Max Miller is a proud, self-described history enthusiast, even though he’s quick to admit that he’s not a professional historian with extensive academic credentials. Instead, he’s more of a freelance nerd, who spends his time reading pretty much anything he can get his hands on about historic recipes. “I don’t have formal training,” he says. “It’s just a passion, I love history. I took a lot of history classes in college and I’ve been devouring history books and documentaries since I was a little kid.”
In February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to stay inside and spend too much time staring at our screens, Miller launched a YouTube channel called Tasting History, a place where he recreated recipes from various historic eras. The channel was a sleeper hit, and now boasts 1.7 million subscribers who tune in to watch Miller make medieval-style French toast and a tiger nut cake recipe prepared in ancient Egypt.
The success of his channel led to a new cookbook, Tasting History: Explore the Past Through 4,000 Years of Recipes, released earlier this week. Eater sat down to talk with Miller about this collection of ancient recipes, whether or not he expects anyone to actually try to make most of them, and what modern cooking conveniences he loves most.
Eater: Your new book, Tasting History, is extensively researched. One thing I noticed is that the recipes come from different types of documents and records. In what types of books or records did you find the best recipes?
Max Miller: Actual cookbooks, obviously, are definitely the easiest. But the further we go back in time, the less available those are. One thing I rely on a lot is newspapers; they’ve included recipes since their advent in the 17th century. Before then, I tend to look to things like poetry, or for writings from someone who’s describing a different culture than their own. Throughout history, it’s somewhat rare for people to write about their own food. In Europe and in China, people wrote recipes down, but a lot of cultures passed that information orally. Or it was just culturally understood; there was no need to write down how to make rice because everyone just knew what that dish was.
When someone goes to a new place, though, they write that information down, because it’s new to them. Especially in the early medieval period, the 10th, 11th, and 12th century, there were travelers, largely from the Arabic world, writing about the foods they came in contact with through their involvement with the spice trade. You can find wonderful descriptions of food in those writings; I can build a recipe from those. But you have to be careful, because this person is an outsider, and who knows if they’re faithfully writing down what they’re seeing? Sometimes, you just can’t tell.
Your YouTube channel, Tasting History, has tons of subscribers. Were you surprised to find out that so many people were interested in the intersection of history and food?
It shocked me. The reception was great pretty much right off the bat, even within the first couple of months. I expected it to be a very niche audience. What surprised me the most, pleasantly, was the reception to the history portion. I thought I would talk to people about food and covertly make them learn some history at the same time, but it’s the history part that my viewers seem to enjoy the most.
Because you approach the subject from a lay background, have you had any run-ins with historians over the disputed historical origins of some specific food?
Usually, I’m getting kudos from professionals. There aren’t a lot of food historians out there, which means that it’s a pretty small world. Ken Albala, one of the most prominent food historians, is a huge supporter of the channel and of the book. I try to make it very clear to people that there’s a difference between what I do and what a real historian does. I have a lot more freedom. A real historian’s job is to take their feelings out of what they’re interpreting, and take this 10,000-foot view. I don’t make an attempt to do that at all. I love relying on first-person accounts, and first-person accounts almost never make for good academic history because everyone puts their own individual spin on things. But they do make for very, very good storytelling.
It can, however, be easy to fall into these little traps laid by previous historians, and that’s true in any discipline. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for Victorian scientists to simply make details up in order to make a story work. If they had a set of facts that they couldn’t connect, they would just make up a story to connect them. That wasn’t frowned upon then, which means that it can sometimes be hard to separate truth from fact, especially when that story has been repeated by lots of reputable sources.
What are the common threads that you see across different time periods? What specific dishes or preparation methods show up over and over again?
Every single culture has bread, and it’s so important to every culture that even when it goes bad, people still figure out a way to use it. The mixing of sweet and savory foods is also something you see throughout the years and all over the world. People would add honey, or sugar, or date syrup to a dish that we would normally think of as a dinner entree. Sometimes I’ll do a video where I’m mixing sugar and spices together and putting it on meat, and I get so many comments that are like “this is just weird.” But then I remind them about barbecue. Do you eat barbecue? Because that’s what barbecue is. And speaking of barbecue, that’s a very medieval dish in itself, and a technique you find all over the world.
Do you view Tasting History as a history text or a practical cookbook? Do you think people will actually make everlasting syllabub, a cream-wine concoction, or saffron-hued Sally Lunn buns?
I hope people do make them! Some of the dishes, if you make them, you’ll make them once, but others can become a staple. Everlasting syllabub is basically just sweet, boozy whipped cream. It’s delicious, and it’s super easy. But then there are those, like blood soup from ancient Sparta, that I imagine most people probably won’t try to tackle, even if they’re interested in the dish and its origins. Maybe that’s part of the fun, sussing out which recipes you should actually make now and which can stay in history.
Are there any modern ingredients that you’ve become especially grateful for after making so many recipes without modern ingredients?
We complain about refined white flour, because a lot of people think it isn’t particularly healthy, and it isn’t as flavorful as some other flours. But it’s so easy to work with, it’s so reliable. I truly appreciate modern flour: Ancient flours can be so hard to work with, and your end result isn’t this light, fluffy bread. And just the grocery store in general: Throughout history, and in many parts of the world today, people devote so much time to getting and preparing food. Thanks to the supermarket, it’s so easy. Being able to go to the grocery store or out to eat at a restaurant is something that I think we should be a little more grateful for.
Are any of these historic recipes now mainstays in your own regular cooking rotation?
Everlasting syllabub is definitely one of them. I really do love it. The hummus kassa, which is a 14th century Egyptian recipe for hummus, has tons of different spices and nuts and oils, and it’s much more complex than a modern hummus. It’s fantastic. And even if I’m making a more simple hummus, I can add some of those ingredients to give it the kassa flair. You don’t necessarily have to make these recipes, but it’s fun to think about how they influence how we make food today. Some things shouldn’t be forgotten.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.