iNTERVIEW: TASTING HISTORY’S Max mILLER

2020 was a year of extreme changes in our day to day lives as the COVID pandemic spread into every facet of our world, mostly for the worst. However, there was a silver lining: a vast, wonderful expansion of personal learning and experimentation as we struggled to fill our time in and around quarantine. One particularly excellent example of this is the journey of Tasting History‘s Max Miller, a man who blended his love of history and newfound interest in food and cookery into one of the fastest rising and most enjoyable new shows on YouTube. I was lucky enough to take some time discussing Miller’s influences, process, and rapid rise in the field of visual media after his first full year with the channel. 

First of all, congratulations, you’ve had a great year with your show! Did you think a historical cooking show would take off like it has?

Thank you! I have to admit, I’m shocked that the show has done as well as it has. When I started the channel, I worried that the niche was just too narrow. I really thought I’d be lucky to get to 10,000 subscribers in my first year. So when it blew up last summer, I was, and honestly still am, in shock! Just goes to show that if you enjoy something, there are probably other people out there who enjoy it as well.  

Have you always been into the history of food? How did you get into it?

I haven’t. I’ve always loved history, but my passion for food history didn’t arise until I became obsessed with The Great British Bake Off. They used to have segments where the then hosts, Mel and Sue, would talk about the history of whatever food they were baking. Those were my favorite parts of the show and I wish they would bring them back. They definitely had a huge influence on my starting the show.  

What made you take the plunge into YouTube content creation?

I was inspired by a coworker. I used to bring in the things I had baked and then talk a little about the history to my coworkers. Basically, if they wanted some cake, they had to hear a history lesson. She enjoyed them and suggested I put it up on YouTube, so I did. I had no idea how much work went into doing that, and that’s probably for the best. 

Are there any recipes you would love to showcase or try, but the logistics or lack of concrete information make it difficult or entirely impossible?

So many. Often what limits me is my kitchen. It’s very small so doing something like stuffed swan just isn’t in the books. However, since I started the channel, I’ve wanted to recreate the Medieval Cockentrice; it’s the front half of a suckling pig sewn to the back half of a capon or large rooster. It’s stuffed and then roasted and painted gold with saffron. It’s supposed to be roasted on a spit which is obviously something I cannot do in my kitchen, but I’ve decided to move forward with it by roasting it in the oven. Wish me luck!

In more recent episodes you’ve explicitly had other professionals helping with the research process. Has that made things any easier? How did that start and who reached out to whom?

They have been extremely helpful. Off the top of my head, I can think of two episodes where it was imperative to have help. One was the Babylonian stew called Tuh’u. My Akkadian is non-existent, and so I reached out to the Harvard Assyriologist, Gojko Barjamovic, to help me with some questions I had regarding various translations. He was so helpful, not only with the translation, but with the history. No amount of reading that I can do on my own can live up to a lifetime of study on one subject. The other occasion was with a dish from 17th century China. When dealing with a dish outside of Europe or the US, the amount of time it takes to research it and the history is double or even triple that of a normal episode. It’s because many things have never been translated or have not made their way onto the internet. But before I began, Roy Chan, a professor who specialized in Classical Chinese, reached out with an offer to help if I ever needed it. I did. Not only was he able to translate Chinese that few modern day speakers could read, he was also able to gain access to documents which I would have never had. Frankly, the episode would not have happened without his help.  

What’s a recipe that turned out better than you thought it would? Worse?

The Tuh’u (Babylonian stew) was definitely better than expected. I didn’t think it would be bad, but I could not have imagined how complex the flavors would turn out to be. It’s truly something that could be served today. Worse was the hardtack. I knew it would be rather flavorless and, as the name suggests, hard. I had imagined a stale saltine cracker. But actually biting down, or rather trying to bite down on it, was shocking. It really is like biting down on a rock. I had to break them up otherwise I think I would have chipped a tooth.  

What was it like to collaborate with Townsends?

He is just a fantastic human being. Not only is he vastly knowledgeable about his subject, but he’s just a kind person. What was most enjoyable was being able to talk so someone who has had the YouTube experience. Since starting the channel during lockdown, I haven’t been able to meet many other people who have experienced the same thing, so being able to “talk shop” with him was really helpful. I look forward to doing another collaboration where I can actually travel to him and wear some period garb. 

What’s next for you? Any recipes you’re dying to try?

I think the Cockentrice is the most exciting thing I have coming up; the suckling pig is ordered. Other than that, it’s just trying to expand outside of Europe and get to learn more about cultures that I don’t know about. The show is honestly less about me teaching others than it is about me learning about whatever I find interesting. It just happens that others find it interesting too. 

What aspect of Tasting History are you most proud of?

I’d have to say my writing skills and ease of being in front of the camera. I’ve recently been watching old episodes as my fiance has started a “Talking Dead” style chat show discussing the old episodes (It’s called Ketchup with Max), and seeing how I’ve improved over the last year really does make me proud. 

You have a themed Pokémon behind your left shoulder in every video so far, so I have to ask: how many Pokémon plushies do you actually have and do you specifically acquire any for the themes of each episode?

So, they all belong to my fiance and so I would guess he has about 300. It’s funny because it used to be a bit of a bone of contention, because they take up half of our guest room, but since they have become so integral to the show, and since we have no guests, I’m all on board with the collection now. Rarely do we buy one for a specific episode because by the time the episode is chosen, it’d be too late to order one; they often take weeks for delivery. 

What’s your favorite Pokémon and is there one (plushie form or not) that you think represents the mood of Tasting History particularly well?

My favorites are Blastoise and Snorlax. I think the best representative though, is Pikachu, because there are so many different versions of him that he can easily fit into any costume. He’s as versatile as the show. 

You can watch Max Miller’s Tasting History on YouTube as well as behind the scenes and extra content at Ketchup with Max

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