Editor’s note: Yes, it’s true. We’re back! And as we work on a proper relaunch, we thought we would share with you the stories we didn’t get to publish before we went dark. As such, some of the references made here may be a bit dated. Nevertheless, we hope you enjoy our chat with self-made food historian Max Miller and leave inspired to try something new, or maybe something old, rather.
For Max Miller, it all started with a Battenberg cake. The complicated recipe tackled by the intrepid bakers on “The Great British Bake Off” spurred in him a burgeoning passion for food history. Shortly after, Max started bringing his various creations to a friend and coworker at Walt Disney Studios. It wasn’t long before he was encouraged to share his research and process with a much larger audience.
Max, who worked for Walt Disney Studios in theatrical sales until the pandemic so rudely interrupted his day job, suddenly found himself with the time and energy to grow his YouTube channel and expand the range of cuisines he explores. Here, we chat with Max about the origins of his show, “Tasting History with Max Miller,” as well as which possibly extinct ingredient he would bring back to the modern world if given a chance. And we find out what his favorite Pokemon is.
Lauren: So why did you decide to start “Tasting History,” and how did you come up with the concept for it?
Max: I decided to start it because of a friend at work who I used to bring different historical bakes [to] all the time … [Then] one of my friends last Christmas said, “Hey, you should put this up on YouTube. Start a YouTube channel.” And so it was kinda rolling around my head for a couple of months before I actually got it started, just as things were starting to close down with COVID.
Lauren: And how did you get into food history to begin with? Like, was there a recipe book that you came upon, or were you just always very into history?
Max: I’ve always been into history. Always loved history since I was a little kid. But I got into food history specifically from “The Great British Bake Off.” They used to have these little sections that were food history related. They would talk about the history of whatever they were making … It’s kind of, in a way, what I try to model in some of what I do.
Lauren: Do you remember a particular recipe that kind of kick-started all that, or was it baking to begin with, and then it kind of transitioned into another thing?
Max: It all kinda happened at the same time, because “The Great British Bake Off” was also what got me into baking. Specifically, it was [the] Battenberg cake. Which was a kind of a complicated cake to make, but it’s also got a cool history around the family that Queen Victoria married into and Prince Albert’s family, which was the Battenbergs. And so it just kind of all happened at once. It was kismet.
Lauren: So what does research look like for putting together each of these episodes? What is the process like?
Max: Yeah, so it usually starts with a dish more often than not. Either a specific recipe that I found in one of the many historical cookbooks that I have access to or just a dish. And then I kind of go looking for recipes, if there even is one — sometimes there isn’t. And then from there, I go down the rabbit hole. I’ll just start Googling … you know, the history of tamales and coming up with things. And the best place to look when you find a source is their bibliography. Because if you go to the bibliography, then that will eventually lead you to primary sources, and that’s where I like to get my history. Because you’ll find a lot of stories about food history are erroneous, or they were made up at a later time. So I like to find those primary sources.
The great thing with the internet is you can actually find a lot of those because they’re public domain, and there are different groups and universities who [have uploaded] either original cookbooks or original letters from medieval England or books by Pliny the Elder. Everything is up on the internet, so you can finally find those primary sources. It takes a lot of digging to get there, but with persistence, I almost always finally get there.
Lauren: So tell me about your favorite recipe so far.
Max: I think one of my favorites was actually the Parthian chicken. It’s an ancient Roman chicken dish, and I think it was my favorite because I was so surprised at the outcome. There’s an ingredient that I used called asafoetida, which smells like rotting garlic — it’s abhorrent. But for some reason, when you cook with it, it transforms into a fragrant, pungent, wonderful flavor that is really unlike anything. It’s kind of like onion and garlic mixed together … I think that one was the one that I was most surprised by. I expected not to like it, and then I really did.
Lauren: That’s a really interesting spice! But you have to really be careful to not get it on anything. It can make all of your other spices in the cabinet turn into asafoetida. So for new viewers, what would you recommend that they start watching first on your channel?
Max: I actually think that’s a really good episode to start with. Honestly, I think it’s kind of what era of history you are most interested in. If you’re interested in medieval [food], then I would start with the Lombardy custard. And if you’re interested in ancient foods, then the Parthian Chicken. But I think finding that era that you’re interested in is the best way into the show. And then your horizons will expand because you watch more.
Lauren: What era of food history are you most interested in?
Max: It’s funny because whatever era I’m researching at the moment is typically what I’m most interested in at any given time. But I think, overall, medieval Europe is kind of my wheelhouse, it’s my go-to. It’s the one that constantly surprises me is how sophisticated the food actually was for a society that we often think of as rather backward and not very sophisticated.
Lauren: So what do you eat when you aren’t tasting history? What are some of your favorite restaurants in L.A.?
Max: I end up going to a lot of the same places. There’s a place called Alfredos, which is near us here in Burbank that makes the best burritos that I think I’ve ever had. They’re fantastic. We often go to downtown Burbank as well, there’s a really great sushi restaurant that again I can’t remember the name of … but they make really wonderful rolls, and there’s always a line, but it’s worth the wait.
Lauren: I noticed that you have some Pokemon on your videos, and so I was curious personally. Are you also a Pokemon Go player?
Max: I do play Pokemon Go, yes. But most of the Pokemon in the videos belong to my fiance, who is a Pokemon fanatic. I would use the word. So he typically places them before every episode. So I’m always surprised at what’s behind me as the people watching the video.
Lauren: Oh that’s great! What team are you on, and what’s your favorite Pokemon? Do you have one?
Max: I have several. But Blastoise is my favorite Pokemon, and I am on the blue team. I never remember which one that is.
Max: Mystic, yes.
Lauren: So which extinct ingredient would you want to bring back most?
Max: Definitely silphium. Simply because I’m curious about what it is. And if it’s still around, then we just don’t recognize it as silphium. Bar none, that’s the one.
Lauren: Yeah, that’s a good one for sure. So what’s next for your channel? How do you see it evolving?
Max: Yeah, I mean in the immediate future, I’m working on a lot of Christmas episodes right now. And trying to kind of cover different Christmas traditions. I’m working on tamales right now, I have a Christmas pudding from England. And then something from Saturnalia, which isn’t technically Christmas, but it’s the Roman holiday that we take Christmas from.
And then after that, I’m really trying to expand more out of Europe and try some other cultures that I haven’t yet gotten to or just touched. Like China and India, there’s so much food history there that I don’t want to neglect. And then, long-term, who knows. I would love to get the show in front of a larger audience because I find people are really enjoying it. So I want everyone to see it.
Lauren: And what do you hope people get out of your show?
Max: I hope that … it brings out an adventurous spirit in what [people] are willing to eat. Or looking at what they’re eating now in a new way. Just kind of bringing a little bit of mindfulness to what’s on the plate in front of them. Whether it’s exotic or whether it’s what you eat every day. There’s just so much history behind all of these foods that we eat that we take for granted. So take a minute and think about it. I think that’s a good thing.