The Barnes & Noble Review
If it tastes good, it deserves to be forbidden. That's the premise of Stewart Lee Allen's romp through the history of food taboos, and he's got a lot of evidence to prove the point.
Playing their parts in this history are the Catholic Church, which added the apple to the sin roster; the French, who alternately banned, then improved hot chocolate (a dish revered by the Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayans); English Protestants, who thought the potato induced sloth; and the cautious Christians who snubbed the tomato for 150 years.
Drawing on anthropology, sociology, history, and his own extensive travels, Allen turns the spotlight on innumerable food taboos and their origins, with chapters organized around the seven deadly sins. Each chapter begins with an imaginative menu specific to the sin, like the Lust Menu featuring Salade de Jardin (late-harvest Eden apples tossed with fig leaves and served with a Paradise vinaigrette), and the Sloth menu with its headliner, Mashed "Couch" Potatoes in the style of Joël Robuchon. Recipes are often included. Within each chapter is a potpourri of forbidden food stories.
Along the way, we learn enough tidbits to get through a year of cocktail parties. For example:
- It's no wonder that devout Hindus will not eat cow -- each Indian cow is said to house 330 million deities.
- Hitler was such a devout vegetarian that he could not bear to see animals harmed, even in the movies.
- Buddhist monks are forbidden from eating garlic, onions, and chives, lest they stir up anger and aggression.
- Given a choice between light and dark bread, history seems to vote for light every time. Caesar punished inappropriate servings of dark bread with prison time, while French citizens in the 1700s lobbied for aristocratic white bread, instead of their daily rye -- and you know what that led to.
Writes Allen, "What struck me while writing this book was the surprising extent to which people have judged, fought, and slaughtered others because of what they had for dinner. These laws about forbidden food give more than a unique and sometimes humorous perspective on history; they tell us an awful lot about how we view the pleasures that make life bearable and turn even the humblest meal into a meditation on humanity's relationship to the delicious and the revolting, the sacred and the profane."
Allen's book about the social meaning of food goes down like cotton candy. Delightful at the moment of consumption, it melts away seconds later. Once you put the book down, it's as though it never existed. That's a shame, because the topic is compelling. In his tantalizingly titled chapters, Allen asks about the cultural meaning of food. How, he wonders, have seemingly natural acts like eating proved themselves to be connected with social concerns? What kinds of food, for instance, have played central roles in revolutions and rituals? Drawing on his seemingly endless store of travel stories, Allen regales the reader with wonderful anecdotes, but because he is so cursory in his analyses, he rarely sates the curiosity he piques. The tone of the text is alternately erudite and glib, although at moments it tries to balance the two, as when it makes a bemused reference to instances of cannibalism. The book's seeming desire to contribute to a more serious conversation about food is often tripped up by unevenly presented examples.
"When I pluck a few leaves [from my little basil bush] for my tagliatelle, I make sure to scream obscenities at its fuzzy little head just like the Italians used to." Unaware of basil's complicated past, some cooks might use the herb with carefree abandon, but Allen, author of The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, knows better. When it arrived in Europe from India around the fourth century B.C., basil came wrapped in a tale of fatal passion, which eventually morphed into the belief that a person who smelled the herb would go mad and curse up a storm. Allen's conceit is to take dozens of such tales and categorize them as one of the seven deadly sins: the section on "Lust," for instance, looks at the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden; the section on "Sloth" covers the potato and its supposed tendency to turn the Irish into lazy fornicators; the section on "Blasphemy" recounts how 16th-century Catholic priests roamed the streets of Madrid sniffing for Jewish cookery. While the historical and cultural links between food, sex and religion make for fascinating reading, Allen's structure is forced at times: it is difficult to understand why Allen places France's obsession with bread and class in the section on "Sloth." The book's tone flip and entertaining seems geared to the casual foodie, but its breeziness is often frustrating: Allen devotes only three pages, for example, to the potent trio of food, lust and homosexuality. Cooks may find Allen's unusual assortment of recipes from around the world as well as his recommendation on where to find the world's best potatoes (and it's not Idaho) to be the best part of the book. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Using the seven deadly sins as a framework, Allen (The Devil's Cup: Coffee, the Driving Force in History) explores a plethora of foods that have been shunned throughout the centuries and banned by cultures around the world. After opening each chapter with a menu featuring dishes "appropriate" for that particular sin, the author serves up the various reasons why such foods as tomatoes, chocolate, and potatoes have been feared, scorned, or restricted. Allen adeptly draws from a range of disciplines, including biology, sociology, history, religion, anthropology, and literature, for examples to illuminate the individual food tales. Readers will devour his writing, which is infused with a wickedly subtle sense of wit. A brief selection of historical recipes adapted for the modern-day cook and the occasional personal travel tale from the author are mixed among the book's many entertaining stories. Perfect for public libraries. John Charles, Scottsdale P.L., AZ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A stroll through the history of some food taboos that have caught the author's fancy, loosely organized around the seven deadly sins. With much enthusiasm and a generous spirit of inclusion, Allen (The Devil's Cup, 1999) has rooted around in the annals of food lore to turn up an overwhelming number of sketches, historical vignettes, and general information about foods that have been considered "sinful" in some way, by someone, somewhere. Allen's anecdotes run the gamut, from "the politics of the baguette" to an exploration of folks who like to eat clay to the author's personal experience with a bottle of 1898 Absinthe. Ostensibly organized around the seven deadly sins, the numerous two- or three-page vignettes are, in fact, most tenuously linked; even the dishes on the menus that introduce each chapter seem to get swallowed up somewhere in the heaps of facts about more or less obscure comestibles. But the author's got a mercifully light touch, a finely tuned ear for a story, and an enthusiastic pitch, giving a potentially dry discussion the essence of cocktail conversation-frothy, informative, and fast. One can hear partygoers chatting about the culture of dog-eating around the world, or how an ancient Moon Goddess struck down her worshippers for having bad breath. Not everyone can take an anecdote about a White Supremacist and turn it into a whimsical musing on the history of "bean baiting." In fact, Allen has done some respectable research (documented in a bibliography over 20 pages long). Unfortunately, without an organizing principle that can draw the reader through the pages, Allen's abundance of work and talent seems mostly squandered. Extremely broad, frustratingly shallow.
Read an Excerpt
LUST “And when Eve saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eye, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. . . . Genesis, 3:8–12Copyright 2002 by Stewart Lee Allen
LUST MENU APÉRITIF Blue Chocolate (recipe page 38) salade Salade de Jardin Late-harvest Eden apples tossed with fig leaves. Served with Paradise vinaigrette. entrée Fruits des Homme Cold, poached sea cucumber served with Sambian mayonnaise. PLAT PRINCIPAUX Pâté aux Mon Petit Chou Homemade lingamini smothered in love apple and screaming basil. DESSERT Chocolat du Barry Louis XV pastry topped with well-whipped cream. Eaten with the left hand. Three Penis liqueur will be served in the library.
It was still dark out when we left the monastery. Dawn was breaking a midnight blue etched with icy rain. Ocean waves crashed against the cliffs below. To the left and farther up the trail loomed the solitary Mount Athos.
“Some Christmas,” I grumbled when George and I finally found a sheltering cave. I handed him a soggy cracker. “It is the twenty-fifth, right?”
“Yes,” he said. George was a Greek fellow I’d met in a refuge run by an exceptionally grumpy monk. “But don’t wish any of the monks here a good Christmas! The people of Mount Athos believe Christmas doesn’t come until January, and they don’t like to be reminded that the rest of the world is celebrating it on the wrong day.”
Mount Athos is a six-thousand-foot tall mountain that stands at the tip of a peninsula nearthe Greek-Turkish border. Surrounded on three sides by the Aegean Sea and on the fourth by roadless forests, it’s controlled and run by the Greek Orthodox Church, which has kept out almost all foreign and modern influences since the eleventh century. Military patrols search all visitors. Non-Greek males are allowed in on a strictly limited basis, and there have been no females, human or animal, allowed on the mountain for a thousand years. The only inhabitants are hundreds of robed monks who live in cliff-hugging monasteries exactly as their predecessors did twelve hundred years ago. There’s no electricity, no roads, no cars. Foods not specifically mentioned in Christian writings are avoided. Even time is different on Mount Athos because the monks follow the ancient Julian calendar, which, among other things, places the birth of Christ in mid-January instead of on December 25. Aside from farming, which is done by hand, the main activities are chanting, prayer, and creating illuminated manuscripts.
It’s a perfectly preserved slice of medieval Europe, the ideal place to find out how the apple came to grow in the Garden of Eden. The Old Testament does not reveal the exact identity of the Fruit of Forbidden Knowledge, and how the apple came to be identified with the evil fruit remains a mystery. George and I were trying to reach a monastery on the other side of the mountain where I’d been told there was a monk with opinions on the subject.
After our breakfast, George and I continued up and over the sea cliff, then headed toward the mountain. The rain turned to snow, and soon we found ourselves hiking through a landscape covered in silver ermine. Bunches of crimson holly berries encased in ice glittered on the leafless trees. It was like walking into a Nöel fairy tale, so perfect and clean and clear, Christmas before all the lies. But as morning progressed, the snowfall turned into a blizzard. The trail disappeared, then the trees, then the mountain. All I could see were whirling flakes of snow, and even they dissolved into a surreal void as my glasses became encased in inch-thick ice. The snow was up to our knees. Then my head bumped into something. It was George. He was clawing at his face and shouting. It took awhile for me to realize he was saying that his eyes had frozen shut.
I defrosted them by cupping my hands over his sockets, but it was clear that the mountain did not want any visitors that day, and so we turned around and started back the way we had come. We were, of course, hopelessly lost, and it was only by chance that after some more wandering we discovered a run-down shack with a plume of smoke rising from its chimney. In a few minutes we were warming ourselves by a little coal stove and being clucked over by two grandpa monks with their beards tucked into their belts. They were hermits—the so-called “crazy of God”—who refuse the comfort of monastic life and live alone in the crudest of conditions. These two had “married” when they had grown too old to survive alone. I’ve never met a cuter couple. The quiet one prepared us a meal of raw onions, bread, and a homemade sherry while George explained our quest. The other monk pulled out a tiny red apple.
All of nature, he said in Greek (George translating), reflects the intent of the Creator: the shape of the clouds, the sound of the leaves, the flavors of the fruit on the trees. The monk thrust a knife into the apple. He pointed to the green opalescent drops dotting the tarnished steel. Come, he said, please taste. George and I dabbed our fingers into the liquor and placed it on our tongues. The first flavor was a scintillating, honeylike sweetness, followed by a tongue-curling tartness. Sweet flavors are lures meant to distract the faithful from the word of God, said George. That’s why every meal in Mount Athos is accompanied by a reading from the Bible, to keep the brothers from dwelling on the pleasures of the food before them, and treats like chocolate are avoided. So the apple’s initial sweetness was a sign of seductive intent. The tart aftertaste indicated diabolic influence, because bitter flavors indicate poison, and all poisons were thought by medieval scholars to be the work of the Devil. Some view the apple’s bittersweet savor as a literal allegory of the temptation of Eve; the sweet first bite represents the Serpent’s “honeyed tongue” while the astringent aftertaste foreshadows humanity’s ejection from paradise.
The monk sliced two thin wedges from the apple and handed them to George and myself. See how the skin is red like a woman’s lips? he said. And the flesh, how white it is, like teeth and skin. He told us to take a bite. Crisp and delicious. This, too, was considered an evil sign, because most fruits soften as they grow ripe. The apple, however, actually grows harder, an “unnatural” behavior that alchemists like Vincent de Beauvais claimed was “a sign of great deviltry . . . and of an immoral, cruel and misleading nature.” Our friend sliced the apple in half, vertically, and pointed to the seeds. You see? he said: There, within the heart of the fruit, is the sign of Eve. There was no doubt that from this angle the apple’s core looked vaguely like female genitalia. Hardly compelling, I thought. But the monk was not finished. He pulled out another apple and cut it in half, this time horizontally. Do you see the star? he asked. Sliced this way, the seeds that had looked like a vagina now outlined a five-pointed star, the pentagram, the ultimate symbol of Satan. The design was no larger than a dime but unmistakable. Even more alarming, at least to a religious fanatic, was how the seed design was highlighted by minute cavities of browned, charred fruit surrounding each pip. This is simply the result of iron-containing chemicals reacting with the air, but it really did look as if someone had magically burned the sign of Lucifer into the apple’s heart.
“In the fruit trees are hidden certain of God’s secrets,” wrote the famous medieval mystic St. Hildegard von Bingen, “which only the blessed among men can perceive.” Hildegard was describing the scientific philosophy of the Dark Ages, a discipline derived from the Platonic belief that all earthly objects are shadows cast by the true beings in the World of Ideas. Plato had been speaking in abstractions when he laid out this scenario, but medieval Christians had assumed his World of Ideas referred to their Heaven. They reasoned, therefore, that all earthly objects were symbols sent by God to communicate His intent. The priests’ job was similar to that of a Jungian psychiatrist: they interpreted God’s hidden “messages” and explained them to the unenlightened masses. The apple’s seductive colors, its two-faced flavor, its suggestively feminine core, and, above all, the hidden pentagram, were interpreted as signs that it was the fruit that had grown on the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge.
The hermit laughed after he had explained. But the Bible never identifies the evil fruit, he said; it was the Roman Catholics who put the apple there. The Greek Church sees the for- bidden fruit only as a symbol of pride and carnal desire. He pointed; these are only apples, my friend, which by God’s will are now divided into four pieces, one for each of us. He handed the wedges around with a smile.