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At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain

At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain

by Jodi Campbell
At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain

At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain

by Jodi Campbell


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Research on European food culture has expanded substantially in recent years, telling us more about food preparation, ingredients, feasting and fasting rituals, and the social and cultural connotations of food.

At the First Table demonstrates the ways in which early modern Spaniards used food as a mechanism for the performance of social identity. People perceived themselves and others as belonging to clearly defined categories of gender, status, age, occupation, and religion, and each of these categories carried certain assumptions about proper behavior and appropriate relationships with others. Food choices and dining customs were effective and visible ways of displaying these behaviors in the choreography of everyday life. In contexts from funerals to festivals to their treatment of the poor, Spaniards used food to display their wealth, social connections, religious affiliation, regional heritage, and membership in various groups and institutions and to reinforce perceptions of difference.

Research on European food culture has been based largely on studies of England, France, and Italy, but more locally on Spain. Jodi Campbell combines these studies with original research in household accounts, university and monastic records, and municipal regulations to provide a broad overview of Spanish food customs and to demonstrate their connections to identity and social change in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803296596
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 02/01/2017
Series: Early Modern Cultural Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 686 KB

About the Author

Jodi Campbell is an associate professor of European history at Texas Christian University. She is the author of Monarchy, Political Culture, and Drama in Seventeenth-Century Madrid: Theater of Negotiation and coeditor of Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500–1800.

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At the First Table

Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain

By Jodi Campbell


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9659-6


Basic Food Practices and Beliefs

For preindustrial Europeans, in the age before the convenience of supermarkets, refrigeration, and preservatives, a substantial part of every day was taken up by the acquisition and preparation of food. This also represented a substantial part of the household budget; in one typical Barcelona merchant household, nearly 80 percent of the family's yearly essential spending was for food. The vast majority of this food came from local gardens and pastures. García Gómez estimates that in the early sixteenth century up to 90 percent of the food consumed by an average rural family came from a radius of ten miles around their home, and cities drew most of their food from their immediate surroundings as well. Most households kept stores of staples such as grain, flour, and legumes that could be maintained in a cool, dry pantry. Given the lack of good storage options for perishable items, townspeople generally made daily purchases of meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables in the markets. Hunting was also a common pastime; part of elite privilege was the right to hunt large game animals, but ordinary people especially in rural areas hunted rabbits and birds. Basic food preparation was also more complicated than we are accustomed to. The responsibilities of feeding an early modern household were labor-intensive, and they included fetching water, carrying grain back and forth from a local mill, carrying prepared dough to and from a neighborhood oven, maintaining a vegetable garden, caring for domestic animals such as chickens and perhaps a pig, fetching fuel (firewood or coal) and tending the kitchen fire, and purchasing other needed items at the local marketplace. Those who maintained a household's food supplies needed to be familiar with techniques for cleaning and dressing animals, smoking or curing meat, and making fruit and vegetable preserves. Such processes were often described in basic recipe collections and books on household maintenance.

Most houses had only a very simple kitchen with a cooking fire and an iron tripod or chain to support a copper cooking pot, or a three-legged bronze pot set directly over the fire. A typical household would also have earthenware pots for cooking soups, stews, and legumes over a low fire and a simple turnspit or gridiron for roasting. Humble families would have a small selection of wooden or clay pots and bowls; wealthier ones used metal serving dishes (silver or gold in the finest cases, for special occasions) and glass drinking vessels. Tables were likely to be mounted on trestles, easy to set up and remove, rather than permanent pieces of furniture. (Medieval French folk tales describe the ownership of a permanent table as a mark of prosperity.) The "dining room" is a modern phenomenon. Medieval and early modern houses did not have a separate space dedicated exclusively to eating, so members of the household would eat around the kitchen fire or in whatever area of the house (or outdoors) was most convenient depending on the number and rank of those sharing the meal. Diners carried and used their own personal knives, used for cutting food as well as other quotidian tasks. At the table, they would eat with their fingers or a spoon, usually sharing food out of a common bowl. Large forks were used for supporting meat that was to be carved, but individual forks did not come into use until the sixteenth century and were not common in ordinary houses until much later.

Given the simplicity of kitchens and cooking utensils, the most common Spanish dishes in humble households were stews and pottages. Cooking in one pot preserved both fuel and nutrients and allowed a vegetable and legume-based diet to be easily flavored with the addition of small amounts of meat or fat. These dishes were also readily available outside the home. Madame d'Aulnoy, the French baroness who visited Spain in the late seventeenth century, noted that "there are Cooks Shops almost at every Corner of a Street: these have great Kettles set upon Trivets; there folks may have such ordinary Things as Beans, Garlick, Leeks, or a little Broth, in which they steep their Bread." The most famous of these dishes was the olla podrida, or "rotten pot," a stew of any combination of meats, vegetables, and legumes. Its curious name, according to the sixteenth-century lexicographer Sebastián de Covarrubias, came from the fact that it was cooked slowly until "its contents start to fall apart and for this reason it is called rotten, like fruit that is too ripe, although in this case this 'rottenness' is what gives the dish its flavor and attribute." Olla podrida was remarkably adaptable, incorporating individual preferences, seasonal ingredients, and regional differences. Covarrubias sang its praises in a full column in his dictionary, noting that while it provided a common supper, it was also substantial enough to provide the main meal of the day: "It satisfies with meat, and everything else that is added. ... In some houses they prepare olla only at midday, and then for supper they get by with a salad and some fruit." Prepared by those with few resources, its dominant ingredients were likely to be garbanzos or turnips. It could also hold its own as part of a fine banquet: when the Countess of Olivares hosted a dinner for the visiting Cardinal Barberini in 1626, she provided olla podrida alongside chicken, squab, capon, and other roasted meats, and the royal cook Francisco Martínez Montiño included it as part of a suggested menu for a Christmas banquet. Vegetables (most frequently cabbage, leeks, eggplant, and spinach) were generally criticized by Renaissance medical treatises as being too cold and moist to be entirely healthy, but they played a significant role in the diets of ordinary people and were frequently incorporated into soups and stews. A complete meal was rounded out with fruit, nuts, olives, and sheep or goat cheese.

Early modern Spaniards enjoyed strong flavors and combinations of tart and sweet, achieved by combining acidic liquids (most frequently wine, citrus, vinegar, or agraz, the juice of unripe grapes) with sugar or honey. The Benedictine monks of San Martín of Madrid regularly purchased "vinegar and honey for the spinach," and early modern recipe books featured meats and vegetables seasoned with various combinations of sugar, cloves, pepper, saffron, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Such spices were used for flavor as well as for color, an important factor in the visual presentation of meals. Sauces were common, often made with a wine base thickened with blood, almonds, or bread crumbs and sweetened with honey or sugar. Martínez Montiño, head cook to King Philip IV and author of one of the seventeenth century's principal cookbooks, recommended a sauce of quince, onion, black pepper, cinnamon, wine, vinegar, and sugar for all kinds of game birds and rabbits. In a list of popular dishes from 1617, the most common seasoning combination for roast meats was lemon, pepper, and cloves. Sugar (usually mixed with wine or vinegar) appeared among the seasonings for several roast meats and as an ingredient in stuffings and soups. Spaniards quickly developed a taste for the combination of almonds, cinnamon, and sugar, as these ingredients became more widely available after the 1400s. The Benedictine monks of San Martín in the seventeenth century celebrated holidays and the presence of guests with substantial purchases of sugar, almonds, honey, raisins, marmalades, and marzipan, and the Portuguese traveler Pinheiro da Veiga marveled that in Valladolid in 1605 he found over a hundred shops specializing in sweets. Travelers from the rest of Europe often found that Spanish food was rather heavily spiced for their taste. Madame d'Aulnoy in the late seventeenth century complained that Spaniards took excellent fish and made pastries that "would be good, were they not stuffed with Garlick, Saffron and Pepper." The predominance of sugar and imported spices in recipe books and household accounts reflects the taste of those with greater financial means; the rest of the population was more likely to rely on honey and locally available herbs such as thyme, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, fennel, and sage. There were of course other significant variations in what people ate by region, season, and status, a fact that shall be discussed at greater length later, but these were the basic patterns familiar to households across Spain.

The most important element on most early modern European tables was bread. Consider the symbolic weight that it carries in religious and community identity: one "breaks bread" in sharing a meal with family and friends; family and household units are often described in medieval texts as "those who share bread." In the Judeo-Christian tradition, bread as manna represents the generosity of God and, for Christians, becomes the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Bread and wine for the Romans were important symbols of civilization and cultural advancement, and their consumption throughout Europe followed Roman settlement patterns. Early Christian writers cultivated bread as a religious metaphor, as in the case of St. Augustine, who described new Christians as being ground into flour through exorcism, leavened into dough through baptism, and baked in the oven of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the omnipresent stories of saints' lives in late medieval and early modern Europe frequently drew upon the image of spreading Christian faith as planting and harvesting wheat. The religious symbolism of bread was strengthened with the rise of Islam, when bread-eating Christians could contrast themselves with Muslims who consumed grain in other forms. The treatise describing the management of the household of the fifteenth-century Dukes of Burgundy, admired across Europe for its elegance and its cuisine, explained that panetiers and cup-bearers ranked more highly than the cooks in the kitchen hierarchy, because the bread and wine they served were symbolic of the Eucharist.

Bread thus functioned as a metaphor for spiritual as well as material sustenance — and reasonably so, since it was the predominant foodstuff in the early modern diet. Scholars estimate that while the medieval diet may have been relatively varied, there was an increasing shift toward the production of grain, especially in the Mediterranean regions. By the year 1000, bread was the most important dietary component for most of the European population, and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries grain provided up to 70 percent of the daily calories consumed by early modern Europeans. Grain-based soups (such as gachas in Castile and farinetes and ordiates along the Mediterranean coast) were also common, following the influence of the Arabic harisa. Estimates of bread consumption agree that an average adult in Spain could expect to eat close to one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bread each day. Even in difficult years in the seventeenth century, when grain supplies in Mallorca were rationed, authorities still promised a minimum of 810 grams (1.8 pounds) per person per day. Regardless of the season, feast days or fast days, bread and wine provided the foundation of the diet of groups who resided and dined together, such as students and monks, and it was also the central element of offerings to the poor by charitable groups or at funerals. In the larger context, bread (as grain) was also the largest engine of the European economy, both as measured by the value of the domestic grain grade and the proportion of the labor force engaged in agricultural production.

Bread was also a symbol of community, not just out of religious symbolism but in a more practical way, as mills and ovens were communal structures shared by a village or urban neighborhood. Individual households could possess mortars for the grinding of small amounts of softer grains, or hearths that maintained simple cooking fires, but the tasks of milling flour and baking bread required large amounts of energy and were most efficient when shared. The number of mills grew dramatically throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages; they were usually water-driven and required a certain amount of specialized labor and maintenance of the millstones. Mill operators would transport, weigh, and grind the grain and then return the ground flour to its owner, keeping in payment the maquila, a predetermined percentage, as a fee. Communal ovens were similarly specialized: they were large, brick-lined structures, often up to twenty feet wide and fired by wood, to which family members or servants would bring prepared dough to be baked, in return for a set fee or a proportion of the finished product. For those who had no access to grain or for other reasons preferred to buy baked bread, licensed bakers were contracted to provide certain quantities for sale daily in public plazas. In Valencia, there were separate terms for bakers according to whose bread they produced: forners, who baked the dough brought to them in return for a portion in kind, and flequers, who sold for coin the bread they prepared themselves. Municipal regulations in Morón (Andalusia) established that the communal ovens had to be heated by dawn each morning to bake the dough brought by residents or anyone else. If anyone needed to bake after that time, they were to inform the baker, who was obliged to maintain the oven ready until nightfall. Such communal ovens, used by a large percentage of the population, thus became important centers of gathering and communication.

The centrality of bread production also meant that control of these structures was important and potentially profitable. During the course of the Reconquest, mills and ovens in newly conquered areas were appropriated by the crown and redistributed as gifts to key supporters. When licenses were granted for the construction of new ones, these tended to go to members of the local governing council. Whether old or new, privately or publicly owned, they were generally operated on yearly contracts and were subject to close municipal regulation of the price and weight of both the grain and final baked products. City officials recognized the importance to social order of maintaining the bread supply. In the book of aldermen's guidelines for Madrid, the chapter on bread shortages is one of the longest, emphasizing that city officials were responsible for supervising the importation of bread into the city and making sure one alderman stayed in each bakery to make sure the bread was properly and fairly distributed. The guidelines acknowledged that "aldermen face the most work during bread shortages, which are common when it rains or snows too much in the spring, and in the months of April, May and June." Even in times of plenty, city officials were concerned about avoiding fraud in the production and sale of bread.

What was this bread like? Pan in Spanish is today a mass noun, as bread is in English — one eats some bread, not a bread. However, in the early modern period, it was a count noun, and while "a bread" could be as large as five to six kilos (thirteen pounds), pan generally referred to a round, hard loaf of slightly less than a kilogram in weight, while a panecillo or "little bread" was a quarter that size. Even the best-quality bread would have been harder and darker than that to which we are accustomed. Part of its usefulness lay in the fact that it could keep for several days or even weeks, though in noble or court households it was more customary to bake every day, if only for the lord's table. The durability of ordinary bread made it somewhat difficult to manage gracefully at the table. Conduct books and other guidelines for any group that shared communal meals, such as monks and students, all emphasized the importance of cutting off small, manageable pieces of bread and not tearing them off with the teeth. However, its hardness also made it useful as a utensil. Food was often served in communal dishes rather than individual plates, and one's slab of bread could be used essentially as a plate.

Wheat was considered to be the best of the grains, and finely ground white flour was used to prepare bread for those of the most wealth and status. (Wheat flour becomes lighter in color as the germ and bran are sifted out, resulting in a finer and softer but less nutritious bread.) Elites had access to a much greater variety of foodstuffs, especially meat, so that bread probably formed a smaller percentage of their overall diet than it did that of the majority of the population. It was ubiquitous enough to not merit specific mention in most banquet descriptions or festival accounts, but the panter, responsible for the provision and serving of bread, was a key member of any elite kitchen staff. Curiously, this office was also responsible for the provisioning of lettuce, radishes, and peaches, though this may be simply because these were grown along rivers where mills and ovens were situated, and consequently those who regularly purchased flour or bread would have easy access to these products as well. In Madrid, once the court was established there in the sixteenth century, bakers produced what was known as "court bread" made from trigo candeal, a variety of wheat known for its soft, white flour, as well as delicate panecillos de leche, or "milk breads." Both were exclusive enough that bakers were required to register the names of those for whom such breads were made.


Excerpted from At the First Table by Jodi Campbell. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Basic Food Practices and Beliefs,
2. Social Groups and Collective Identity,
3. Status and Change,
4. Vice and Virtue, Body and Soul,

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