This year, many of us turned to our kitchens to master scratch-made pasta. Or whatever. Max Miller was no different after being furloughed from Walt Disney Studios. But rather than unlocking the mysteries of sourdough, he took to recreating ancient Roman bread and other centuries-old recipes. Before long, Miller had turned his hobby into a successful YouTube channel.
His show, Tasting History with Max Miller, started in late February, Since then, Tasting History has drawn more than 470,000 subscribers and 14 million views.
“History has always been a passion of mine since I was a little kid," Miller says, "but I had never had any desire to cook or bake or be in a kitchen."
Yes, despite this rising popularity, Miller has a professional background in neither cooking nor history. The Phoenix native got his start in musical theater, and he initially moved out to Los Angeles to pursue voice acting. That's where Miller got his gig at Disney, where he was in marketing before going into film distribution. It was during this period that he discovered his passion for cooking.
The source? The Great British Bake Off, of course. Miller says he enjoyed it when the show's hosts would explain the history behind a certain pastry. He liked it so much, in fact, that he would recreate nearly everything made on the show. He realized he wasn’t half bad.
Miller was eager to share his newfound hobby with anyone who would listen, or eat. That turned out to be his coworkers. He began bringing baked goods to work and explaining the history behind them. Miller says it was around Christmas 2019 when a coworker suggested he started a YouTube channel. Miller's first episode was on Medieval cheese.
After just a few episodes, COVID hit. Miller was furloughed and suddenly had plenty of extra time on his hands.
"It became less of a 'something fun to do' and more of a 'this is something I’m going to do every week because I have nothing else to do,'" he says.
His historical hobby went full-time, but he never expected such positive responses. Miller says the concept itself — food and history — is already pretty nerdy. If that's not enough, a Pokémon can be seen in the background (a Bulbasaur plush toy or a Pikachu in a holiday sweater) of most Tasting History episodes.
"It's the trifecta of geekiness," he says.
Most of his current videos explore ancient Roman or medieval dishes. Miller says he is more comfortable with Eurocentric history — the main point of inspiration coming from England's first cookbook, The Forme of Cury, which has numerous recipes from the 14th century. But Miller wants to branch out, which he is now able to do thanks to his viewers. Tasting History now has an international audience, with fans reaching out to share recipes from their culture. Some have even sent Miller ingredients that are difficult to find, or just can't be purchased in the U.S.
Each episode has a special segment where Miller explains the history of either the ingredients or the dish's time period. As research, Miller looks to primary accounts, or anecdotal records from the people themselves, rather than historians. He does this so he can get a better glimpse into what life was like during a certain time.
In a recent video, Miller makes Globi — essentially a fried cheesecake covered in honey and poppy seeds. Tied to this dish, he explains, is the ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia, a festival to honor the god Saturn. This holiday is the source of many current Christmas traditions.
For the holiday season, Miller has made a Dickensian figgy pudding (it's lit on fire), as well as gingerbread and George Washington's eggnog recipe.
Miller says he plans to continue the show even when his Disney job returns. He hopes to include more Asian and Native American dishes and maybe start a mini-series. He's currently doing research on a Babylonian stew that is more than 4,000 years old.
"While I don't really have anything in common with a medieval king or a Victorian social climber," he says in an early episode, "If I made something that they would have tasted, and then tasted it myself, I felt like it would create this kind of imaginary line through history so I could feel a little bit of what they felt."
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