The Chairman sits down on his throne, goblet in one hand, turkey leg in the other. The music plays, the lights focus in. With total commitment to the bit, he says, “In the olden times, a grand table was always set for battle. It was an age of combat, cooking in cauldrons, unrefrigerated foods, and … iron! Perhaps it shall be again.” He turns to the camera and lifts the goblet and says, “Huzzah!” before drinking deeply. Then, with wild eyes, chomps a hunk of meat out of the turkey leg in his other hand, chewing ferociously as the camera fades to black.
The new Netflix series Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend is a lovely contributor to now a long and expansive global franchise (with versions in Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, US, UK, Israel, Australia, among others). I’ve been watching the show since the late 90s, when the first subtitled versions made their way more or less licitly onto the internet, and then more legitimately onto Food Network (with dubbing). In 2005, Iron Chef America launched to considerable popularity, and the show has since expanded to many parts of the world.
As with any multi-decade show, my interest has waxed and waned. For me the show works best when it does two things at once:
It must completely buy into the premise of an eccentric aristocrat (or in the US version, his nephew, played by Mark Dacasos) who has constructed a “stadium” in order find the best chefs in the world and pit them in CULINARY COMBAT! It’s a “kayfabe,” a fictional premise that is ludicrous but maintained as “real” within the context of the performance. The chefs, host, judges, must act as if the Chairman really has brought them together (instead of being an excellent martial artist and actor) and funded all this and react to pomp, circumstance, and drama as if it’s the highest stakes in the world.
The show must at the same time really focus on the food rather than the antics, engaging the cooking, the techniques, the ingredients.
These two elements are, of course, in tension. Which brings us to “Battle Medieval” and more specifically, the Chairman’s turkey leg.
I’ve long been struck by the presence of the turkey leg in medieval-ish fantasy. There were many things to eat in Medieval Europe, but there were no turkeys. Turkeys are native to the Americas, were important to Mesoamerican cooking and culture, and reached Europe - at the earliest - in the 1520s. They are staples of Renaissance Faires and before you make the argument that 16th-century elite Europeans did eat turkey (they did), I don’t think that’s the point.
The ubiquity of the turkey leg is not a commentary on the rapid transformations of global foodways due to contact between western and eastern hemispheres. It’s because it feels medieval to tear a big chunk of meat off the bone with your teeth. And turkey legs, especially compared to other big chunks of meat on the bone, are cheap. The Chairman on the throne, which is the outro teaser at the end of episode three, is about the vibe, is delivered with a wink at the audience, and is not meant to be taken seriously. And it’s great.
I love “Turkey Leg medievalism.” It’s a guilty pleasure, perhaps, but the wink allows me to relax as a historian. It captures a certain kind of feeling about an idea about the European Middle Ages, may even communicate something about the past, and is not making claims about authenticity.
Another example: A Knight’s Tale - which many medievalists, including me and Matt, might list as our favorite medieval movie - opens with Queen’s song, “We will rock you.” The movie could use actual medieval music, or, more likely, a Carmina Burana type orchestral frenzy which might “feel” medieval,” but instead we get Queen. We’re here to have fun and chase a vibe while NOT (and this is important) making any claims about authenticity.
But also, please note the turkey leg.
All of this makes me think about a famous This American Life episode where host Ira Glass took the famous (late) medievalist Michael Camille to Medieval Times. Camille enjoys the spectacle, finds that part of what makes Medieval Times work, as opposed to European medieval recreations, is that we’re all aware that this isn’t a real medieval castle. We’re in suburban Chicago after all. At the end of the episode, Camille and Glass have this exchange:
When we driving out to Medieval Times earlier, Michael had said that the thing that appealed to him most about the Middle Ages was this other-ness, the fact that it did not seem like our world at all. And in the car home, I suggested to him that Medieval Times did not create that feeling at all. It was mostly familiar images from movies and storybooks. But he disagreed.
It was weird enough in all the mixtures of strange things in it. I mean, the odd mixture of the modern building and the castle's structure and the long-haired hunky knights that looked like centerfolds from Playgirl with the ways that the things were mixed together. To me, in a strange way, it was Medieval. Because obviously, the Middle Ages is incredibly hybrid and confused. And again, that's what attracts me about it. It's certainly not the age of order and systematic piety that everyone thinks.
But the strangeness that you're describing is not the strangeness of the Middle Ages. It's the strangeness of America.
The wink is obvious.And that's why it works, something kind of like what Matt wrote about the Bud Knight/ Game of Thrones Super Bowl ad. Turkey Leg Medievalism is playful and confused because it’s a cipher, a stand-in, for both our own relation to the European Middle Ages as well as our own modern American society.
Back to Iron Chef. Once the episodes start, the register of the show shifts from comic kayfabe to serious foodie business. Alton Brown and (in this latest show) the amazing chef Kirsten Kish host and are supposed to speak authoritatively about the ingredients and techniques. The two regular judges Andrew Zimmern and Nilou Motamed are veteran food journalists (with guests judges from a variety of backgrounds) whose palates can be trusted to be sophisticated and able to articulate what they are tasting in ways that convey sensation to those of us who can only watch. But the shift in register also changes the stakes for me as a historian.
The “Battle Medieval” episode started promisingly enough with one chef eager to make meat pies, and two others talking about medieval Ethiopia and medieval Mayan food (now there we could have some turkey!), but for some reason Marcus Samuelsson fixated on the idea that medieval food was “soft” because people had bad teeth.
Medieval Europeans did have bad teeth, but not necessarily more so than other pre-modern places and times (though as my friend Rachel Schine pointed out, medieval Islamic oral hygiene is well documented), and their teeth were likely better than in the early modern world, between the rise of sugar and invention of flouride. It’s a trivial gripe, perhaps, but one that points to a bigger problem of imagining the European Middle Ages as more violent than other violent times, more dirty than other dirty times, etc. We actually know a lot about what medieval Europeans ate, and medieval food was just not particularly “soft” due to bad teeth.
Still, I was relieved that no one said the medieval food was so heavily spiced because the meat was rancid. Medieval food could be wild with flavor not because the meat was bad, but because medieval people liked flavor. We didn’t really talk about this in The Bright Ages, but just as medieval people liked colorful things, they also liked tasty food. They were people.
But once more back to Iron Chef. The episode, in the end, was fine. The team who won clearly cooked interesting food that was less on theme but more consistently delicious.
But real medieval feasts were spectacular events and I would have loved to have seen the authentic part of the show dive into that a little, even as I’m delighted for the chairman to keep ripping hunks of flesh out of his turkey leg.
Also Medieval Times serves chicken, not turkey.
Ah, yes, how much we owe to the discovery of delicious foods from the Americas, including the tastiest of all, chocolate!
I checked out the Medieval Times link you provided. We went to Medieval Times in CA 30 years ago when our kids were young so I guess the menu may have changed. We had little individual Cornish hens that were brought to our “table” speared on a sword which much impressed the kids. Incredible though that the menu you shared, although no turkey legs, has tomatoes, corn, and potatoes...none of which were available in the real medieval times in Europe. For real medieval recipes I check out https://recettemedievale.fr!