food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


LENTILS… and the New Year!

Lentils (lens culinaris) & “Capo d’anno”

“Like many other nations we also have lentils, perhaps some of the most, if not the most, unhealthy vegetables, except for the broth which, they say, is a miraculous drink for children with smallpox. In general, lentils are only eaten by the lowest of the low”… and so reads in its entirety Giacomo Castelvetro’s (1646-1616) discussion of lentils in “A Brief Account of the Fruits, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, 1614, a treatise the author dedicated to anything but the “lowest of the low,” Lucy, Countess of Bedford!


Castelvetro’s short paragraph on lentils reflects the dominant thinking of its time. Lentils, technically called “pulses” which are a type of bean, were perceived to be of questionable benefit for human consumption. In the 18th book of “De Subtilitate,” 1550, the physician, mathematician and gambler, Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576), considered the effects of a plant called “Melissa” (melissa officinalis L. ?), which is still used in phytotherapy as a tranquilizer and antispasmodic. “Melissa,” he said, can induce pleasant dreams, but these dreams can also “become gloomy, agitated, or even frightful if one eats cabbages, beans, garlic, and onions.” To this he adds, that “from such things is born the belief of witches, who subsist on celery, chestnuts, fava beans, cabbages and beans,” that they can be nocturnally transported to Sabbath orgies!



Cardano and Castelvetro were not alone in their opinion of beans – and hence lentils.* Beans (and lentils) also have a place in Christophorus Ballista’s scientific poem “The Overthrow of Gout,” ca. 1577. A monk and physician active in Strasbourg, Ballista wrote with some practical experience… he had treated the Bishop of Sion then suffering from the disease. Ballista offers more than a few recipes for concoctions to relieve the pain. Among them is one involving Lens (the Latin name for lentils). One can, for example, muddle Fenugreek with Nettle roses and vinegar and bear fat; or one can try smashing Plantain leaves (which are broad and flat and accompany the herb’s spike flowers) with lentils that have been softened by steeping in liquid, barley meal that then has some henbane or hemp root added for good measure!
As for Castelvetro’s comment that lentils are the food of the “lowest of the low,” beans – including lentils – were, in fact, the food of laborers. This point is, perhaps, conveyed best by Annibale Carracci’s “Bean Eater,” (Rome: Galleria Colonna).

Annibale Carracci, Bean Eater, Rome

Annibale Carracci, Bean Eater, Rome

Related to Vincenzo Campi’s “Poulterers,” “Fruit Vendor,” and “Fish Vendors” ( all in Milan: Pinacoteca di Brera) as well as Bartolomeo Passarotti’s “Vegetable Vendors” (Berlin: Staatliche Museen, Gemaldergalerie), and similarly themed paintings that began to appear in the 1580s, Carracci’s “Bean Eater” is representative of the growing popularity of low-life genre scenes.
Humoral/medical theory maintained, according to Shelia Mctighe, that an individual should eat foods conducive to her/his humoral disposition. A food that was wet, dry, hot, or cold by its elemental nature was suitable for the tempers of individual human beings as governed by their predominant humor (cholerics, who tend to be ambitious and aggressive were by their nature hot and dry versus phlegmatics, who tended to be sluggish and relaxed, were wet and cold. They should eat accordingly!)
But humoral disposition was not the only factor affecting dietary prescriptions. The noble class could not properly digest the food of peasants and vice-versa. Thus, Annibale Carracci’s “Bean Eater,” a rather coarse looking fellow, is clearly a “villano” (peasant) shoveling “fagiuoli” (beans) into his mouth. According to Bartolomeo Pisanelli’s “Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere,” 1589, beans were the lowest form of food: “being of poor nourishment to delicate persons, they should be left to working people, and country people.” Giuseppe Rosaccio’s assessment of beans needs to be added to that of Pisanelli. Beans, red meat, dark wine, and coarse bread are “gross” foods and as such they affect the nature of the sperm of those who eat such things. Put simply, “gross” foods produce “gross” semen from which ill tempered, bestial sons are generated!
So, why the title of this post? The answer is found in In Carol Field’s magisterial “Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and traditions of Italy Revealed through the Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods,” 1990), in which Field reviews some of the foods associated with the New Year. These vary throughout the Italian peninsula, in Umbria a cake in the shape of a snake – think shedding of the old skin and regeneration is a must; in Rome dried fruits and honey usher in a sweet new year; and in various other locales LENTILS are the food of choice. For years now, I have replaced the Virginia tradition of black-eyed peas with Lenticchie del Cotechino (Lentils with Cotechino sausage). As Field states in her introductory note to the recipe, “It is a perfect dish with which to start another year, since lentils symbolize money and sausage represents the container that will hold it.”
So, HAPPY NEW YEAR, may 2014 be like your lentil stew- delicious, healthy & prosperous!

This charming fellow's profession is to shoo away any and all bad luck!

This charming fellow’s profession is to shoo away any and all bad luck!

* For a more modern account: “Beans and peas are known to concentrate toxin substances in their seeds. In rare cases, ingestion of these toxins can result in vomiting, fainting… Among the toxins most commonly found in legumes are protease inhibitors, which interfere with the activity of the digestive enzymes and therefore the ability of our intestinal tract to absorb nutrients….” – See, Kimberly B. Flint-Hamilton, “Legumes in Ancient Greece and Rome: Food, Medicine, or Poison? ”Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens,” vol. 68 (1999), page. 374.
Also see:

Shelia McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” “The Art Bulletin,” vol. 86 (June 004), pages 301-323.

Robert M. Schuler, “Three Renaissance Scientific Poems,” “Studies in Philology,” vol. 75 (1978), 1-152.

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Christmas Eve… the first course: CAPPELLACCI di ZUCCA

Cappellacci for the season

Cappellacci for the season

I begin this post with three bits of personal information: 1) I was born in Germany, 2) my birth date is St. Nicholas’s Feast Day (December 6), the day when children in Northern Europe put out their shoes with the hope of discovering them filled with treats – and not a lump of coal – the next morning, and 3) I was raised in a home inflected with Viennese traditions, including those having to do with the Christmas season. While it is true that my family celebrates Christmas Eve with dishes beloved by my Viennese Oma (grandmother), it is also a fact that Italian dishes have made their way onto the holiday menu, squeezed in between leberknödle suppe (liver dumpling soup) and red cabbage! One of the more wonderful additions is Cappellacci di Zucca…. and here I must make a confession. I do not make it. It is a recipe that has been perfected by my husband.

Although both Cappellacci dei Briganti and CAPPELLACCI di ZUCCA are typically served as pastasciutta with lamb ragu*, they are shaped differently. Cappellacci dei Briganti take their name from the conical hats worn by the “briganti,” or ruffian-fighters, in the regions of Molise and Lazio during the political and civil unrest that took place leading up to and following the Unification of Italy (1848-1870). CAPPELLACCI di ZUCCA, which have the more familiar square shape of ravioli, are associated with the sumptuous cuisine of the courts of Emilia-Romagna, specifically that of Ferrara. According to Carol Field, who gives a different explanation for the “Alpine hat” shape of Cappellacci, the stuffed pasta has ‘been around at least since Lucrezia d’Este’s cook gave the recipe to a fellow Ferrarese for a cookbook he published in 1584.” It is not surprisly, she says, that they are stuffed with pumpkin/squash since “the people of Ferrara have been called magnazoca, pumpkin eaters, for a very long time. (“Celebrating Italy,” New York, 1990, page 260.)

In the spirit of ecumenicalism, it must be said that the recipe my husband uses is adapted from Joyce Goldstein’s wonderful “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen” (San Francisco, 1998), page 55). The filling is butternut squash, Parmesan, amaretti (fairly hard and decidedly crunchy almond cookies), & freshly grated nutmeg. I will make a sage-butter sauce laced with currants that have been soaking in brandy!

Paul's Cappellacci
• Lorenza de’Medici offers an alternative in Lorenza”s Pasta” (New York, 1996, page 153). Rather than a meat sauce, she suggests “Cappellacci al Caprino e Melanzane”: which is made of 1 eggplant, baked for 20 minutes, peeled then well mashed with 4 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, salt & pepper. Once well mashed, mix in 6 tablespoons ricotta, 6 Tablespoons goat’s cheese & 2 egg yolk.

Since I have already posted on the key ingredients in CAPPELLACCI DI ZUCCA “zucca,” almonds, sugar and eggs, I will take this opportunity to wish all a joyful season!

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Winter salad… or Puntarelle (Catalonian chicory)


It was early February and it was raining… but it was Rome. My daughter and I bundled-up against the chill and, while attempting to squeeze together under a single, pink polka dot umbrella, crossed the city to Piperno, a cucina romana since 1860. Warmed by the coziness of the place, a glass of robust Montepulciano and the general chatter that exuded conviviality, we settled into the meal. Yet as often happens when empty bellies meet such an environment, our eyes began to survey what was arriving at nearby tables. At one an elegant couple was clearly enjoying a salad the likes of which we had never seen. Corkscrew curls of green, some a feathery pale green, others the intensity of a spring meadow, filled a bowl, a few tumbling onto the table. Our questioning stares paid off in an unexpected and much appreciated way. A bowl of puntarelle was ceremoniously set before us with the compliments – and pride – of the Roman couple. Why pride? Simple. Puntarelle, or cicoria di catalonga, is a green particular to the province of Latina in the region of Lazio in which Rome is situated.


At the time, I didn’t think too much about the spiraling tendril shape of puntarelle. True, I delighted in the arabesques of coiled chicory shoots but I was even more captivated by puntarelle’s slightly bitter taste so perfectly balanced by the saltiness of a dressing laced with anchovy. On a recent walk through Rome that changed when I stumbled into one of Rome’s small open-air markets. Suddenly something that I had given little thought commanded my attention: puntarelle curliques and spirals! Reaching into a bucket of cicoria di catalonga soaking in water, a young woman extracted a stalk, gave it a hearty shake then proceeded to first shove then pull the shoots through a screen mesh. The effect was like that of running a ribbon down the blade of a pair of scissors. It curled… quite elegantly.


In the 16th century, puntarelle, like other greens, was considered a food fit for the lower classes. Like beans and root vegetables, it – in fact, all types of lettuces – was a product of the earth and therefore was deemed appropriate to the digestive systems of those who tilled the soil. (Things of the air were the privileged preserve of the noble classes. Delicate little birds, like ortolon, were the proper fare for princes and popes!) Northern Europeans venturing south, found the Italian penchant for eating raw vegetables – especially salad greens – not only odd but base to the point of being fit for beasts alone. Writing to the noted Bolognese physician and naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, Costanzo Felici da Piobbico (1525?-1585), a botanist and fellow physician, observed that “what is called salad, a common food typical – as the Germans say – to gluttonous Italians” is said to have been “stolen” from the feed of animals.” In his “Lettera sulle insalate,” Costanzo would go on to become, as Laura Gianetti states, the first to stage “a heroic defense of salad.”

The presumed gastronomic sensitivity of the aristocracy was not the only strike against raw greens like puntarelle. In general, salad carried an assortment of sexual connations. In the 1550 edition of Andrea Alciati’s “Emblemata” we come across “A Charm Against Love”:

“The Cyprian goddess wrapped in lettuce leaves the lifeless [body of her beloved] Adonis, gored in the groin by the savage tusk [of a wild boar]. For this reason, lettuce deadens the procreative field even more than the aphrodisiac rocket (or the peppery green commonly called arugula) can stimulate it.”

Fifteen years earlier, Francesco Maria Molza (1489-1544) celebrated salad in “a playful poem imbued with sexual and erotic meaning.” Actually, it was salad dressing that expressed the full expanse of Molza’s humor. Eating sald seasoned with salt was analogous to having same-sex intercourse. Boring, in Molza’s opinion. Spicing things up with oil and vinegar offered greater sensorial pleasure!

By the time Bartolomeo Scappi wrote “The Art and Craft of the Master Cook,” 1570, the fortune of salad was changing. There are instructions for preparing several variations of a thick soup of chicory with meat broth, but there is also mention of elegant salads featuring chicory, lettuce, cooked onions, carrots and alexander shoots. Since Scappi describes a salad served to nobles in November – the very month when puntarella becomes plentiful – one wonders if the curled chicory shoots made their way to the tables of the landed gentry.

Because Scappi did not leave us a recipe for puntarelle– although he mentions sugar as an ingredient to be added to the oil and vinegar of salad dressing – I offer the following as one that is about as authentic as you can get! But first a quick aside. Aretino, famed for his humorously provocative “instruction” manual on the art of whoring (“arte puttanesca”), 1534, also noted the use of sugar on salad. Recalling her youthful sexual exploits, the aged prostitute Nannstates, “And as long as his lust for me lasted, we even put sugar on our salads!”


rome market