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The Roping of Ale, the Mothering of Ketchup


Centuries ago, before modern refrigeration and preservation came along, people had a much more intimate knowledge of spoiled food than we do and a specialized vocabulary for it.

* "Ropy" meant full of slimy strands. Ale and wine were particularly likely to rope, but even bread could become ropy.

* "To reese" meant to turn rancid ("reesed," "reesty," even "resty" or "rusty"), having the odor of oxidized fat.

* "Foisty" or "fusty" comes from "foist," the name of a sort of wine vat. It meant having the smell of a moldy old vat. Originally it only applied to wine, but later anything that smelled of mold or damp, including bread or meat, was called fusty.

* "Mothery" referred to a liquid that had something growing in it, like the "mother" that grows in vinegar. Wine and ketchup were subject to mothering.

The typical treatment was to boil or scald the spoiled ingredient. One cure for "stinking venison" was to lay it in a mixture of vinegar, ale and salt 12 hours, then boil it, then bake it. That would certainly kill microbes, though it wouldn't necessarily take away all the off-flavors.

Another was cutting off the parts that had turned green, then removing the meat from the bone and burying it in the ground overnight. (Hey, as far as anybody knew back then, air was what caused spoilage.)

Medieval cooks used much more spice than we do, and a lot of people imagine that it was to cover up the smell of spoiled meat. In fact, no medieval recipe ever says anything like "if ye meat be foul, strew great store of spice upon it." However, 17th and 18th century cookbooks do recommend covering up the smell of spoiled meat by cooking it with root vegetables and onions.

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