Eating Right in the Renaissance

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Eating right has been an obsession for longer than we think. Renaissance Europe had its own flourishing tradition of dietary advice. Then, as now, an industry of experts churned out diet books for an eager and concerned public. Providing a cornucopia of information on food and an intriguing account of the differences between the nutritional logic of the past and our own time, this inviting book examines the wide-ranging dietary literature of the Renaissance. Ken Albala ultimately reveals the working of the Renaissance mind from a unique perspective: we come to understand a people through their ideas on food.

Eating Right in the Renaissance takes us through an array of historical sources in a narrative that is witty and spiced with fascinating details. Why did early Renaissance writers recommend the herbs parsley, arugula, anise, and mint to fortify sexual prowess? Why was there such a strong outcry against melons and cucumbers, even though people continued to eat them in large quantities? Why was wine considered a necessary nutrient? As he explores these and other questions, Albala explains the history behind Renaissance dietary theories; the connections among food, exercise, and sex; the changing relationship between medicine and cuisine; and much more.

Whereas modern nutritionists may promise a slimmer waistline, more stamina, or freedom from disease, Renaissance food writers had entirely different ideas about the value of eating right. As he uncovers these ideas from the past, Ken Albala puts our own dietary obsessions in an entirely new light in this elegantly written and often surprising new chapter on the history of food.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Ken Albala is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of the Pacific.

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By Ken Albala

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22947-9

Chapter One

Food and the Individual

At first glance, it may seem that taste preferences and food choices are informed by simple biological and economic factors. A person eats whatever tastes good and can be readily obtained. In fact, it is almost never so simple. As a species, we learn to eat foods that are not immediately pleasant and sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to find calorically inefficient foods. We also spurn perfectly nutritious foods that can be had for the taking. Obviously "taste" is something profoundly shaped by cultural, social, and psychological factors. A food sacred to one society may be taboo to another. What may be a rare delicacy to one social group may be repulsive even to think of for another. Individual food preferences are also shaped by past experiences, idiosyncratic associations, and the preferences of family and peers.

Within one culture, or even to one individual, the meaning of any given food can change over time, in different contexts, and among different social groups. To one generation, expensive alcohol may be an extravagant luxury, to another a crippling vice. To one individual, strange and exotic food is an exciting adventure into the unknown, to another it is threatening and dangerous. A simple dish of beans may evoke nostalgic memories of the homeland for one person, while it is nothing but lowly peasant food to another. All these attitudes reveal much more than the mere effect of food on the taste buds. Taste preferences give us an indirect glimpse at the concerns, fears, and prejudices of the individual, the group, and the entire culture.

In examining food preferences found in a purely prescriptive literature, we are, of course, one step removed from actual consumption. There is really no way to be sure if anyone consistently followed the advice offered in dietary regimens. The fact that they often could not is itself revealing. In the past, just as today, the dietary ideal should not be taken as an indication of actual eating habits but rather as a mirror of cultural ideals. Take for example a slick new cookbook that explains how to throw elegant dinner parties. Whether readers actually throw these parties is perhaps less important and interesting than the cultural ideal embodied in sociability, savoir faire, and sophistication that is being bought by the readers of such literature. The cookbook is thus an idealization of values shared by a particular group and sought by the individual. In a society that constructs ideal beauty as a slim figure, logically diet books for weight-reduction will proliferate. Chances are that few people will ever attain the slim body promised, but the cultural ideal is still clearly spelled out in the literature and the success stories are touted publicly as an incentive to imitate.

Any food literature, including nutritional science, can thus be read as an embodiment of cultural ideals and personal aspirations. Again, as discussed in the introduction, what people think they ought to eat is a reflection of what they want to be. The individual who seeks out rare and foreign ingredients hopes to become cosmopolitan and erudite and in consuming these foods directly incorporates these qualities. The devotee of organic produce does become literally and psychologically clean and natural through choosing pesticide-free foods. The daring chili enthusiast becomes intrepid through the act of eating dangerous food and gets a quick thrill from downing the fiery condiment. The narrowly ethnocentric person sticks to familiar, safe food to avoid being tainted by the other. That is, each individual consumes his or her own ideal self image, or at least uses this ideal to inform specific food choices whenever possible. And naturally, these ideals change over time and under the influence of fellow diners by whom one wishes to be accepted. Nonetheless, a person's favorite foods and his or her overall attitude toward eating almost always reveal something basic and integral to that individual's personality and conception of self. The sensualist, the control freak, the socially repressed-all are immediately exposed by their eating habits.

Some of these ideal self-images are worked out into elaborate systems that may incorporate a philosophy, political agenda, or worldview. These systems might even be thought of as food ideologies. Vegetarianism is as much a way of life as a dietary choice, as were the self-abnegating monastic regimens that flourished in medieval and early modern Europe. The diets proposed by Renaissance physicians and dilettantes are also, arguably, complex food systems offering the reader not just health but a cultural ideal distinct from the other competing systems, namely that of the poor, forged out of necessity, and that of the rich, formed by fashion. For readers of the dietary literature, this ready-made system could be used to direct specific food choices that approximate the personal self-image. When an author recommends light and easily digested chicken for the studious reader, in that reader's mind eating chicken is associated with or even promotes studiousness. The authors conveniently explained the meaning of each food and exactly what effect it would have on the body, so readers could adapt the more general guidelines to their own personal needs. But from author to author, and in different social contexts, the specific meaning of each food changed subtly, reflecting broader and deeper cultural concerns. For example, in authors whose ideal included conviviality, wine was considered a necessary part of the ideal diet. For those who promised piety, abstinence was preferred. When longevity was the primary concern, wine in careful moderation was recommended. The attitudes toward food found in dietary literature therefore give us an indirect idea of what was important to the readers and an idea of how they may have ideally envisioned themselves.

by examining these specific meanings and how they changed over time, it is thus possible to chart larger cultural changes and shifting conceptions of personhood. If the ideal meal is intended to impress fellow diners with a dazzling display of wealth, then luxury is clearly a cultural ideal of the intended audience, and diners literally incorporate that wealth by eating rare and expensive foods. They become what they eat. Conversely, if the ideal meal is simple and frugal, thrift and resourcefulness may be the most important cultural values being promoted, and in such a work, rustic foods like turnips and onions take on a completely different meaning than they would in other contexts. To use a more familiar example, coarse brown bread in one cultural setting may remind people of their ethnic heritage, in another it may promote health through roughage, in yet another it is unrefined and uncouth. The meaning of any given food all depends on the social setting and the mindset of the consumer. Salad to a sixteenth-century author may have been a lowly and perhaps dangerous meal, but to the poet Ronsard it was a symbol of elegiac simplicity, to be enjoyed with a close friend on a country picnic.

Within Renaissance dietary literature, the shifting meaning of various foods can therefore be used as an indication of shifting values and, in a sense, a measure of the evolution of the ideal self-image. Take, for example, the fate of saffron. In the early Renaissance, or period 1, saffron was an ideal symbol of wealth, not only because it was difficult to harvest and expensive but because it lent a dazzling effect to foods. The way to impress a guest was to present saffron-daubed dishes sparkling like gold. Saffron became a symbol for gold, as visibly striking as the shimmering gold background of a religious painting. To the wealthy reader of culinary literature, eating saffron invests the body with wealth the same way a gold chain would, but here it is literally incorporated. The ideal self-image of wealth and power expressed in extravagance and conspicuous consumption, in lieu of eating actual gold, is fulfilled by consuming its analogue. The fact that period 1 dietaries consistently praised saffron reflects the fact that these authors worked primarily for courtly patrons, although the praise generally focused on saffron's nutritional value rather than its indication of opulence. For Ficino saffron is a food with a magical affinity to the sun and gold itself, and therefore promotes wisdom. It also aids longevity because gold is an incorruptible substance, and so therefore is its analogue. Benedict claims that saffron has a great power to strengthen the heart, to illuminate the spirits, and to make the consumer joyful.

This enthusiasm for saffron abates during the sixteenth century among period 2 and 3 authors, and some even claim that it is dangerous. This is the effect, on the one hand, of increasing distance from wealthy patrons, but it can also be linked to simple economic factors. Saffron was first cultivated on a large scale in the sixteenth century. It thus became a more affordable luxury and consequently a less potent symbol of wealth, because more and more people could use it. Much the same happened to spices after the Portuguese opened up direct trading routes to the East. Among the rich, spices and saffron went out of fashion. In dietaries too, saffron was devalued, especially as authors became less concerned with the symbols of wealth. If anything, period 2 and 3 authors consciously avoided anything redolent of luxury, excess, and unnecessary expense. Saffron's fate reflects these cultural changes as well as the changing ideal self-image of readers. Ironically, as saffron was more widely used and as lower social ranks were increasingly able to imitate their superiors, courtly cookbooks included saffron less. Dietaries followed suit, particularly as authors felt that it was being abused.

This is merely one example of how dietary literature may be used as an index of historical changes in the ideal self-image of readers. The symbolism surrounding most foods changes far more subtly than saffron. Nonetheless, specific recommendations do reveal exactly what readers sought to avoid and what they sought to become. In Renaissance nutritional theory, the transfer of qualitative characteristics from food to consumer is, of course, much more direct that it is in our own system. Because being nourished involves literal assimilation of a food's qualities into the flesh, humors, and spirits of the consumer, dietary guidelines offered a far more explicit image of self-construction. For example, avoiding melancholy was a major preoccupation throughout the genre, as was avoiding wrath, sloth, and any other extreme emotion caused by an imbalance of humors. Authors catered to and directly promoted this concern. For the reader who took this literature seriously, managing the emotions and exerting rigorous self-control was a positive goal. In other words, the self-image of those who bought dietary books included emotional reservation, not unlike the cool composure explicitly depicted in Castiglione's The Courtier. So when a dietary authors suggests avoiding hare's flesh because it promotes melancholy, he is really promising a means for the reader to achieve the personal goal of emotional self-control. When another author suggests avoiding goat's flesh because it is a lascivious animal and will promote lust in the consumer, the self-image being sold is sexual continence. But as we have seen, the dietary authors were by no means unified in this attitude, and other authors offered long lists of aphrodisiacs. Why and when these attitudes toward food change, and what they tell us about the readers themselves, will be the focus this chapter.

Among the courtly period 1 authors, the direct transference of the qualities and characteristics of food was an integral part of the entire system. Assimilating the ideal self was a simple and direct process: the timid rabbit will make the consumer fearful, according to Savonarola. By the same logic, a meal of brains will promote intelligence because the substance of the meal is directly transformed into the substance of the brain. Although explained in humoral terms, this kind of direct assimilation appears to predate the humoral system or at least has affinities to folk medicine. When Platina condemns pork as a phlegmatic food whose excessive humidity in the form of fat promotes slovenly habits and gluttony, it is not humoral theory that provides the rationale but rather the concept of direct transference. Pigs are the most voracious and indiscriminate of animals, and therefore whoever would avoid gluttony should also avoid pork. Quite simply, we become like pigs when we eat pork. Dependence on Muslim and Jewish authorities among most period 1 authors probably only lent weight to this claim. Mohammed thought pigs were spawned from the elephant's excrement that piled up on Noah's ark. This accounts for their vile habits and unsuitability as human food. For Platina, his translators, and his readers, the ideal eater is more circumspect about the cleanliness and quality of food he consumes. The positive values promoted are selectivity and restraint.

Although period 1 authors continually referred to this kind of direct transference, they tried desperately to couch their comments in humoral terms. In Benedict, wolf's liver is recommended for courage. He argues that because the liver manufactures blood, it therefore promotes robustness, strength, and courage in the consumer. But clearly, the characteristics of the audacious wolf are being assimilated into the human body. What this reveals is that Benedict expected that some of his readers, presumably elite warriors, wanted to become courageous. Even Cardano, in the mid-sixteenth century, comments that Corsicans and Maltese become cruel, stout, rash, bold, and nimble because they eat dogs. For the reader who hopes to avoid these characteristics, more docile animals are appropriate as food. Yet increasingly into period 2 and 3, direct transference theory disappears from dietaries. Plain empirical evidence simply was not seen to support such claims, nor were the classical Greek authorities, for the most part. Nonnius, for example, wonders how credulous people could possibly believe that deer, because they live so long, could confer longevity. Similarly, testicles for virility, brains for wit, and comparable recommendations disappear.

Nevertheless, symbolic meanings of food survived in more subtle forms and continued to pervade the dietary literature throughout the Renaissance. One revealing illustration is the pigeon, always considered among the healthiest of foods. To these authors, the pigeon symbolized lightness and airiness. Its ceaseless activity and gentle demeanor rendered it the ideal food for those who imagined themselves to be delicate and fragile.


Excerpted from Eating Right IN THE RENAISSANCE by Ken Albala Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Note on Spelling

1. Overview of the Genre
2. The Human Body: Humors, Digestion, and the Physiology of Nutrition
3. Food: Quality, Substance, and Virtues
4. External Factors
5. Food and the Individual
6. Food and Class
7. Food and Nation
8. Medicine and Cuisine
Postscript: The End of a Genre and Its Legacy


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