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What Was Medieval Junk Food Like?

Updated May 26, 2021 29.3k views13 items

What was medieval junk food like? If you're picturing knights eating Big Macs and Twinkies, you're not far off from the truth. Just substitute a meat pie for the Big Mac and a funnel cake for the Twinkies, and you'll have a good idea of what medieval people bought on the street. But knights didn't ride their horses to medieval drive-throughs. Instead, medieval junk food usually catered to the poorest people and travelers.

The average diet in the Middle Ages included a lot of bread, vegetables, and meat. And the fast food version of the medieval food list incorporated many basic ingredients adapted for take-out. People brought their own meat to bakers, who wrapped it in dough and baked it. They ate gingerbread and waffles when they had a craving for sweet foods. Pretzels were a popular street food option, and they were also seen as a good luck charm.

But medieval junk food wasn't always delicious. Spoiled food and rotting meat pies were common gross medieval foods sold on the street. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In Cities, The Equivalent Of 'Drive-Throughs' Provided Fast Food For The Lower Classes

    In the 12th century, William Fitzstephen marveled over a London cookshop: "There eatables are to be found every day, according to the season." Customers, including tourists and Londoners, grabbed what they wanted at the cookshop and usually brought it home - the medieval version of take-out. 

    Fast food was popular in medieval Europe. Many couldn't afford the cooking utensils and fuel needed to cook at home, so they visited cookshops or bought other street foods. Near the Thames in London, shops open around the clock offered meat pies, pancakes, bread, and sweets.

    These cookshops functioned like medieval drive-throughs, where customers walked up to buy hot, prepared food.

  • Meat Pies Were The Medieval Big Mac - As Long As The Meat Wasn’t Spoiled

    Londoners bought meat pies and pasties on the street, hot and ready to eat. As the medieval version of the Big Mac, meat pies were filling and portable. 

    But medieval customers had to watch out for spoiled meat in their fast food. A 13th-century source from Norwich reports that cooks were using diseased pork and serving it to customers. Meat pie shops sometimes warmed up spoiled pies that were several days old rather than waste them. Undercooked meat was also a major problem. 

    Cooks eventually earned a bad reputation for throwing spoiled or tainted meat into their pies. One saying claimed that God sends the meat, but the devil sends the cooks.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Honey Was More Common Than Sugar For Satisfying A Sweet Tooth

    Sugar was expensive during most of the medieval period, putting it outside the reach of most people. Instead of using sugar in sweets, many recipes called for honey.

    One fritter recipe from England stuffed fried dough with gingered almonds and topped the fritter with honey. Another recipe called for honeyed fritters with herbs.

    Gingerbread was another common medieval sweet that used honey. In one gingerbread recipe, the cook started by clarifying honey and then stirring bread crumbs into the honey and letting it simmer. Spices like ginger, cloves, and pepper gave the gingerbread a strong, sweet flavor.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bread Bowls Added Delightful Carbs To Soups And Stews

    Bread was one of the most common foods Europeans bought in shops rather than make themselves. In 41% of urban households, people didn't own their own grain - which meant they were buying bread from bakers.

    In addition to buying loaves of bread, people could buy prepared hot foods that customers ate immediately, like meat pies.

    Customers could also bring their own meat to a bakery and ask the baker to wrap it in bread and bake it. In 1350, London even passed a law banning bakers from charging over a penny to people who provided their own meat.

    Medieval Europeans also pioneered the bread bowl, though they called them trenchers. Soups and stews were often served in a bread bowl to bulk up the meal.