Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | February 11, 2010

What’s in the pot?

The woman leans across the rope barricade, standing on her toe tips to get a few more inches of height.  “What’s in the pot?”

Sometimes it is onion skins or rhubarb leaves  –  which means it’s a dye pot.  Sometimes it is salmon chowder or capon with oranges and rosewater -which means it’s almost time to eat.

For the last couple of years I’ve been helping my guildmate Dame Kaitlyn with her dyepot adventures.   Sometimes we use period materials, other times we use modern materials.  One faire I brought multiple jars of rhubarb leaf solution cooked up at home and stored the previous winter.  One batch ended up khaki, but then with added tin the second batch of wool ended up a soft mint green.  Another faire there was an impromptu scavenger hunt to find dye materials… bark from fire wood, coffee grounds, beet water… Thank goodness for the onion blossom vendor who hadn’t thrown away their onion trimmings.  The wool came out a saddened gold.   The following season I put together an emergency dye kit…packets of Kool-aid.  Cherry, raspberry and fruit punch yield a lovely, soft, appropriate red and a non-toxic waste water.  Bonus: the wool smells like fruit instead of wet sheep.  This season, Dame Kaitlyn is considering cochineal, which would make a great red on my homespun.  I’m wondering if she’d be willing to try tumeric as well.

And then there’s the cooking.  Cooking at faire is fun.  I love the challenge of working with simple tools to create yummy, attractive, Renaissance period food.  When a visitor asks what I’m cooking, I rattle off a list of ingredients, hold up a spoonful, and let them sniff it.  (No tastes – that’s not allowed.  Insurance issues and public health codes are a pain, but there for a reason.)  I love the creativity of figuring out an old recipe and adapting it for modern ingredients.  I’ve been researching the foods that were available for the time and place of our faires.  Obviously, no chocolate, bell peppers, tomatoes, corn or potatoes.  But there are some wonderful foods to experiment with and taste.   I’ve been researching cookbooks, history books, and internet websites.  (Wait until I get my hands on some trotters!)

This year our guild wants to inaugerate the new cast iron spit!  We’re talking about suckling pigs, trout, coneys (“rabbit” for you 21st century folks), Cornish hens, squab – all depending on what goes on sale or becomes available.  Also, I want to focus on some coastal dishes because my character is a fisherman’s daughter from the western coast of Scotland.  It was quite enlightening to see what the modern day websites for the area (Loch Creran, Scotland) says about the fisheries and climate and the surrounding flora and fauna.  I’m thinking of mussels or fish stew.  I’m trying to figure out how to easily do a fish fry of smelt.  I want to try a sloke recipe – therefore, I had to research the kind of seaweed that is identified as sloke…Yeay for Oriental markets!   (It turns out that sloke is also known as laver seaweed or nori).

Back to the value of Kool-aid… Sometimes at faire we have to make a decision about presenting authenticity vs. giving an impression what of the Renaissance person may have experienced.  Many of these faires are focused on historically-themed entertainment instead of hardcore historical reenactment.  (The SCA groups do a wonderful job of this, so if you’re interested in historical accuracy, please check them out.)  But sometimes there is tremendous value in introducing our patrons to a faire experience that isn’t about beer, boobs and bad accents.

Now I admit that I love a good cider and the occasional appreciation of my bosom, but it is the historical flavor that got me hooked many years ago when I was 13 and attending the Black Point Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato.  In addition to the festival atmosphere punctuated by washer women, knights jousting, and clever jugglers, I loved the demonstrations of pottery, spinning, weaving, cooking, dyeing, and wattle and daub construction.  I inhaled the  information and sights and smells (not to mention the dust).  My curiosity was piqued.  Those reenactors really made my experience of faire personal and participatory.

Yes, Kool-aid is not period dye – but sometimes we are trying to give an impression of what a craft looks like vs. the nitty-gritty authenticity. Let’s face it, some authenticity is really gross.  (I’m not interested in saving urine to make an authentic indigo dye!)  I think it’s better to consider our reenactment as an invitation to our our patrons to take a deeper look into Renaissance.

So how did we explain our dye made from powdered food coloring to our curious patrons? We put on our teacher hats and told them the history of the dyeing guilds in the Renaissance and how the dye recipes were valuable and closely guarded secrets… and that we’d have to kill them if we told them the ingredients.  They laugh, but they go away with a new understanding of how the dyer and wool guilds functioned in the Renaissance.

What’s in the pot? That depends.  Sometimes it’s just vegetables and water, but sometimes it’s a potent mixture our imagination and creativity.

Stirring things up…

Magaidh

P.S.  – The Renaissance Symposium is coming up!  If you are curious about playing at Renaissance faires, try to attend a class or two.  Here ‘s the weblink: http://www.rensymposium.com/

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