One of my hobbies is cooking from very early cookbooks, including one big one from the tenth century. Recently I had an online exchange with a friend who had made a fermented drink from a recipe based loosely on—which is to say sharply modified from—a period recipe. When I asked why she didn't use one of the period recipes from the same source her response was that she would rather have something that tasted good than something that was historically authentic.
There are some things which moderns do better than people in the past, such as curing diseases. But I know of no reason to believe that cooking is one of them. As evidence against that conceit, consider traditional cuisines such as Chinese or Indian. They are different from modern western cooking, but if they were strikingly inferior they would not be as popular as they are. For more examples of things we aren't better at, consider Jane Austen's novels, Bach's music, Donne's poetry, or the jewels of the Sutton Hoo Treasure
It's true that we have access to some ingredients not available to a medieval European cook, most notably New World foodstuffs such as peanuts, potatoes, and tomatoes. But in the particular case I am discussing, the alteration in the recipe consisted of adding an ingredient that we know the author of the original had access to, since he used it in an unrelated recipe. My friend's unstated assumption was that either she or whoever online had created her recipe knew more about the making of fermented drinks than someone who had much more extensive experience making them than most moderns have. Because modern people know more.
I have no objection to making things that are not historically
authentic—most of what I cook and eat isn't. But the argument struck me
as an example of an error I have seen before in a variety of other
contexts. Hence this post.
Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.
Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past.
I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it.
Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.