Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reverse Documentation, what it is and what it should be

A few people who know me, might know that I'm not a large fan of reverse documentation, however I can agree that it does have it's uses... if not abused.

What is reverse documentation?
This is essentially when you have a desired object (though it could be a song, poem or game) and you would like to try and document it as being period to whatever time, culture or what be it. This is something I come across fairly often in relation to historic cookery, where one would find something they like and think may be an old recipe and would like to document it to an earlier date. Sometimes it works, often it ends up stretching things a bit past the limits of reality.

I do feel there can be a right way to go about reverse documentation, like I said earlier, that can work.
A simple example would be cake.
--The difficult way would be to track through endless encyclopedic type entries on the history of cake, this is tricky because the information can be outdated and incorrect, or simply just very vague and hardly researched. However, one can follow leads from such information and track down the original sources, sometimes with amazing effort as not all things offer such things, and determine the quality and validity from there.
--OR, the easy way would be to track through recipe books and other contemporary recordings that may give better and far more accurate clues. The wonderful thing here is that you are now at least doing the majority of your own research and with so much being publicly available online, this has become infinitely easier.

Example of a better way to reverse document "cake" (as a food) pre-17th century:
So for researching cake, one could use google, or search directly where available, to search directly for "cake" on websites that have period cookbooks online.  (I often tend to do this along with scouring through the indexes I made for my cook-books and read read read) Right off you will find many examples say, on the feeding america site. And on the Medieval Cookery site, I was able to get a recipe for "fine cakes" and "May Cake" the first being more of a shortbread type cookie and the later kind might look like a fruit cake but with the other lead describing more of a fritata. Reading further on, one would come to realize that "cake" in earlier times was more of a physical description rather than a specific type of recipe and that it was not always a sweet confection. It could be to describe egg dishes, fruit dishes, a chicken/bread pudding baked in a mortar/bowl, cookie/biscuit and small confection type treats. It is not unlike our use of the term pancake, and you will find recipes for pancakes as well, though don't expect them to be just as you know them.

Stopping here, one simply can not conclude that "cake" as many of us see it, was something that graced even the Tudor table even though the term itself was not unheard of. Though one could also continue to explore this path, it is good reverse documentation to admit when something is inconclusive and therefore can not be documented, at least not at this time. One can also go further to document their findings on the "cake" known then, possibly even pursuing the "pancakes" known then, actually trying out the recipes and see how different combinations work and determine things from there. Also, you will likely fine information on fruitcakes (which I found not what a modern person would expect, though good).

An example of an iffy way to reverse document "cake" (as a food) pre-17th century:
I went to google and searched "cedieval cookery cake", or one could do "medieval cake" or "tudor cake" and so on. What I came up with fairly quickly was a recipe for "Cattern Cakes" and then found a little history on them. Neither source, being able to testify to them being from a pre-17th century recipe.
I did find a recipe for Oxfordshire cake after searching "tudor cake" and thought I might have found something until reading amber-greese and realized, despite the picture of good old King Henry, that he probably never ate this... it did list the source below and was from a  1658 publication. Doesn't rule it out but does make it very unlikely!

Stopping here, one can not confirm any of these cakes as being period... one could follow leads and go further, but this alone does not make for even remotely good documentation.

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