An excerpt from

Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup,
and Other Gastronomic Interjections

literature, culture, and food among the early moderns

Robert Appelbaum

The Cookbook as Literature

“incipit libellus de arte coquinaria,” the manuscript starts off: “Here begins the little book on the art of cookery.” Its first entry, with a heading in Latin and a recipe in Old Danish, reads as follows:

Quomodo fiet oleum de nucibus.
Man skal takae en dysk mæthe nutæ kyænæ, oc en æggy skalæ full mæth salt, oc latæ them samæn i en heet mortel oc stampæ thæt wæl, oc writhæ gømæn et klæthæ; tha warthær thæt oly.

The modern editor renders it in English thus:

How to make walnut oil.
One should take a dish of walnut kernels and an eggshell full of salt, and place them together in a heated mortar; pound them well and wring through a cloth. Then it becomes oil.

The “little book” may be the oldest surviving manuscript of its kind written in a modern European language, though similar manuscripts show up from about the same time, perhaps only a few years later, in Italy, France, and England. Dating from about 1300, the book is a carefully produced, decorated manuscript bound in codex along with a text on plants (that is, an “herbal”) and a text on the art of stonecutting. Its headings are all in Latin: “De salso ad carnes recentas apto” (About a sauce for fresh meat); “Quomodo conficatur pastellum de medullis cervorum” (How to prepare a pasty of deer marrow); “Item aliud temperatum pullorum” (Another way of preparing chicken). The rest is in idiomatic Danish, though with some borrowings from other European languages. Editors have long suspected that the collection is a translation of an earlier work written in Middle Low German, which itself may have been based on a text of Mediterranean origin; and slightly later versions of the text appear in Icelandic and Low German as well as a second Danish manuscript. It is not a lengthy or elaborate book. In its first extant version, it contains only twenty-five recipes and speaks to only a small repertory of ingredients and procedures. But the text is not unsystematic or lacking in thoroughness. After it explains how to make walnut oil, it goes on to specify the making of almond oil, almond butter, and almond milk. Then it discusses sauces of various kinds, made of basic vehicles like almond milk, vinegar, broth, and honey, to which seasonings like mustard, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, garlic, and ginger are added. Next it gives directions for serving fish with sauces, preparing a pair of custards and a pair of gruels (including a “hwit moos,” which the translator renders as “white mush”), deer marrow pasty, and a number of chicken dishes, where the chicken is either stewed, roasted, or baked. The food is typical of what we know of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century cookery in western Europe, although the dishes are not as complex or heavily spiced and sweet as in other texts of the same kind. An especially interesting dish that appears toward the end is “Chickens Hunter Style” (in Old Danish, honær [chickens] inder iæghæt), perhaps the earliest recorded recipe for a preparation that is still common today in the form of pollo alla cacciatore and poulet au chasseur:

About a dish called Chickens Hunter Style
One should roast a hen and cut it apart; and grind garlic, and add hot broth and lard, and wine and salt and well beaten egg yolks, and livers and gizzards. And the hen should be well boiled in this. It is called “Chickens Hunter Style.”

Though most of us are most familiar with a cacciatore where sautéed chicken parts are finished in a sauce of fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, one also finds southern Italian versions in bianco, made as in the Danish recipe with stock and egg yolks. A quick search of the Internet even shows recipes where the chicken, as here, is roasted rather than sautéed before it is steeped in a liquid.

Recipes were nothing new even in the Middle Ages. But it was one thing to pass recipes along by oral demonstration, as most had been passed on from cook to cook since the beginning of cooking, and another thing to do so by written communication. The written recipe contains an added element of what historians of the book call “fixity.” Reducing an abundance of practical operations and sensory experiences to a minimally adequate set of instructions, it precipitates the culinary experience into linguistic form, codifying its operations and materials and fixing the experience once and for all. It thus forestalls variation, while at the same time allowing for greater precision and complexity. Hot broth and lard and wine and salt and egg yolks, the latter well beaten, all belong to this signature “Hunter Style” preparation, which will thus always be pretty much the same. It is because all of these operations and ingredients are included that this precise dish, named and categorized and in this way enshrined, can be duplicated in a kitchen—can be duplicated, in fact, in a kitchen far away in time and place from the kitchen where the recipe originated. In view of such a process, the contributor to the eighteenth-century Encyclopédie entry on “Cuisine” cites a passage from the comedy Adelphi, by Terence, where a household steward tells one of the kitchen servants, after complaining about dishes that he considered ill-prepared, “Illud recte; iterum fic memento.” (This is done right; remember how to make it again.) So one of the chief impulses behind the recording of recipes is memory. Because in the flow of production and consumption when something is “done right,” one needs to remember how to do it again. And many of the recipes that have survived in manuscript would seem to have originated in just this way. We find them not only in the context of formal cookbooks but also in household accounts and commonplace books, where housewives and household workers both male and female sporadically recorded the how-tos and what-abouts of daily experience. We find them mixed in with instructions for preparing a salve for wounds or hand soap or eye shadow, juxtaposed with lyrics from a song and notations about animals bought and sold. Something in the kitchen was not only done but “done right”; it therefore needed to be remembered because it needed to be done again. Only, the aide-mémoire of a recorded recipe can be directed not only to oneself but to others. “Remember how to make it again” easily becomes an interpellation, “You there [take my advice], this is how to make it.” The “it,” the dish now memorialized, becomes the object of a code that “you” may indefinitely reiterate, from kitchen to kitchen, a code to which you the cook, and cook after cook indeed, are summoned to deploy. Quomodo fiet . . . How to make . . . This is how to make . . . This is how to make it . . . You there . . . For this reason, much is often made of the probable etymology of the “recipe,” until recently more commonly known as a “receipt”—in French “recette,” in Italian “ricetta,” in German “Rezept”—the recipe or receipt being an order received.

Somehow, then, in the midst of a tradition of cookery that was mainly handed down by oral tradition and demonstration, the first extant copy of the Libellus de arte coquinaria was recorded. It was mildly thorough and systematic, supplementing tradition with the fixity of the written word. But it was heterogeneous in character too, and its origins are hard to pin down. The book mixed two languages and included borrowings from still other languages. It also mixed different kinds of ingredients, procedures, tastes, and styles. It has no identifiable author. We cannot even be sure who the scribe was, although he was evidently associated with a monastery.

Culinary philologists producing modern texts of early cookbooks in manuscript are often on the lookout for an original text, in a single language, with a single style of cookery, by the pen of a single author, from which other, compromised, copies derive. This Danish-Latin book would seem to be a case of this: a mixed-up and “corrupted” text that would seem to derive from a more singular-minded source, with a more singular vision of cookery, which is unfortunately lost to the predation of time. But philologists may perhaps do well to consult Foucault’s famous challenge to the idea of absolute textual “origins.” Apart from the empirical pursuit, which sometimes finds an earliest text from which other texts may be conjectured to stem and more often does not, a theoretical premise underlies the hunt for textual origins that culinary philologists may do well to jettison. It is assumed that a fully self-present moment of origination, a pure expression of unmixed and unprecedented intentions, usually lost to time, lies at the core of most any early modern cookery book. Yet such an origin may well be not only difficult to find—given the difficulty of recovering manuscript material from six, seven, or eight centuries ago—but inherently mythic, a researcher’s fantasy. Even the individual recipe may lack an “original.” What masterly incipit can be found for chickens hunter style, say? When did the “livers and gizzards” get added to the pot? What about the egg yolks? When precisely did a roasted chicken steeped in liquid of a certain kind, with certain additives like livers and egg yolks but not certain other available additives (like onions or saffron), become “hunter style”? One will never find out in many cases, not only because the traces of origin have been lost to legend, but because the recipes themselves often function less as inventions sprung from the mind of a creator than as momentary codifications of sensual experience that afterward take on the appearance of original inventions. Although individual writers and compilers certainly play a role in recording recipe collections, what is first of all in question is less an invention newly strung from the pen of a master cook than an impersonal engagement in the process of a writing of a certain kind—something Jacques Derrida calls the function of the “scriptor”—though which a variety of codes referring to the production of individual dishes are assembled. To this assemblage and the engagement in writing it involves, a Foucauldian author function is often added, either after the fact or as part of the scribal enterprise. The most famous of these named functions is one Taillevent or Guillaume Tirel, assigned “author” of Le viandier, a manuscript (or series of manuscripts; there is no original) of the Middle Ages, that when printed went on to become the most prominent and best-selling cookbook of the Renaissance in France. Taillevent became the legendary “Name of the Text,” although “he” was certainly not its creator, since some manuscripts predate the birth of the famous chef; if he was involved in the manuscript, it was only as its most prominent compiler.

Thus, again: though we may find an author function in some of the early collections and individuals at work in compiling them, we seldom find an actual author. The collection is a site where diverse impulses from diverse sources have been assembled; it does not spring full-blown from the mind of a single-minded author, to whom a name and a biography may be assigned. The multilingual, multifarious nature of a text like the Libellus de arte coquinaria is a sign of that. Latin vies with Danish. Terms adopted from French, Italian, and German vie with the Danish. A dish of meat baked in dough—not unlike our Hamlet’s “funeral baked meat”—is in one case a Romance-language pastel shaped like a cake and in another case a Scando-Germanic koken formed like a pie. Soon the whole guide gets absorbed into an Icelandic variant, where a pastel, a pastil, and a koken sit side by side. By the same token, ingredient vies with ingredient in such a text. After the walnut oil come the products made from almonds, which are then incorporated into several composed dishes. But almonds do not naturally grow in Denmark. Walnuts do.

Recipes migrate; collections migrate. An account book from fourteenth-century Florence includes the names of dishes served whose first known recorded recipes stem from contemporary Venice and the Mezzogiorno. A dish of mixed meats made in a single pot, given by the Burgundian “Taillevent” in 1300 as a “hutpot” and by an Anglo-Norman writer as an “hochepot” (in both cases, meaning “stir pot,” from the verb hocher), appears in Netherlandish villages as a “hutspot.” Eventually it becomes known in the Low Countries as a national dish, even while in fashionable London households it is promoted as an exotic, complex preparation, giving rise to the word “hodgepodge,” for a mixed stew of things. At some point it emerges as a humble Lancastrian casserole with potatoes known as a “hotpot”—which often goes unstirred. So recipes are always on the move. And as recipes migrate, so do texts like the Libellus. They move from writer to reader, from study to study, from kitchen to kitchen, and on to new writers and new readers (and cooks and kitchens), changing with every known copying or reinscribing, crossing national and linguistic boundaries, and eventually, despite the conservative effect of “fixity,” varying and evolving.

None of this is to say that the medieval cookbook is without intentionality. According to Bruno Laurioux, to whom almost everything I have to say here is greatly indebted, the sudden appearance of a number of cookbooks like the Libellus in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century (nothing in Europe appears before then in a vernacular, going back to the fall of the Roman Empire) bespeaks a change in the relation of cooks to both their craft and their patrons. Clearly, professional cooks were mainly responsible for the inception of the manuscripts, cooks who were now, after centuries of oblivion, accorded a more prestigious role in princely households, and who accordingly imagined their craft in more exalted terms. Recruited from the ranks of learned men, raised in social status, and charged with overseeing larger and larger staffs, whose members need to be directed by more and more precise instructions, the cooks were readers and writers. They wrote things down; they read what others had written down. They copied some things; they invented or improvised some others. And on occasion by their labors a document in the form of a coherent, comprehensive text took shape. Although it is not always the case in medieval manuscripts, the various editions of the Libellus, Le viandier, and some others of the period articulated an orderly and general view of the culture of the kitchen, from rudimentary preparations (oils, condiments, and sauces) to complex variations of major dishes.

By the end of the earliest extant version of the Libellus, the reader has participated more or less systematically in a repertoire of tastes and textures and the means for producing and combining them. The available ingredients and protocols are of course finite. No iguana or jellyfish appears; nor does galingale, pimento, or soya, nor even, in this Danish text, rice. (Hence, unexpectedly, it contains no recipe for the famous “blancmanger,” the blend of rice and minced chicken so prominent in other medieval cookbooks.) If roasting, stewing, and baking are the usual operations, there is no frying, sautéing, fricasseeing, or smoking. But the ingredients and protocols included, which of course have their source in traditional practices—in the foodstuffs and technologies that had been adopted by this time in the northern European kitchen—are not only finite: they are made, in the context of the cookery reproduced, to work together, for the sake of producing a coherent set of varieties and variations. This coherence is what the attentive reader is meant to walk away with.

The recipes for chickens hunter style and related dishes provide an example of how the system works. The collection includes eight chicken dishes in all. There are three boiled chicken dishes: one very simply boiled with bacon; another boiled with spices—pepper, cinnamon, and saffron, to which are added bread for thickening, livers for a garnish, lard, vinegar, and salt; and a third also boiled with bacon, as well as sage, vinegar, and salt. There is a dish of boiled dumplings made with diced chicken meat, binders, and seasonings including cumin and wine. There is the chickens hunter style, another boiled dish, later thickened and garnished with innards, where the chicken is first roasted and then cooked in broth as well as other liquids, and garlic is added. There is a dish somewhat related to this in which chicken pieces are served heated in a sauce made of chopped hard-boiled eggs and vinegar, thickened with egg yolks, and seasoned with pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, and salt. Then there are the two baked meats, the pastel or pasty, and the koken or pie, neither of which uses minced chicken but rather chicken parts. The pastel is made of a hen cut in two, covered with sage leaves, and seasoned with bacon and salt. The koken is made of “pieces” mixed with bacon, pepper, cumin, saffron, and egg yolks.

From all this, one can not only compile an inventory of goods, but also distinguish a common pattern of selection, combination, and variation. The chickens hunter style, it is apparent, is not only something unique, of mysterious origin, and of a winning quality that would make for its centuries-long popularity; it is also a variation culled from a standard repertoire of ingredients and techniques. A seething liquid of broth, wine, lard, and salt—this is little different from any of the other boiled dishes, except for the use of broth rather than water, the absence of vinegar (though a vinegar-like role is played by the wine), and the addition of garlic (which appears elsewhere in the text, in a fish sauce). A garnish of livers is also standard. Egg yolks used as thickening agents are ubiquitous. So this unique signature dish is really in the first place an expression of a grammar and lexicon of cookery that animates the whole; and what is really remarkable, if one admires the dish, is how out of such common materials and procedures so distinct a variation of it could be created.

The Libellus is not only brief but rudimentary. For all the attention paid to almonds, for example, it says little about what to do with almond products. For all the attention paid to chicken, it says little about other forms of flesh, although it mentions venison, pork, and several kinds of fish along the way. By contrast, the Le viandier has close to two hundred recipes, including thirty recipes for roasted meats alone, from wild boar to stork, and some of them are far more complicated than anything imagined in the Libellus. The Le viandier will add more spices, like grain of paradise and long pepper, and add touches like gilding roasted meats with egg yolks before serving, fixing their crusts and causing them to glow attractively as they come to the table (modern uses of this are said to be doré). The contemporary Middle English Forme of Curye likewise includes about two hundred dishes, many with complex instructions and more exotic spices. But the Libellus provides us with a glimpse of the literary dimension of late medieval cookery, and it bears witness to something even more important for our purposes: it goes to show how remarkable an achievement the cookbook is.

As early as 1300, without any extant precedent, a text appears in multiple editions in several different nations, attesting to a form of cookery that is at once local and international. It is neither a guide for novices nor a book for the masses. Like most early books of cookery, it usually omits to specify exact quantities of ingredients and cooking times, or to explain cooking techniques. The book assumes a certain level of experience and competence on the part of its cooks, as well as the availability of a certain repertoire of supplies and cooking apparatuses. But the book is in the main concrete and specific in its suggestions: there is little doubt, even to a reader of some seven hundred years later, as to how these dishes were made and what they tasted like. Yet again, the book could have been of little direct use for the great majority of kitchen workers, who in 1300 would certainly have been illiterate. Nor, given the rarity and expense of books before printing, would the book have been available to many households. However rudimentary it may often be, a book like the Libellus is a work bespeaking privileges: the privileges of power, of master chefs and stewards over apprentices and laborers, of cosmopolitan patrons (who seek literate and cosmopolitan chefs) over locally minded, parochial ones, and of men over women. (It would be another two centuries before we find recipe collections that take the traditional control of the kitchen by women into account, and a third century before a cookbook written by a woman would be published.) Yet this advanced, elitist, and masculinist oeuvre is all the same a sweet science. It opens a window onto a system for adding taste, texture, and variety to the diet. It appeals to the appetite, to the pleasures of the table and of the community of the shared dish. It adds value to the meal and the necessities, biological and social, that the meal is designed to serve. Indeed, it adds meaning to the meal. The dishes have names. They have provenance. They have status. They come to the table not only as an item for consumption, catering to hunger, but as a distinctive product of craftsmanship or art. They may serve not only to gratify the appetite but to instill a sense of pride in what is being served, whether in the kitchen workers who produced them, the diners invited to the table, or the head of household presiding over the meal, all of whom may well invest a good deal of ego in the food they are involved with. The dishes, to put it another way, are tokens of a civility that has been encoded and encouraged by labors of learning. Situated in the midst of a practical culture where a certain range of products are available for use, where cooks will be brought up in the kitchen and understand basic operations, but where a certain presumably sophisticated form of cookery, with a certain range of dishes, textures, and tastes, needs to be transmitted and repeated, the early cookbook succeeds in providing the text, at once cogent, useful, and orderly, of a portable culinary ethic appealing to pride and disseminating civility.

Other texts would follow. The explosion of cookery manuscript circulation in the fourteenth century in Italy, France, Germany, and England is such that in 1997 Laurioux was able to identify 139 extant texts before the advent of print, many of them duplicates or fragments, to be sure, but all the same an impressive total. And toward the end of the century, printed recipe collections begin to appear: in Italy the already discussed De honesta voluptate et valetudine of Bartolomeo Platina (ca. 1470), De re coquinaria of “Apicius” (1498), and Giovanni de Rosselli’s Epulario (1516); in Germany Küchenmeisterei (1485), a frequently reprinted book adopted from a manuscript; in France Taillevent’s Le viandier (1486), based on one of the manuscripts, an edition that would be “reprinted twenty-three times between 1486 and 1615 by thirteen different publishers”; and in England This Is the Boke of Cokery (1500) and the Boke of Kervynge (1508), both of them also transcribed from manuscript material. Later in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Italy and England would see the publication of the first books of cookery designed originally for print—including in Italy the courtly Banchetti of Cristoforo di Messisbugo (1549) and the landmark Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), and in England a number of more modest efforts specifically addressed to housewives, including the three books consulted in chapter 1, The Treasurie of Commodious Conceits, and Hidden Secrets; or, The Good Huswives Closet of Healthful Provision (1573), The Good Huswifes Jewell (1587), and The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (1594). Then, in the middle of the seventeenth century, the huge third wave of cookbooks would appear in England, France, and elsewhere, Pierre de La Varenne’s Le cuisinier françois (1651) leading the way on to works as diverse as Robert May’s magisterial The Accomplisht Cook (1660), the anonymous L’escole parfaite des officiers de bouche (1662), Hannah Woolley’s The Cook’s Guide (1664), the posthumous The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened (1669), and the notorious (because of its preface) L’art de bien traiter by an otherwise unidentified L.S.R. (1674).

Obviously, early modern recipe collections are akin to the writings on the diet discussed in the previous chapter. They represent another intervention in eating and drinking at the hands of the written word. Here, too, writers and compilers are concerned with encouraging a system of practices, over which the prestigious prescriptions of the book will preside. But if the regimens of health proceeded from authority and for many centuries formed a single, if supple and variable discourse, writings on cookery followed a more uneven course of development, evolving in fits and starts, by way of a mix of experiences, traditions, and innovations, and being transmitted across uneven lines of dissemination. For its own period, the Libellus was something of a rarity: a text found whole (though each version varies from the other) in three different manuscripts. In other books, recipes are often interpolated with other textual material—the most famous case of this in the Middle Ages being the so-called Menagier de Paris (ca. 1394), an inclusive guide to practical life presumably written by an aging burgher to his fifteen-year-old wife, which, side by side with advice on the care of stables and admonitions to be gentle in all things, includes a long section of cookery, with dishes mainly culled from a version of the Le viandier. In some instances the most significant and influential visions of cookery are seen to come from texts that do not quite fit with the “book of cookery” tradition, but belong to a mixed form of discourse: general guides to practical life, directions for household management and regimens of health. The conquest of the “book of cookery” as a literary form (the word “cookbook” is a recent American neologism) may be said at least in England and France to find definitive form only in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Yet meanwhile, as recipe collections multiply from 1470 on, mixed forms continue to play a major role in the discourse of cookery, and something else begins to happen as well. The book of the art of cookery enters into the general literary life of European culture; it enters into European consciousness, or to put it another way, into the European life of the mind.


The results can be surprising, as when a book in the very form of a recipe collection, mostly expressed with a straight face, reciting real and worthy recipes, appears in 1664 as an anti-Cromwellian satire, or when Thomas Tryon provides his recipes for such “noble” dishes as boiled turnips by way of directing people into a life of ethical vegetarianism. Even when not particularly surprising, as it enters into print and comes to cater more and more self-consciously to the needs of a reading public, the recipe collection becomes the vehicle, as I have elsewhere discussed it, of a highly literate rhetoric and even a systematic epistemology. That is, it adopts, in the first place, a language of persuasion and, in the second place, a language for organizing knowledge. It sways readers both to act in a certain way and to value the act in a certain way. It informs the reader about a variety of substances and methods, and it organizes the system by which the reader may come to recognize, categorize, and comprehend substance and methods. The grammar and the lexicon of the cookbook, the system through which the cookbook communicates an art that is at once exactly reproducible and subject to innovation, is based on a systematic methodology for identifying, classifying, and generating meaning out of the items and procedures of a foodway. So there is much going on in the recipe collection in view of its literary functions. In the seventeenth century, recipe collections were so common that still another aspect of literary life became an important part of the recipe collections: authors (often insisting on their rights as authors and not just as what we call author functions, and rooting their works in autobiography) were aware that they were competing with one another for prestige and sales. They therefore redoubled their efforts to appeal to the reader, finding more elaborate bases for establishing authorial distinction, for targeting and shaping potential readerships, and for justifying the place that their books assume in the conduct of culture as a whole.

In Italy, because of conditions of literacy and publishing, the process of entering the cookbook into the life of the mind began immediately. The first printed book of recipe collections is in fact the hybrid De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Bartolomeo Platina, a text that has previously been touched on in view of its medical implications. At once a regimen of health and a recipe collection, De honesta is based in part on a compendium of classical learning relating to the diet and in part on a modern cookery manuscript: the mid-fifteenth-century Libro de arte coquinaria of Maestro Martino, also known as Martino of Rossi and Martino of Como. Platina claims Martino as a friend and inspiration, and Platina may have had a hand in transcribing parts of one of the Martino manuscripts we have. The second half of De honesta is basically a compilation of recipes from Martino with added editorial comment. Since the first half of the book, the regimen of health, is far more original, and because the Martino recipes are now available in several modern editions, critics have been inclined to emphasize the regimen material. But what is really intriguing about De honesta is its yoking of the two things together.

Martino’s Libro is important in its own right. Though it adopts a number of its recipes from earlier texts and editions, it is a work of great authority, originality, and thoroughness. In the longest extant copy, not quite identical with the copy Platina must have used but similar enough, it is divided into six chapters and contains over 260 recipes, some simple, some complex, marking a transitional stage between medieval and Renaissance cookery. The text in every version caters to a recognizably Italian palate, although many touches common to all elite food on the Continent—like seasonings of sugar and saffron—are found as well. One can turn to this text to learn how to make local versions of blancmanger, a large variety of relatively light soups, sauces, torte (pies, pasties, and the like), fried dishes (frittelle), fish, and meats, and a good variety of pasta dishes: a macharoni romaneschi and a macharoni siciliani, to give two examples. But for our purposes, what may be most significant about Martino’s Libro is its systematic organization of the art of cookery. It is not only encyclopedic, dividing its material by foodstuffs, the first chapter being devoted to meats, the second to soups and pastas, the third to sauces and condiments, the fourth to torte, the fifth to the frittelle, the sixth to fish; it is also magisterial. The variety of dishes is stunning. The text bespeaks a command over the world of foodstuffs and cookery that rhetorically approximates to a command over the world itself. The text begins, as if in imitation of Genesis, with a separation of kinds and a set of commandments that control the conditions for cooking meat depending on their kinds: “Beef and cow’s meat ought to be boiled, and breast of veal also, but the back . . . requires roasting. You will reduce their hams to small pieces. You will boil a whole sheep with no harm, and good roasting can be done with legs and hams. . . .”—and so on, on to pork, kid, goat, deer, and eventually birds, who are divided between water- and land-based fowl. (A similar separation of the kinds opens the English Boke of Cokery.) Such virtuosity pervades the whole of the text. The recipes are individually masterly. Though the dishes are often elaborate (for example, a gourd pie [torta di zuche] made with pastry shell and pastry leaves, gourds, milk, cheese, sowbelly, butter, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, eggs, and rosewater), the instructions are precise and easy to follow. They take the unusual step for the time of including precise quantities. These recipes would be repeated in other texts. Most notably, they form the basis of Giovanni de Rosselli’s Epulario, or to give one of its long titles, Opera noua chiamata Epulario: La quale tracta il modo de cucinare ogni carne, ucelli, pesci, de ognisorte, et fare sapori, torte, pastelli, al modo de tutte le prouincie, et molte altre gentilezze, a text that would be the most popular cookbook in Italy for a hundred years and that would find some success in French and English translations as well.

For Platina to take such a text and combine it with a regimen of health may in retrospect look like a muddling of categories, which the passing of time would eventually straighten out. But Platina himself is aware of combining two forms of discourse, and indeed of needing to do so. In part that is because he is concerned with the dietary care of the self, and in quattrocento intellectual circles a preoccupation with such mundane matters as fixing dinner was not therefore out of the question. “As much care as runners habitually take care of their legs, athletes of their arms, musicians of their voice, even so it behooves literary scholars to have at least as much concern for their brain and heart, their liver and stomach,” writes the contemporary Marsilio Ficino. Such a care of the self, as we have seen, is meant not only to keep the mind and body well, by chasing away melancholy and other “obstructions” to health, but to exalt them to a higher plane of existence. The gold-colored condiments Ficino wants the scholar to have added to his dishes are meant to bring the scholar to a goldlike, sunlike, and therefore godlike state of the self. But in combining the discourse of diet with the discourse of cookery, Platina does a couple of other things as well. He endeavors to open up a space where the pleasures of the table can be conjoined with the pleasure of health, to the end that both can be accepted by the culture of the church, which for all the splendor of the papacy was still the living heir to the doctrines of contempt for the flesh and the practices of asceticism that codified it. In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, Platina tries to bring the value of a healthy pleasure into the management of everyday life, even among, or especially among, the cultural elite of fifteenth-century Italy. To take pleasure seriously is not, for Platina, merely to articulate the principles of making health and pleasure into a material practice—it is wisely to plunge into the material practice itself.

The space of “right pleasure” is articulated cautiously, and not without inconsistency. “Far be it from Platina to write to the holiest of men,” Platina writes in the dedication to his patron, Cardinal Baptista Roverella, “about the pleasure which the intemperate and libidinous derive from self-indulgence and a variety of foods and from the titillations of sexual interests. I speak about that pleasure which derives from continence in food and those things which human nature seeks.” The idea is far from original to Platina; it is classical, directly related to the classical regimens of health as well as to the classical discourses of morality. Self-indulgence is bad; temperance is good. Self-indulgence entails a pursuit of “variety” for the sake of piling on the pleasures; and such indulgence in food is tied, by way of a persistent metonymy, to indulgence in sex. But if there is a wrong pleasure, there is also an “honest” one, a “right pleasure” as the early modern English would put it. Platina lists a number of authorities on right pleasure, among whom Cicero takes pride of place. He defends his enterprise by appealing again and again to health and even favorably compares the enterprise he is engaged in with traditional enterprises of military valor: “just as in the past he who saved a citizen in battle seemed to deserve civic honors, he seems to deserve more [than a soldier] who would save many citizens by asserting a rational plan for food.” It is as if Platina was arguing for a healthy way of living that would both pay respect to such needs of the body as a wrong-headed asceticism would neglect and forestall such dangerous excesses as a less rational plan for food could license. In language that seems to stem more from Roman satirists than from direct observation, although it is presented as if from the latter, Platina goes on to say that if people were to follow his example, “we would not see today so many so-called cooks in the city, so many gluttons, so many dandies, so many parasites, so many most diligent cultivators of hidden lusts and recruiting officers for gluttony and greed.”

“Right pleasure”—a term of art that would be important in debates about food up to the nineteenth century—would seem then, no less than the eucrasia sought after by classical medicine, to entail a militant defense against extremes. But that is not quite how the rest of De honesta actually reads. The regimen half of the book expresses a copious, gratifying system of consumption. The cookery section, based on Martino, is given an erudite gloss, which sometimes seems to try to rein in the pleasure of cookery; but what the text mainly expresses is a love of fine food and the systematic cuisine, Martino’s, that epitomizes it: a cuisine that strives after splendor. “One should have a trained cook with skill and long experience,” Platina writes in an early part of the regimen, a cook “patient with his work and wanting especially to be praised for it.” Discernment, cleanliness, and understanding are all desirable qualities. If possible, “he should be completely like the man from New Como [Martino], the prince of cooks of our age, from whom I have learned the art of cooking food.” As for including the section on cookery that begins with book 6, Platina asserts, “Although the nature and force of those foods which humans customarily eat has been explained, I would seem really to have done nothing thus far if I were not to offer a plan, in order, which cooks and chefs use for preparing foods, for the cooking of all dishes is not the same, nor is their seasoning the same nor their cooking in the same time.” No: the cook whom Platina takes as his model aims not only for complexity, variety (in spite of Platina’s protestations against “variety”), inventiveness and depth, but for what in painting is known as “finish.” Here is a recipe for a porridge made with hemp seeds, as transcribed in a slightly abridged form by Platina:

Make a hemp dish for twelve guests this way: cook a pound of well-washed hemp until it splits open. When it is cooked, add a pound of almonds. When it has been pounded with bread crumbs in a mortar, moisten it with lean stock, and stir it into a pot through a sieve. Then, when it has been placed on the hearth, stir frequently with a spoon. When it is almost cooked, put in a half pound of sugar, a half ounce of ginger, and a little saffron with rose water. When it is cooked and apportioned on serving dishes, sprinkle with rather sweet spices.

A humble porridge from a lowly grain—derived from what Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari call the “food of the poor”—is here elevated to a complex concoction with the addition of luxury items like almonds and “lean stock” (the Martino manuscript specifies that this can be either of lean meat or lean chicken), along with specifications about cooking times and such refinements as stirring the whole of the pounded cooked porridge meal through a sieve, in preparation for a second round of cooking, and such lordly spices as sugar (used in large quantity), ginger, and saffron. And then it is “finished”: placed on serving dishes and sprinkled with “sweet spices.” In the same spirit, Martino cooks his fresh-made “macharoni romaneschi” in a “rich broth”—a brodo grasso—and finishes it “in a pan with cheese, butter, sugar, and spices.”

It was a hallmark of all late medieval and Renaissance cookery that, aside from rarities like venison and game birds, common ingredients and combinations from the “food of the poor” like hemp seed were elevated into striking culinary artifacts. The impulse is the same as we saw in the case of baked meats—chickens or lamb joints baked whole in a pie. The triumph of culture over nature, the defeat of natural processes by way of the enchantments of art, as I called it in chapter 1—this deep meaning, which gets attached in the civilized and luxurious world of western Europe to its chicken and veal no less than to its grand palaces and cities—finds expression both in the foundations of cookery, hemp seed mixed with almonds, wheat dough rolled into macaroni, and in its finishing touches: “cheese, butter, sugar, and spices.” No question, as many writers have emphasized, the appearance of food was important to the great households of early modernity: devices such as gilding roasts and baked goods with egg yolks just before serving, or of adding saffron and its rich goldlike color to almost any dish that will take it, devices that Martino is every bit of fond of as the cooks of Le viandier—these are methods for making food impressively glow as it comes into the dining hall and onto the table. But adding “sweet spices” or “cheese, butter, sugar, and spice” at the very end—this is at once to layer flavors, in the interest of complexity, and to take care for the savor of ingredients as they are brought to the table. Sprinkled atop an already complete dish, the cheese, the butter, or the spices burst with fresh odors that ascend immediately to the nose, inviting the diner to enter into a deeper polyvalent relation with the food.

This kind of cookery has two lives. In one, partly by way of Epulario, which plagiarizes Martino’s work, it becomes a part of Italian culinary tradition, the dominant text of cookery in Italy until the second half of the sixteenth century. In the other, it becomes a part of learned culture. Platina’s book would have many readers. And even the recipe section of the text keeps bringing the reader back to conventions of learning. At the end of the recipe for gourd pie, Platina adds: “Let Cassius [apparently, the code name of one of Platina’s humanist friends] not eat this because he suffers from colic and the stone. It is likewise difficult to digest and nourishes badly.” At the end of the recipe for a hemp dish, he adds, “I think this is very similar to baricicoli of the people of Siena, for an extraordinary dish has been made from many ordinary things, but it is also difficult to digest and creates squeamishness and pain.” It is as if, having enticed his readers into gourmandism, Platina wants to end by playing the spoilsport. Indeed, the book concludes with a section “On settling troubles,” drawn chiefly from Cicero, admonishing his reader to practice moderation in all things.

But Platina’s most interesting editorial content comes at the end of his recipe for blancmanger, the rice and chicken dish, to which Platina has added decorative refinements, such as serving half of it white and half of it colored with egg yolk and saffron. Platina then explains:

I have always preferred this to the Apician condiments, nor is there any reason why the tastes of our ancestors should be preferred to our own, for even if we are surpassed by them in nearly all arts, nevertheless in taste alone we are not vanquished, for in the whole world there is no incentive to taste which has not been brought down, as it were, to the modern cooking school, where there is the keenest of discussion about the cooking of all foods. What a cook, oh immortal gods, you bestowed in my friend Martino of Como, from whom I have received, in great part, the things of which I am writing. You would say he is another Carneades if you were to hear him eloquently speaking ex tempore about the matters described above.

The “Apician condiments” to which Platina refers would be the concoctions of Apicius, presumed author of the Latin De re coquinaria. Manuscripts of De re coquinaria, based on either of two ninth-century manuscripts based on fourth-century material and lately brought to Italy, were circulating in Platina’s Rome in the mid-sixteenth century. It is not clear that Platina actually saw or read a copy. His allusions to it are vague. One recipe that seems directly to stem from Apicius, “Lucanian Sausage,” has nothing to do with the Lucanicae featured in the Roman text, except for the fact that it, too, is a sausage. Martino, for his part, says nothing about the Roman “Lucania” in the Italian text; he simply calls the dish salsicce, sausages. Platina possibly only knew of Apicius and the prestige attached to his name by hearsay; at best, if he saw the manuscript, he did not take the time to study it carefully. But perhaps Martino was familiar with the Roman cookbook: his impulse to devise a systematic guide to cookery may have been inspired by the model of De re coquinaria, for that text is systematic and magisterial too, divided into ten chapters, each devoted to a different group of foodstuffs, from wines and sauces to fish, and conveying a mastery of a great number of ingredients and forms of preparation.

In any case, manuscripts of De re coquinaria certainly circulated in quattrocento Italy and were discussed in humanist circles, and in 1498, in two separate editions—one from Venice, one from Milan—the ancient cookbook was reproduced in print, making it only the second book of cookery published in Italy, after Platina’s hybrid text. But the effect was literary rather than culinary. Although a historical interest in antiquity, including its mundane customs, only grew with the centuries, there is no record of anyone in Renaissance Italy actually trying to serve an ancient Roman dinner. In all likelihood, some tried. But as Platina indicates, whatever poets or painters did in their relation to antiquity and the rinascimento of learning, cooks had little use for Roman precedents.

In some respects, that may have been a shame. The Lucanian sausage that Platina alludes to is rendered by Apicius as follows:

Pound pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, mixed herbs, laurel-berries, and liquamen, and mix with this well-beaten meat, pounding it again with the ground spice mixture. Work in liquamen, peppercorns, plenty of fat and pine-kernels, insert into a sausage-skin, drawn out very thin, and hang in the smoke.

This is far more interesting than Martino/Platina’s salsicce. Martino doesn’t know how to add texture and brightly contrasting tastes to a sausage as Apicius does with his laurel berries and pine nuts; nor does he avail himself of fresh herbs. The cuisine that unfolds in De re coquinaria speaks for a cuisine that is perhaps more copious in the range of ingredients and combinations of tastes it procures than anything the medieval kitchen could produce. Apician cookery is the product of an empire with vast material resources and far-flown commodity exchanges—oil from Greece, wine from Crete, spices from Egypt, seafood from the Iberian Atlantic as well from the whole of the Mediterranean, livestock from Gaul, fruits and nuts from northern Africa, grains from everywhere, not to mention good supplies of fresh produce from local providers—and it provisions an elite with as complex and varied and wide a palate as it can contrive for it, without exceeding the limits beyond which lie incoherence. The results—fermented fish sauces and currylike stocks for braising, stewing, and seasoning (garum and liquamen), helpings of olives, figs, ground herbs, spices, honey, oils, and breads, served up with main dishes like stuffed, steamed mullet, stewed peas “Vitellius,” and oven-roasted dormice, served with honey and poppy seeds—were capable of being corrupted into the coarse luxury that Petronius’s Satyricon satirizes in its chapter “Dinner with Trimalchio.” And even the modern reader may on occasion feel that the recipes go too far, that they challenge the palate rather than pleasing it. But no less than the rudimentary Libellus or Martino’s masterly Libro de arte coquinaria, De re coquinaria of Apicius re-creates a culinary world that, however far-flung, expresses a unified vocabulary and syntax. Apicius has a way of making things.

Consider as a last example the dish in Apicius that comes closest to chickens hunter style. Apicus calls his dish “chicken Ç la Varius”—“pullus Varianus”—possibly referring to the emperor Varius Heliogabalus.

CHICKEN Á LA VARIUS. Cook the chicken in the following liquor: Liquamen, oil, wine, to which you add a bouquet of leek, coriander, savory. When it is done pound pepper, pine-kernels, pour on two cyathi [1/6 pint] of liquamen and some of the cooking-liquor from which you have removed the bouquet. Blend with milk and pour the contents of the mortar over the chicken. Bring to the boil. Pour in beaten egg-white to bind. Put the chicken on a serving-dish and pour the sauce over. This is known as white sauce.

Not quite a double-cooked chicken, and far more richly seasoned than any familiar chickens hunter style, the dish nevertheless follows the same principles. A chicken will be steeped in a seasoned liquid, and this liquid, to which binding and flavorings are added toward the end, will then serve as a thickened sauce to be poured over the chicken upon serving. The chief differences are three: (1) the liquid is a combination of oil and wine—Apician cuisine features a heavy hand with both ingredients, possibly as a sign of luxury; (2) the seasonings feature a number of herbal aromatics as well as members of the onion family, combined with texture-adding ingredients (pine nuts, here, although the use of almonds in late medieval food is not entirely different); (3) one of the flavor bases is a liquamen, a salty fermented fish sauce condiment similar to the fish sauces of contemporary southeast Asia, which is all but ubiquitous in Apician cookery.

Challenging or not, what is most striking about De re coquinaria in the current context is that it existed and persisted primarily as a literary phenomenon. If it was seldom if ever used for cooking, fine Latin editions were nonetheless published over the next few centuries in places as far off as Antwerp, Basel, Lyon, Leipzig, Zurich, and London. The idea of Apician cookery became a part of erudite society. And this idea included several notions that would be important both for the history of cookery and for the history of literature. First of all and above all, though the word itself would not appear in this sense for quite some time (early moderns rather doing with such words as “manners” and “habits”), the text of Apician cookery presents Roman food as a vehicle of culture and civility. We will see other examples of this later, as when English colonists in Virginia would confront the food habits of the Powhatan Indians. But here, already, an erudite class is alert to the idea that a people remote in either time or place would have its own culinary culture, and that this culture amounts to a kind of edifice of production and consumption. The kitchen and the dining room were known to be structures, in other words, of aesthetic community. But secondly, Apician texts celebrate the notion that cookery itself is an art form of some distinction, and that to master this art would require a high level of expertise and learning, a mastery akin as much to the fine arts as the handicrafts of artisans. And as such, civilized cookery is a literate discipline.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 66-84 of Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food Among the Early Moderns by Robert Appelbaum, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Robert Appelbaum
Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food Among the Early Moderns
©2006, 376 pages, 21 halftones
Cloth $32.50 ISBN: 0-226-02126-2

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