Whether it’s walking on the moon, flying halfway across the globe in less than twenty-four hours or going to the bottom of the ocean—we humans do things that would have been science fiction in the last last century, on a daily basis. Time travel, however, is not one of these things.
When it comes to looking into the past most of us turn on the TV, Netflix or for those who still like the printed word—read a book but we rarely think of food as a way to go back in time. The smell of your mother’s cooking, the flavors from your childhood. These are things you never forget.
That’s perhaps why food is the ultimate time machine. We can practically eat like kings, taste the same fruits, using the same spices and drinking the same wine. So, it only makes sense that if you want to taste history and truly know it with all of your senses, eating a meal is probably the best way to achieve this.
That’s what inspired Victoria Flexner and Ryan McBride Mellinger to create Edible History—a historic supper club that takes people along the routes of the Silk Road or to a Medieval nobleman’s table.
On a sunny afternoon, in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood we sat down with Flexner to find out how they got inspired to create something as niche as a historic supper club.
It turned out that making a historically accurate dish comes with a special set of challenges. There are obscure ingredients, lost recipes and the little fact that ancient meals aren’t always suited to modern tastes. Porridge, for example, isn’t a dish people would want to eat or pay ninety dollars for—the average cost of a ticket.
The recipe for success was developed with days and sometimes weeks of testing in Flexner’s kitchen. Mellinger is a trained chef and their first priority were the guests. The food had to be delicious while staying historically and geographically accurate, whenever possible.
What inspired you to create Edible History?
I had this idea to do a historical dinner but it was very rough. Ryan (Mellinger) was working at Ballaboosta in SoHo at the time. I was telling her about my idea one night and she was like, “Have you partnered with someone who can cook?” It really was just born from there. Like, a conversation over drinks.
Have you always been passionate about history?
From a really young age history has always been my favorite subject in school. When I was younger I used to tell people that I want to study history and they would say, “Oh so you’re going to be a history teacher.” That was never my goal.
How did your first dinner turn out?
It went really well. I remember we had like twenty minutes before guests showed up and we were both lying on the kitchen floor, so tired. It’s almost like having stage fright when you’re that tired. The adrenaline just surged and all of the sudden you have this second wave. Then you’re finally home at 3 a.m. on the couch.
Where do you find inspiration for the next dinner?
Each idea is usually born from another idea. The Silk Road sort of came about because of the importance of spices, which came from our 15th-century Italian menu.
It’s almost like playing detective. You have to search the books to reach your end goal. As you bring everything together you start to see the clear vision. You almost have to let it grow on its own. Sometimes, we start with something there’s an idea we really wanna do and after diving into the subject we realize that there’s actually not enough to work with. We can’t find any recipes from the culture or time period.
At the end of the day, you have to keep in mind that you’re charging people money to come and eat this stuff and you can’t serve them porridge. Cause no one wants to pay money to eat porridge. They can do that at home.
So what do you think is the biggest difference between how we eat now vs. how people ate back then?
I guess that depends on the time period. Manners, what we consider being proper table manners isn’t the same as it was back then. In the Middle Ages, people didn’t have plates. They had pieces of bread that food was served on. They didn’t have knives and forks. They sort of hard a spork type thing that they used to eat everything.
Napkins are also kind of new. They used to have long tablecloths that would come down in front of you, that was your napkin, So you would wipe your face on the piece of table cloth.
You know how people eat with their pinkie out? That actually started because you used your pinky to taste sauces, so that was your sauce finger. If you didn’t have anything to wipe it on, you wanted to keep it clean because you were eating with your hands.
Do you have a favorite Edible History dish?
We like the curdled egg soup with our 15th-century Italian menu. It has a homemade chicken broth base, with curdled egg, breadcrumb parmesan, and saffron. When you hear “curdled,” you think of something that’s gone bad. A curdled egg is almost like a scrambled egg in liquid. So you put the egg in and let it cook but you’re whipping it around, so it curdles. Curdled eggs could have a moment.
What about a favorite historic tradition?
I appreciate the idea of people spending time together over food, which is something that we’ve lost a bit. People eat alone or in front of the TV or families don’t all eat together. They come home at different times and eat by themselves. I think the best way to spend time with people is a meal. It’s the best way to get to know people and to bond with people that you know. You get to share something that’s very immediate, sensory and natural. The idea of mealtime being very structured and communal is something that I really appreciate from times past.
Do you find that this kind of communal relationship changed the way we treat our ingredients?
I think people are very disconnected to how our food is produced. That changes the connection and maybe the appreciation. Like pasta. We think—easy meal! Go to the supermarket, take it off the shelf, boil it, heat it up, and you’ve got pasta. But to do it the authentic way, it’s obviously a lot more labor intensive.
Now we have almost zero connection to how our food is produced. One of the best things a meat eater can do is YouTube some videos and watch footage from a slaughterhouse, to truly understand where food is coming from. If you can still eat meat afterward, then alright. You’re a true carnivore.
That’s interesting because sourcing authentic ingredients and sourcing responsibly aren’t always mutually exclusive. Where do you usually find the ingredients?
We source everything organically and as locally as possible. For the Silk Road menu, there’s a dish called Maj Baja from India. It’s essentially a fried fish filet with turmeric and cinnamon. Usually, this fish is found in Bengal but we’re not going to import fish from Bengal. It’s not very environmentally friendly, so we’ll substitute a white flounder.
People who come to our dinners understanding that while we’re trying to recreate a meal from the past, this isn’t the 90’s where you’re going to fly in lobster from Maine, you know? Year-round, with no consequence to the environment.
Seems like historically-accurate food seems to be intrinsically connected to seasonal eating.
Exactly. In a weird, roundabout way, using an authentic recipe and going with ingredients native to the region is more historically accurate than shipping stuff from thousands of miles away. Your main goal isn’t environmentalism but to stay authentic, you almost have to source your ingredients that way.
What’s been your most surprising menu item that you loved?
The dumplings the Samarkand filled with squash and sheep tail fat and black garlic. Sheep tail fat is not something you think of and it’s quite surprising how well that worked with squash. Who knew?
Words: Aleksandra Bulatskaya
Pictures: Victoria Felicity Elizondo
To learn more about Edible History click here.