1 Jun 2024

Max Miller: Tasting history one recipe at a time

From Saturday Morning, 11:15 am on 1 June 2024
Max Miller of Tasting History

Photo: Max Miller / YouTube

Since launching his YouTube channel four years ago, Max Miller has amassed more than two million of subscribers - all tuning in for his videos that fuse history lessons with a cooking show.

Neither a trained chef or historian, Los Angeles-based Miller fell into the world of being a YouTuber when he was furloughed from his job at Disney due to the Covid pandemic.

His videos, which are thoroughly researched and well-produced, span thousands of years and all four corners of the globe - and even delve into the outer space culinary experience.

Some of his most popular videos include "Making Medieval Mead like a Viking", "Dining First Class on the RMS Titanic", and "Macaroni Cheese from 1845". Some of his recipes have even been collated into a cookbook, Tasting History: Explore the Past through 4,000 Years of Recipes, which was released last year.

Miller told Saturday Morning that it all started with watching the television series The Great British Bake Off.

"That's how I learned how to bake - [through] watching that show and I got really into it.

"In the early seasons, they used to talk about the history of what they were making ... and I loved those little history sections. Unfortunately, they got rid of them."

A co-worker at the time suggested he should start making his own history segments and in 2020, two weeks before the lockdown, Miller's culinary history channel began.

"I had nothing to do except for make videos, and it seems that other people had nothing to do but watch videos," he said.

He believed the appeal of the channel was the way he told "juicy bits" of history as a story.

Exploring history through food was a wonderful way to learn about it, said Miller.

"The fact that we can eat what a medieval peasant ate or what a Roman gladiator ate, it just puts us in their shoes."

Not having a cooking background also helped, he said.

"When it comes to the cooking, seeing as I am usually fumbling my own way through the kitchen, I think it makes people feel comfortable fumbling their own way through the kitchen as well," he said.

The great historical exchange of ingredients

Miller pointed to 1492 as the year things drastically changed for what people had to cook with.

"When east, being Europe, met the west of the Americas, the exchange of ingredients was vast.

"Europe was not getting tomatoes and potatoes and a lot of different squashes that they had never had."

Meanwhile, the Americas were getting ingredients like sugar and farm-raised meat such as cattle and pork.

"That huge exchange just totally upset culinary history and it never really goes back to the way that it was," said Miller.

The absence of normal modern ingredients for certain recipes before the great exchange could be "jarring", but on the other hand, there were recipes that, even today, were relatively similar, he said.

He pointed to a 4000-year-old beet and lamb stew recipe from Babylon.

"Yet today, in Iraq, they make a stew that is almost identical to it. 

"So, some things have changed greatly, and some things have not changed at all."

Miller explained researching ancient world recipes can be challenging.

For example, most ancient Egyptian dishes were pictorial recipes put on tomb walls, he said.

"There's a lot of guesswork because we don't know what all of the images are implying.

"There's a lot of archaeology that goes into it that I do not do, other people do - so they know what kind of ingredients are being used in certain things."

But there were gaps, he said.

In fact, up until the 19th century, most recipes were not written in full. They were often written for cooks who just needed reminders, Miller explained.

As for his favourite time period for food, Miller highlighted the Italian Renaissance, even though it was a "polarising period" when it comes to cuisine.

The Italians at that time used a lot of spices - "more than we would ever think to use today," he said.

But there was also a wave of modern cuisine techniques coming in such as fresh herbs and vegetables.

"So, you'll get something like an herb pie that is flavoured with sugar and cinnamon and ginger but also has spinach ... and it's a weird mixture of flavours and that's what I enjoy because it's so different from anything that you would get today. 

"You're really transported through time."