Tag Archives: European

Strawberries: Delicious and Devotional

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While looking through the Newberry Library’s extraordinary collection of medieval books of hours, I was surprised to see how frequently strawberries dotted the marginal illuminations. The berries usually appear alongside colorful flowers; while obviously decorative, I began to wonder why this food was so prolific in imagery, yet relatively more obscure in contemporary recipes.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 27r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Books of hours are books for Christians that provide prayers and devotions, particularly the Hours of the Virgin. The Hours of the Virgin are an abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these books were enormously popular. Scribes created copies for readers of varying socioeconomic levels, and the most expensive books of hours were lavishly illuminated. Containing colorful images and frequent goldleaf, these manuscripts allow us to see the beautiful, opulent life of the wealthiest nobles and royals in the late Middle Ages. The images can be a feast of information for scholars, incorporating medieval clothing, table settings, and room décor with familiar Biblical imagery. Although I set out trying to locate images of food and dining in books of hours, strawberries kept attracting my attention. Whether French or Flemish, fourteenth- or fifteenth-century, and moderately or lavishly decorated, it seemed as though strawberries were everywhere.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 104r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Strawberries were undoubtedly consumed in medieval Europe. Fruit sellers sold the berries on the street, having advertised them with musical cries. The Parisian street cries for fresh strawberries lived on in an anonymous thirteenth-century (c. 1280) French motet; you can listen for “frese nouvele” sung in conjunction with other sounds of Parisian life. Strawberries appear in household records of the aristocracy and royalty. England’s King Henry VII not only received these fruits as gifts in 1506, but his gardener at Greenwich cultivated them. Entries in the records of Anne Stafford, dowager Duchess of Buckingham, reveal her purchase of the berries throughout the summer of 1465.[1] The fruit also occasionally appears in contemporary menus; the French Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (1555) lists strawberries in a course served alongside items like almonds, a Flemish cake, and white jelly.[2]

Despite these references to strawberries in a variety of texts, the fruit appears infrequently in medieval recipes. French recipes, to my knowledge, exclude this ingredient. Only a few medieval English recipes include strawberries. Some include little instruction, such as:

“Freseyes. Streberyen igrounden wyþ milke of alemauns, flour of rys oþur amydon, gret vlehs, poudre of kanele & sucre ; þe colur red, & streberien istreyed abouen.”[3]

Other recipes include more informative details:

“Strawberye.—Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of ȝere in gode red wyne ; þan strayne þorwe a cloþe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun oþer with þe flower of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do þer-in Roysons of coraunce, Safroun, Pepir, Sugre grete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale ; poynte it with Vynegre, &a lytil whyte grece put þer-to ; colure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with þe graynys of Pome-garnad, & serue it forth.[4]

Still other recipes, such as one for darioles, a type of custard-filled pie or tart, invite the cook to include strawberries alongside dates and other spices, only “if it be in time of yere.”[5] While strawberries were obviously a known, accessible, and popular summer berry, they appeared relatively infrequently in contemporary recipes.

The Christ Child holds a basket filled with strawberries.
Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 50.5 fol. 135r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Why, then, do these berries appear so frequently in the religious imagery of books of hours given their proportionately few occurrences in recipes? I conjecture two main reasons. First, the number of recipes including strawberries is likely quite low because the fruit was probably most often served fresh and whole, rather than in prepared dishes, as mentioned above in the course of a French meal. After all, how many strawberries do you manage to carry into your kitchen after a harvest in your strawberry patch or a U-Pick farm? Freshly picked strawberries are quite easy to consume in embarrassingly large quantities, no cooking required!

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 47 fol. 87v
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Second, strawberries were rife with symbolism in medieval Christian iconography. Depending upon the context, as well as the viewer/reader’s subjectivity, the red berries could represent drops Christ’s blood, while its trifoliate leaves were suggestive of the Holy Trinity.[6] Or when paired with flowers, as strawberries typically are in horae marginalia, they represented righteousness. The fruit was also associated with the Virgin Mary.[7] I have selected a variety of personal images from my research in the Newberry Library’s books of hours, each illustrating at least one of these interpretations of strawberry iconography.

Strawberries were likely depicted in these devotional margins because they were so popular. The little fruit did not require the preparations which burdened other victuals. A noble reader, especially, would instantly recognize the berry not only as a delicious fruit so easily eaten out-of-hand, but also one symbolizing Christ’s suffering, the Holy Trinity, and the dedicatee of Books of Hours, the Virgin Mary. What a great amount of work for such a tiny fruit.

NOTES

[1] Christopher Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 109.

[2] Ken Albala, and Timothy Tomasik, eds., The Most Excellent Book of Cookery: An Edition and Translation of the Sixteenth-Century Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (Prospect Books, 2014), 241.

[3] Constance Hieatt, and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury) (Early English Text Society, 1985), 46.

[4] Thomas Austin, ed., Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Early English Text Society, 1888), 29.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[5] Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 24; and Celia Fisher, “Flowers and Plants, the Living Iconography,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography, ed. Colum Hourihane (Routledge, 2016), 460–1.

[6] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood, 2004), 22.

A Recipe for Teaching Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

By Zara Anishanslin 

Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Teaching (and learning) Atlantic World history can be a depressing business. It requires thinking about the causes, course, and effects of some of the more horrific events in early modern history, such as the enforced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to Europe’s Atlantic colonies. Yet Atlantic World history has its more uplifting aspects, too. After all, it is a story of creation as well as destruction. Native American, European, and African people came together in cooperation as well as conflict. Exchanges among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans fundamentally transformed cultures, politics, economies, and—of most interest in this forum—food and recipes on both sides of the Atlantic. Chances are, whatever recipes you regularly eat, at least a few owe their existence to transatlantic exchange between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Beginning with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, plants, animals, and diseases new to Native Americans arrived in the Americas and Caribbean, while plants, animals, and diseases new to Europe and Africa, similarly, made a transatlantic journey in the opposite direction. In addition to well-known commodities like sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa that traversed the Atlantic, more prosaic crops, animals, and germs crossed the Atlantic, at times accidentally. Things like pigs, cattle, horses, wheat, dandelions, rice, and smallpox travelled west; things like sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, turkeys, guinea pigs, tomatoes, and (perhaps) syphilis travelled east.  Such exchange formed the roots of the “Columbian Exchange,” as historian Alfred Crosby termed the phenomenon in his seminal 1972 book of the same name.

When the ship of French explorer Samuel de Champlain ran aground in what he called Port Saint Louis in 1605, he described seeing gardens and fields filled with beans and corn, inhabited by Native Americans who met the Frenchmen in canoes filled with freshly-caught cod.  Native American food and crops captivated the imagination of  Europeans like Champlain.  This is evident from his map of Port Saint Louis, which  took care to illustrate lushly tall fields of corn as well as items of navigational interest.

What Champlain called Port Saint Louis became better known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, English colonists who arrived there described a very different place; a depopulated community so devastated by smallpox that Native Americans “were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.”[1] Such were the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange.

MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But in its focus on corn, Champlain’s map also carries (if you’ll excuse the pun) seeds for teaching other, at times much less devastating, aspects of the Columbian Exchange—in particular, its impact on global consumption patterns, cuisine, and recipes. Corn was a fundamental food staple of indigenous peoples in the Americas, important enough to embody religious meaning to cultures like the Aztecs, who worshipped both maize god, Centeotl, and goddess, Chicomecoatl, seen in the statue below holding two maize ears.

Corn held very different symbolic meaning across the Atlantic. There, along with tobacco, palm trees, parrots, and representations of Native American bodies, corn became an iconographic symbol of  exoticism, often used in maps, paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

SK-A-4254-2
Jacob van Campen, Still Life with a Bowl of Corn, Artichokes, Grapes and a Parrot 1645-1650), SK-A-4254-2, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands

But “Indian corn,” like many other plants and animals that traversed the Atlantic after contact, ended up on tables in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well as in paintings and maps. What does teaching and learning about the Columbian Exchange look like if, to take but this single example,  we thought more deeply about corn? What were the long-term effects of food like corn crossing the Atlantic? What does following a plant like corn back and forth across the Atlantic tell us about changing tastes in Europe and Asia, about the ability of Native Americans and Africans to retain cultural heritage through culinary techniques and ingredient choices, and about the hybrid food practices of new, creole cultures established in the Americas and Caribbean?

Students read anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s fascinating book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985) in my class. So they are well aware of the often devastating but always transformative effects of people’s desire to consume and produce an edible commodity like sugar. But the histories of life and labor on an eighteenth-century Jamaican sugar plantation can seem, like the  histories of Native Americans, French, and English in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, very far away. What would letting students look at Atlantic World history through a more personally meaningful lens do to their understanding of these faraway histories of contact and exchange? What would choosing recipes they love that are based on food that migrated transatlantically tell students not only about the past, but also about their own families and tastes? How would it illuminate the theoretical concept of creolization?

What would happen, in short, if students researched “Recipes of the Columbian Exchange”?

Recipe for the Assignment:

Choose a recipe. Although not necessary, you might want to choose one that has personal meaning to you or your tastebuds.

The only criteria to be met are that:

1) the recipe MUST be one that would not exist were it not for the Columbian Exchange and

2) it must be a recipe, with more than one ingredient

First, describe the recipe. List its ingredients, identify its name, and provide information on how it’s cooked.

Second, go into more analytical and historical detail about it. What are the environmental origins of its ingredients? Which ones are those we can trace to the Columbian Exchange? Who first made it? And where? Why is the recipe important to you? What does it tell us about the contact between peoples and the exchanges of things that characterized Atlantic World history?

Tune in tomorrow to hear students chime in on what they learned by using recipes to think about Atlantic World history.

[1] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel E. Morison (new York: Knopf, 1952), 271.