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Did they have whipped cream in the olden days before electricity? I think that they might have. I'm sure I've seen a portrait of Henry VIII munching some of that creamy goodness before.

But what on earth caused someone to whisk cream for hours to see what would happen? Is there any scientific basis to it? For example, "Well I know if I whisk this cream, theoretically it should thicken up." Or was it just some super bored peasant folk who discovered it? Perhaps an argument between a peasant wife and a peasant worker, "I am going to take this fork to this cream and stir it for ages to make an annoying noise!"

Another example is beating eggs - why bother when intuition would probably tell us we are wasting our time?

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Though this is an interesting question, I've always wondered how they actually decided to cook something in the fire (burn the food at that time) without being aware of all the benefits it brings. –  Trufa Jan 19 '11 at 15:06
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I don't think this is a real question, it's just speculation… –  ghoppe Jan 19 '11 at 16:04
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Please don't create silly tags for your question. There is no way we need an "olden-days" tag. –  Aaronut Jan 19 '11 at 23:45
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@Aaronut: olden-days perhaps not, but archaic or some other word indicating old techniques/ingredients/dishes would be useful. History does not serve the purpose cleanly. –  Orbling Jan 20 '11 at 0:30
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@Aaronut: I've always thought additional tags were beneficial myself, even if they only match one question to begin with. –  Orbling Jan 20 '11 at 0:56
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4 Answers

Accident and/or trial and error, with a bit of 'evolution'. Someone notices that cream gets a bit thicker when it's been stirred a while, they put two and two together and beat it. Then someone has the bright idea to use a whisk to get more air into it and make it even thicker, etc etc.

Though actually I imagine that whipped cream was actually discovered during the process of making butter (keep whipping cream and butter is what you get).

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Then how was butter discovered? –  Jefromi Jan 19 '11 at 15:37
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But I second the first sentence: a lot of people have lived, and if you remember all stupid things people try even today, it doesn't seem so crazy that someone tried stirring cream for hours once. –  Jefromi Jan 19 '11 at 15:48
    
probably it was the other way around and they discovered butter after stirring cream too long. –  BaffledCook Aug 18 '11 at 8:08
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Perhaps the original "experiment" was an accident. Someone carried some cream in a cart a long distance over a bumpy road, and what arrived was butter and buttermilk.

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Happens even today. I heard a story about that once. –  Arlen Beiler Aug 17 '11 at 18:39
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ElendilTheTall addressed some of the technical questions of "Why would some one think to do that?" So after that why take the time to do the exparament?

I would suggest taking a different frame of reference. Imagine your the cook to a lord and you have kitchen servants (typically the children of other house hold servants) under you. There is no real cost to you to have a servant beat eggs or cream for hours on end on the off chance it might turn out well. And if it doesn't your lord never needs to know. On the other hand if your lord gets bored with your cooking you can find your self out of a job, without a home, money, or marketable skills.

So an abundance of near free labor and a real reason to try new things is usually a good recipe for innovation.

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Some cooking was a form of entertainment for the nobility. If you're really interested in this sort of thing, find an SCA chapter near you and attend one of their feasts. Some go for accuracy, while others take the 'medieval times' approach. –  Joe Jan 20 '11 at 2:36
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i wondered this myself recently, except for cheese. i've been learning to make my own, and the conditions seem so specific for even the most basic cheese to happen that i marveled that humans ever discovered how to make it in the first place. my answer is: we are a hungry and curious species. : )

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The first person who ate blue cheese was either very brave, or very, very hungry. –  Marti Jan 19 '11 at 14:52
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Goat/calf's stomachs used to be a handy way to store milk, and they are a natural source of renet which makes milk turn into cheese. When you've got no refrigeration and you store things in leftover animal bits, cheese just kind of happens. –  yacomink Jan 19 '11 at 15:16
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@Marti: I still maintain people who eat blue cheese are nuts! –  Orbling Jan 20 '11 at 0:31
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@Orbling: that's OK, just leaves more for me. :D –  Marti Jan 20 '11 at 2:14
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@rumtscho it's quite possible for the same thing to be invented different ways. I never liked the "nomad/goatherder/etc travelling around all day with milk in a stomach" theory because the cultures it's ascribed to generally don't drink fluid milk, much less carry it around with them while doing something active. But anyway I'm just telling you another origin story I've heard that might (also?) be true. The intestines-with-the-milk-still-in-them dish is called pajata, btw. –  Kate Gregory Aug 18 '11 at 11:31
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