Oxford Food Symposium,
St Catherine’s College, 5 July 2013
Eating History: the Perishable Art of Food
Good afternoon. It’s a great pleasure to be here, talking about one of my – and I assume your – favourite subjects. I’ve been thinking about food for years, ever since I realised that I now eat almost nothing that I ate as a child; it was that realisation which made me intensely curious about the role of food in our everyday lives. I’ve called this lecture ‘eating history’ because I think that’s what we’re doing when we sit down to have a meal – consuming food which has a long and sometimes overlooked history – but I also mean it in another sense. What people cook and eat tells us a great deal about their own history, as the following anecdote shows.
At the beginning of last month I was in Croatia, where the food tradition of the former city-state of Dubrovnik reflects its long involvement and indeed rivalry with the Venetian republic. Under its old name Ragusa, Dubrovnik was under Venetian rule for a century and a half before becoming a more or less independent city state for four centuries. In 1806 it surrendered to Napoleon and fell under Austrian rule until the end of the First World War. Several languages were spoken in the city, including Dalmatian and a Venetian dialect of Italian. These days Dubrovnik is a major tourist destination, and in cheaper restaurants pasta and pizza are standard items on the menu, even if they come in modern bowdlerised form – I’m still shuddering at the notion of a doner kebab pizza while the main ingredient of spaghetti carbonara appears to be a nauseating quantity of cream.
In a slightly more upmarket restaurant, I decided to risk the prawn ravioli, only to be presented with a not-very-delicious serving of tortellini in brodo. Rice dishes pose less of a risk and the most enjoyable meal I had consisted of simple grilled vegetables followed by a powerful risotto nero. As for puddings, the menu is standard international fare, Italian ice creams and tiramisu, with tea-rooms down by the harbour appealing to the crowds who come ashore from vast cruise ships.
Early one Sunday morning I got a bus which took me north along the Dalmatian coast, and we stopped for a much-needed breakfast at a service station. I ordered a double espresso and was wondering about something to eat when my eye fell on a sumptuously rich plate of baklava. These were not the modest triangles familiar from Greek tavernas – they were huge rectangles, already oozing honey, and the bar-tender added more from a jug before handing one across. I rushed outside to eat it before the bus left, and soon had sticky fingers as I broke it into bite-sized pieces. It was as meltingly delicious as any baklava I’ve tasted in Istanbul, with the unexpected addition of a hint of lemon juice to undercut the almost unbearable sweetness.
It went perfectly with my strong coffee but perhaps the most fascinating thing about it was the signal that we were no longer in Croatia. A few minutes earlier, without any fanfare, our bus had crossed into the seven-mile-wide corridor which gives Bosnia access to the sea – a piece of land sold to the Ottomans by the Republic of Ragusa in 1699. And what I was eating was culinary evidence of the lasting Ottoman influence on Bosnia-Herzegovina. No tiramisu here: this was a dessert whose origins lie in the East and stretch back into time, possibly as far back as the Assyrians in the eight-century BC, according to some sources. But it most likely arrived in this mountainous region of Southern Europe via the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Greek authorities claim the Turks appropriated baklava from the Byzantine city of Constantinople and there is certainly a record of it being cooked in the Topkapi kitchens in 1473. By this time, the Ottomans had been trying to conquer what is now Bosnia for almost a century, ending in 1463 when Mahmud Pasha finally captured the Kingdom of Bosnia. It was the beginning of a 400-year period of Turkish rule which has left numerous legacies, not least the awkward boundaries which divide Croatia in two to maintain Bosnia’s historic access to the sea.
When I’d finished my breakfast, which was sadly rushed, our bus crossed back into Croatia and turned inland, heading for the main border crossing into Bosnia’s southern province of Herzegovina. Driving through lush green mountain passes above the Neretva river, I found a complete contrast to the country I’d just left. In Croatia, the only clue to the recent war lies in the spotless red roofs of the houses, most of which have been rebuilt after being damaged by shells and gunfire. Bosnia is very different and its roofless houses and sagging balconies are a testament to the savagery of a conflict which killed 200,000 people.
Eventually I arrived in Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina, where the destruction of a famous Ottoman bridge by the Croats in 1993 became one of the most vivid images of the Bosnian war. The bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 – it was designed by a student of the Ottoman architect Sinan, who built Suleiman’s great mosque and tomb in Istanbul – and legend has it that the original was held together by mortar made from egg whites. A replica of the bridge was completed in 2004 but Mostar still feels like a divided city: Catholic Croats live on one steep bank of the Neretva, overlooked by a giant white Christian cross erected in the year 2000 – not much sign of reconciliation here. Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslims – live on the other side of the river and crossing the steeply-arched bridge is in effect walking from one culture to another. There’s a dramatic view of the bridge from the courtyard of a rather plain mosque, and of course the divide is reflected in the food.
On the ‘Turkish’ side, I found a restaurant which instantly reminded me of kitchens in Istanbul: plain wooden tables and chairs, no sign of a menu anywhere, but the day’s offerings visible in stainless steel containers behind a glass counter. The owner rushed to serve me, enthusiastically spooning portions onto a plate – pilaf, dolma, red rice, a couple of delicious meat stews. We didn’t have sufficient language in common for me to establish precisely what I was eating but the flavours and textures were familiar from Istanbul and Anatolia. He’d run out of puddings but directed me to a nearby café which served chai and, of course, my second portion of baklava of the day. I was truly eating history in an area of Europe which has been the epicentre of cultural, ethnic and religious conflict for hundreds of years.
Maybe that seems a weighty significance to place on an innocent slice of filo pastry, nuts and honey. But food undoubtedly provides insights into the culture of the past, though not in the same way as utensils which somehow manage to survive the rigours of centuries. When I visited the British Museum’s Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, I was riveted by the reconstructed kitchen with its charcoal braziers and cooking implements – and as the theme of this year’s symposium is material culture, I’d like to mention some of the most striking pieces. Here is the apparatus of a first-century cook in the Bay of Naples, laid out and visible almost 2,000 years later to anyone who can afford the cost of a ticket to the exhibition – there’s a pestle and mortar, the former badly damaged, but enough of it remains to show that it was made, rather wittily, in the shape of a thumb. There’s a metal colander, signed by its maker, which reminds me of one I once bought in a market on Turkey’s Aegean coast. There’s even a life-sized mould in the shape of a hare which looks as it’s meant for making pate or meat in aspic – but it was found in a bakery, suggesting it was being used for cakes or bread.
Perhaps it came from a commercial bakery such as the one owned by a man called Terentius Neo, whose portrait is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Judging by this image, which shows Terentius and his wife holding scrolls and writing tablets, bakers were educated, middle-class professionals with considerable status in the local community. That’s interesting in itself but the stand-out exhibit for me is a carbonised loaf of bread which was apparently baking in an oven at the very moment when the pyroclastic surge engulfed Herculaneum in 79AD.
It’s round in shape, consisting of an upper circle on a wider flat base, and scored into eight sections for easy cutting. We even know who made it because his name, Celer – the Latin word for quick or fast – is stamped into the dough. So is the name of his master, Quintus Granius Verus. We know that bread was sometimes made at home and taken to a bakery for cooking, so perhaps Celer was the slave who carried it there, marking it with his name to make sure he got his own loaf back later in the day.
Were it not for the colour, his loaf might have been made this morning, although it actually remained in the oven until the 1930s – a record which gives new meaning, I think you’ll agree, to the term ‘slow cooking’. It sits next to walnuts, pomegranates and a cluster of dried figs, most of them pierced so they could be hung up in the kitchen. What’s so arresting about this part of the exhibition is that it’s rare to see actual foodstuffs from thousands of years ago, rather than the instruments used to prepare it.
The nearest equivalent I can think of is the food left in Egyptian tombs to be used by the recently dead, but these are ceremonial offerings rather the remains of someone’s breakfast. They’re symbols of power and affluence, establishing that the dead person was significant in life and expected to be treated in the same way in the next world. Not much of this has survived, for obvious reasons, but tomb paintings on the West Bank of Luxor in Upper Egypt, which used to be known as Thebes, attest to the importance of food in Pharaonic culture. Most tourists tend to head for the Valley of the Kings or Queens but one of my favourite tombs belongs to a man named Sennefer in the less well-known Valley of the Nobles.
Sennefer was in effect Mayor of Thebes during the reign of the pharaoh Amenophis II, in the final quarter of the fifteenth century BC, and he constructed an elaborate tomb for himself and his family. The ante-chamber and much of the roughly-hewn ceiling of the lower burial chamber are painted with lifelike representations of a grape-vine: bunches of ripe purple grapes appear to hang down, ready to be picked, creating the impression of standing in a shady vineyard rather than a tomb. It’s actually a large complex, rather than a single tomb, and the frescoes – some, unfortunately, quite badly damaged – include scenes in which Sennefer and his wife Meryt receive offerings from priests. There’s also one in which he sits next to a table piled high with meat, vegetables, grapes and other fruit which are intended as offerings to the gods Amun-Ra and Osiris. A caption lists the gifts as ‘ox and poultry, all good and pure things, everything which decorated his table every day’. The latter phrase – every day – shows how well officials ate at this moment in history, giving an idea of the lavishness with which they treated themselves and their deities.
The British Museum’s permanent collection includes something much rarer than these rather lovely tomb paintings, in the shape of a chest from the tomb of the priestess Henutmehyt. It’s more than 1300 years older than the loaf of bread from Herculaneum which we’ve been discussing – Henutmehyt died around 1290 BC and her body was placed in the tomb along with a box made of sycamore wood, which was meant to provide her with rations in the afterlife. If it’s an indication of what Henutmehyt ate when she was alive, she seems to have been an even more enthusiastic carnivore than Sennefer – the box contains four whole ducks and several joints of meat, probably goat in origin. It’s unusual to find such a large quantity of meat in a tomb and it’s all been mummified, which means it isn’t very appetising – but it certainly suggests that Henutmehyt didn’t expect death to interfere with dining in the style to which she had become accustomed.
Other Egyptian tomb finds emphasise the significance of simpler food such as bread. One unusual item is the wooden model of a combined brewery and bakery from the even older tomb of Meketre, who was chief steward during the reign of four pharaohs, dying around 1980 BC. In this exquisite model, men and women work together grinding grain, mixing dough and placing it in ovens tended by a man with a poker. These loaves are conical, unlike the Roman example we’ve been considering, and can be seen again in the basket carried on the head of a female figure from the same tomb.
Three and a half thousand years later, modern archaeologists have established that bread was central to the daily life of inhabitants of Pompeii. It accounts for both the high status of the baker Terentius Neo and the fact that no fewer than 33 bakeries have been discovered in the city. In her book on Pompeii, Mary Beard mentions a list scrawled on the wall of a house and bar in the centre of the city. It seems to be a record of someone’s expenditure on food over a period of just over a week and the item which appears most often is bread, in no less than three different types – ‘bread for the slave’ being, of course, the cheapest. After that comes oil and wine, and there are occasional purchases of sausage, cheese, onions and whitebait.
Wealthier citizens cooked at home, on raised platforms fuelled by charcoal or in portable braziers – and we know from excavations that the lavatory and cess pit were usually next to the kitchen, even in the houses of the wealthy. This isn’t pleasant to contemplate, especially in the summer heat of Southern Italy, but the contents of Roman cess pits and sewers are treasure-houses for archaeologists. Recent excavations of a cesspit below a block of flats and shops in Herculaneum have turned up huge quantities of human waste, and so far ten tons of the stuff have been analysed by a team from Oxford. They’ve discovered pieces of eggshell, poppy seeds, fennel, olive pits, animal bones and traces of a rich variety of fish – a wider selection probably than today, when over-fishing is a threat to several previously common species.
These findings confirm the impression we already have from Roman frescoes and mosaics: there’s a mosaic in the wonderful archaeological museum in Naples which shows a struggle between a spiny lobster and an octopus, surrounded by more than a dozen other species, including squid, ray and even a species of sea snail. We know that fish were farmed in ponds in Pompeii and one such pond appeared in a garden painting, now lost, from the Villa of Diomede outside the Herculaneum gate.
Naturally fish feature prominently in one of the most famous cook books from the ancient world – De Re Coquinaria, which translates roughly as On the Art of Cooking. Some of you will be familiar with this collection of recipes, which has been attributed to the first-century AD gourmet Apicius, although it probably dates from the fourth or fifth centuries. Whatever its origins, the collection tells us how such creatures were prepared and cooked. Book nine is devoted to seafood and it makes fascinating reading: here are recipes for lobster, skate, squid, cuttlefish, oysters, sea urchins, mussels, sardines, tuna, mullet and catfish. Some of the recipes are so rich they must have overwhelmed the fish – there’s one for fried red mullet which recommends serving it with pepper, rue, onion, dates, ground mustard, flaked sea urchins and oil.
Perhaps the idea was to disguise any indication that the mullet was going off, which may also account for the use of the fermented fish sauce, garum, which the Romans used liberally. Pliny the Elder is scathing about garum, by the way, dismissing it as a ‘secretion of putrefying matter’ – it was usually made from the intestines of small fish, mixed with salt and kept for months until the liquid at the top could be drawn off. But book ten of De Re Coquinaria contains numerous recipes for sauces for fish and they include a much wider – and more appealing – list of ingredients, including pepper, lovage, coriander, raisins, honey, vinegar, fennel and egg yolks.
Book six, which deals with fowl, opens rather dramatically with instructions on how to boil and serve an ostrich. It’s followed by recipes for crane, duck, partridge, dove and wood pigeon. Wild birds such as ostrich must have been brought by sea from Africa, providing an insight into the extent of trade in the Roman empire, but the early Christian author Tertullian offers a gruesome footnote: some of these creatures ended up in the amphitheatre and their carcases were later distributed free to ordinary people, who eagerly consumed them even though they were stained with human blood. Tertullian accuses the ancient Romans of cannibalism on these grounds, which is going a bit far, but it’s undeniable that cruelty to humans and animals was a feature of everyday life in the Roman empire.
One of the Roman dishes almost everyone has heard of is stuffed dormouse and Book eight of De Re Coquinaria concludes with a recipe for this golden-brown rodent. They were fattened in terracotta jars – you can see one in the British Museum exhibition – and eaten stuffed with pork, dormouse trimmings, pepper and nuts. I don’t doubt that early modern translations of Apicius did much to amplify the exotic reputation of the Roman table, which has also been bolstered by celebrated literary sources such as the Cena Trimalchionis. This is the famous banquet scene at the house of a wealthy man named Trimalchio, which appears in the Satyricon by the first-century AD author Petronius. You may have seen the movie version by the Italian director Federico Fellini, which he made in 1969 – it’s loosely based on the original but certainly captures its grotesque spirit.
The dinner begins with hors ‘d’oeuvres before the arrival of the host. The table is decorated with a bronze ass whose packsaddle holds white olives on one side, black on the other, and miniature arches surmounted by dormice seasoned with poppy seeds and honey. Smoked sausages sit on silver platters above plums sprinkled with pomegranate seeds to represent live coals. After Trimalchio is carried into the room by his slaves, the feast gets under way in earnest with a vast circular platter on which food is arranged as the twelve signs of the zodiac: a fish to represent Scorpio, a lobster for Capricorn, fried testicles and kidneys for Gemini, and so on. The guests are somewhat under-whelmed by this culinary artifice but they cheer up when four slaves appear, remove the top of the tray and reveal the main course concealed underneath: stuffed capons and a hare fitted with wings to resemble the winged horse Pegasus.
The evening continues in this vein, with one extravagance – including a whole wild boar with baskets of Syrian and Theban dates suspended from its tusks – succeeding another. When it’s carved, live birds fly out of the carcase and flutter around the room until they’re captured in nets by slaves. Another of Trimalchio’s jokes is a bulging pig which he instructs his cook to gut at the table, whereupon ‘innards’ consisting of black pudding and sausages tumble out. Trimalchio is obliged to leave the room on several occasions, both to relieve himself and to rest his stomach, which is understandably challenged by such quantities of rich food.
Petronius was a courtier of the emperor Nero and came to a sticky end: he was arrested and chose to kill himself before being sentenced to death, opening his veins and enjoying a dinner with friends before finally bleeding to death. The dinner scene in his Satyricon is one of the most detailed accounts we have of a Roman banquet, but I want to set it alongside archaeological discoveries from Herculaneum. Excavations of boathouses on the beach, where some of the inhabitants appear to have sought shelter, revealed a number of skeletons which were examined by an American archaeologist and forensic anthropologist, Dr Sara Bisel, in the 1980s.
Unlike Pompeii, where human bodies were vaporised, the temperatures at Herculaneum allowed skeletons – though not flesh – to survive the eruption. Bisel’s reconstructions of who these unfortunate people were may be a little imaginative, shall we say, but her analysis of the bones produced fascinating results. By looking at the proportions of calcium, magnesium and zinc in the skeletons, she was able to establish that they enjoyed a diet rich in sea-food, but ate very little red meat. In 1991, she published detailed research based on 139 skeletons which showed that more than a third had suffered from anaemia; one of the possible causes was deficiencies in diet and there was even one case of rickets, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D.
Later studies have revealed that more than a quarter of the adult skeletons from Herculaneum show signs of enamel hypoplasia – defects in teeth enamel which indicate either poor childhood nutrition or disease. Another condition related to iron-deficiency, porotic hyperostosis, is present in 41 per cent of the women and 29 per cent of the men. The sample is limited but one modern authority, Peter Garnsey, argues there is evidence to suggest that traditional accounts of the diet and health of ancient classical societies ‘have been unrealistically favourable’. If this is right, and I suspect that it is, we are beginning to get a very different picture of how people lived in the ancient world.
Of course most people in this lecture theatre are aware that the Satyricon is a literary satire on conspicuous consumption in the early Roman empire. Trimalchio is a freedman, a member of the class of former slaves which became shorthand in Roman culture for the supposed avarice and ostentation of the nouveaux riches. It’s no more a reliable reflection of real life than the scurrilous attack in Procopius’s Secret History on the sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora – if you don’t know the story, he accused her of performing a striptease on stage by training geese to eat grains of barley from her nearly-naked body.
But the modern internet is full of supposed Roman recipes, snippets from the Satyricon and uncritical accounts of classical feasts, many of them of dubious accuracy. And the overall effect has been to create an impression of a world with an ample sufficiency of food, which could not have been further from the truth for the vast majority of ordinary people. The element that’s missing from these highly artistic accounts is class: we know that some of the Herculaneum skeletons belonged to poor people because they show pelvic or spinal abnormalities which were most likely caused by hard manual labour.
These individuals, who have a great deal more in common with my working-class ancestors than the patrician guests at Roman or Pompeian dinner parties, ate a much more restricted diet. Michael Mackinnon from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Winnipeg even suggests that this explains why the poor in Rome were so ready to eat exotic meat from wild animals killed in the arena: ‘Meat was expensive in antiquity,’ he points out; ‘most could not afford it on a daily basis, so any free distribution of it at festivals and public banquets was anxiously awaited’.
Excavations in Herculaneum and Pompeii show that the poor often had no facilities at home for cooking, even if they could have afforded meat or fish, and relied heavily on food which didn’t need home preparation. Hence the popularity of shops which sold food from the deep earthenware jars known as dolia, which were set into counters – they’re one of the sights which always leave a big impression on people during their first visit to Pompeii. One hundred and fifty of these establishments have been discovered so far, which is a large number for a town of perhaps twelve or fifteen thousand people. Mary Beard says it would be easy to get the impression that Pompeii was full of fast-food joints serving wine and stew to a hungry populace. But she also points out that the dolia were porous and would have been difficult to keep hot, so it’s more likely that they contained appetite-fillers – dried fruit and chick peas have been found in dolia excavated in Herculaneum. For many less affluent families, the evening meal would have consisted of little more than bread or porridge with vegetables and fruit.
These discrepancies in wealth were the cause of considerable resentment, as the Roman satirist Juvenal recorded. Book five of his Satires, which appeared between 123 and 125 AD, mocks a courtier who hangs around rich patrons in Rome in the hope of getting left-overs. Juvenal is a mordant observer of human frailty and he has little sympathy with his target, a man called Trebius. Here, in Peter Green’s translation, Trebius is waiting his turn, barely acknowledged by the rich man’s supercilious slave: ‘Look how he grumbles as he hands out the bread, although/ It’s so hard you can scarcely break it….But the loaf reserved for my lord/ Is snowy-white, fresh-baked from the finest flour’.
Things do not get better for Trebius: his patron is served with a giant crayfish, accompanied by asparagus, but all he is offered is half a stuffed egg ‘dished up in a little saucer/Like a funeral offering’. Juvenal goes on: ‘Himself souses his fish/ With the finest oil….the stuff you use as a dressing/ Came to town in some native felucca’. I should mention here that Juvenal seems to have been banished to Egypt earlier in his career, and had a pretty jaundiced view of anything associated with the country. (He didn’t like women either, but that’s another story.) He was the son or adopted son of a wealthy freedman and intensely conscious of class, returning again and again to food as an indicator of disappointed hopes.
Juvenal’s notion of poverty was somewhat different from the experience of the mass of ordinary people, but food plays such a central role in culture that it sometimes becomes not a pleasure but a torment. Suetonius tells a story about the emperor Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus in 14 AD, being presented with a gift of an enormous mullet when he was staying at his retreat on the island of Capri. Tiberius, who lived in fear of assassination, was so alarmed by the fisherman’s unexpected arrival that he ordered his guards to scarify his face with the fish. They rubbed it raw and the poor man couldn’t help exclaiming that it was just as well he hadn’t presented the emperor with the crab he’d caught that morning. Tiberius promptly sent for the crab and ordered his guards to use it in the same way.
Suetonious isn’t an entirely reliable source, but I’m now going to jump forwards around fourteen hundred years to a time and place where food was consciously used to test people’s loyalties. After its conversion to Catholicism in the sixth century AD, Spain was known for its close affinity with the pig. To this day, Spaniards are enthusiastic eaters of pork and Andalusia – the Southern province of Spain
which was once occupied by Moors from North Africa – produces huge quantities of it. Many of you will be familiar with pata negra, the superb ham produced from pigs fed on acorns, and the region also produces several different types of morcilla – the blood sausage we know in the UK as black pudding.
Most summers I spend some time in the Valle de Lecrin, which stretches between the city of Granada and the sea. The local butcher is a woman, who raises and slaughters her own pigs, while her daughters serve in the unassuming village shop which sells chuletas – pork chops – home-made jamon and morcilla. This is a part of Spain which has a great deal of tragic history: three of four years ago, the Commission for Historical Memory, which searches for victims of the Spanish civil war, received a tip-off about a massacre in a neighbouring village. They started digging in a deep gorge and retrieved the bodies – actually the skeletonised remains – of 19 Republican soldiers who had stopped to plead for food after Malaga fell to Franco in 1936. By some terrible mischance they stopped at the wrong village – most of this area is resolutely socialist – where they were lined up and shot by Franco’s supporters.
Anyway, the history that’s relevant to this lecture happened several centuries earlier, when Andalusia was still occupied by the Moors. Spain also had a sizeable Jewish population, and members of both communities came under pressure to convert to Catholicism. There was a long tradition linking the Spanish clergy to the pig and Catholic monasteries were famous for their herds, which they began to slaughter on the 11th of November, the feast day of Saint Martin. The ceremony known as the matanza – and this is not for the squeamish – involved the ritual slitting of the animal’s throat, with the blood being caught in a decorated earthenware bowl so it could be made into morcilla.
Of course the vast majority of Muslims and Jews didn’t eat pork – Moses Maimonides, the rabbi who was born in Spain and served as court physician to the Egyptian caliphate in the twelfth century, summed up the attitude of both religions when he dismissed the pig’s food and habits as ‘very dirty and loathsome’. And thus the pig came to represent a great deal more than the animal, turning into a symbol of allegiance to Catholicism. According to one modern Spanish author, ‘the confrontation with Jews and Muslims turned the ceremony of the matanza into a demonstration of faith’. Indeed in towns and villages with a high proportion of either Moriscos or conversos – Muslim and Jewish converts to Christianity respectively – families who had previously performed the matanza in inner courtyards began ostentatiously slaughtering their animals by the front door, showing off the fact that they were Christians. At the same time, Moriscos and conversos were expected to prove they had converted by eating pork – and of course the situation became much worse after 1492.
In that year, the last Moorish caliph was driven out of Andalusia by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella – a fact which is inscribed in stone on their tomb in Granada. At the same time, the country’s Jewish population – estimated at 235,000 people – was expelled by decree. Converts from Islam and Judaism were allowed to remain, for the time being, but they were regarded with extreme suspicion. The Inquisition had got under way in Spain just over a decade earlier and its officials were eager to prove that converts were secretly observing their old religion. Some Jewish converts tried to allay suspicion by keeping portions of ham or salt-pork in their kitchens.
Incredible as it seems, however, there are records of individuals being arrested and tortured for no other reason than not eating pork. In his thesis on the history of the Iberian pig, Benjamin Joseph Zadik records part of the testimony – too harrowing to repeat here – of a Jewish woman who was tortured by the Inquisition for this so-called ‘crime’ in 1568. Unsurprisingly, there were several revolts against the Catholic state in the sixteenth century by Muslim converts, who were angered not just by being forced to eat pork but an edict banning them from speaking Arabic. Finally, in 1609, they were expelled from Spain by Philip II. By then, of course, the Spanish invasion of South America was well advanced – and what do you think Christopher Columbus took with him on his second voyage to the New World in 1493?
The answer, as you’ve already have guessed, is eight pigs. He picked them up in the Canary Islands, presumably to shorten the voyage – I don’t imagine a group of fully-grown sows were ideal companions on a long sea voyage. Some authorities claim that most of the pigs in Latin America are the descendants of those animals but whatever the truth or otherwise of that claim, Spain is currently the second largest producer of pig meat in the European Union. You will find pieces of ham in all sorts of recipes, such as the well-known Andalusian dish habas con jamon, fresh broad beans cooked with ham, which dates back to the sixteenth century – precisely the moment when converts were being forced to eat pork. On summer evenings, when I’m eating a bowl of salmorejo in the foothills of the Alpujarra, I sometimes wonder if there’s a more sinister explanation than flavour for the presence of the strips of Serrano ham which are sprinkled on this heavenly puree of skinned tomatoes, bread, olive oil and vinegar.
At the beginning of this lecture, I said a few words about how I came to be fascinated by the history of food. I haven’t said much this afternoon about gender, but the title of one of Margaret Forster’s novels – Have The Men Had Enough? – resonates with my childhood experience. I’ve already mentioned that I grew up in a working-class household. We ate meat every day – a reaction on my parents’ part, I suspect, to the end of food rationing in the early 1950s – and the routine was pretty unchanging. We had a roast for Sunday lunch, followed by cold leftovers on Monday, and if any meat remained it would go into a shepherd’s pie.
We lived in or near London but my father hankered after the food he ate growing up in the north-east, and on trips to visit relatives he always got hold of some pease pudding. He talked wistfully about cow heel pie, and I was secretly relieved when my mother flatly refused to attempt making it. But I vividly recall arguments about lamb chops: my father always got two, my mother and I one, and when I queried this unequal distribution the answer was always the same: he’s a man. Protests that I was a growing girl and needed protein went unheeded, as you can imagine, so no wonder I became a feminist. And I can’t think of a better way of illustrating the gender politics of food in a single meal.
By now I hope you’ve warmed to my central argument, which is that the stuff we find on our plates is a better guide to the past than cultural representations of food. Popular ideas about how and what our ancestors ate are skewed by the eating habits of the affluent – indeed I want to go further and suggest that what we’re talking about most of the time isn’t even the actual eating habits of the wealthy, but literary and artistic representations of them. Most Romans were no more likely to dine on stuffed dormouse than you or I, and I suspect that many of us would quickly become very bored if we had to survive on the daily diet of your average citizen of Pompeii.
Food perishes but art survives – the sub-title of this lecture is partly ironic – and somehow the two have become inextricably mixed up. Most of the food we know about from the past was either eaten or thrown away a very long time ago, if it ever existed outside the extravagant fantasies of authors and artists. But what we’re eating – the stuff that appears on our plates – now that really is history, and we can learn a great deal from it. Thank you very much for listening.