our great-, great-, great-grandparents, urban dwellers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ate for dinner. And because there’s nothing left from the meals themselves, she focuses on what is left: early modern poop. From Delft.

Hondelink likes food. She loves to cook and reading old cookbooks. This interest led the archaeologist to archaeobotany: the study of seeds and pits, found at archaeological dig sites, thatprovide clues about the foods our ancestors grew and the plants they ate.

Podcast: Marchepeijn’ from 1640

Merit Hondelink enjoys sharing her experiments with cooking recipes from the early modern period. Together with RUG PhD student and podcaster Amanda Brouwers, she records a podcast to take her listeners back in time to the early modern kitchen.

Would you like to know how to make a seventeenth-century mushroom pie? Sour cherry jam? Or that five-minute marzipan from 1640? Give it a listen.

English podcast »

But Hondelink had even more specific questions. ‘We know quite a lot about what the upper class ate’, she says. ‘It’s often depicted in still life or banquet paintings.’

Think: lovely pies, boiled lobsters, large grape bunches. Historians also know what the lower classes ate because many of the menus and grocery lists of orphanages, rasp houses, and prisons have survived the test of time.

Cookbooks

But the diets of middle-class commoners apparently weren’t interesting enough to record. ‘They often ate one-pan meals: stews made with whatever was available. Or soups they thickened with grains or bread.’

Some cookbooks have survived, but we don’t know how widespread the use of cookbooks actually was, or if most people even had them.

Archaeology helps historians figure out what foods and spices people ate. After all, everything we eat we excrete. And because sewer systems weren’t common in those days, faeces ended up in cesspits. Four hundred years later, archaeologists are digging through thosecesspits for answers.

Poop from Delft

Hondelink doesn’t dig up the pits herself. She has her materials sent to her from Delft. Several cesspits had been discovered near Delft’sOude Mannen hospice, the Paardenmarkt, and the Poppesteeg.

But the contents have never been analysed, and provide a wealth of information an archaeologist looking for food in the remnants. ‘The city records are fairly extensive as well. I need those to find out who actually filled the cesspits’, she says.

Hondelink regularly receives a tightly closed bucket or triple bagged three or four-litre sample in her office at the Broerplein.

It still smells

She cleans the material, sifts it through a series of increasingly smaller sieves, and studies the material to figure out which plants, fruits, and spices left their traces in the four hundred-year-old poop.

‘It still smells’, she chuckles. And while most of the material comes to her as an indefinable mass, every once in a while she finds a petrified turd.

Lots of rice

It turns out our ancestors had a pretty varied diet, consisting of various types of grain: wheat and rye, but also barley, oats, buckwheat andquite a lot of rice. ‘People used rice meal for sauces and rice pudding.’ Hondelink knows that the rice had to be imported. And because she often finds rice husks, she also knows that people removed those themselves, at home. This was not an easy job.

She also found fruit pits and seeds from apples, pears, blueberries, raspberries, currants, blackberries, and cherries. She’s also found traces for varieties of fruit that don’t even grow in the Netherlands, like figs, pomegranates, and peaches, which can all be found in middle-class cesspits.

‘Our country imported a lot more food than we expected. Probably from Spain and Portugal, but perhaps from West Africa as well.’

The cesspits also contain vegetables: parsnip, beets, and pumpkin. She’ll often find nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts – and the seeds of spices such as fennel, coriander, and pepper. ‘And legumes, of course. They ate quite a lot of those, but because legumes are completely digested we don’t find those very often.’

Burned meals ended up in cesspits as well,leaving behind little treasures to discover later. ‘That makes us archaeobotanists happy.’ Spices leave microscopic traces of pollen that keep for thousands of years.

People love food

All these discoveries mean that the average Dutch person’s diet wasn’t as boring and simple as people once thought. In some ways, nothing has changed.‘ People love food’, Hondelink says. ‘It’s only natural that people would have wanted to eat something they liked, even back then.’

It’s only natural that people would have wanted to eat something they liked, even then

But Hondelink takes her research further. A list of ingredients is interesting but not as interesting as a recipe. She often found fragments of cherry pits in her cesspits, but couldn’t figure out why. The plum pits she found couldn’t tell her whether a knife had been used to cut them out, or some other tool. Were the pumpkin seeds used to garnish a salad, or did they serve another purpose?

To find out, she compares her findings to recipes from old cookbooks. ‘The library in Amsterdam has a great gastronomic collection of historical cookbooks’, she says. So she reads De Verstandige Kock from 1667 and De Borgerlyke Tafel from 1683.

Unfortunately, the cookbooks don’t say how much of each ingredient should be used, or how long a dish needs to cook. If you’re lucky, the list of ingredients is accompanied by instructions. To figure out how the recipes work, Hondelink will makes them in her own kitchen – which has led to some surprising discoveries.

Cherry jam

‘I found a great recipe for cherry jam with nutmeg, mace, pepper, and cinnamon. It creates a great, autumn-y flavour.’ She always buys a lot of cherries when they’re in season. She makes a big batch of cherry jam and saves the juice to make syrup.

She also found a recipe for five-minute marzipan, using nothing more than almond meal, powdered sugar, water, and rose water. ‘The rose water surprised me. But you can find it in Turkish shops’, she says. ‘It kind of smells like toilet spray. It’s strong, but really nice in small quantities.’

Sometimes she solves other food mysteries by accident. Remember those cherry pits fragments she found? How did they endup in the cesspits in the first place? Anyone eating a cherry simply spits out the pit. For jam, the pits are sieved out. But why would anyone want to break a cherry pit into pieces, especially since they’re inedible?

Brandy

She’s certain that they were broken on purpose. ‘But they’re much too hard to bite into pieces. I went to the Faculty of Science and Engineering where they used a compression gauge to measure the force needed to break a cherry pit. 23.5 kilos!’

But then she found a recipe for brandy. ‘It said something like: break the stones in the mortar. Apparently the slightly bitter taste of the prussic acid that’s released was a welcome addition to the brandy.’

Apparently all she had to do was ask around, though. ‘I was so happy that I’d found it!’ And then a friend said: “My grandma used to do that”.’

Nederlands

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