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Tasting History with Max Miller

Listen to this episode.

Lauren Walker: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.

[music]

I'm your host, Lauren Walker from the Rhody Radio Crew and Coventry Public Library. Today I'm talking with Max Miller, author of the Cookbook, Tasting History. Max Miller is a creator and host of the Viral Digital Series, Tasting History with Max Miller on YouTube. The channel has amassed over 1.68 million subscribers since its inception and garnered over 158 million views from what was originally thought of as a passion project during the pandemic.

On April 18th, 2023 Max's first book, based on his YouTube series, was published by Simon Element of Simon and Schuster. Max's book is a New York Times bestseller, and his channel has been covered in national news and culture outlets. We're excited to host him here on Rhody Radio. Hi Max, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Max Miller: Thanks so much for taking the time. I love being here.

Lauren: Your new cookbook Tasting History is based on your popular YouTube series of the same name. What made you start the YouTube series in the first place?

Max: It was a few things. Really directly, it was a person at work. I used to work at Walt Disney Studios and I would bring in baked goods. I had taken up baking. I would bring in baked goods and I would tell my coworkers about the history of whatever I'd made, the Battenberg cake or the cannoli or something like that. One of my coworkers at Christmas said, "Hey, you should put this up on YouTube."

I had been thinking for a while about [00:02:00] making a YouTube channel just so I could have a creative outlet. I always like making my own things. It was like, "Oh, yes, that works. I could put that up on YouTube." I spent the next month and a half, two months figuring out exactly what it would be, and then I released my first episode and the next week, the pandemic hit and I was furloughed. Then I had nothing to do, but make episodes. [laughs]

Lauren: That's great timing. [laughs]

Max: It was great timing. Yes.

Lauren: How do you find all of the historical recipes? What's your research process?

Max: I have to say it varies episode to episode. A lot of times it's-- I have many historic cookbooks as well as books on historic cookbooks. A lot of times, they're reference books that are talking about historic cookbooks, and then I can go find the recipes. If it mentions, oh, there's an 18th-century recipe for macaroni, I can be like, "Oh, let me go find that original recipe." Sometimes it's not that easy. A lot of older dishes don't belong in cookbooks. Before we had cookbooks, ancient Babylonian dishes and ancient Greek dishes, there were no cookbooks.

Often, the recipe, if you can call it that, comes from a poem or I did the kick-on from the Iliad and things like that. One recipe right now that I'm doing is actually fairly modern and it's Fettuccine Alfredo, but I'm doing the original version which was never written down, but it was discussed by its creator in newspaper clippings. I have newspaper clippings from the 1920s and '30s when Alfredo di Lelio was doing all [00:04:00] of these interviews. He was from Rome, but he was doing a lot of American newspaper interviews and he would talk about exactly what was in the dish and the proportions and his process. I can cobble together a recipe from that. Long story short, many ways I find the recipes.

Lauren: That's funny. I didn't know that Fettuccine Alfredo was that new.

Max: Well, you'll have to watch the video, but it's not as new as all that. It's just only been called that for that long. I talk about how-- because the original recipe is not like the American version that has cream and garlic and sometimes parsley and other things. The original version is just fettuccine, butter and Parmesan cheese and that's it. The way that it's tossed turns it into a creamy texture, but that has been around for centuries.

They've been making that since the Middle Ages. There's actually an old recipe from the 15th century that describes exactly that dish. It was called Macaroni Romanesque, but it was simply because all pasta was called macaroni at the time. It was either macaroni or lasagna. You basically had two options. It's been around a long time. It's just the name is fairly new.

Lauren: My picky eater childhood self, who would only eat wagon wheels with butter and Parmesan cheese, was actually very cultured. [laughs]

Max: Very cultured indeed. Yes.

Lauren: Yes. Is there a particular time period or region that you find the most interesting when researching recipes?

Max: Whatever I'm researching at that moment is usually what I find most interesting. There are certain times that I return to over and over and over again. Medieval Europe, in general, I can't get bored of. [00:06:00] Also the regency period in England, like the 1790s through the Napoleonic War, that Jane Austin era, it's just a fantastic time in food history and manners and etiquette. The clothes are interesting and there's a lot of written records from that time.

A lot of periods that I really, really enjoy. There aren't a lot of written records like I love the Viking era, but there's few written records from the time, especially from their point of view, pretty much none. You've got the sagas, which are actually written quite a bit later. It makes it harder to do those episodes. I don't go back to that time period as often. The later you get more resources and there's more to dig into there.

Lauren: That's fair. The cookbook is divided into five sections. The ancient world, the British Isles, continental Europe, the near and far east and the New World, and recipes span from 1740 BC to as recent as 1914. Do you find that cooking techniques vary significantly over time and across cultures or is it more that the ingredients are very different? For example, I've made some historical recipes myself, and I find that a recipe from the 1700s might have similar cooking techniques to today, but the ingredients or seasonings are very different from what we would use now.

Max: Yes, it really depends. They can both be very different. They can also both be very similar. There are only a handful of ways to cook food. You've got baking, you've got boiling, you've got roasting, grilling. You're going to run out of out of options pretty quickly. What really changes is one, the techniques, because of tools, especially in the last three [00:08:00] four hundred years, we have many more cooking tools in the kitchen than previous. Then also how we cook certain ingredients.

Very few people today boil their meat. There are a handful of meats that go well boiled, but until recently, that was the number one way to cook meat, was to boil it. You often see old pictures of huge haunches of beef being roasted over an open fire. That was extremely rare. It was not an easy setup. You had to be very wealthy to have that kind of setup available to you. Boiling was just thought of as the better way to eat meat for millennia.

That is a big change. Again, the ingredients have also really changed. Part of it is what is available to a certain culture at any given time, and what is popular to the flavor palette. If you go back to Renaissance Italy or really anywhere in Europe during the Renaissance, you find that the food has a lot more sugar, a lot more spices that we would associate with dessert like nutmeg and cinnamon and clove. You'll find that in savory dishes.

There was sugar in so many things. They really, really loved their sugar. Now we would never put sugar in-- Well, a lot of American foods still use a lot of sugar, but even in America, we wouldn't put sugar and cinnamon in a meat dish. It just doesn't really happen with one notable exception that I can think of, and that's barbecue. Barbecue is a [00:10:00] medieval style sauce in many, many ways. Granted, it's usually made now with tomato, and that was not available. A lot of that flavor combination of sweet and savory is a very medieval Renaissance type of thing, but then that fell out of fashion.

The French totally changed how cooking was done in the 17th and 18th century and said, "No more of this sweet kind of stuff with the main meals. Everything is savory, sweet is saved for later, and we're going to use fresh ingredients and a lot less spice. Let's have herbs and things that are grown here in Europe rather than importing all of these spices from elsewhere in the world." That's what became popular and we're still living in that era of flavor today.

Yes, things do change, but what's really interesting is sometimes how things stay the same. There is a dish in the cookbook called Tuh'u, which is an ancient Babylonian stew. It's almost 4000 years old. It's made with lamb and beets and some coriander and other kind of seasonings in this stew. Still today in and around Iraq where the Babylonian empire was, they have a dish that is almost identical to it. It's just amazing that something has not changed in 4000 years.

Lauren: That's really cool, yes, and it sounds good. It sounds like that would be a good dish.

Max: It's delicious, absolutely delicious. There's the reason that it's been around for 4000 years.

Lauren: Yes, if it tasted bad, it wouldn't still be around. That's a great point. Have you always enjoyed cooking or did you have to learn to cook once you decided to test out these recipes?

Max: I've had to learn how to cook. I've enjoyed baking [00:12:00] for a number of years. I had never cooked or baked anything until, I don't know, it was probably eight or nine years ago when I watched The Great British Bake Off and became obsessed. This was before it was airing here in the US. I watched just the British version. It just made me want to bake all of those foods, and so I did, and I taught myself how to bake. They used to talk about the history on the show of the baked goods. That got me into it because I've loved history since I was a little kid.

I never really did any cooking really until I started the show and had to learn how to cook and had to learn how to cook some very interesting dishes with techniques that you don't typically use in the kitchen today.

Lauren: Very cool. Watching your videos and also making my own vintage recipes, I know that sometimes the original recipes can be very vague and you have to make an educated guess on how much of an ingredient to use or how long to cook things. Was it difficult to make these into actual easy-to-follow recipes for the cookbook?

Max: It wasn't easy. Some are easier than others obviously. If you do have quantities, that really helps. If you have methods that are laid out, that really helps, but sometimes you've got those recipes where it says, "Add coriander and meat, cook until done, and serve it forth," not a lot to go on there. Is it a stew? Is it a roast? I don't know.

Lauren: It's like a technical challenge.

Max: Yes, it's like a technical challenge. Those are difficult, and like you said, you have to make educated guesses and a lot of times that means looking at other recipes from the time. A lot of times in a cookbook specifically, they'll mention something once and then [00:14:00] never mention it again, but every time it's referred to, you can go back to that original mention and get more context, but if you don't look through the whole book and know that that's there, then you're just going to be lost. It does take some sleuthing and then some knowledge on the cooking practices of the day.

Sometimes if you've got nothing else, you try to look at is there a modern version of this dish, and then you can glean what they were trying to accomplish perhaps in the 16th century with the modern version. Sometimes that backfires and it's not at all the same. You look at a medieval lasagna and it is nothing at all like a modern-day lasagna except that it's layered pasta. Luckily, there are many, many recipes from the time period that each has a little context clue. If you look at 10 recipes from the time period from different sources, then you can put together an entire dish. Yes, some are definitely easier than others.

Luckily, I had a team of helpers testing out these recipes as I would give them to different people who were all at different proficiencies in the kitchen. Some had never cooked and some were professional cooks, and then I would get their feedback. I was able to hone the recipes that way, which was very useful.

Lauren: That sounds helpful. I know my grandmother's recipes all say things like one dish of meat, and I think she meant like the Styrofoam tray that a pound of ground beef would come in, but it's just one dish or she'll say, one palm-full of something, and I have to assume that it's approximately a tablespoon because that's how much I can fit in my palm.

Max: With cooking, you can have that kind of freedom. When it comes [00:16:00] to baking, it's a little more difficult because baking is very specific and they still sometimes wouldn't put specifics because they didn't have that option. Not everybody had a set of scales or anything like that in their kitchens. Also, a lot of historical recipes are not written for the home cook. That's fairly new. The 16th century is really when we start to see home cooking books. Before that, and for much of history after that, the recipes were written for professional cooks.

If you look at the recipes of Auguste Escoffier who created French cuisine as we know it today or codified it at least, his recipes are disturbingly vague. You can have an entire recipe in two lines for a complex sauce because he was writing that not for you at home, but for the cooks in his kitchen. He was there to fill in the blanks and he knew that they all knew all 80 of these sauces very, very well, so the recipe was simply a reminder. "Does this have sugar on it?" "Oh, yes, it does," and that's it. That's all you need from the recipe. It depends on who the recipe is written for, how well it's actually written.

Lauren: Out of all of the recipes in this cookbook, which is your favorite to make and which is your favorite to eat? If they're the same, that's fine.

Max: Gosh, my favorite to make is probably the Everlasting Syllabub. It's probably the easiest recipe in the book or one of them. It's essentially a whipped cream with alcohol in it that it is flavored with, in this case, orange blossom water, but [00:18:00] there were many different flavorings. It's done with White Port, but they can be made with Sherry or other types of wine. It's just delightful. It's like a little dish of boozy whipped cream, very easy to make and it is delicious.

My favorite to eat is probably the Pecan Pie. It's one of the last recipes. It's from 1914, I believe. It is a recipe for Pecan Pie before the introduction of corn syrup. Now, Pecan Pie is often gloopy and the pecans are an afterthought to this mixture of sugar. Not the case in 1914. The pecans are the dominant flavor and they're held together by brown sugar that has been melted and butter and stuff like that. It's so much more flavorful and reminiscent of a pecan than a modern-day Pecan Pie. It's what every time at Thanksgiving and Christmas and everything, my family makes me make that Pecan Pie. It's delicious.

Lauren: Those both sound really good. I know sometimes what can make an old recipe fun is how bad it turns out to be. What is your least favorite thing you've made, either for the cookbook or for the YouTube series?

Max: Probably for the cookbook, it's something called Kykeon which is an ancient Greek potion, really, and it's made with barley and cheese and wine. The thing is, one, it's perhaps not meant to taste good, and two, we have no idea how it was made, other than grated [00:20:00] cheese, wine and barley somehow cooked together into a drinkable form.

When I made it on the channel, it was really horrific, just the texture. The flavor was fine. It's wine and cheese, but the texture was really grotesque. I improved on it for the cookbook but it's still definitely something that is more of a novelty. There are several recipes in the cookbook that are more, "Hey, the history is really cool. You should make this to see what it was like," but you're probably going to only make it once. They're only a handful of those recipes, but they are in there.

For on the show, though. I think that my least favorite was an ancient Roman Frittata, basically like an omelet called the Patina. There are delicious Patinas that have all sorts of ingredients, but this particular one was made with jellyfish. It was unpleasant to say the least. Again, it was a texture thing. It was just never again, never again.

Lauren: I didn't even know that you could eat jellyfish, buy them to cook them.

Max: Yes, so both the hood and the tentacles are usually edible. They need to be prepared in a certain way, obviously, but they are edible. They're very popular still in a lot of Asian cuisines. If you have a Chinese market near you or a Vietnamese market, you can usually get them. Often it's just the tentacles and they're frozen. They just eat them as snacks. A lot of people really like them, but it is one of those textures that if you're not a fan, you're not a fan because they don't have any taste. It's really just a texture thing.

Lauren: Interesting. [laughs] [00:22:00] Well, is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that we didn't touch on?

Max: I don't think so. We ran through the book. I love it.

Lauren: [laughs] I've always enjoyed watching your videos and I'm definitely going to try to cook something. I have the cookbook here I got it from the library. [laughs]

Max: Oh, great. I Love that it's available at libraries.

Lauren: Yes, we'll see. My husband and I like to try to make colonial recipes sometimes. Also, I have a soft spot in my heart for mid-century, something that looks really gross, but I'm going to try to make it anyways. One time I made a, it was called I think a sandwich cake. You take a loaf of unsliced bread and you slice it horizontally, and you layer in, it was egg salad, ham salad, and chicken salad [chuckles] and then you frost the whole thing in cream cheese.

Max: Oh, you lost me at the frosting. [laughs]

Lauren: It was a lot of cream cheese. We had a '70s party and everyone took a slice and they were very kind about it but it did not taste good. [laughs]

Max: Yes. There's definitely areas in cooking where there are a lot of missteps, but when it comes to the colonial cuisine though, try the parmesan ice cream. Sounds weird. It's in the cookbook and it's absolutely fantastic. It doesn't taste like parmesan, it's so much more creamy because of the cream that you're adding for the ice cream, so it tones the flavor down. It's really good.

Lauren: I will have to try that. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I hope our listeners will be inspired to watch your videos and pick up your cookbook or borrow it from the library to try out these recipes for themselves.

Max: Awesome. [00:24:00] It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Lauren: Thank you for listening. You can find Tasting History by Max Miller at bookstores everywhere or at your local library. You can watch Max's videos on his YouTube channel Tasting History With Max Miller.

Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book, and brought to you by library staff and community members all around the Ocean State. This episode was made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities seeds, supports and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders.

You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and rate or review us on Apple podcasts or Spotify to help us reach more Rhode Islanders.

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