Archive for ‘applied paleobromatology’


“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.

“You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat…”

As we Americans prepare to dispatch legions of unsuspecting victims to Turkey Valhalla, I’m thankful that people still read this blog—even though work and other writing projects keep me from updating it as often as I’d like.

Since the beginning, I’ve tagged posts with an “applied paleobromatology” label, because I’m wont to wonder: What did the Middle Ages taste like? Although I lack time for another dubious kitchen catastrophe, I’m delighted to share, for your browsing pleasure, this picture-menu of links to food-related “Quid Plura?” leftovers. Just heat ‘n’ serve!

People say you can’t replace a goose with a duck, but that’s just a canard. In days of yore, I botched a “goose-to-duck hoggepotte” recipe from medieval England.

In 2011, I picked and bletted medlars, the “Happy Fun Ball” of obsolete produce.


Long ago, I used the Alison Moyet of rhizomes to invent a new soft drink: galangal ale. Wouldn’t you buy soda with this subdued, dignified label?

The rulers of medieval Baghdad loved sweet food—so in 2010, I made jawārish, the carrot jam of the Abbasid caliphate…

…and tabaahaja, the wince-inducing candied lamb of the Abbasid viziers.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by! Enjoy the holiday, and light a candle for Meleagris of Tryptophan, the patron saint of poultry, digestion, and much-needed rest.

“Winter is the glad song that you hear…”

Christmas songs are quick to commemorate the sounds and the sights of the season, but rarely do they dwell on smells. Most people, I gather, fondly recall the fragrance of spruce needles or the cloying whiff of cookies, but this year I’ll pine for a more medieval Christmas scent: the sweet, pseudo-oenomelic aroma of tiny, rotting fruit.

Meet the National Cathedral medlar! Planted in 1962 to honor Florence Bratenahl, the medievalist who refined Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the cathedral garden, the tree goes unnoticed by nearly everyone. There aren’t many medlars in America, and when the cathedral horticultural staff and garden guild kindly let me harvest the fruit of their medlar in December 2010 (in exchange for writing two articles for the garden guild newsletter), I soon learned why: this is one persnickety tree.


Every spring, the medlar’s large white flowers blossom with absurd brevity, at a day and hour determined by the tree’s own inscrutable whim. (Most years, the medlar stubbornly hangs onto its red-gold leaves well into December, long after other trees are as bony and cold as Dickensian waifs.) During the summer, the flowers turn into grotty little fruit with deservedly obscene medieval nicknames. The French knew the medlar as the cul de chien, and Chaucer called it the “open-arse”; his bitter Reeve likened himself to a medlar in The Canterbury Tales. More recently, Shakespeare denigrated the medlar in four different plays, and D.H. Lawrence, not one to be outdone, dubbed them “wineskins of brown morbidity” and “the distilled essence of hell.”

You see, here’s the thing about medlars: The fruit is hard, acidic, and inedible until a good early-winter cold snap, after which it has to “blett,” or ripen into the semblance of rottenness, under precise conditions known only to God and the medlar itself. (Some sources even warn you not to jostle the fruit or let them touch each other. Medlars are the Happy Fun Ball of obsolete produce.)

Medieval people would have bletted their medlars in wooden crates filled with straw. As a modern-day apartment dweller, I bletted ten pounds of medlar fruit in cardboard boxes lined with shredded credit-card courtesy checks.

Bletting medlars is a lost art. Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, acids turn into sugars, and the end result is…most inelegant.

Did I mention they sometimes sigh or whistle when squeezed?

Ah, but holy crow, the smell of a home full of bletting medlars is truly divine. They smell like they taste: a robust blend of applesauce, cinnamon, and cheap wine. Charlemagne ordered the medlar to be grown on royal estates; a barn or fruit cellar full of bletting medlars must have been heaven for the Carolingian nose.

Participating in one medlar harvest made clear to me why this fruit, well known to medieval people, is barely a novelty now. For one thing, despite my best efforts at climate control, at least two pounds of fruit took the express lane straight past “bletted” and into genuine rot. Also, once you get past the five gigantic seeds in each fruit, you’ve not much of the squishy stuff to eat. In the U.K., Tiptree sells a lovely medlar jelly, but when a dear friend and I decided to try a medlar tart recipe from an Elizabethan cookbook, we spent hours mutilating hundreds (hundreds!) of weeping squishballs to make just two of these:

That tart’s tastiness was inversely proportional to its beauty, but it was also ludicrously labor-intensive. Medieval and early modern Europeans ate the fruit straight-up or enjoyed mashed and boiled jellies; a tart was a rare luxury.

As medlars lack widespread commercial value—did I mention concerns about their “violent laxative properties”?—the wizards of modern food science haven’t bothered to demystify them. For the latest medlarology, you have to dig up a 1989 Economic Botany article that documents (with remarkable encyclopedicity) everything now known about them, from passing references in classical texts to the chemical composition of the wood. Still, even in our Internet age, no one can tell you exactly how to blett the fruit, and I’m currently preparing to answer a barrage of riddles in a crumbling, booby-trapped crypt so a thousand-year-old crusader will pass on to me the mystic secret of cultivating medlars from seeds.

I hit the wrinkly rare-fruit jackpot in 2010. Since then, the medlar tree at the National Cathedral has (the chief horticulturalist tells me) suffered from fire blight, which is common among trees in the apple family. The fruit blackens and dies before maturing; a cool, wet spring may cause the problem to recur. (Lacking the ability to do anything useful, I’ve worked several medlar references into the poems in Looking Up.)

The truth is, if the medlar sprouted elf heads or started singing madrigals, it couldn’t befuddle me more than it already has, but I’ll never forget the aroma that welcomed me home every time I returned from some tedious holiday errand. The National Cathedral medlar reminds me that the road back to the Middle Ages is not only endless, but also endlessly strange. Relieved to know I’ll never run out of things to write about, I can only wish the readers of this blog a blessedly olfactive Christmas—and a New Year as hopeful and sweet as a medlar-blessed home.

“But all the gold won’t heal your soul…”

There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message, I guess, of “Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,” a recent ad campaign for Velveeta that stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith.

Although the blacksmith chants his praise of “liquid gold,” orders soccer moms to “smite” noodles—“smite them with the liquid gold until there can be no more smiting!”—and even has his own pointlessly elaborate website, Our Book of Liquid Gold, he’s no Old Spice Guy. The campaign wasn’t funny or distinctive enough to have gone viral, and the brawny mascot’s YouTube playlist hasn’t been updated for months.

So maybe medievalism doesn’t send Velveeta flying off the shelves. The first commercial in a new campaign, rolled out yesterday, features a slackerish broheim who works at the mall. The setting is as current as can be—but the slogan is still gruesomely medieval.

Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper, which he can’t vomit when subjected to a hellish stench.

Medieval writers also believed that the Roman general Crassus had been executed by being forced to drink molten gold. In canto 20 of Purgatorio, Dante hears talk of “the wretchedness of avaricious Midas, resulting from his ravenous request, the consequence that always makes men laugh,” clarifying a few lines later:

and finally, what we cry here is: “Crassus,
tell us, because you know: “How does gold taste?”

In Book III of Troilus and Criseyde, when Chaucer rants about the inability of the greedy to experience true love, he assumes we’ll understand references to the “hoot and stronge” drinks of Crassus and Midas:

As wolde God tho wrecches that dispise
Servise of love hadde erys also longe
As hadde Mida, ful of coveytise,
And therto dronken hadde as hoot and stronge
As Crassus did for his afectis wronge,
To techen hem that they ben in the vice,
And loveres nought, although they holde hem nyce.

Likewise, one anonymous 15th-century English nun associated this same horrible punishment with Purgatory:

and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”

The horror of gold-drinking as punishment survived the Middle Ages. It worked its way into Jewish folklore, 16th-century natives reportedly executed a Spaniard in colonial Ecuador with a drink of molten gold, and in John Ford’s early 17th-century play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (recently staged in Virginia!), Friar Bonaventura warns of the eternal fate that awaits usurers:

There is a place,
List, daughter! in a black and hollow vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires,
A lightless sulphur, choak’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness: in this place
Dwell many thousand thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths: there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Pour’d down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten gold…

Amazingly, there’s at least one positive medieval reference to drinking gold. After suffering her husband’s abuse, a 15th-century Spanish visionary named Tecla Servent is whisked away to Heaven, where she marries Jesus Christ and samples a remarkable beverage:

He then brought her up to heaven, where he ordered the angels to dress her as his wife ought to be clothed. The angels arrayed Tecla like the spouse of a great lord in gold and scarlet brocade. Christ thereupon ordered the angels to bring food and drink for her, and they served her precious stones on golden plates to eat and molten gold and pulverized jewels to drink.

The folks at Kraft can’t be expected to know medieval molten-metal drinking lore, but I’m still surprised that a modern focus group thought that consuming gold sounded desirable—and I say this as someone who enjoys a warm bowl of Ro-Tel/Velveeta dip every now and then. When your target demographic inadvertently becomes Judas, usurers, and brides of Christ, it may be time to rethink a creepy metaphor—and find out what a medieval blacksmith really would have known.

“Walking back to you is the hardest thing that I can do…”

Sure, the average American associates this week with football, tryptophan, and noncommital nodding during awkward conversations about politics, but here at “QP?” headquarters, Thanksgiving means only one thing: experimental recreations of carrot jam from the medieval Islamic world.

Carrot jam? Yes, carrot jam. Known in Arabic as jawārish, the dish appears in a cookbook called The Treasure of Useful Advice for the Composition of a Varied Table, probably compiled in Egypt or Syria in the 13th century. The recipe is translated in Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali, and while Islamic cookbooks are just as blithe as European cookbooks about assuming expertise on the part of the reader, this one seemed like a no-brainer. After all, sweet carrot dishes are common today, and carrot preserves and marmalade aren’t terrible exotic—so again we endeavor to answer, probably in vain: What did the past taste like?

First, our ingredients: cookbook, carrots, honey from a friend’s New Jersey apiary (plus two plastic-bear backups), various spices, and a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli that had nothing to do with this recipe but whined about being left out of a group photo.

From the recipe:

It is necessary to select fresh, red carrots, to wash them, clean them, and cut them as thinly as possible. Put them in a ceramic pot, add a little bit of honey, and cover them with water.

Lacking red carrots, I had to go with plain old orange. Here they are, simmering in the Le Creuset like flunkies in Charlemagne’s bath house.

Thus sayeth the recipe:

Cook them until they are soft, then strain off the water with a sieve and add a quantity of skimmed honey equal to that of the carrots.

An hour later, a pound of carrots yielded around a cup and a half of carrot glop, to which I added one cup of honey. Rather than bore you with lame photos, let’s hail the return, by popular demand, of the Trapper Keeper Unicorn of Applied Paleobromatology.

Distracted by the hard work of mushifying a few carrot chunks with the aid of Sir Braun de Hand-Mixer, I failed to witness a shocking crime on the countertop behind me.

Did you know that the tradition of selling honey in bear-shaped containers derives from the Abbasid practice of importing actual bears from Europe, squeezing them while upside down, and seasoning food with whatever spurted from their skulls? The caliphs really were that wealthy.

The recipe calls for spices:

Mix in seasonings chosen from among pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cubeb, spikenard, mace, galangal, aloe wood [Aquilaria agallocha], saffron, and musk.

Fresh out of spikenard, and stunned by the recipe’s endorsement of a freeform jazz odyssey of spices, I opted for four I knew I had in my cabinet: 1/4 teaspoon each of pepper, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. (I’m not positive that “pepper” in a medieval Middle Eastern recipe meant “ground black peppercorn,” but so be it.)

I mixed up this little masala, dropped it into the honey-and-carrot mush, and did as I was told:

Cook to thicken the carrot jam.

Twenty minutes later, carrot jam was bubbling like sweet orange lava.

Two teaspoons of spices turned out to be too strong for fewer that two cups of carrot jam, but holy hopping Barmakids, hot jawārish a la Sypeck is tasty.

Medieval Islamic royalty had a sweet tooth to rival modern America’s, as I found when I whipped up a batch of tabaahaja, the wince-inducing candied lamb of the Abbasids, but carrot jam just isn’t that strange. Scale back the spices and you could probably convince Thanksgiving guests that you’re feeding them Aunt Harriet’s sweet potato mash, albeit with a throat-catching kick. (I suspect a version with spikenard, cubeb, and galangal might land harder on the Western palate.)

One question lingers: In the medieval Islamic world, was “jam” eaten hot? Zaouali’s book doesn’t say. The jawārish recipe includes only one more line: “Pour it into a glass jar and consume as needed.” Which is what I did.

You know what? Cold jawārish smeared on toasted naan isn’t bad either. The pepper and coriander give the jam a kick we more commonly expect from heated food, but that’s because of the spices and quantities I chose. Medieval Islamic cooks were free to make this stuff with whatever spices they wanted, as are modern paleobromatologists.

Of course, I can’t help but pine for the ideal jawārish chaser: a cold, fizzy glass of galangal soda.

“Eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives…”

Many English translations of the sagas mention “sour curds,” but Icelanders know the stuff by its proper name, skyr. Shortly before medieval outlaw Egil Skallagrimson got into a famous drinking-and-barfing contest at the home of Armod Beard, he downed a hearty bowl of skyr, and his descendants still enjoy the thick, sour, yogurt-like cheese curds:

When the farm laborer rises in the morning he expects his allowance of skyr as a matter of course, along with his black bread and coffee. And when the chance visitor from town drops in, he welcomes a plate of skyr, along with cakes and coffee, as the most satisfying form of refreshment. Nor is the taste unpleasant, but one needs practice in order to empty a soup-plate full of it with good grace.

One brand of imported skyr has been available in parts of the U.S. for several years, but I was stunned today to stumble across Siggi’s Skyr, every six-ounce cup of which is made in America by an entrepreneurial, homesick Icelander who refined the recipe in his TriBeCa apartment and set up a skyr operation on a farm in upstate New York.

Skyr is an acquired taste, and Siggi’s Skyr isn’t cheap—it’s around $2.50 for six ounces, as opposed to $1.99 for the same quantity of the imported brand—but it’s powerful stuff: no fat, 16 grams of protein (which makes it more protein-rich than an entire chicken thigh), 13 grams of carbohydrates, and the calcium of two-thirds of a cup of milk.

Of course, the American who wants to eat like a Viking faces hard questions: Should one buy the imported skyr and support Iceland’s cratered economy? Should one buy the domestic stuff and support a very weird small business? And for crying out loud, with flavors like “pomegranate and passion fruit,” why doesn’t it come in galangal?

“I’m up to my deaf ears in cold breakfast trays…”

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and as Americans gleefully rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye, consider this culinary conundrum: what the heck happened to galangal?

Native to Asia and more pungent than the ginger it resembles, galangal was a princely part of the medieval European spice rack. Chaucer mentioned it, Hildegard of Bingen praised it, and 14th-century kings kept it on their shopping lists. I don’t know why Europeans later downgraded this noble root to medicinal status, but I’m gung-ho to explore the question in my next book, the 800-page Galangal: How a Rhizome Saved Civilization and Invented the Medieval World (and So Can You).

Since it’s been too long since my previous exercise in medieval cuisine, and because I’m eager to spearhead the Great Galangal Revival, I flipped through medieval cookbooks, shuddered at all the recipes for lampreys, and decided to cook “Goose in Hodgepodge,” a recipe from Kalendare de Potages Divers, circa 1420:

A goos in hogepotte. —Take a Goos, & make hure clene, & hacke hyre to gobettys, & put yn a potte, & Water to, & sethe to-gederys; þan take Pepir & Brennyd brede, or Blode y-boyled, & grynd y-fere Gyngere & Galyngale & Comyn, & temper vppe with Ale, & putte it þer-to; & mynce Oynonys, & frye hem in freysshe grece, & do þer-to a porcyon of Wyne.

Motivated by stinginess, I substituted the $40 grocery-store goose with a fattier $14 duck, assuming my readers don’t mind the quack-quack, and the legs all danglin’ down-o. (I would have gone with lamprey, but it wasn’t on sale.)

People say you can’t replace a goose with a duck, but that’s just a canard.

“Take a Goos Duck, & make hure clene…”

“& hacke hyre to gobettys…”

(Out of consideration for my more sensitive readers, I’ve chosen to illustrate the hacking process with this magnificent image of galloping unicorn from the cover of a 1980s Trapper Keeper.)

“& put yn a potte, & Water to, & sethe to-gederys”

After sethyng for two hours, the duck stock smells wonderful. (Although its smell probably isn’t as distinctive as lamprey stock. Did you know a mature lamprey can grow to nearly four feet long?)

Arise, my Cauldron-Born!

After discarding the bones and occasional pieces of skin, we’re left with a respectable pile of tender duck meat and tons of rich, delicious stock for next week’s soup. (Speaking of rich: during his time as an exile, Havelok the Dane took lampreys to market. It’s medieval literature, people!)

“þan take Pepir & Brennyd brede, or Blode y-boyled…”

Surprising, isn’t it, that boiled blood should be a suitable thickening substitute for burned bread? I’m not squeamish about cooking with blood, but I am squeamish about how blood curdles when it overheats. There aren’t enough unicorn pictures in the world (or enough lampreys to eat the mistakes).

“…& grynd y-fere Gyngere & Galyngale & Comyn, & temper vppe with Ale, & putte it þer-to.”

While the bread soaks in the ale, let’s grate the fresh rhizomes, gather up the cumin and the pepper, and introduce the whole gallimaufry to Sir Braun de Hand-Mixer.

To distract you from the sight of that gravy, I’ll tell you that Henry I of England reportedly died from eating “a surfeit of lampreys.” (Today we know that you should never serve a lamprey to guests unless you’ve taken care to remove its surfeit.)

“…& mynce Oynonys, & frye hem in freysshe grece, & do þer-to a porcyon of Wyne.”

So yeah—add the meat and the gravy to the wine, grease, and onion base, and that’s what you get: duck hash. Add more gravy, and you get duck stew with the consistency of curry. Add even more gravy, and the meat vanishes in the glop.

And how does it taste? It’s hideous. Pepper, ale, and damp toast overwhelm the other flavors. Leave out the thickeners and all you taste is the cumin, even if you reduce the amount. The ginger and the galangal—which by itself tastes like a strong, perfumey mustard—barely register. Blood would not make it better.

So does that mean medieval people would have liked this slop? No: it means I botched it. I tried three times to vary the proportions and concoct an edible sauce, but the recipe is lacking. Like many medieval texts, it assumes a contemporary reader and omits crucial information for the ages: in this case, the secret to blending nearly a dozen disparate ingredients. I’ve learned my way around a kitchen—I can cook decent curries, tasty Chinese entrees, and a wide range of Western dishes—but without further experimentation and costly trial and error, I can’t help but find the medieval English kitchen as distant and exotic as Araby or Inde.

So this year, be thankful for the here and now, for the familiarity of turkey and New World tubers, and for the fact that I’m not at your door with a bundle of ducks in one hand and a medieval cookbook in the other. Although I can be, on pretty short notice, and with a casserole I like to call Medieval Surprise. The recipe is secret, but let’s just say its main ingredient rhymes with “famprey”…

“If I had a million dirhams…”

What did history taste like?

In Becoming Charlemagne, I used a pile of sources to speculate about how eighth-century Baghdad looked and felt. Scholars are fond of mentioning that the smells of medieval cities would have overwhelmed the modern nose—but the kitchens of the caliphs would have been a revelation.

As Charles Perry has pointed out, the cuisine of early medieval Baghdad was unlike the Middle Eastern menu of today. Rice wasn’t steamed but was mashed into porridge; dishes contained a medley of aromatic herbs; and stews were flavored with murri, the juice from moldy barley—which, Perry informs us, tasted exactly like soy sauce. “There’s no hummus or tabouli, no stuffed grape leaves, no kibbe, no baklava,” he explains. “Many dishes have strange, clanking medieval names like bazmaawurd, kardanaaj, isfiidhabaaj and diikbariika.”

Since Perry, author of Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, was kind enough to adapt several medieval Islamic dishes for modern ingredients and measurements, I thought I’d whip up some tabaahaja, a sweet lamb dish recorded by Yahya ibn Khalid ibn Barmak.

Yahya was an interesting guy. His family, the Barmakids, were the protectors of a Buddhist shrine in what’s now Afghanistan. After the family converted to Islam, Yahya’s father, Khalid, helped fund the revolution that brought the Abbasid caliphs into power, thus leading to the founding of Baghdad in A.D. 762. Yahya himself was tutor and mentor to the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who sent Charlemagne an elephant; Yahya’s sons, Fadl and Jafar, were two of the most powerful men in the caliphate.

Reveling in the Persianized culture of the urban elite, the Barmakids threw the best parties in Baghdad—until Harun, for reasons no one really understands, destroyed the family and hung Jafar in pieces from a bridge.

Today, when movies feature a sinister vizier named Jafar, that’s a distant echo of the Barmakid story as filtered through the Arabian Nights and 19th-century Orientalism. You also may be familiar with those irreverent early-Islamic pop singers, the Barmakid Ladies.

Okay, okay, back to Yahya’s recipe.

A pound of lamb leg waits to be smothered in a marinade of soy sauce (murri substitute), honey, cinnamon, coriander, and black pepper. I splurged on good lamb, but iffy kitchen experiments warrant only cheap-ish spices.

Fun fact: the Islamic world was centuries ahead of medieval Europe in its adoption of bear-shaped plastic containers.

Here are the lamb-leg bits and pieces, soaking like harem girls in a hot tub.

Two hours later, the marinade hits the oil in the Le Creuset saucepan with an excited sizzle.

In an alternate universe where Charles Martel failed to stop the Muslim advance at Poitiers, the French never invented pricey cookware. Also, I would have a goatee.

Half an hour later, the lamb is ready for the vizier’s table. It’s been garnished with cilantro, but I left off the optional mustard greens and rue, the latter because finding a bitter abortifacent anywhere but in a garden store is difficult even in an area full of Asian markets, and hunting for it is too creepy to be worth the trouble.

Behold: tabaahaja. If lamb were candy, it would be this. The marinade has become a glaze so sweet it’s wince-inducing; the most prominent flavor is cinnamon; and the overall taste is reminiscent of spare ribs at a Chinese restaurant.

The vizier and his entourage would have eaten tabaahaja with flatbread and washed it down with fruit juice. (I opted for a tortilla and black cherry soda.) Harun himself was partial to gazelle milk, so let’s spare a sympathetic thought for history’s forgotten hero: the servant whose job was to milk the gazelle.