How recreating ancient recipes helps one food buff bring the past to life

Max Miller shares how food can offer a unique doorway into how human beings have — or have not — changed over the course of history. With each ancient recipe brought back to life, Miller reaches across time to sit across the dinner table from our ancestors.

'To actually taste what they would have tasted, you're really putting yourself into their shoes'

Max Miller is the host and creator of the YouTube channel Tasting History. (Riker Brothers)

What if you could go back in time to share a meal with an ancestor who lived in the 1600s? Would the food taste anything like what we eat today? 

Max Miller, host and creator of the YouTube channel Tasting History, has brought the past into the present by recreating historic dishes. From ancient Rome, to medieval Ireland, to the trenches of the Second World War, Miller tries recipes from different cultures and eras, in search of how our appetites and personalities have evolved. 

While modern ingredients and our palates may be different, Miller says much of the human experience around food has stayed the same through time. 

Here is part of his conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

When you follow a really old recipe, I have this image of you, like you're opening a door on what it was like to be human hundreds of years ago or even thousands of years ago. What do you learn about the people at the other end of that recipe? 

That they are in so many ways just like us, and in other ways, absolutely different. You learn both. 

Just because it's in my head right now, I am researching a Sumerian recipe for beer. It's basically the oldest recipe that there is, not just for beer, but for anything.

But it's not really a recipe. What it is, is a description via a song of the beer-making process. Someone once said, it's a bit like trying to recreate beer today using the song 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall as the recipe. You only have a little bit of information to go off of, but it's just interesting that they were making up songs about drinking, and about beer and their favourite beverages. It's the same thing that we do today. People just haven't changed all that much.

What happens for you, Max, when you've gone through all the steps, you've done all the heavy lifting, and then the moment comes and you have your first taste? What are you thinking and feeling at that moment? Is there some kind of kinship with the people who got there before you did, tasting that dish?

It kind of depends on my mood that day, I'm not going to lie, because there are so many different aspects to focus on. Sometimes I've tasted parts of the dish before I film, obviously. But very often, the first time I'm actually tasting the full dish is there on camera.

And so I'm usually thinking back to whatever story I just told. And it's often about those people who would have eaten it. And there is a "Wow, this ancient Roman dish, people looked forward to this all day, this was considered top cuisine." And sometimes it's like, "Ah, man, I could do that, I could live back then and eat this every day." And then there are those dishes where it's like, "Wow, something is different in our palates, something has changed, because this is inedible."

I do always picture someone who would have originally eaten it sitting across from me at the table and them really enjoying whatever it was. 

I'm curious about ingredients though, because you are working with quite a time span here through human history. How many of the ingredients that you'd pull out of your cupboard are identical to what people would have used 200 years ago? 

Zero. There's nothing that has not changed. Even just in the last 150 years, since manufacturing and different standards of cleanliness have come into being. Obviously things like fruit and wheat and eggs, those have changed very much on purpose. But then even things that we haven't necessarily tried to change the flavour of, whether it be chicken or salt even, those things have changed because the way that we process them is different and what they're eating is different. 

Nothing is going to be exactly what it was hundreds of years ago. Water, maybe, that's about it. But you can do things to get as close as possible to those older ingredients. There's a whole rejuvenation of growing ancient grains right now. But grain grows from the air. It needs air around it and things in the soil to grow, and those have changed. So even that is going to affect the taste. There's no way to replicate it.

I'm intrigued by something you've said about the tradition of saying grace before meals, that when people said some version of grace or some way of giving thanks to a creator, to a god, to whomever, it wasn't just mechanical — or we say this because we've always said it — there was a sense that what we're doing here is a sacred act. And what we're eating is a sacred thing. Tell me a little bit more about that.

For most people at least, it was definitely not lip service. Because for the majority of the population, for the majority of history, having a meal was truly a blessing because you might not have one tomorrow. So you are extremely thankful for what you have. But even those people who had an abundance of food and never had scarcity, there was still the consciousness of what it took to have this food, the preciousness of this food in front of you. That you are truly grateful that you have it, regardless of religion. Giving thanks for food is very much a universal thing because of how hard it is to make food. It always has been.

I watched your video about making hardtack, the staple of Civil War soldiers in the U.S. in the 1860s, and you were intending to turn it into a kind of stew. And the video begins with almost a throwaway line that floored me.

You say, "I made some hardtack last year. So I'm going to pull that out and use it as my base." Because of course last year's hardtack was still good as an ingredient. What did you learn when you channeled the Union soldier who was far from home, and scared, and hungry, and eating this hard-as-rock kind of bread?

Looking forward to a meal because you haven't eaten all day and you've been marching and everything. And when you get to that meal, it's rock hard and very likely has weevils and worms who have eaten half of it. And it's bland, they rarely even had salt in it. So it's, again, it's the gratefulness.They were grateful for that hardtack. Granted, they complained about it. They knew there was something better out there. But even that was special at the moment. 

The ingenuity of people throughout history to make those ingredients that are not so great into something much more palatable is amazing. And the Civil War soldiers absolutely did that, military people in general have been doing that for thousands of years. 

You learned something profound about food, and how it had to do with human relationships in Ireland a long time ago. It wasn't just the thing you set on the table, it was very interwoven with what people owed one another. Tell me about that. 

When you hurt a person or killed them, in medieval Ireland, food was the payment that you had to give them or their family. You had to pay to take care of this person that you've injured by making sure that they're well fed and taken care of until they get better.

And the laws are very specific on exactly what kind of food they get. Different kinds of butter, whether the butter had salt in it, whether the butter didn't. Unsalted was considered better because it was fresh. It's just very interesting how, whenever you read old law books from anywhere, a good amount is given over to food.

I want to quote you here, Max. "Another thing I've learned is that while our palates have changed in some ways, we're still very much the same as human beings." What makes you say that?

I do like to use first-person writings, primary sources, people writing about their life, about what they were eating and what they were doing. And it actually makes for not necessarily the best history because people were always very, very biased, of course, in their writings, but it makes for interesting stories.

And you can so often see that people have the same gripes as they do now. And the same loves, the same worries about, you know, "Will this person think that I have bad breath if I eat this? What about tonight when we're in bed, what are going to be the repercussions of this food?"

It's the same. You can find those kinds of things in people's journals from 2,000 years ago, and it reads like a Facebook feed. We just have not changed as people, we have the same fears and wants and desires.

Written by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Interview produced by Arman Aghbali. Q&A edited for length and clarity.