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In the Devil's Garden - A Sinful History of Forbidden Foodby Stewart Lee Allen

Ballantine Books

ISBN 978-0345440167

hardcover, 315 pages, $24.00

devils-garden 

I received the book from the publisher and at first glance found the title intriguing, "The Devil’s Garden." More seriously, the Library of Congress categorized the book as "1. Gastronomy—History, 2.Food habits—History, 3. Cookery—History" and perhaps hopefully, "4. Menus." Not only is this book is an amusing look at historical foods prohibitions and attitudes, it’s topical, too.

That topicality was immediately apparent. The California Legislature and Governor have recently forbidden selling candy and fatty snacks to children in schools; another bill would have taxed sweetened soda pop. The "evils" of fast food and too hot coffee have been litigated. One California city is considering banning sales of coffee made from beans which do not meet its fair trade and environmental standards.

Those are relatively recent occurrences in the long history of legal or religious authorities and food. Human history started with "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." King James Bible, Genesis Book 3, Verse 17. We all know how that warning turned out. On the other hand, Adam and Eve’s failure to heed the warning led us to our relationship to each other and food. If it’s forbidden, doesn’t that make it more interesting?

Allen tells the history of how certain foods became forbidden. He does it in a way that the reader participates in how the history was uncovered. On his way to a remote monastery in Greece he and his guide become lost in a snowstorm and happen upon the hut of two religious hermits one of whom offers an apple to the lost travelers. The hermit delivers a short speech on how the apple can be seen as a representation of the evil female genitalia. After laughing that this is only taught by the Roman Church, the hermit says it is just an apple so eat it, advice probably gratefully taken after having been hungry and lost in the snow.

However, Mr. Allen does not let us wonder whether the hermit was right. He tells us how and when apples were declared out-of-bounds. Why had apples and cider been written out by the Catholics from below the Alps? Because they were much beloved of the Celtic Catholics whose pagan forebears treasured the apple and its products. A political, doctrinal and liturgical issue takes shape in an attack on the apple. Is this why we are taught that Eve bit the apple in the Garden of Eden and started all humankind on its way?

The book has a chapter devoted to each of the deadly or capital sins -- pride, gluttony, avarice, lust, sloth, blasphemy and anger. Just in case someone reading the book hasn’t sinned to a deadly extent Mr. Allen produces a menu which represents each of the sins. At least as far as food may help you get there. Some of the menus may actually be included for mockery of the cook and the eater such as the gluttony menu which features a pie of songbirds called ortolans which were reputedly served to the late French President Mitterand. There are limits even for the French. Allen tells us eating these songbirds is contrary to French law.

In this and the other chapters the author gives us historical anecdotes about why and how a foodstuff or a preparation was forbidden to some. Even into the present, Indians eschew cooking with basil. Fortunately, the same is untrue of Italians. In Aztec culture the only time commoners were allowed chocolate was when it was mixed with human blood, and if that wasn’t bad enough you only got that treat before you were sacrificed to the gods.

Tomatoes, which are commonplace in the contemporary American kitchen and garden, were once feared as poisonous. Allen tells this story well. Tomatoes have a strong botanical relationship to nightshade and mandrake whose alkaloids make those plants deadly poisonous. Was that the reason or was it because the tomatoes were a representation of body parts and acts, which we are not supposed to discuss?

There are also recipes for some dishes from across the world’s cuisines. They are an indication of the wanderings and varied tastes of the author. Is seared foie gras your taste? Perhaps Five Angry Vegetables done in Chinese style? More to my taste, how about Crostini di Fegato a traditional Tuscan style liver pate on toast? The range of the recipes from poached eggs done in the style of the ancient Romans to the modern Hudson Valley foie gras gives you a good notion that this author loves food -- no matter whether in the garden, on the table, or in a story well researched and told.

In spite of the menus and recipes, this is not a how-to book. It is an interesting look at how the powerful have tried to limit the behavior of people in their realms, temporal or spiritual, throughout human history.

On something as important and fun as food our behavior can be manipulated. Sometime people of political and religious power tell us what to do with our food as related in Mr. Allen’s book. On occasion, other authorities including ourselves can be manipulated into certain attitudes about food which have little or no basis in science or reality. Look at the contemporary view that fatty foods can cause fat and cholesterol to increase in the body. Is it based on faith, manipulation or science? "In the Devil’s Garden" is a book that is fun and thought provoking.

 

--Reviewer Mike Petersen is an attorney employed at the state capitol who travels whenever he can to try new foods and wines in California and Europe. He especially enjoys cooking and eating Italian, Spanish, French, German and other dishes that he has sampled with the locals here and abroad. Mike is a founder and chair of Mr. P’s Wine Club, a no-load wine club whose members love trying new wines and foods. He also searches for Chicago-style, kosher hot dogs wherever he may be.

Friday, 20 April 2012 13:25

Feast, A History of Grand Eating

Feast, A History of Grand Eating

by Sir Roy Strong

 

Harcourt Books

ISBN # 0-15-100758-6

349 pages, hardbound. $35.

 

 

feastWhen most of the world was just eating to survive, some really were eating in grand style.

In Feast, A History of Grand Eating, Roy Strong traces the eating habits of mankind's powerful privileged. The journey runs from the time of Ancient Greece to the early Twentieth Century. The author's treatment is scholarly and thorough.

Strong avoids hewing too strictly to a chronological exposition, but weaves several themes into the timeline. Today the instant celebrity of every television chef means an automatic book contract, but the first cookbook dates to the late Fourth or early Fifth Century.. The Roman Empire inherited an appreciation of cuisine from the Greeks and Etruscans and Apicus included 170 recipes of this legacy in what is presumed to be the first cookbook, De re coquinaria. Much later, collections of the culinary efforts of Careme and Escoffier influenced the evolution of cuisine in the western world.

Social stratification was reflected in—and influenced by—the ritualization of early-day banqueting. Those throwing the parties frequently spoke of the egalitarian nature of their feasts, but seating arrangements and amount and quality of food provided often belied their pronouncements.

Grand eating influenced furniture design as seating arrangements evolved to allow for greater comfort of the diners and greater aggrandizement of the hosts and their most favored guests. Architecture was changed as builders created space for permanent rooms devoted just to the activity of eating. An early consideration was the placement of all dining rooms facing west to catch the ambient light for late afternoon dining. As gas—and later, electrical—illumination of homes became available, dinner hour moved later into the evening.

For readers without a love for food it might be too detailed and a bit slow moving. However, those with professional or avocational interest in cuisine will likely find it fascinating.

 

Editor'a note: Roy Strong, a former director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, lives in Herefordshire. He received a knighthood in 1982.

 

--reviewed by Dan Clarke

Friday, 20 April 2012 12:01

Julia Child A Life

Julia Child A Life

by Laura Shapiro

 

2007 Penguin Lives

ISBN 978-=14-311644-8

185 pages $14

Julia Child a Life 2nd vesion Picmonkey 

Many remember Julia Child from her PBS television shows. Others may know her as an older woman given great deference when appearing as a guest on more recent television programs. Still, the woman has been dead since August of 2004, so many food buffs and home cooks may not have heard about her at all, but for the recent Julia and Julie movie.

For readers in all these categories, Laura Shapiro's fond, but not fawning, biography, Julia Child A Life, is a treat. It traces the food maven's early life of privilege (reared in a prosperous family in Pasadena, California, Julia McWilliams attended the Katherine Branson School in Marin County, then went east to Smith College), her wartime travels and marriage to Paul Child and subsequent evolution to the French Chef persona recognized by American foodies.

Times were very different in the mid-1930's, even for educated young women. She found employment—at first in New York City and later in Southern California—but her pay was modest and the work apparently unsatisfying. With a world war pending, she applied for military services only to be turned down as her six feet two inch stature was deemed too tall by all branches. She was accepted by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to today's CIA. Apparently her duties were essentially clerical, but the assignments in exotic locales were a good deal more interesting than life as a department store advertising copywriter. In 1944 she was posted to Ceylon where she met a specialist in the office's visual presentation unit. Paul Child was sophisticated, experienced and soon smitten with Julia. Shapiro gives an intimate and sensitive recounting of the unfolding of their budding romance and subsequent married life.

After living for a time in post-war Washington, Paul and Julia Child moved to France in 1948 when he was transferred to Paris. Her interest in cooking blossomed and she learned—at first just by living in France and later with a somewhat contentious culinary education begun at the Cordon Bleu school. On her return to the United States, she realized how different was the life of the typical American homemaker in the 1950s. Her early attempts to write for these housewives were awkward and not immediately accepted by editors and publishers. She pushed on in an unusual combination of dedication to perfection and somewhat casual good nature. Eventually her perseverance led to a show on WGBH, Boston's public television station. Perhaps because her early shows were unpolished, her appearances were an immediate hit with viewers. She was real and her attitude seemed to say to them, “Come on. If I can do this, so can you.”

Did she ever drop a chicken on the television studio floor, retrieve it and continue prepping it for her audience? Apparently not, though some will swear they saw the show on which it happened. It's like that with larger-than-life personalities. I was fortunate to meet Julia after she had given a cooking demonstration at a winery. Even late in the afternoon of a long day it was obvious this older woman had a great zest for life. I wished I had known her years earlier. Laura Shapiro's biography fills in some of the blanks for such a fan.

 

--Reviewed by Dan Clarke Name Your Link

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