Monday, September 6, 2010
Have you ever read a medieval cookbook? They are very much the stuff of oral tradition (no precise quantities like today, just pinches and bits of this and that). They also do things like combine yogurt, marmalade, and mustard. My favorite thing to think on right now in terms of medieval ingredients is the late medieval-early modern concern with what spices from the East would do do the European temperament. Would spices of Arabie loosen the morals of the men who ate them? What of the women who cooked them? You need to have a very microcosmic-macrocosmic view of the world to make that kind of fear work, but the human body's humors had to be kept in balance - and goodness knows what those peppers and spices could do. Interesting to see how these ideas linger. In the end, no matter how many invectives priests wrote in sermons against spices, medieval women loved their saffrons and their cumin. Thursday, we start reading the Alexandreis, and I'll end with these verses that luxuriate in multiple ingredients and their senses. The Alexandreis was written in the 1180s by one Walter (Gautier) of Châtillon - the passage comes as Alexander prepares for war with the Persian king Darius and, in doing so, thinks of all the world he has yet to conquer. The translation is by David Townsend from the 2007 Broadview Editions translation.
Such is the site of Asia: gentle growth
of forest shadows it, where rivers flow.
It glories in its various regions' praise.
The elephants of jewelled India shriek,
that country which sows twice and reaps as often,
The Caucasus arises to the north;
the scent of Paradise blows from the East.
Assyrians, Medes, and Persians hold the land
whose name is Parthia, now, and next to this
Mesopotamia stands, receiver of
the wealth of Babylon and the Chaldean realms.
Then come Arabian lands, made redolent
with incense of Sabaea... [I.473-485]