By Ben Breen
As the official portraitist for the Spanish monarchy at the height of its glory, Diego Velázquez painted queens, emperors, and gods. But one of his most famous paintings is a window into a much humbler world. A woman is frying eggs in hot oil, ready to scoop them out with a simple wooden spoon. Behind her, a servant boy carries a half-full jug of wine and a melon tied up in a loop of twine.
This painting is the type of thing historians love. A profoundly talented artist with a knack for realism, choosing the type of subject matter that is so normal that it rarely gets preserved (the same is true today—how many contemporary painters choose to depict taquerias or bagel shops?) Scholars suspect that Velazquez’s own family members may have served as models in his early paintings. It’s possible that the woman in this painting numbered among them, since she also appears in a religious painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, that he produced in the same year.
But this post is not about Velazquez. It’s not even about art history. It’s about food.
What can we learn about how people ate in the seventeenth century? And even if we can piece together historical recipes, can we ever really know what their food tasted like?
This might seem like a relatively unimportant question. For one thing, the senses of other people are always going to be, at some level, unknowable, because they are so deeply subjective. Not only can I not know what Velázquez’s fried eggs tasted like three hundred years ago, I arguably can’t know what my neighbor’s taste like. And why does the question matter, anyway? A very clear case can be made for the importance of the history of medicine and disease, or the histories of slavery, global commerce, warfare, and social change.
One example, chosen at random: the Mexican chili peppers hiding in the bottom edges of both paintings.
The pepper family (genus Capsicum) is native to the Americas, and it was still a relatively new arrival in the cuisines of Asia, Africa, and Europe when Velazquez was alive. As a non-elite person born in 1599, we can guess that his grandparents would not have been familiar with the taste of peppers and that his parents still thought of them as an exotic plant from across the seas. Even the name he, and we, apply to the plant was a foreign import: the word ‘chili’ is from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. So is ‘avocado’ (Nahuatl ahuacatl), ‘tomato’ (tomatl) and chocolate (chocolatl).
The taste for these foods was a significant factor in the series of global ecological movements between the Old and New Worlds that historians call the Columbian Exchange. Any time we eat kimchi, or kung pao chicken, or pasta with red sauce, we are eating foods that are direct results of the Columbian Exchange.
But we’re also eating modern foods. That’s not to say that there aren’t older correlates to these dishes—there undoubtedly are. But food has changed since the early modern period. Globalization of food crops has transformed the flavors of regional cuisines. Meanwhile, factory farming has led to a homogenization of some of the varietals available to us, while also creating a huge variety of new strains and hybrids.
One example: I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it” was “still rather rare in France.” Likewise, Brussels sprouts don’t appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.
One example of the substantial changes produced by the artificial selection of premodern farmers actually made the news a couple years back. In 2015, there was a wave of reporting about early modern watermelons. The watermelon is native to Africa and has a substantial amount of range in terms of color and taste. Seventeenth-century still life paintings record a substantially different phase in the artificial selection of watermelons toward the bright red, seedless varietal familiar in Western grocery stores.
But focusing on unusual varietals and exotic imports can be misleading. Most people in the early modern world—not just in Europe, but everywhere—were illiterate farmers and pastoralists whose diet was hyper-minimalist by contemporary standards.
This is not to say that their food tasted bad, necessarily. But it was clearly very simple, and very starch-heavy. From China to Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, gruels and stews made out of staple grains or legumes were the daily fare. Italian farmers weren’t eating eggplant parmesan or spaghetti with meatballs. They were typically eating either boiled beans or grains, day after day after day.
The acute eyes of Bruegel the Elder captured one example of this universal food of the premodern peasantry. In Bruegel’s The Harvesters, a team of peasants is taking a break for a mid-day meal which seems to consist entirely of bread and bowls of what I am guessing is a wheat-based gruel, something akin to Cream of Wheat. The jugs they’re drinking out of probably contain small beer.
But paintings like these can only get us so far. A more promising approach, perhaps, would be to go directly to the textual sources and take a close look at early modern recipes. I spend a lot of time recording ‘receipts’ (an archaic form of the word recipe, but also a broader one, since it included drug prescriptions). Several actually look pretty tasty (like eighteenth-century “Maccarony cheese“), and I hope to cook a few one day, taking a page from my friend Marissa Nicosia’s reconstructions of early modern food at Cooking the Archives.
But there are many others that I have no desire to make anytime soon. One example that stands out in my mind is this recipe for snail water from a circa 1700 English manuscript at Penn.
To make Snaill water, for a consumption, or anny weakness in old or young persons, and for the ricketts
take a quart of snails, wash them twince in stronge-stale-beere and dry them well in a cloth, then bruse them shels and all, put to them 3 quarts of red cows-milk 4 ounces, red rose leaves, Rosemary, sweet-marjoram, Ivery, of each a good handfull, distill altogether and sweeten your water with surrop of violets, and sugar candy lickerish sorrop, put in 6 penny-worth of naturall-ballsom, drink a quarter of a pint of this every night and morning.
Snails, stale beer and ivory shavings certainly sounds like a challenging flavor combo to me, despite the addition of the fragrant herbs and sugar. But this is a medicine, not a food, and it wasn’t intended to taste good. Another early modern manuscript owned by Penn (this one from 1655, and more inclined toward food recipes than drug recipes) contains a far more relatable dish:
To fricasie a chicken or rabbitt.
Take a chicking and scald it or Case it, and put it into a frying pan with halfe a pint of strong broth, a peace of buter with a little whole pepper and mace, and boyle them well upon the fire till yr Chickin be tender then make a leare [?] of verjuyce and minced peaches and ye yolkes of 2 eggs and a little drawne butter then put it into the frying pan keeping yr pan with shaking over the fyre till it bee thick, then dish it up strewing thereon a little minced parsley.
Even this relatively simple recipe for pan-fried chicken has some surprises, however. One is the addition of mace, a fairly obscure spice that comes from the same plant as nutmeg (nutmeg’s the actual seed, and mace is the covering). It’s a highly potent spice that numbs the tastebuds and imparts a strong aroma to food. And it’s combined here with highly-acidic verjuice, as well as egg yolks—not a flavor combination that has survived into the cuisines of the modern era, so far as I know.
Guessing the true flavors of these ingredients—the taste of premodern chicken, or mace carried in a ship’s hold from Indonesia to Europe, or butter that was churned by hand—is at some level impossible. Certainly, we can make some educated guesses. In the case of late medieval cooking, one scholar has looked at the transformations of recipes as they crossed cultural zones (such as the medieval Arabic sweet porridge called ma’muniya, which evolved into Anglo-Norman maumenee) and concluded that “as time went by, a dish tended to become sweeter, spicer, and more complicated.” But so much has changed between the worlds of the past and the present when it comes to cultivars, modes of preparation and preservation, and, perhaps, an overall sense of what tastes good and bad. I often wonder what someone from the thirteenth or seventeenth century might make of a Snickers bar, for instance. I suspect they’d find it disgustingly cloying. But then again, maybe not.
Thinking about historical tastes reminds me of the French expression for words that seem to be analogous across two languages, but actually have totally different meanings: faux amis. (For instance, English-speakers in Spanish-speaking countries often say that they are embarazada—they intend to say they’re ’embarrassed,’ but they’re actually saying they’re ‘pregnant.’)
These early modern foods are culinary false friends. They seem like they’d be the same as our familiar correlates. But we can’t be sure that they tasted the same.
Like so much in history, they’re so close, yet just out of reach.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared at Res Obscura.
Further reading online:
“The Exotic Taste of Rice,” a previous post on The Recipes Project.