Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    In the Mediterranean Middle Ages, the rich had not only their country houses, but their own doctors as well. In an era when medicine was primitive and hygiene and dietetics not well understood, the few doctors there were provided services only to the high nobility and the very rich. Doctors lived and worked in the cities and towns as university professors or at the courts. The illiterate masses of poor people were still completely guided by popular superstitions when it came to their health and diet. And in rural areas there was no medical care. There was a theory prevalent during the Middle Ages, dating back to Hippocrates and expanded upon by the Greek physician Galen (c. 130 -c. 200), attributing to different foods different properties that required different "digestions." These properties produced different "superfluities," which accounts for the great role medieval dietetics had on cooking, for a proper and selective diet was viewed as the road to good health. We can see this attitude surface in a novella by Sabadino degli Arienti ( who flourished in the fourteenth century), when the character Zuco Padella, a peasant from the Bolognese countryside, goes into his master's garden in order to steal peaches every night. He is caught one evening and admonished with the following words: Un'altra volta lassa stare le fructe de li miei pari e mangia de le tue, che son le rape, gli agli, porri, cepolle, e le scalogne col pan de sorgo (Next time leave my peer's fruit and eat your own, which is turnip greens, garlic, leeks, onions, and scallions with sorghum bread). Doctors in the fourteenth and fifteenth century recommended to their rich and noble patients that they avoid fresh fruit because they caused an humoral imbalance according to the Galenic theory of medicine.* Fresh fruit was not eaten in great amounts. More common were dried fruits, eaten because of the influence of Arab medical texts (that had incorporated much of Galen's theorizing) on European dietetics. Dried fruit was inexpensive, storable, and seen as an energetic.

* There must have been much conflicting advice because we know that the Arab doctor Avicenna thought peaches were a wholesome food, while the Ancients believed pears were not because they produced colic and flatus; and Ibn Ridwan recommended eating apple, quince, prune, pomegranate, peach, and the fruits of Christ's-thorn (Zizyphus spina-christi Willd.).