Building a historical meal from scratch is a perfect reflection of McCants’ methods as an economic historian.
By MIT OpenCourseWare
For economic historian Anne McCants, it’s the little things that count. Something as simple as dinner can be full of historical signifiers. In a popular IAP seminar she teaches at MIT, called “Old Food: Ancient and Medieval Cooking,” McCants treats food as a cultural object that reveals important clues about class, technology, and health in the past. She works with students to prepare a dinner that might have been served during medieval times in Northern Europe, based on recipes preserved in the archives of wealthy households. The menu is rigorously keyed to 15th-century diets, so certain ingredients like almond milk are surprisingly more prevalent than dairy. Tomatoes, which had not yet arrived from the New World, are entirely absent.
Why make a meal that a Flemish nobleman might have eaten? “I love to cook—but there’s so much more to it,” she says about the class, “I am very interested in nutrition and the health of past populations—and there’s no better way to understand things than to do it.”
Dinner from one seminar included sourdough bread, roast pork in a wine and spice marinade, a spinach and chard “poree,” and sweet dough fritters with soft cheese and pine nuts. McCants admits that she dropped a few items from the menu because, although they reflected the preferred flavors of medieval society’s elite, they taste terrible by modern standards. The aristocratic classes tended to over-spice and over-sweeten their foods as a signal of their status, she explains. Thorstein Veblen might have called it “conspicuous cooking.”
Data Raw and Granular
Building a historical meal from scratch is a perfect reflection of McCants’ methods as an economic historian. Her work is grounded in the principle of using raw data about basic elements of daily life to draw deeper conclusions about living standards in the past. She considers even the most granular data—calories per meal, the price of spice—from every angle to build theories from the ground up and reconstruct the past.
Her research has led her combing through detailed archives of personal inventories from the 15th century, or the pantry lists of medieval orphanages, to build large databases of information that permit her to make broader deductions about social and economic phenomena. Her painstaking research has given her a unique perspective into the rhythms of daily life from many centuries ago, debunking several myths along the way. One of her early insights, for example, was that contrary to the popular notion that populations remained sedentary in the pre-industrial past, there was actually a great deal of movement.
In McCants’ own life, travelling has been a constant theme. She grew up in Philadelphia, where her father was a biochemistry professor at Temple University. Her parents were part of a Christian fellowship organization, so they were constantly receiving and hosting international students. When McCants was ten, the family moved to Southern California so her father could pursue a research grant, and perhaps better satisfy his wanderlust. “My father loved road-trip adventures. My early memories of living in California were all about piling up the car with tents and sleeping bags, grabbing camp food, popping a canoe on top, and off we went. I can remember weekends camping on an island in the middle of a swollen river, or beautiful hikes through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were always on the move. As a kid, I just thought that was what everyone did on weekends.”
The Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences
Although she never became a scientist like her father (“hating Chemistry in high school was my personal rebellion”) McCants still shares her father’s love for travelling. She has visited every state in the U.S. and has become well known in her sons’ scout troop as one of the few moms willing to join them for major camping trips. One of her recent academic projects gave her the chance to explore northern Europe, visiting some of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals to understand their social and economic origins. Her perspective on the topic is unique: “I love visiting these cathedrals, but I am not an art historian by any stretch. The real reason that I am studying cathedrals is because I’m interested in public infrastructure, and the economic forces that allowed these huge, monumental structures to be built. If I were studying the 19th century, I would be looking at railroad stations. But when you’re a medievalist, it’s either castles, bridges, or churches. Of course,” she notes, “it’s impossible not to feel deeply moved by these places. I feel a personal connection with them.”
Although McCants is clearly inspired by medieval history, her introduction to it did not actually start out on firm footing. She took a class in British Literature during her junior year at Huntington Beach High School, and although she’d always been a straight-A student, she received a “D” for her first essay of the year on Beowulf. It was the lowest grade she had ever received in her life. “I was so appalled and indignant that I stomped around the house for days,” she says. “My teacher was a very intimidating Japanese woman who scared everyone to death. I mean, she was one of those people who look like they have standards. She gave the impression, when she looked at you, that you just didn’t meet them.” Yet McCants not only recovered her good standing, but she credits that English teacher with singlehandedly teaching her how to write well. “She taught me more than anyone else, right up to grad school, about writing. She insisted on clear thinking and expressing my ideas with absolute precision. In the end, she was a wonderful influence.”
McCants’ many awards and honors attest to her own deep love for teaching. Now a MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT and the director of the Concourse Freshmen Learning Community, she has been consistently lauded not merely by her peers for outstanding research, but by her students as well, who praise her “excellent and captivating” lectures. She says she’s thrilled to be part of OCW, and able to reach so many students through open learning: “In an age that is so focused on science and technology, it’s extremely important to understand how our choices impact society. That’s why I love teaching history, and am so happy to be able to reach such a broad audience. What we learn from the humanities and social sciences can change our perspectives and show us how we’re directly part of something much bigger. That’s very inspiring to me, and it’s why I always try to convey my passion for what I do to my students.”
OCW Courses Taught by Prof. Anne McCants
- 21H.009 The World: 1400-Present
- 21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective
- 21H.306 The Emergence of Europe: 500-1300
- 21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today
- 21H.383 Technology and the Global Economy, 1000-2000
- 21H.411 History of Western Thought, 500-1300
- 21H.927J The Economic History of Work and Family
- 21H.931 Seminar in Historical Methods
- 21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History