OCW Instructor Profile: Anne McCants


MIT history professor Anne McCants.

Building a historical meal from scratch is a perfect reflection of McCants methods as an economic historian.

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 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 explained. Thorstein Veblen might have called it “conspicuous cooking.”

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.  Read more.

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