00.02.04, Gitlitz and Davidson, A Drizzle of Honey

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Seth Ward

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.004


Gitlitz, David M. and Linda Kay Davidson. A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xi, 324. ISBN: 0-312-19860-4.

Reviewed by:
Seth Ward
Denver University

The Spanish Inquisition represents a nearly unparalleled resource for details about daily lives in Spain and its overseas possessions for several centuries following its institution in 1480; in the annals of pre-modern history, perhaps only the Cairo Geniza is a richer source. The Inquisitors took great interest in a myriad of details, recording oral testimony at great length. The Inquisition was, of course, a quest for information about practices not consonant with Catholicism, often with disastrous results for its victims; it was not a neutral observer and interested primarily in testimony relevant to what it believed to be its sacred office.

The Inquisition was painstakingly interested in everyday practices that provided evidence of Judaizing. Many of these concerned food or festive meals: what food was eaten, how it was prepared, when eaten, in what context. The Inquisitors did not generally inquire about precise measurements and comprehensive cooking directions. But the references to ingredients and preparation allow for a tentative reconstruction of the recipes.

This beautiful book presents both the stories from the Inquisition and the reconstructed recipes, adapted somewhat to the needs of the modern kitchen. Each recipe is preceded by an account of the testimony from which it is taken, with the history of the people mentioned in the testimony, to the extent that it is known. The authors include, as far as possible, the end of the story as well. Despite the very real horrors of torture and the autos-da-fe, the authors maintain that we know only about half of the dispositions of the individuals whose food-preparations are recorded in the cookbook; of those which are known, some will be surprised that many escaped an untimely end.

The authors have reconstructed the recipes on the basis of solid research. They consulted dictionaries and treatises on agriculture and herbal medicine available in late medieval and early modern Iberia. They show a depth of familiarity with classical and medieval Arabic and European sources, including several Spanish cookbooks published in the first century of printing.

The Inquisition sought evidence of Judaizing, and what it sought it frequently enough found. All the individuals were living openly as Christians, and in some cases their families had been Christian for generations. Some may have consciously attempted to preserve Jewish religious practices; others merely maintained social ties with former coreligionists, and yet others were faithful Catholics. Clearly, for many, these practices did not reflect Kashrut--Jewish dietary law--or religious practice, but the traditional training of their mothers and grandmothers (or, for servants, of their mistresses). Nor is it comprehensive, as we know only about the elements the Inquisition was looking for. Thus we know little about Hanukkah practices (270); perhaps these vanished quickly after conversion to Christianity or did not exist; in any case, even if they did, they did not show up on the Inquisition's radar.

The Inquisition was interested in Friday practices such as lighting candles and the preparation of hamin or adafina, meals prepared on Friday and "hidden away" to be slow-cooked for the Sabbath. Not only the Sabbath, but food-related items for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover all show up in Inquisition's records.

Washing hands before eating, and Kosher-style slaughter, soaking and draining meat in the Jewish way, removing fat and the sciatic vein all figure in Inquisitorial records. Browning meat in olive oil does not seem remarkable at first glance, but was often noted with suspicion in these records, as the typical Iberian practice seems to have been to use lard instead. Yet some of the testimony about Judaizing involved preparation of milk and meat together or even of pork, items proscribed by traditional Jewish practice.

Inquisition records testify to kitchen practices, relations between the family and the servants, and the wealth of products available to the Spanish kitchen. Beef was food for the poor (146-7), chicken and veal for the rich. Each recipe is preceded by an account of the inquisition testimony and the background, as far as it can be known, including whether or not the people involved were eventually burned at the stake. These stories, most of which are every-day occurences recounted under very trying circumstances, bring middle class Iberian society to light. Although they might be somewhat repetitive to those interested in the book for its recipes, to this reviewer, these accounts are the highlight of the volume, together with the documentation for late-medieval cookery and herbaries.

The recipes in this book strike a middle ground between contemporary and Iberian practices. The authors have made allowances for a modern kitchen, including microwave. Although they refer to period Spanish sensibilities about seasonings, they claim to hav e toned down the heavy dose of spices that seems to have been typical of this cuisine. Nevertheless, the recipes will not always be easy for the modern cook, and rely on ingredients that may not always be easy to obtain outside of specialty grocers. This reviewer, impressed by the cookbook's historical research and presentation, is fond of cooking--but not of recipes. Presented with a gift of the cookbook, the reviewer's mother--who does use cookbooks--was not immediately impressed with the viability of the recipes in her kitchen. Although introductory material makes it clear how to "re-adjust back" to the historic measurements, some purists, too, may be disappointed that these allowances have been made, and other cooks might want more readily accessible products or an internet reference for where some of the more exotic ones can be purchased.

Since the mid-1980s, there has been growth in interest in crypto-Judaism and Sephardic Jewry, and recent years have seen many important publications of Inquisition material. It goes without saying that the same period has witnessed an explosion in Women's studies. This cookbook is an important contribution to these fields. Reflecting solid scholarship, it will also provide dedicated cooks with an opportunity to counterbalance somewhat the popularity of reconstructing medieval jousting and war, and allow us to re-create a reasonably realistic approximation of the culinary experiences of the subjects of our research.

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Seth Ward

Denver University