Great Books: Out of the East

We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)

But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?

For that is indeed the case.

Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)

Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides De Materia Medica. Cumin and dill seeds were popular spices in many medieval communities. (British Museum, public domain)

In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain.  The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Ryland Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).

What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.

Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination, by Paul Freedman. Yale, 2008

A shout-out of thanks to Estara Arrant, Hadas Binyamini, Avital Morris, and Douglas Graebner, without whose wisdom I would never have learned to navigate reams of images of medieval manuscripts.

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2 thoughts on “Great Books: Out of the East

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