Recipe Tracker: Tart in Ymbre Days

Recipe Tracker: Tart in Ymbre Days

Cookbooks are more than collections of recipes. They may have a theme (Appetizers! Cookies! Tacos!) or showcase a particular cuisine (Thai, Italian, Parsi). Some cookbooks tell stories to contextualize their dishes or ingredients, offering the history of a meal or its place in a holiday tradition. Others provide detailed instructions about technique, inviting the reader to start with this recipe, then try other ingredients using the same method.

But cookbooks are also products of their time. Just compare the aspics, crown roasts and cheese balls found in Helen Corbitt’s 1957 classic with the sous vide chicken breasts and kale salads in a contemporary volume. Cookbooks reflect not only trends in food preparation and flavors but also the availability of ingredients in a certain era and region.

Take, for instance, “The Forme of Cury,” a collection of recipes recorded by a master cook working in the court of King Richard II. It’s one of the earliest known cookbooks and was probably made as a record of food served, rather than as a working cookbook. There are a handful of copies, all handwritten before the advent of printing centuries later.

“There’s no way really to tell if anyone ever used them, unless you look at the stains on them,” says Ken Albala, a Renaissance historian and food scholar at the University of the Pacific. “Chances are these were not brought into the kitchen, because usually cooks were not literate. But whoever wrote these down obviously was.”

Some of the ingredients used in 1390 will seem quite familiar: game (consumed more by nobles with estates), pork, chicken, butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables, spices. But the preparations differ from dishes we eat today. “The way they think of food, the colors they like, the flavors, the textures, the ingredients — it’s a completely different cuisine” than contemporary European fare, Albala says.

The origins of much medieval cuisine are in the Muslim Middle East, Albala explains. Those ingredients and techniques moved to India with Mughals and then to Spain and the rest of Europe. From there they traveled to Mexico with the conquistadors in the 1500s. “The moles of Mexico are the long-lost cousins of the curries in India,” Albala says.

Tart in Ymbre Days, as prepared by the author. It’s basically an onion frittata, dotted with raisins and delicious with a salad.

The generous use of spices in royal repasts was a display of wealth and status. Pepper and cinnamon traveled from India, while cloves and nutmeg originated in Indonesia and ginger came from China. Passing through the hands of Arab and Venetian merchants during their years-long journey, the exotic spices in use in the 14th century were exorbitantly expensive, accessible only to the wealthy.

While spices were sold in apothecaries, staples, such as milk, cheese, butter, grains and bread, were available in food markets, set-ups that resemble our modern farmer’s markets. “Food markets go back to ancient times,” Albala says. “In England, there are markets that started in the middle ages that are still there.” As with any type of market, the laws of supply and demand came into play. In the years following the plague — the period in which the Forme of Cury was written — the population was down, so wages were higher; thus, meat consumption also increased. As the population rebounded, wages fell, and the poor ate less meat.

Diets of the 14th century were influenced by more factors than just the availability of ingredients. Religious traditions and dietary rules informed daily menu planning. “Religion determined what you could eat seasonally and during fast days,” Albala says. “Lent, vigils of saints’ days — probably a third of the whole calendar is fasting.” The Tart in Ymbre Days recipe on this page is a kind of crustless quiche that contains onions, eggs, greens, raisins and “powder douce,” a common mixture of ginger, cinnamon and sugar (the original pumpkin spice!). Ymbre Days are quarterly sets of fasting days that mark the seasons of the Christian calendar. Because they fall outside of Lent, they were considered moderate fast days: meat was prohibited, but eggs were not.

Ken Albala, Renaissance historian and food scholar at the University of the Pacific. Check out his Food Rant.


Check out Ken Albala’s explorations of world cuisines, his cookbooks and his Great Courses on food and history.

Knowledge about fast days and how to put meals together would have been passed down orally, by peasant families and royal kitchen staffs, without the use of cookbooks. For one thing, most cooks weren’t literate. “We learn by looking and hearing and smelling, and not approximating through words,” Albala says. In fact, the whole notion of learning through cookbooks is a practice that may not last much longer, Albala believes.

“I think in the future we’ll have interactive videos, or some kind of instructional media where you can stop and ask questions, look closely and zoom in,” Albala says. “Perhaps something that will know what ingredients you have in the kitchen, know what kind of equipment you have, will adjust for your altitude or your allergies and could make working recipes for you. I think probably in our lifetime we’ll see cookbooks go extinct, or they’ll just be a rare, interesting artifact for people who like to collect them.”

Are you moving away from cookbooks to other kinds of instructional media? Which cookbook taught you the most? Tweet us @foodcityorg.

Recipe: Tracking the Ingredients for Charlotte Russe in 1891

Recipe: Tracking the Ingredients for Charlotte Russe in 1891

Fifty years after Austin was founded, a group of women at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church gathered recipes from the women in the community and published the city’s first cookbook.

The Austin History Center has one of three known copies of “Our Home Cookbook,” published in 1891. Editors Medora Thornton and Lucy Lanier Davis gathered more than 300 recipes from 87 women in the capital city. In 2015, the Austin History Center republished a facsimile copy called Austin’s First Cookbook, with accompanying historical essays about the original book, the women who owned it and the women who contributed the recipes. We asked Mike Miller, who led the research effort behind the book, to help us dissect one of the recipes for Charlotte Russe to learn more about how food moved in Texas in the 1890s.

Charlotte Russe

This is one of six Charlotte Russe recipes in the book. Who was Charlotte Russe? Common lore has it that French chef Marie-Antione Carême (1784–1833) created the dish, named after Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of George IV. The word “russe” is French for “Russian,” and though Carême came to know the popular princess while working for King George, she died in childbirth while he was working for the Russian Czar Alexander I, and he created this dish in her honor. Most recipes include the molded ladyfingers and custard or Bavarian Cream, such as this recipe, but a simpler version of sponge cake, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry is sometimes also called a Charlotte Russe.

Sponge cake

Egg-heavy cakes were ubiquitous in this era. There are nine sponge cake recipes in this cookbook, including two different handwritten versions from the owner of the book. “Sponge” has long referred to the appearance of a cake lightened with whisked egg whites instead of yeast, and the batter is sometimes baked into elongated cakes called ladyfingers. Many claim sponges as a foundation of French cuisine, but Gervase Markham refers to sponge cake in her 1618 cookbook, The English Huswife, Containing the inward and outward Vertues Which ought to be in a Complete Woman.

Mrs. Littlefield

Alice Tiller Littlefield was the wife of George Littlefield, a Confederate officer who went on to become a banker. After the war, the Littlefields were one of the richest families in Austin, and although Alice Littlefield submitted 13 recipes to the book, including this one and another for Charlotte Russe, she didn’t do much cooking. According to her letters, she hired many cooks and didn’t keep them long. These recipes were likely theirs, though we don’t know the cooks’ names or backgrounds.

Farina kettle

Double boilers such as the farina kettle were used to heat milk, cream or other liquids without scorching them. “Farina” refers to the cereal grains that cooked so well using this utensil. This patent is from 1897, several years after the publication of this recipe, but farina kettles and other kitchen gadgets gained popularity after the industrial manufacturing boom that followed the Civil War. Then, railroads could move freely from north to south, and capital was again available for manufacturing.


The Texas sugar industry took off after the first refinery opened near Houston in 1879 on a plantation that had been growing sugarcane since 1843, according to food writer M.M. Pack. Eventually, that company became Imperial Sugar Company, which built a town called Sugar Land so its employees could have housing, schools and even retail outlets and medical care.

Cox’s gelatine

Cox was one of three well-known gelatin brands at the time. Before production was standardized, women had to make their own gelatin from animal bones, mostly horse and sometimes cattle. Gelatin from the New York-based Cox Gelatine Company [sic] was originally made in Scotland. The arrival of the railroad in Austin in 1871, and refrigerated rail cars about ten years later, made it much easier for Austinites to expand their ingredients list beyond what could be produced locally.

The City that Feeds Mexico

The City that Feeds Mexico

The traffic jam to enter the world’s largest food market begins around 3 a.m. Trucks of all sizes stream in, heavy with oranges from Veracruz or chiles from Chihuahua, manned by drowsy drivers who left their hometowns the day before to make the trip.

Imported cargo arrives via shorter daily runs from the neighboring international airport, and still other lorries cross several countries via the Pan-American Highway to sell their goods at Mexico City’s Central de Abasto.

At 327 hectares, this is the world’s largest market. Each day, more than 2,000 trailers, 1,500 semitrucks and 57,000 other vehicles provide 30,000 tons of produce to 9,500 stands. The market closes from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily to remove the 1,300 tons of waste produced daily. The distribution network connects to more than 1,500 points of sale around Mexico, including public neighborhood markets, street tianguis (roving markets), 380 establishments associated with 15 chain stores, and other kinds of commercial centers.

Open 365 days a year, this mega-market welcomes over 350,000 visitors daily. It formally employs 70,000 people and informally many more, including over 12,000 cartilleros — delivery men with dollies — each day. The market handles more than 30,000 tons of food daily, representing approximately 80 percent of all the food consumed in the metropolitan area and about 30 percent of the food consumed in the country.

Feeding a city of 21 million inhabitants is no easy task, which is why this market has its own zip code, an independent governing body and even its own 700-man police force, which comes in handy considering more than $9 billion changes hands annually, mostly in cash. This makes Central de Abasto one of the largest economic centers of operations in the country, second only to the Mexican Stock Exchange.

Designed by architect Abraham Zabludovsky, Central opened its doors in 1982 in Ixtapalapa, southeast of the city center. The project grew from necessity: The former wholesale market, La Merced, had overwhelmed the centro histórico with traffic and lacked the necessary infrastructure to deal with the growing demands of the city. Of the market’s eight major sectors, Central’s fruit and vegetable area is the largest. Forty interwoven aisles stretch 140 acres, with 64 interior loading docks. All in all, that’s the length of 105 football fields, each piled high with produce. Most aisles sell mayoreo, wholesale quantities of 5 kilos or more, but several aisles provide menudeo, smaller quantities for the general public.

Hangar-style sections outside boast even cheaper prices. The subasta (auction) area, closed to the general public, hosts the first step in the chain of sale as middlemen negotiate prices for full trucks of produce directly with providers. Giant arched metal roofs top the open-air flower and vegetable area, where growers sell a variety of fresh goods to other vendors or directly to the public in a morning frenzy. Both areas are picked clean of merchandise by 8 a.m.

Enormous plastic bags of processed cereals and snacks can be found in the grocery and supplies section.
A 50 kilogram (110 pound) sack of corn costs costs between 14 and 24 cents in the outdoor flowers and vegetables pavilion. Skilful workers wielding sharp knives quickly clean the ears, allowing customers the option of buying kernels by the kilo.
In corridors I-J, vendors sell retail to the public in small quantities. This service was not available 10 years ago, meaning a customer who wanted to make guacamole would have to walk several football fields to gather all the ingredients.
Towers of huacales, inexpensive wooden crates used to carry fruits and vegetables, are repaired and resold in the Envases Vacíos (Empty Crates) area.
Piles of fresh octopus from the Yucatecan coast await a buyer in the fish and seafood area.
Oceánides sells salmon from Chile, fresh shrimp and mackerel from the Gulf of Mexico, octopus from the Caribbean, shark from Chiapas and farm-raised shrimp from several Mexican states.
The fruit and vegetable section is arranged as a woven tapestry, with five main hallways and eight commercial corridors connected by a series of raised pedestrian bridges that allow lorries to pass underneath. Cars park on rooftop decks, and the metal-roofed bodegas feature loading docks to the back and storefronts along the interior hallways to serve clients.
Poblano peppers from the Mexican state of Zacatecas await unloading. They will be packed into wooden crates and sold from the storefront, but a sign posted in the loading dock gives shoppers the option of buying directly from the truck. Here, one pound of poblanos costs about 31 cents.
Ignacio Romero and his two brothers have been selling Mexican oranges for more than 20 years from this stand, located at M113. Orange prices vary wildly throughout the year, swinging from 26 cents a pound in the summer to as low as 7 cents a pound in the winter, the high season for citrus.
Long morning shadows stretch from the lorries stacked high with onions, carrots, tomatillo and nopales (cactus paddles) as they back into the loading docks of the fruit and vegetable section.

The flow of goods throughout the market and to the points of distribution beyond its walls relies on the 12,000 cartilleros who rush through the corridors daily. Anyone with an ID and $1.20 can rent a dolly, but efficient and reliable cartilleros build a client base and make more money than beginners. It’s tough work, hauling up to half a ton of food in a single trip, navigating the jam-packed aisles during the busiest hours of 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. The elevated bridges connecting the corridor of bodegas to the hallways that lead to the outside parking lots provide a special challenge. Workers run quickly to gain momentum for the steep summit. They pause on top for a rest, then begin an equally difficult descent, with no brakes and a heavy load. A coded language of whistles fills the air and helps the cartilleros communicate with each other. “I’m on your left!” sounds different than “Move over, I’m coming through!”

Carlos Hernandez Reyna runs one of the larger companies that rents dollies to the 11,000 cartilleros at Mexico City’s Central de Abasto. His company rents out their entire fleet of 1,600 diablitos (little devils, the Spanish word for dolly) every single day, at $1.20 a piece. In an attempt to stop the annual loss of about 250 carts, his company is piloting a program in 2016 to install GPS tracking devices that will notify central command when a diablito crosses the market boundaries.
Eduardo Lopez Garcia works as a cartillero for two months at a time, then spends five months with his family in Chiapas. His busiest hours in the market are between 4 and 6 a.m.
Jesús Adonai, 18, has worked as a cartillero in the market since he was 12. He makes around $32 dollars a day during the week and $70 a day on the weekends. Mexico’s minimum wage is less than $4 a day. He stays at the market later than most, until about 9 p.m., as the commute home can take up to three hours if he leaves during the evening rush.
Ulysses Cruz Juárez won’t share his age or his brother’s name. He has worked as a cartillero for the past five years.