Culinary time travel

Erik Haag and Lotta Lundgren went time traveling and spent time in the 18th and 19th century, in the 1940s, and the 1970s. They didn’t use a DeLorean. They used food.

Maybe this is the last year we all walk around carrying takeaway coffee cups, sipping our lattes, and using coffee shops as our offices away from our home offices. It doesn’t seem likely, but surely there must come a time when our nutritional habits have changed so much that even an idea of somebody eating on the run seems odd, let alone that they would carry hot, addictive liquids with them.

“Food is culture,” says Lotta Lundgren, a Swedish food writer, and one of the two stars of Historieätarna, a TV show about Swedish food – and culture – in different eras.

And since food is culture, it’s apt to change.

Back in the 1970s, people smoked in movie theaters, on airplanes, and in their offices. Not anymore.

Just like the 18th century Swedes probably never imagined food that would be cooked and served warm, there will be something that changes the way we eat, the way we live, and, then, like Bruce Springsteen sings in “Rosalita”: “We’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

Erik Haag is a Swedish writer, comedian and a TV personality who’s been a regular guest in Sweden’s living rooms since the 1990s. Lotta Lundgren took the country by storm some five years ago when the then-advertising copywriter started a food blog called “If I were your housewife.” The blog turned into a book and a career in TV. Lundgren is now working on another book about cooking, and food.

In 2012, Lundgren and her partner in crime, Erik Haag, spent a week in six different eras. They dressed they way people dressed then, they acted the way people did, and most importantly, they ate and drank the way people did. The six episodes were – on a timeline:

17th century, Sweden as a superpower
18th century, Freedom (freedom from absolute monarchy)
19th century, Oscarian time, after King Oscar II
1920s, the roaring 20s
1940s, the war years
1970s, the radical years

“The reason we chose these six eras was that we wanted them to be different from each other so that it would be good television. Every era has its story, but we wanted to contrast from going from the 19th century to the 1970s,” says Haag.

“It turned into a symphony,” he adds.

The production company had a meal historian on their research team, and he briefed the duo on the characteristics of the different eras. He showed them how and when different drinks and food had been consumed, and how quickly they also disappeared.

“Food says everything about that particular time, and we could potentially do something about every passing year,” says Haag.

For six weeks, Haag and Lundgren were human guinea pigs, trying to reach back and live the life of their ancestors, or other selves in another era, in an attempt to remind people of what Sweden was all about, and how Sweden has come to be what it is today.

“Everything creative has to have a starting point, something that you can hang other things onto. And with every endeavour you have to decide which stories to tell, and which not to tell. For us, in this show, food was the centerpiece. We began the story with food, and the rest came naturally,” says Haag.

While the show was light in its delivery, thanks to the chemistry between Haag and Lundgren and guest appearances from Swedish comedians, the backbone is in science, and documented facts. Haag and Lundgren wore period clothes, all episodes touched on religion, architecture, and the social norm issues as well, and they had experts who could tell them about the period’s politics, and customs, as dinner guests.

“There are a lot of recipe collections and cook books available, the first ones aimed at the masses date back to 18th century. Back then the upper class had servants to prepare their meal and women were dominant figures in Swedish households and that’s why the recipes are still with us,” says Lundgren.

Recipes for the show were found, for example, in Susanna Egerin’s cookbook from 1733 and Gustafva Björklund’s cookbook from 1847.

“I’ve wanted to do travel back in time since I was a boy and this experience comes as close as can be. So when we ate the soup made of a leather belt, it felt like a luxurious thing to do. I was privileged to get to do that. Somebody had researched everything, and then prepared the food. I remember the cook saying, tearing up, that some of those dishes hadn’t been cooked for 400 years, and will quite possibly never be cooked again,” Haag says.

Food is culture, and food is communication. What we eat and how we eat are who we are. Food is a part of our social code, which is probably why the 1960s science fiction vision of the future man consuming food in the form of pills hasn’t happened.

“Saying that food is fuel is like saying that sex is simply a matter of fertilization,” says Lundgren.

“I think the idea of food as fuel is an idea that was born in our time. I think about what I eat, and watch my carbohydrate intake, but I think there’s also a placebo effect. If I got something that has little carbohydrates, but was told it was loaded with carbs, I’d probably still think I could run longer,” says Haag.

For Lundgren, everything comes around to food. To her, food, and they way people eat, is a way to explain the world.

“Humans can’t eat certain things because we literally don’t have the stomach for it, but if you can digest it, you can eat it. There is no right or wrong, everything simply mirrors our time,” she says.

“Back in the 17th century, people were supposed to eat according to certain body fluids, and make sure they got food that warmed them and cooled them down and so on. There are people who say you should eat according to your blood group, which is silly, considering blood group is determined by just one gene out 20000-30000.

“But we all want to eat better than others. Food is culture, and food is close to religion, so we want to know that our religion is better than yours,” she says.

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, even all the way up to the middle part of the 20th century, people ate so that they could work. Well, for one part of Sweden, food was important as a way to entertain their dignified guests, but for the masses, food was a matter of survival.

That became obvious for the history eaters as well.

“I think I asked at some point when the food would be served warm, and the answer was ’19th century’,” says Lundgren.

While there had been some sort of refrigeration machines in the 19th century – the first patent was given to Jacob Perkins in 1809 – it wasn’t until the 20th century that household models started to appear into the market.

“Food was always kept in room temperature, which meant cold rooms, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of warm food really became prevalent. That surprised me,” says Lundgren.

“I thought first that it was simply that food wasn’t an interesting part of people’s lives, that nutrition was the primary goal, and it was. Culinary experiences were a little too high on their hierarchy of needs. But not for the rich. They have always eaten well, with good spices and everything,” she adds.

Being suddenly thrown from the GI-indexed world into the 18th century is a shock to the system. But not as bad as one might (want) to think.

“We did get ill during the filming of the 19th century program, but I don’t know if it was the food or the fact that it’s mentally tough to work 14-hour shooting days,” says Lundgren.

While Haag and Lundgren didn’t undergo any medical studies during the filming of the series, Lundgren did keep an eye on her weight – as she says she always does.

“I gained weight during some weeks, and lost weight during others, but I wasn’t able to make link it to anything we ate,” she says.

“I think you can handle more than you think, and changing your diet just like that isn’t that bad. It’s not the body that is affected, it’s the mind. Getting out of your comfort zone happens fast when you don’t get to eat what you want,” adds Haag.

And not just that. There’s always the fact that the crew members do get to eat exactly what they want to.

“Well, it was tough to see the crew drink coffee when we were shooting the 17th century show, and there was no coffee available for us then,” Haag says, smiling.

The duo didn’t just eat the way people did in the different eras. They lived the life, and had small assignments to carry out. In the 1920s they were farmers, in the 1970s, Haag was a smoking journalist. They wore the corsets, the wigs, and the cotton long underwear with pride.

“I think they were extra tough on us during the 19th century show and I wasn’t allowed to eat without Erik. One day I basically didn’t get any food because he was running errands elsewhere,” says Lundgren.

“That was tough. I felt violated. So I supposed that was an authentic 19th century feeling, for a woman,” she adds and laughs.

Another part of was the drinking. Back in the 17th century, water wasn’t the drink of choice because there was no fresh water so people drank other beverages, like beer.

“It felt a little strange to start the day with a beer,” says Haag.

“We drank four, five liters of beer, and hard liquor and some nice wines. Warm beer worked just as well as coffee once you get used it,” adds Lundgren.

Every era had its surprises, and every era had its ups and downs.

“The 1970s were just a fun show to make because we could goof around, and be silly. And our parents recognized themselves in the characters.

“In the 19th century, we got porridge that was really bad. I don’t understand how people had the energy to work if that was what they ate. The 17th century was so exotic, it was so different from today that it might as well have been the Star Wars,” says Haag.

One pleasant surprise was finding the roots of Swedish food culture.

“The 18th century food comes back at certain intervals: At Christmas, midsummer. The drinks, the schnapps tables, those are ours. The rancid butter, the aged cheeses, the gravlax, all the dishes we’ve all eaten at every major holiday in Sweden comes from that era. That’s what midsummer and Christmas are supposed to taste,” says Lundgren.

“I’ve always raved about the Italian food tradition, so it was really great to go to the 18th century, and be served the alcohol and the starters, and realize that that’s our tradition. It felt really authentic – and it’s ours,” adds Haag.

Spreading that word was important to Haag and Lundgren.

“I work with food and with people who work with food, and even they didn’t know that that’s where the roots of our culinary history are. We may think husmanskost, our home-cooked meals – like meatballs and pyttipanna – are that, but that is actually a very modern invention,” says Lundgren.

“So it was nice to give people an intensive course on that,” she adds.

“It was a cultural good deed,” adds Haag, and practically finished Lundgren’s sentence, as they often do.

After their previous series, “Landet Brunsås”, “The brown sauce country”, they got angry messages from people who thought they were looking down on Swedish food.

“People didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that Sweden had been so poor. But, that’s a fact, and we can’t rewrite history,” says Lundgren.

Now that they’ve been to the 17th century, and back, they’d like to go back in time again.

“It’d be fun to go back as far as possible. The challenge is that we can only go back to documented time, where we know things have been a certain way for sure. Even the viking era would be difficult to recreate, and we’d have to guess a lot, but I think we could do that,” says Haag.

“There’s a company that has a sample of all the cultivated plants in Sweden and they can say whether the vikings ate this or that,” adds Lundgren.

Haag says there has been talk about a new series, and about a faster-paced one at that. However, he thinks the fact that they were the guinea pigs for a week – “it felt almost like a nature program” – helped them pass on the feeling of being in another time better.

“These days we could choose to eat anything, but we only eat a small part of what is available. Suddenly we got the opportunity to try something new, and in a way, leave our own personalities behind. It was like a vacation from myself,” says Lundgren.

“I recommend doing that,” adds Haag.

“Absolutely,” concludes Lundgren.

Original article published in TreeFree Food #3.

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