Tastes of the Mediterranean

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Tastes of the Mediterranean, a pop-up exhibition at the Folger, was open to the public and took place March 31, 2019, from 7-8 pm in the Gail Kern Pastor Reading Room. This exhibit was curated by Elisa Tersigni in association with the Folger Consort's Tastes of the Mediterranean: Music of 16th-Century Spain and Italy and the Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research Before 'Farm to Table': Early Modern Foodways and Cultures. A related blog post, "Tastes of the Mediterranean: Italian Food Before Italy", is published on Shakespeare & Beyond.

Items included

Early Modern Approaches to Food

1) Thomas Walkington (?–1621), The Optic Glass of Humors. London: 1607. Images available in the Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: STC 24967

Thomas Walkington’s book articulates the theory of the four humors—a theory that early modernists inherited from the teachings of the Ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates.
According to this theory, human temperaments were determined by the proportion of four fluids in the body: yellow bile (or choler), blood (or sanguis), phlegm, and black bile (or melancholy). As the diagram here depicts, the humors were each composed of two of four qualities (hot or cold, dry or moist) and one of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). They were also each associated with one of the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter) and with one of the stages of life (childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age).
Good health was understood as achieving balance between the four humors. Eucrasia (“good mixture”) was the condition of being balanced; dyscrasia (“bad mixture”) was the condition of being unbalanced.

2) Henry Peacham (c. 1576–c. 1643), Minerva Brittana or A Garden of Heroical Devices. London, 1612. Images available in the Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: STC 19511

Henry Peacham’s Minerva Brittana was a popular emblem book in early modern England. Emblems books featured allegorical illustrations with accompanying texts espousing a moral. The woodcuts shown here depict two of the four humors: sanguine and choler. In sanguine people, blood was dominant, giving them flushed skin and a happy demeanor. Sanguine people were thought to be joyful, youthful, and prone to indulgences, including food and wine. Here, sanguine is depicted as a youthful man playing music in spring. In choleric people, yellow bile was dominant. Cholerics were understood as being hot-tempered and passionate. Their fiery personalities led to overactive digestion and a lean physique. Here, choler is represented as a sword-wielding man in summer.

3) Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490–1546), The Castle of Health. London, 1610. Select images are available through Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: STC 7657

The Castle of Health was the first bestselling diet book printed in the English language. It prescribes foods for people based on their humors. For instance, a chloric person, who was characterized as hot and dry, was thought to benefit from consuming cold and wet foods, such as melon, which was thought to dampen choler’s natural fire.
Here, Elyot explains that, although people likely initially subsisted entirely off fruits in the Garden of Eden, the changes our postlapsarian ancestors experienced to their diets permanently altered the human body, making fruits unsuitable in excess.

Early Modern English Depictions of Food in the Garden of Eden

4) The Bible: that is, the Holy Scriptures Contained in the Old & New Testament. London, 1607.

Folger call number: STC 2199

5) John Parkinson (1567–1650). Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris. Or A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers Which our English Air Will Permit to be Nursed Up. London, 1629. Images available through Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: STC 19300

Both the bible and the herbal open with an image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Notice the differences between the two images: the bible depicts Adam and Eve standing next to a single tree, holding an ambiguously shaped forbidden fruit. The image in the herbal—a genre that took an encyclopedic approach to plants—shows an abundant variety of plants, flowers, and fruits, including pineapples, strawberries, and sunflowers.

Cross-Atlantic Culinary Encounters

6) Jose de Veitia Linage (1623–1688), trans. John Stevens. The Spanish Rule of Trade to the West Indies. London, 1702.

Folger call number: HF 3688 W5 V3 E5 1702 Cage

When the people of the Americans and early-modern Europeans encountered one another, they exchanged not only languages and ideas, but also plants, animals, and diseases. This exchange was devastating for indigenous communities. The exchange was a source of obsession for Europeans, who wanted to buy and try all the “new world” foods available to them.[1]
The lists found in the book detail just some of the consumable commodities that were exchanged between Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the Spanish West Indies. From Italy came aniseed, rice, almonds, and wheat. From Portugal came white and brown sugar. From Spain came raisins, figs, salt, saffron, and barley. From the West Indies came sugar, ginger, cacao, tamarind, sarsaparilla, and ambergris. The availability of foods in new textures and tastes transformed Mediterranean cooking into the cuisines we know today.

7) John Gerard (1545–1612). The Herbal, or, General History of Plants. London, 1597. Images available through Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: STC 11750 copy 5

John Gerard’s Herbal includes many plants that were new to Europe. This opening illustrates mala insana [mad apple, i.e. eggplant]. Gerard’s description for eggplant reveals another early-modern food theory, which is that local, and not foreign, foods are healthiest:
“… in Egypt and Barbary (i.e. north Africa), they used to each the fruit of mala insana … but I rather wish Englishmen to content themselves with the meat and sauce of our own country, than with fruit and sauce eaten with such peril: for doubtless these apples have a mischievous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken.”
Eggplant—still called melanzana in modern Italian—was adopted into Italian diets in the Renaissance, but remained unpopular in Britain.

8) Giovanni Battista Ferrari (1584–1655). Flora overo cultura di Fiori [Flowers, or, On the Cultivation of Flower Gardens]. Rome, 1676.

Folger call number: SB369 .C6 1676 Cage copy 1 (folio)

Travel between the Europe and the West Indies required long journeys aboard ships, where sailors had limited access to fresh foods. In the early modern period—before refrigeration and modern preservatives—sailors ate foods that could keep for long periods of time and be easily transported, such as ship’s biscuits (i.e. hard, dry crackers), salted fish, and beer. Scurvy, a painful disease resulting from vitamin C deficiency, was commonplace and could kill an entire crew within two months. In 1747, James Lind—a surgeon’s mate in the Royal Navy—conducted a study of scurvy aboard the HMS Salisbury. By administering different remedies to different groups of affected crew members, Lind was able to identify lemons (a fruit very high in vitamin C) as a cure.
Lemons originally came to the Romans through Arab trade routes and were an exotic luxury in the early modern period. In early modern Italian cooking, lemons replaced the citron, an ancestor fruit that was treasured in ancient Rome; they have remained a defining ingredient of Italian cuisine. Today, Italy is the largest producer of lemons in the world.

The Chocolate Crux

9) Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, trans. James Wadsworth. A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. London, 1640

Folger call number: STC 5570

10) Henry Stubbe (1632–1676). The Indian Nectar, or, a Discourse Concerning Chocolata. London, 1662.

Folger call number: S6049

Chocolate was considered a mysterious substance by Europeans who first encountered it. It was unclear whether chocolate was a food or a drug, and whether—if it was food—it was a food or a drink (a distinction that would determine whether it was acceptable to consume during periods of religious fasting). It was also unclear how chocolate fit into humoral theory: was it meant to be drunk after being heated, and therefore hot and wet? Was it meant to contain spices and be eaten solid, and therefore cold and dry? Its ambiguous nature made it suspect, and it was hotly debated in pamphlets, two of which are displayed here.

Early Modern Italian Cookbooks and Culinary Instructional Manuals

11) Bartolomeo Scappi (c. 1500–1577). Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto (Work of Bartolomeo Scappi, Private Cook to Pope Pius V. Venice, 1605. Select images available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: TX711 S2 1605 Cage

Bartolomeo was a celebrity culinary chef in the Italian Renaissance who concluded his career as the private chef of Pope Pius V. His monumental cookbook—the first cookbook to be published by a practicing chef—includes about one thousand Renaissance recipes, as well as menus and instructions for everything from cooking techniques to carrying food from the kitchen to a banquet.
This image displays a Renaissance kitchen. In the center background, a boy turns a spit on the hearth, the part of a room where a domestic fire is kept. In the foreground, tables display various kitchen tools, including a rolling pasta cutter, a knife, and a pestle and mortar.

12) Vincenzo Cervio (c. 1510–1580). Il trinciante (The Carver). Rome, 1593.

Folger call number: 159-108q

Vincenzo Cervio, a renowned carver in the Italian Renaissance, published this instruction manual on how to execute proper carving at the banquet table. While today it may seem strange to have an entire profession dedicated to carving food, banquets were carefully scripted social occasions, much like an immersive theatre performance.
Cervio prescribes a method of carving that involves holding food (usually meat) in the air on a fork and then carving it with a knife so that slivers fell onto a plate. This was known as the Italian method of carving; the German method of carving involved food cut while placed on a plate or table.

Depictions of Food Merchants in Rome

13) Andrea Vaccario. Ritratto di quelli che vanno vendendo per Roma (Portrait of those selling in Rome). Rome, 1612. Image available on Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call Number: ART 231-749 (size L)

This print illustrates the various merchants selling food and related wares in Rome. The list begins with Aqua vita (water of life, i.e. alcohol) and concludes with Funghi fresche (fresh mushrooms). Other panels include food—such as crabs, white rice, fresh eggs, fat pigs, good fish, beautiful garlic, and sweet olives—and tools for use in the kitchen—such as chairs, candles, firewood, linen, and brooms.

Mediterranean Influences in Early Modern English Manuscript Recipe Books

14) Valert Payne. Cook-book of Valert Payne. England, 18th century. Images available in the Folger Digital Image Collection. Images available on Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: W.b.103

15) Rebeckah Winche (? –1713). Receipt book of Rebeckah Winche. England, c. 1666. Image available on Folger Digital Image Collection.

Folger call number: V.b.366

The Folger Shakespeare Library has the largest collection in the world of early modern English manuscript cookbooks. Many of these cookbooks were collected by women and passed down through families. While both of these cookbooks were compiled by English women, they contain some recipes with Mediterranean elements: one includes a recipe for "chocolat", and the other a recipe for “Italian crust,” which looks to be similar to ladyfinger cookies, still popular in Italy today.


  1. First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas. 19 Jan.–31 Mar. 2019. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC.