Wendy E. Pfeffer

title.none: Bober, Art, Culture and Cuisine (Pfeffer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0004.006 00.04.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Wendy E. Pfeffer, University of Louisville,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Bober, Phyllis. Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 442. $50.00. ISBN: 0-226-06253-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.04.06

Bober, Phyllis. Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 442. $50.00. ISBN: 0-226-06253-8.

Reviewed by:

Wendy E. Pfeffer
University of Louisville

To write a review of this work for The Medieval Review is challenging for several reasons. First, The Medieval Review's focus is on the Middle Ages and the greater part of this book is devoted to the long pre-history and history that precedes our period of interest (of the 266 pages that constitute text, but 74 are devoted to the Early Middle Ages and the Late Gothic International Style (Chapters 7 and 8). Second, Bober seeks to explore "the essential community of expression in any given era between the culinary arts and other arts more regularly terms 'fine'". (3) She argues that "food serves as a template for examining numerous aspects of human experience--sacral and secular, personal and political, mythic and scientific."(10) While this approach has much merit, Bober cannot, in a book of this length, adequately handle what she sets out to do. So I was disappointed, particularly after the well-presented arguments of the introduction, where Bober demonstrates nicely what her method can bring to the material. Bober's knowledge of art and cuisine are nicely brought together in the Introduction in the discussion of Pieter Aertsen's painting The Meat Stall, a 1551 oil that appears to be an overwhelming array of butchered animals, meats, and fish, but which carries a strong religious message in the various details that Bober and other scholars have noticed. Would that she had been equally successful in bringing together food and art in subsequent chapters.

In those chapters, Bober offers a summary history of the periods she attempts to cover and she tries to bring cuisine in alignment with what she perceives as the dominant mind-set of each period. Her descriptions may be accurate; her identification of mind-set may be correct. But her presentation of the culinary evidence is weak and insufficient for the task.

I will skip the chapters devoted to Prehistory, Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, The Hellenic Experience and Hellenistic Transformations to turn to the period and culture more likely to have immediate impact on the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome. Bober seeks to determine the aesthetic of Roman cuisine and finds the key to that aesthetic in rhetoric: "Romans developed artistic and gustatory means to convince by a principle they termed decor. This Latin word may summon to mind English derivatives such as decoration, but the original expressed 'fittingness,' or appropriateness of a choice of style to the subject at hand--whether in oratory, literature, architecture, other works of arts, or I feel certain, menu- building and gastronomy." (190)

Discussing the late Gothic period, Bober sees one structural framework that can cover everything in the period: "It is therefore most appropriate for us to speak of the scholastic system, orders of chivalry within the feudal system, the system of a Gothic cathedral, or the ordo of the ecclesiastical mass.... The same principles of system and order govern the menus and cookery that characterize meals for the three estates." (239) I do not dispute the usefulness of this conception of the Middle Ages; I contest Bober's success in the demonstration of this system in the medieval kitchen and on the medieval table.

A good part of the volume consists of menus and recipes (269- 321), representing Bober's efforts to recreate the cuisines of the periods she has discussed. For the Middle Ages, Bober offers a menu for "A Late Gothic Feast", and sends readers to the medieval cookbooks prepared by Black, Brown, Hieatt and Butler, Kosman, Sass or Scully (finding these works in the bibliography is not as easy as one might wish; some of these works are listed there under "Primary Sources" or "Early Medieval and Gothic Sources," some under "Cookbooks"). She offers a selection of dishes from a banquet served Henry V at Windsor. (309) As presented by Bober, this is a three-part meal, the first course consisting of a large roast of beef or lamb with a cameline sauce, a chicken tart (vyaund ryall), a capon with sauce, accompanied by a puree of peas (much as I spend time in cookbooks or in the kitchen, I had never seen a modern recipe use the verb "bray" for "crush" before reading this book), fritters and gingerbread. The second course is parallel in structure; the third course resembles our dessert: almond cream, pears in syrup, blancmanger and a subtlety. Given the way the recipes are presented, I would send the prospective cook to another source. I found somewhat off-putting comments like "During summer, and if you have a skilled assistant, spit-roast a whole lamb outdoors, as the Greeks do at Easter." (311) Maybe Bober has access to whole lambs and a roasting pit; I know few people who do.

In all, I found this book disappointing. The author's premise can be condensed into "You are what you eat." There is much to explore in this truism, but Bober has not done so. The book is a very brief history of the world from Ancient Sumer through medieval Europe with food as a central argument. The historical summary is too brief to be truly useful. The recipes are summary and not as well presented as in other cookbooks. If one is looking for a medieval cookbook and one already owns the classics (mentioned above), I might recommend Barbara Santich's The Original Mediterranean Cuisine (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1995). Santich gives an overview of medieval Mediterranean cuisine and then a nice assortment of recipes from the region, with emphasis on Italian and Catalan recipes.

Bober promises a subsequent volume that will follow "ever more costly and grandiloquent propaganda cuisine in the Renaissance". (265) Perhaps that volume, more limited in the time period it will try to cover, will be more successful.