The Status of Foods
The Status of Foods
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses society's culinary shift from hunter to peasant, and the ways in which an agricultural society has come to define larger historical, political, and cultural dimensions; such as the differing dietary concerns between the rich and the poor, the character of a region's food, and so on. The biblical stories of Cain and Abel, and Esau and Jacob illustrate the preference for agriculture, for food grown rather than hunted—though beneath the seemingly peaceful and placid nature of agriculture are undercurrents of violence. Agriculture is aggressive and invasive; it modifies the environment, alters the landscape. The farmer appropriates space in forests and displaces those who use them.
Esau’s lentils, or how farmers defeated hunters
Esau is the hunter who roams the woods in search of game. His father, Isaac, “loves Esau because he likes game.” His mother instead prefers the younger twin, Jacob, the farmer, a “peaceful and sedentary young man.” Jacob is in the house having just cooked some steaming lentil soup. Esau returns from his meanderings, exhausted and famished. “Give me something to eat, some of that red stuff, because I’m so tired,” he begs his brother. His brother strikes a deal: “Sell me your primogeniture and I will feed you.” Hunger has the better of him and Jacob, in exchange for his brother’s right of inheritance, “gives Esau bread and lentil soup.”
The story in Genesis (XXV, 27–34) has a symbolic meaning that is all too clear. Agriculture has started to take over from more archaic economic forms, the peasant is overtaking the hunter, with cunning and even violence—the same violence that Cain, the farmer, inflicted on his brother Abel, the shepherd. These ancient Judaic stories, like those of other peoples and other civilizations, reveal the other face of agricultural society: “peaceful and sedentary” in appearance but in reality aggressive and invasive. Agriculture modifies the environment, alters the landscape. The farmer appropriates space in forests and displaces those who use them.
(p.13) Even the alimentary message is clear. A good, steaming dish of home-cooked lentils is more secure and satisfying than a haunch of game.
Red lentils, the centerpiece of this biblical story, were especially appreciated in the ancient lands around the Mediterranean. Originating in eastern Syria and cultivated as early as nine thousand years ago, they became a staple in the diet of ancient Greeks and Romans. According to Atheneus, they were also used to make bread, and he can readily be trusted because from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era legumes were dried and ground, along with grains, to make flour for dough to be cooked in ovens, under embers or in a pan. A valuable food, and like all legumes nutritious, this longstanding usage has taught us to regard it as “the poor man’s meat.”
The lentils traditionally eaten in Italy on New Year’s Day are a memory of this hallowed practice. Lentils are an augury of wealth and happiness. Perhaps it is only because their flat, round shape evokes the image of coins. Served with zampone, a pig’s trotter stuffed with sausage meat, they could be merely an accompaniment; instead, they are the chief ingredient of the dish. To eat them on that day is an omen of a secure and comfortable tomorrow, as they were for Esau. Perhaps it is more than the magic of their form, their resemblance to money. It could also be the memory of that nasty story of Esau and Jacob that has imposed the idea of money onto that tiny legume—the birthright of inheritance bought with lentils.
Flour from spelt
There was a time, more than two thousand years ago, when Latins extracted most of their flour not from wheat, but from another grain called farro, spelt, from which the Italian word for flour, farina, comes. An archaic product, much older than wheat, of which it is a genetic mutation, spelt was a constant presence in the (p.14) first civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, and later in the Roman world. A coated grain—its kernels, like those of rice, are protected by a thin membrane that is eliminated through a process of polishing, unless intentionally kept whole, as in the case of brown rice or whole wheat. Ancient Romans thought that spelt was the ideal food for field workers. All kinds of gruel, soup, and porridge were made of it. Spelt, puls in Latin, was almost a national dish and became the culinary identity of Roman culture, just as Greeks were known by their flat bread made of barley.
Only around the second century B.C., as recorded by Pliny the Elder, did the first public ovens appear in Rome. That was when wheat, along with bread, replaced spelt and gruel in the Roman diet, but only in the cities; rural areas long remained faithful to their traditional eating habits. The cultivation of spelt was not abandoned, but continued to live side by side with its invasive neighbor, which was appreciated for its more delicate flavor, its finer flour, its higher gluten, allowing for better bread-making. During the Middle Ages spelt continued to be grown, above all in regions that remained attached to Roman models of production. In that respect, it is interesting to find spelt among the grains cultivated on the lands of Romagna during the high Middle Ages, which is precisely when the region took that name, signifying the continuing “Roman-ness” of those lands, later occupied by the Longobards. Like other “inferior” grains—millet, foxtail millet, sorghum, barley—spelt remained characteristic of a peasant diet, whereas wheat was a luxury product, reserved for the table of the upper classes and city dwellers. In this way a social contrast arose between upper-class bread made of wheat and the flour made of inferior grains, as well as black bread made of rye, in the diet of rural people.
Today the situation has changed radically. Having become universally available, wheat no longer denotes social differences. It is, rather, the “minor” grains—spelt and its companions—that denote diversity and prestige in new preparations (special breads, enriched pasta, multigrain biscuits) that, precisely because of these (p.15) additions, are regarded as luxury products, sold at higher prices, and now esteemed as superior to the traditional products of white flour, even from the aspect of nutrition. The recovery of peasant foods has overturned symbols and meanings: the “poor” foods of the past have become the mark of new wealth.
I tasted a delicious bread made of organic grain that was stone ground, refined ma non troppo—a deep fragrance, delicate yet flavorful. The flour comes from a water mill in Hollange, Belgium, on the border with Luxembourg. The bread is sold at a small bakery in Brussels, run by the owner of the mill. The distinguishing feature of this bread is that it is made of spelt flour. The name of the bakery is Le Pays de l’épautre (The Land of Spelt).
Spelt is a genetic variant of farro, which is also known as “little spelt. The larger specie—called “large spelt” or simply “spelt”—was widely used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages as forage for horses and as human food, primarily by peasants.
During the Middle Ages the consumption of grains differed greatly among the social classes. Wheat, a demanding and delicate agriculture, was a prestigious and even luxurious product reserved for the aristocracy or for metropolitan merchants. More robust and prolific grains were cultivated for peasant consumption. White bread, a symbol of social advantage, was contrasted with the dark breads made from spelt and rye, the gruels of barley and millet, the porridges of oats and foxtail millet, all symbolic of the “peasant” diet. Medieval documents and literature always present these grains as signs of social baseness and thus labeled “inferior” or “minor.”
In what way inferior? If the symbolism is beyond doubt, their inferiority with regard to taste is much less obvious and is perhaps the result of a cultural prejudice that nonetheless endured throughout the centuries, continuing all the way down to us. By (p.16) that I mean that historians, when they describe a peasant food as coarse, rough or unrefined, are probably influenced by the negative image of those foods projected by the ruling classes ever since the Middle Ages.
To have tasted the spelt bread from the mill at Hollange was more than a pleasant gustatory experience. It was a way of rethinking the history of our peasants, which was a history of hunger and alimentary frustrations but also, at times, of pleasures and tasty dishes. We would be doing them a grave disservice if we held them incapable (as did the upper classes of the time) of enjoying food.
Liquid bread: from ale to beer
If you say beer you will at once think of northern countries, of the peoples who two thousand years ago surrounded the Roman Empire and, on the threshold of the Middle Ages, crossed over as conquerors, subduing Roman culture but acquiring a taste for wine. The meeting of the two traditions, the beer of the “north” and the wine of the “south,” contributed to the enrichment of the European gastronomic experience, in the acceptance of this new drink that slowly invaded the territories of wine, initially limited to the central regions of the Continent, then spread all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean. More recently, in the twentieth century, this phenomenon was relaunched with increasing capacity of diffusion, thanks to the imposition of Anglo-Saxon lifestyles and models of consumption, carriers not only of new industrial ideas but also of the ancient Germanic culture.
Beer, however, comes not only from the north. The first to brew it were Mediterranean peoples, among the most ancient agricultural civilizations, in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Nor could it be otherwise, because beer is born of wheat and barley, which is to say products of the earth; it was born along with bread, another signal invention of Mediterranean peoples, and like bread is the product of fermenting grains, achieved in humid rather than dry (p.17) surroundings. Beer is almost a kind of “liquid bread,” and the Egyptian figurines of three and four thousand years ago, showing women busy making bread and mixing beer, juxtapose the two activities, both offsprings of the same economy and the same culture.
Liquid bread, but dense. The beer of the ancients was much denser than the one we know today. It was not really a solid drink, but something similar. Its flavor, produced by the carbohydrates, or sugars, of grains tended toward the sweet rather than the bitter, and to the sour, from spontaneous fermentation. These characteristics survived for a long time: Even Celts and Teutons, when they learned to produce this drink, “made in the manner of wine, but of barley and wheat” (as described by Tacitus in the second century), knew it as dense and sour-sweet.
Then something happened. During the Middle Ages, probably during the period of Charlemagne, someone (perhaps a monk assigned to making beer, or a peasant who gave him the idea) thought of adding hops to the fermenting liquid. Who knows how many experiments went into this. During the Middle Ages drinks—wine, beer—were treated more or less as a raw material with which to create new flavors, by mixing in herbs, flowers, spices, honey, flavorings. The blend was found pleasing and was perpetuated until it became definitive. The advantages of this innovation were at least two: Hops allowed the beer to become clarified and made it possible to decant it and strain the solid particles, so that it became at last a genuine drink, more thirst-quenching and better suited to accompanying a meal. Furthermore, hops introduced a slightly bitter taste that, blended with the sweet, was highly successful. This blending of contrasting flavors was typical of the taste of the time. As a further benefit, the addition of hops made it possible to keep beer longer.
This turning point caused the “new” beer to taste like a wholly different drink, and for that a new name was invented. Texts of the early Middle Ages called it cervisia, cervogia, a Gallo-Latin name that is still heard in the Spanish cerveza. From then on it was rebaptized under a new name of Germanic origin from which bier, (p.18) beer, bière, birra were derived. As is usually the case, the history of names is the history of things.
The stench of garlic
A product of poverty, even more, a mark of poverty, which the upper classes scornfully disdained in our culinary tradition, was garlic. Let us begin with a text from the tenth century. An elderly pilgrim carrying a sack of garlic, onions, and leeks was returning to Rome and ran into a finicky monk by the name of Giovanni. “Let’s get away from that stench,” he said to his traveling companion, Odo, the abbot of Cluny. However, Odo taught him a lesson in humility: “For shame! He can eat these things and you can’t even tolerate the smell?” The edifying moral of this episode does not conceal, but rather reveals the perception at the time of garlic, of its taste and its smell. In the imagination of the upper classes it was integral to the alimentary world of the peasant, rustic and coarse.
Such was the image of garlic in ancient times, and so it remained for centuries. A short story by Sabadino degli Arienti, a fourteenth-century Bolognese writer, places garlic at the very center of the plot, in a clash between two characters, the Duke of Ferrara and a peasant from the lower Po Valley by the name of Bondendo. This Bondendo had managed to get himself hired as the duke’s valet, which led to a swelled head. He went so far as to claim that he had been nominated to become cavaliere, a knight. The duke decided to play a trick on him. He pretended to accede to the request for knighthood and one day invited his courtiers to the ceremony of investiture and the unveiling of the coat of arms designed expressly for the peasant and his family. The curtain was raised, revealing “a head of garlic on a field of azure,” alongside a damsel who runs off holding her nose. The meaning was patently clear to one and all: A peasant you are and a peasant you will remain. Your peasant condition will always be recognizable, as it is now from the stench of garlic emanating from your body.
(p.19) Garlic can nonetheless penetrate elite cuisine. All you need is a minor adjustment to “gentrify” it. The author himself, Sabadino, commenting on the story of Bondendo after confirming its meaning—how garlic reveals the rustic nature of those who eat it—could not help observing that even garlic can sometimes become “artificially well mannered” and enter into another gastronomic and symbolic world. This happens, Sabadino remarks, when “a roasted goose is stuffed with garlic,” the garlic in this case is used to flavor a choice piece of meat, a luxury food. This is one of the “secrets” that the popular culinary patrimony uses to break down the ideological barriers of social privilege and that is eventually shared by the elite, according to instructions found in medieval and Renaissance cookbooks. Although intended for the upper classes of society—the nobility and upper bourgeoisie—ample allowance is made for popular culture. The mechanisms are simple: One takes a peasant recipe and ennobles it with the addition of expensive ingredients, inaccessible to most people (for example, sprinkling costly Eastern spices on a gruel of grains or legumes); serving a peasant food not as a main dish but merely as an accompaniment to some prestigious food; using peasant products as ingredients in a sumptuous dish (garlic-stuffed goose is an excellent example).
On an ideological level, taste is formed according to precise social boundaries. However, when an aristocrat appropriates a peasant dish or seasoning it readily transgresses those boundaries. The opposite can also occur: Sometimes the peasants accept values and flavors from the upper classes, they too modifying them according to their own customs. In this way, the tastes that reveal social distinctions merge into a common heritage.
The king’s peas (and the peasant’s too)
“The subject of peas continues: the impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, the joy of being able to eat them again are the three points that concern our nobles for the past four (p.20) days. There are ladies who, after having dined with the king, order peas to be prepared at home so as to be able to eat them before going to bed, at the risk of indigestion. It is a fashion, a furor.” This letter from Madame de Maintenon, dated May 10, 1696, relates the passion for this green vegetable that raged in France at the court of Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century. “It is astounding,” wrote a biographer of Colbert the previous year, “to see individuals so addicted to the pleasure of green peas [that they will] acquire them at enormous cost.”
The peas that so greatly pleased the court of France were picked well before maturity: “The younger they are, the more exquisite they are,” wrote Nicolas de Bonnefons, the king’s chief steward. Peas were not the only vegetable in fashion at the time: Artichokes, zucchini, mushrooms, asparagus were equally appreciated in seventeenth-century haute cuisine, which progressively replaced the stronger flavors of the medieval tradition (those enormous platters of spice-covered meat) with milder, more delicate ones. Court gastronomy discovered new elements of distinction when the use of exotic products, such as spices, no longer served to mark differences; once trade was opened up by ocean liners, they became less costly and more accessible. Paradoxically, this created the rediscovery of products harking back to peasant fare.
To return to peas. A fashion, perhaps originating in Italy, where vegetables, beginning with the late Middle Ages, enjoyed a certain prestige even on patrician tables, which were not averse to presenting dishes from the peasant tradition, but with suitable adjustments. The recipe for “piselli fricti in carne salata” (fried peas in salted meat) included by Maestro Martino in the famous cookbook of the mid-fifteenth century is indeed reminiscent of peasant cuisine. First the peas are cooked in water, then thin slices of salted meat (half a finger long) are fried, and finally the peas are added to the meat and cooked together. This is the archetype of peas and prosciutto, which is still a dish typical of Italian gastronomy. A mark of distinction, indispensable in cookbooks (p.21) destined for the upper classes, is provided by adding sugar and cinnamon, which complete Martino’s recipe, along with saba (cooked must, or unfermented grape juice) and agresto (the juice of sour grapes). Another mark is the extremely early stage of the peas that are eaten “with the skin,” or “just as they are,” in other words in their entirety, along with the pod. Something like those of Louis XIV.
Already in the fourteenth century, Italian cookbooks anticipated recipes for peas with “salt pork.” The southern Liber de coquina proposed cooking them in lard after being crushed with a spoon, to obtain a kind of thick and compact purée. The cooking water was then used for preparing a soup “in the French manner,” seasoned with onion, crumbled bread and flavorful spices, and served with fragrant herbs in a hollowed-out round loaf.
Obviously, peasants could not allow themselves to forego the volume and the nutrition of full-grown peas by “wasting them” while they were still growing. They preferred to let them grow to maturity, even drying them and turning them into a flour to be mixed with other cereal flours or legumes. With this flour the peasants made pappe (gruels), polentas, and at times bread. It was primarily of the peasants (aside from his own monks) that Colombano, the sainted abbot of Bobbio, was thinking when he prodigiously succeeded in producing among the crags of the Apennines, “without anyone having sown them, between rocky fissures totally bereft of water,” an extraordinary yearly flowering of peas, the legumen Pis, “which the peasants call Herbilia.”
The potato, from emergency food to culinary specialty
When the Spanish conquistadores discovered the potato in Peru and introduced it in Europe, well into the sixteenth century, the unfamiliar tuber aroused general diffidence. Its “subterranean” nature did not grant it much prestige. Its taste was inconsistent, and even unsatisfying. It seemed to be a food less suited to humans (p.22) than to animals. For a few centuries peasants refused to cultivate it, and when they changed their attitude it was out of need rather than choice. Given the extremely high yield of the potato compared with traditional crops, it could resolve a problem that was dramatically widespread at the time, namely hunger.
The coincidence is striking. In all regions of Europe, the cultivation of the potato always occurred in conjunction with years of famine. In 1778 the agronomist Giovanni Battarra recommended it as a means of vanquishing the hunger of the peasants, with a solicitude that reveals ancient prejudices. The potato, he writes, placing himself in the shoes of a peasant patriarch, “is an excellent food for humans no less than for animals,” adding “how fortunate we are to be able to introduce extensive planting, for we will never again suffer from famine.”
The potato was an emergency food in a situation of emergency. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the progressive increase in population severely tested the social and economic system of Europe, which managed to survive at the cost of a general qualitative decline and harmful simplification of the peasant diet. It was also a problem of social disparity. Whereas quality foods continued to flow into urban markets and to appear on aristocratic and bourgeois tables, what remained for the peasantry was high-yield crops, such as corn or potatoes, which could fill the stomach and appease hunger—in the sense of dulling the sensation of hunger—with little concern for the quality or balance of the diet. In Mediterranean regions, the overwhelming preponderance of polenta, made of corn (which replaced many traditional dishes and preparations), resulted in a dreadful epidemic of pellagra, a disease typical of malnutrition. Different, but equally devastating, was the outcome of the dependence on the potato, in some cases total, which occurred in the countries of northern Europe. In Ireland, between 1845 and 1846, two failed potato harvests were enough to annihilate a peasant society that had improvidently based its system of survival on that product, and on that product alone. A third (p.23) of the population was stricken with famine and infectious diseases, or forced to emigrate across the ocean.
Given these circumstances, it is understandable that the potato had to work hard to achieve gastronomic status in European kitchens. Only at the end of the nineteenth century was it finally able to efface its original stigma as poverty food, good at best for filling famine-stricken stomachs. Pellegrino Artusi, in the various editions of his Scienza in cucina (Science in the Kitchen), first published in 1891, included a number of recipes for artfully prepared potatoes destined for the well-to-do middle class of an Italy united merely thirty years earlier. Browned in butter or fried in oil, mashed into a purée or layered with truffles, the potato appears to have definitively found acceptance in the cuisine of the middle and upper classes of society. However, when Artusi proposed potato salad, he still felt the need to justify its presence: “Although made with potatoes,” he wrote, “I assure you that this dish, in all its modesty, is worthy of praise.” Although made with potatoes.
In the history of alimentary practices, necessity and pleasure travel separately at times, but more often their paths cross.
The eggplant, food of plebeians or Jews
Melanzana1 is one of those words that are defined “connotatively” because they contain a judgment of the object represented. Its etymology leaves no room for equivocation, coming as it does from the Latin mala insana, unhealthful fruit, noxious to the health. The word appeared at the close of the Middle Ages to qualify negatively food that today delights us, and to catalog it among things to avoid. “Pomo sdegnoso,” contemptible apple, it was called by Bartolomeo Scappi, the most representative cook of Renaissance Italy.
(p.24) Why this “contempt”? Out of prejudice, it would seem, of a social nature. The eggplant rapidly became a culinary resource of poor people and was thus disdained by “good society.”
Like other Asian plants, the eggplant was brought to Europe by the Arabs, who, during the Middle Ages, cultivated it in Sicily and Spain. Already mentioned in the stories of the thirteenth-century Novellino, there was an image of it in the Tacuina sanitatis of the fourteenth century. Diffidence toward it, which was long lasting, seemed consistently associated with its popular use. “Pianta volgare” the naturalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli called it in 1568, referring to its frequent use among the volgo, the populace: “It is eaten among the populace fried in oil with salt and pepper, like mushrooms.” The following year we find similar testimony in the letter “on salad” by Costanzo Felici, addressed to his teacher and friend Ulisse Aldrovandi. He too indicates his distrust of the eggplant and does not share the enthusiasm of those who eat it “avidly, cooked for the most part in embers or on a grill, and even fried.” These testimonies demonstrate, moreover, how widespread the use of eggplant was then (and probably centuries before) in daily cooking. During these decades similar distrust fell on the tomato, the new product of American origin that, Felici informs us, “those who crave and enjoy new things” were savoring “like the eggplant,” fried in oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Most cookbooks of the Modern Era, which express the gastronomic culture of the upper classes, very rarely include eggplant. Its controversial image, related to a status of absolute social and cultural marginality, is confirmed and, even more, amplified, accentuated in a way, by the particular attention that it seems to enjoy in Jewish cooking. In 1631 the treatise on carving by Antonio Frugoli conjoins Jews with plebeians, maintaining that the eggplant “should not be eaten other than by people of the lower class or by Jews.” The same attribution is repeated a decade later by the agronomist Vincenzo Tanara, who defines the eggplant as “food for rural areas … commonly consumed by domestics and by Jews.”
(p.25) This singular label can still be found at the end of the nineteenth century, in Science in the Kitchen by Artusi, who by then had reversed the meaning, remarking that i petonciani (as he called eggplants) “were held in contempt as a food of Jews,” which only proves that “in this as in other things of greater importance, [they] always had a better nose than Christians.”
The bread tree
“Chestnuts are the bread of the poor,” declares a Tuscan statute of the fifteenth century. Two centuries later, the Emilian Giacomo Castelvetro pointed out that “thousands of our mountain people nourish themselves with this fruit as a substitute for bread, which they never, or hardly ever, see.”
The fate of these two products, chestnuts and bread, evolved in parallel ways. There is a moment in the history of Italy and Europe—the mid-centuries of the Middle Ages, between the tenth and the twelfth—when the increased population no longer chose to live on a forest-based economy. What ensued was a veritable mutation of the environment. In plains regions, progressive deforestation made way for fields of grain. In mountainous regions, where grain is hard to cultivate, forests did not disappear but were transformed. Oak trees, predominant in earlier centuries and whose acorns fostered a large production of pork, were largely replaced by “cultivated” trees that provide a fruit different from a kernel of grain yet fundamentally similar: the chestnut. Once dried, it can be milled into flour. Although the taste is not the same, its alimentary uses are: bread, polenta, cakes. … For this reason, in Mediterranean countries the chestnut is called the “bread tree.” Its fruit is the bread of that tree.
Today chestnuts are a typical seasonal fruit. In the past, their consumption was not limited to the time of their harvest. Effective techniques of preservation allowed them to be stored for long periods, either in their shell or heat-dried. “In our mountain regions,” (p.26) wrote the sixteenth-century Brescian agronomist Agostino Gallo, “a large segment of the population lives exclusively on this fruit.” In 1553, the Captain of the Pistoian Mountains remarked that the inhabitants of Cutigliano are “extremely poor and seven-eighths of them eat only castagnacci2 all year long.”
In less impoverished zones and in years of lesser hardship, the particular preservability of this product led to a flourishing trade. Chestnuts wound up in distant markets (even beyond the Alps and beyond the Mediterranean) and remained on the market for many months, until the following spring. Vincenzo Tanara, a Bolognese agronomist of the seventeenth century, observed that chestnuts could be served as late as summer, “out of exoticism.” From hunger to satiety, the distance is shorter than it would seem.
In earlier centuries, the gastronomy of the chestnut appears to have been richer and more imaginative than today. Castore Durante, in the sixteenth century, recalls the custom of cooking them “in a pot with oil, pepper, salt, and orange juice.” Orange juice recurs in Giacomo Castelvetro, who recommends that roasted chestnuts be salted and peppered, and reports that poultry was stuffed with chestnuts (after having been boiled in milk): “and they are very good, and are used to stuff capons, geese and turkeys that are to be roasted, along with dried plums, raisins and bread crumbs.” This is a European recipe that would have found particular favor on the American continent.
Vincenzo Tanara collected many local recipes (such as this one from Piedmont, in which chestnuts are cooked in wine “with fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices”) devoting much attention to cakes, castagnacci, and fritters of various ingredients. For his taste, he claims to prefer simple confections: “castagnacci, cooked between round stone tiles the thickness of a finger and piping hot, or better yet, red-hot, made of next to nothing and still (p.27) warm when eaten, are an exquisite food, accompanied by a side dish of a hearty appetite.”
The peaches of Messer Lippo
When I bite into a peach I cannot help but think of Zuco Padella.
Zuco Padella was a peasant about whom Sabadino degli Arienti, a Bolognese notary and literary figure, wrote in 1495 in a collection of stories dedicated to the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este. Sabadino imagines, in the manner of the Decameron, that a brigade of gentlemen and ladies from Bologna set off during the summer for the baths of Porretti, entertaining themselves in such pleasant pastimes as storytelling. In these Porrettane, simple folk also appear, always seen through the eyes of the noble companions; their role is to be humble, humiliated, mocked. The distance between the classes is a fundamental postulate of the culture of the ruling classes (of that period, of course, Manzoni would say) and this is expressed in the codes of eating behavior, the way of thinking about foods and their “appropriate” social destination.
Peaches, like other delicate fruits, are not peasant food, being reserved for the elite, but occasionally peasants did not play according to the rules. Sabadino explains this to us in a fable whose characters are a peasant, Zuco Padella, and a patrician, messer Lippo Ghisilieri.
Lippo had a splendid garden filled with fruit, “especially gorgeous peaches,” jealously protected by shrubbery and ditches. Nonetheless, “almost every night” Zuco Padella made his way through the bushes, reached the peach trees, and carried away some fruit. This was not an occasional theft motivated by need or hunger, but rather a systematic and persistent challenge to the privilege of class.
Messer Lippo, to expose the impudent transgressor, had a series of traps dug in the earth and lined with nails pointed upward. At night, when Zuco entered the garden, “his big toe stepped on one (p.28) of those nails.” Even though he was injured, he did not give up. The following night, he put on stilts attached to “horseshoes” to avoid puncturing his toes, “and so that it would look as though a donkey were eating the peaches.” He then carried off another load of fruit and went home unhurt.
This raised the stakes, forcing the orchard owner to invent new strategies. He had all the peaches picked except for fhose on one tree, around which he had a large hole dug “like a pitfall for catching wolves.” For three nights he personally kept guard and at last Zuco Padella arrived on his stilts. He went directly to the tree heavy with peaches and fell into the ditch, “nearly breaking his neck.” Lippo ordered his servants to bring a basin of boiling water and empty it into the pit. The peasant began to scream: “Have pity, have pity!” and was thus revealed. “I thought I had caught a wolf with four legs, not two,” Lippo sarcastically remarked and, adding insult to injury, said, “I wanted to catch a wolf but instead I caught the donkey who was eating my peaches.” The moral was accompanied by words of arrogant contempt: “Villainous thief that you are! May a thousand leeches fall upon you!”
The ferocity of this combat—a full-scale war—equals the harshness of an ideological system that claimed to demonstrate through the diversity of foods the differences between men and the preservation of the social order: each one in his place, patricians to command and peasants to obey. “Next time,” messer Lippo concludes sententiously, “leave my fruit alone and eat your own: turnips, garlic, leeks, onions, and shallots, along with sorghum bread. Peaches are only for my equals."3
I think of Zuco Padella—who ingeniously and clumsily sought to attack the privilege of class—as a hero of social redemption, and the next time I have sliced peaches I will gratefully raise my bowl to him.
(p.29) Five hundred pears
Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, gardener to the Sun King, Louis XIV, prided himself on having cultivated 500 species of pears, their various growing seasons spaced out over the year so that, in theory, His Majesty could have a different kind of pear every day. This prodigious horticulturist gave an account of his virtuosity in a treatise on pomology (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers) published in 1690.
The Sun King’s passion for pears was shared by much of European nobility. The “pear mania,” as a historian labeled it, signaled the predilections and tastes of the upper classes. Court cookbooks contain many ways to use pears. Specialized manuals on topiary demonstrate how to prune pear trees and shape them into attractive and unusual shapes.
In some ways this was the final chapter of a story that had begun centuries earlier, a story of tastes and flavors, but also of symbols and images. From the end of the Middle Ages, fruit had become an established sign of lordly gourmandise—in particular, delicate, perishable fruit, like the pear. Fruit evoked alimentary luxury, not choices linked to the daily struggle against hunger, but the pleasures of the unnecessary.
Medieval doctors generally discouraged the consumption of fresh fruit. They warned against the excessive “coldness” of its nature, but if someone was determined to indulge in the pleasure of gluttony and social prestige, a few accommodations were required. On the principle of “temperament,” which entered the science of the time from the Hippocratic and Galenical tradition (the natural imbalance of foods must be righted with appropriate compensations), coldness had to be “heated,” and two methods were recommended: either serve fruit with a full-bodied wine or cook it over the fire, better yet, cook it in wine. From these teachings and practices arose proverbial locutions that remained alive in various European languages: “After a pear, wine,” is a saying documented in France and in England as of the fifteenth century. (p.30) Other texts insist on the need for cooking: “Se velen la pera è detta, sia la pera maladetta,” declares a text from the medical school of Salerno; “ma quando è cotta, ad antidoto è ridotta” (it is said if the pear is poisonous, let the pear be damned, but when cooked it is reduced to an antidote). A pear cooked in wine, which still appears at the end of many menus today, particularly in popular circles, is the descendant of this ancient culture and is fortunately still in our own, because it has remained valid on the level of taste.
Little by little dietary convictions became modified because foods themselves became modified. The seventeenth-century “mania” for pears was not just the reappearance of a gastronomic and symbolic model from the Middle Ages. It was also the result of changes made to the primary matter through the patient work of horticulturists, farmers, agronomists. Many of them remain anonymous and unknown, and others (like the gardener of Louis XIV) were honored by the court and proud enough of their profession to want to leave a memory of it in ponderous works of theoretical reflections and practical teachings. The species multiplied and fruit became increasingly pleasing and sweet, its flavor immediately indicating a new identity.
The culture of a period can also be measured by the importance and inventiveness of its attitude toward food. Of the five hundred species of pears described by Quintinie in his Instruction, how many are we able to identify today?
To die for a melon
Pope Paul II died of a sudden apoplectic attack the night of July 26, 1471. His doctors attributed this to a melon binge the evening before. After having spent the day in consistory, the pontiff dined late (around ten) on “three melons, not too large” and other things “of meager substance, as had become his habit over the past few months.” The account of this event, written in these words by Nicodemo di Pontremoli in a letter to the Duke of (p.31) Milan, reveals an attitude of great suspicion toward this fruit, capable of causing not only indigestion but even death. The alimentary imprudence of the pontiff was recalled as well in a biography by the humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina: “He was extremely fond of melons,” Sacchi wrote, “and it is believed this is what provoked the apoplexy that took his life. As it happened, the evening before he died he had eaten two melons, and big ones moreover.” Apart from the discrepancy of number and size, the link between the two events is treated, here too, as credible and expectable.
How did this diffidence toward melons arise?
The coolness and juiciness of the fruit, which makes them desirable during the heat of summer, were qualities that medieval medicine regarded as negative on the dietary scale. It was thought that this “coldness,” common to many fruits, undermined the natural heat of the organism and dangerously upset the equilibrium of the bodily humors, shifting them toward cold. This judgment, based on principles of Galenical medicine, might also be related to the fruits themselves, which were then less sweet than they are today, in some cases still very close to their wild state. Doctors commonly advised people to eat little of them and, if possible, to avoid them entirely. Melons in particular were held to be the most toxic of all fruits.
However, if one wanted to eat a melon, there was no dearth of strategies to protect the health. The coldness of a fruit could be tempered by the heat of the fire and by wine.
It is not hard to see in this scientific tradition the meaning, the ideology so to speak, of a custom so typically French as accompanying melon with a glass of strong sweet wine (port, for example). Nor is it hard to see the meaning of a custom so typically Italian (now popular throughout the world) as serving melon with prosciutto, an absolute must on the summer menu. It hardly matters that today, thanks to the scientific work on botanical species of the past centuries, melons have become extremely sweet and, from the optic of a medieval doctor, perhaps less dangerous. (p.32) Since these customs took root long ago and are enjoyable, there is no reason to give them up. Melons should nonetheless be eaten with measure. Three whole melons are indeed too many, even if eaten with prosciutto or port. “Meager substance” is also a question of quantity.
Strawberries in November
In 1655 Queen Christina of Sweden traveled down to Italy on her way to Rome, after having converted to Catholicism and abdicated her throne. On November 27th she stopped in Mantua, where she was honored at the Gonzaga court with a sumptuous banquet prepared by Bartolomeo Stefani, one of the most famous chefs of the period. About that banquet we know everything there is to know because Stefani described it himself seven years later in an appendix to one of his cook books, L’arte di ben cucinare (The Art of Good Cooking). He recounted it with pride as one of the greatest moments of his brilliant career.
In the long list of dishes presented on that occasion, there is one that immediately draws our attention. As an appetizer, there were “fraghe,4 rinsed with white wine and served with sugar on top.” A very simple dish, although embellished with little sugar sculptures, as was common on the Baroque table—sculptures with a theme: “around the edge of the plate, shells made of sugar filled with these strawberries, alternating with birds made of marzipan, which seemed about to peck at the fruit.”
It is not surprising to see strawberries with sugar and marzipan served at the beginning of a meal. Seventeenth-century cuisine, in the wake of Renaissance tastes, had an appetite for sweets at every meal and put sugar in everything. As for the strawberries, it is hard to say whether they were cultivated or wild. In Stefani’s day, experiments had already begun on crossing wild strawberries
(p.33) (the only ones known during the Middle Ages) with the new species brought from America. From these mutations were born the various types of large strawberries, like those selected for Louis XIV by his gardener, Jean de la Quintinie, from the gardens of Versailles at the close of the century. Here we are barely at the beginning of a story (that of large strawberries) that will evolve only in a later period, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on. Seventeenth-century taste was still accustomed to wild strawberries, and it is more than likely that those were the ones served at the banquet in Mantua in 1655.
Let us rather look at the date: November 27th. Strawberries were absolutely out of season. With an achievement like that opening dish, the Gonzaga chef had already impressed his illustrious guest. Selected meats and succulent preparations would have followed, but the success of the banquet was assured from the outset. At that time, as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to offer foods that were out of season conferred prestige on the host (as Stefani himself liked to point out when commenting on his culinary choices), although everyone knew “Il frutto non è buon, fuori di stagion,” (fruit is not good out of season), as proclaimed in a sixteenth-century proverb.
If the fruit is not good, so what? One does not eat for pleasure alone. A princely table is supposed above all to show wealth, power, the ability to bring together priceless resources and ingredients. In a world in which it was normal to respect the seasonality of produce, even an obligation, not to do so was a mark of distinction.
In this ancient wish to disrupt the seasonal rhythms, seen as a “peasant” restriction, we can recognize the root of certain modern practices, no longer elitist but popular. Except that today, the reasons for the prestige have become invalid: to eat strawberries out of season is no longer a privilege reserved for a few. We might define this as a democratic achievement, which is nonetheless accompanied by the collective loss of seasonality, undermined by the rhythms of industry and the globalization of food production. That very culture, paradoxically, gave Stefani a feeling of infraction. (p.34) To retrieve it as a strong and positive value, overturning the paradigms of alimentary luxury, would be a small cultural revolution even to the advantage of our pleasure. Because “Il frutto non è buon, fuori di stagion.”
Watermelons and cucumbers
“Watermelons5 are common during the summer” and are eaten primarily “to quench the thirst,” since they provide no nutritive value or “pleasure.” Thus writes the botanist Costanzo Felici around 1570, with little interest in a product that he clearly evaluates as “minor” in terms of nutrition. Even thirst warrants consideration, and for that, watermelons are excellent, given their “very watery” composition, some of them very sweet, “which for that reason are called cucumeri zuccarini,” sugary watermelons.
The history of food does not tell us much about watermelons and related plants, partly because of the difficulty of clarifying an uncertain, ambiguous terminology. When reference is made to this plant, the texts that discuss it (for the most part treatises on dietetics or botany) struggle to find authoritative material, because it is not even possible to identify the watermelon in the classical literature. In 1627, for example, Salvatore Massonio (author of an interesting work on salads and vegetables) quotes Dioscorides to distinguish between domestic and wild watermelons. The latter, “not at all nutritious,” are of use only medicinally “and are horribly bitter to the taste.” The others instead “are useful to the stomach and the body.” To which plant is Dioscorides referring, watermelons or cucumbers, or still others? Massonio confesses that he does not understand and so prefers to gloss over the auctoritates and go directly to the practice and language of his contemporaries: “For clarity … let us accept as watermelons what Lombards call (p.35) cocomeri, known as cedriuoli in Tuscany and in Rome, and in our region of Aquila 6 by the name of melangole.” The Spanish, however, call it peponi and use it, Amato Lusitano claims, to cool the body both internally and externally: “We make a practice of using the outer cut part to cool the forehead during the hottest hours of the day, when we also eat it to achieve the same effect.” Even Bartolomeo Sacchi, the fifteenth-century humanist known as Platina, uses the term popone to indicate watermelons, “different from melons, the latter being almost round and ribbed, whereas the others are oblong.”
Like most things, the watermelon has some virtues: It purges the kidneys and the bladder, “reduces inflammation of the stomach and gives a certain relief to the intestines,” so long as the seeds are removed. Generally, however, it slows the digestion, which is to say the process of “cooking” the food in the stomach, which requires heat and dryness, characteristics diametrically opposed to those of the watermelon. “Il popone,” Platina writes, “is doubtless tasty, but is hard to digest because it is cold and wet.” For that reason one is advised to eat it on an empty stomach, “otherwise it slows the digestion.” It is also better to accompany it with wine rather than water, because water would only add more cold and more moisture, whereas wine functions in the opposite way. One can also view this instinctively: “I follow nature,” Platina writes, “which, after one has eaten watermelon, is inclined to want wine, and good wine, because it is almost an antidote to the rawness and coldness of the watermelon.”
Sweet as a fig
The fig means sweetness. Quintessence of the Mediterranean landscape and spirit, this plant and fruit are accompanied by the (p.36) sweetest of images, in both its figurative and literal sense, passed down by ancient literature, from Mesopotamian to biblical texts and on down to Greek and Latin classics. “Sweet as a fig,” the connection fig–sweet is as automatic as it is validated by an illustrious tradition.
For a long time the fascination with sweetness was more intense and more complex than it is today for us. It was not a flavor easily produced before the era of sugar, which started at the end of the Middle Ages and exploded in modern times. Only honey had been able to provide sweetness, which was why particular attention was given to fruits that, fresh or dry—dates, raisins, figs—could serve as a substitute. The many varieties of figs, each with its own characteristics, were listed in ancient texts by such agronomists as Cato and Columella, and later in the great encyclopedia by Pliny. Some figs took their name from their native territory: Chios, Syria, Africa, Numidia, Caria. … Others from historical figures who in some way had associated the fig with their name: livian (Livy), pompeian (Pompey), calpurnian (Calpurnia). Still others from the time or modality of their growth: late or early figs; spring, summer, or autumnal figs; figs that had a single or a double growing season. Medieval texts provide further proof of these distinctions: the sixteenth-century botanist Constanzo Felici could only say “there are so many varieties it makes one dizzy merely to think about it.”
So many species, but one common trait: sweetness. This is an extraordinary virtue because, on the scale of flavors, sweet was considered the most perfect, the most balanced, the most “suited” to human health. According to the dietary thinking that continued from Hippocrates to Galen, sweet somehow amalgamated the other flavors, “tempered” them, modified their characteristics by forcing them to the point where their qualities met and canceled each other, thereby enhancing itself in the process. Someone has written that the basic principle of ancient and medieval cuisine lay in a process of sweetening, of reducing each individual flavor to a level of equilibrium.
(p.37) The fig, which in its nature contained this desired sweetness, seemed ideally made to represent perfection. Ancient and medieval doctors, always suspicious about fruit (held to be too acid, and in the Galenic classification, too “cold” for the digestive needs of the stomach), were obliged to make an exception when it came to figs. Even they, like all other fruits, could provoke bad humors, but it had to be admitted that “fresh figs, especially those ripe ones that tend toward the warm and moist, are not harmful to the health.” So wrote Platina, in his famous book On Safe Pleasure and Good Health.
Certain traditional proverbs, reaching down to the roots of medieval food culture, confirm this diversity of the fig. Whereas so many fruits, because of their coldness, had to be “corrected” in the opinion of dietetic science (which later passed into the proverbial), the fig did not require any correction. It could therefore be accompanied by water, a neutral and tasteless substance, minimally invasive on the nutritional level, capable if anything of dissolving the strength and heat of the fig, To quote from the repertory of Italian proverbs: “To the fig, water; to the pear, wine”; “To the peach, wine; to the fig, water.” It is recommended that the fig be peeled before eating: “For a friend, peel the fig.”
(1) Eggplant in America, aubergine in England and France.
(2) A baked product made of chestnut flour, which can be a bread, a cake, or a fritter.
(3) A pun may have been intended: in the plural, scalogne are shallots, but scalogna in the singular means “bad luck.”
(4) Fragole, in modern Italian, strawberries.
(5) Cucumeri in the original text, cocomeri in modern Italian; also popularly called angurie.
(6) Of which Massonio was a native.