Even the most casual of wanderers through the great Cathedral in Cusco, Peru, cannot miss the monumental painting of “The Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata (ca. 1710-1773). The imagery is readily recognizable. Surrounded by the apostles and distinguished by an aureole of divine light, Christ holds a loaf of bread in his left hand and raises his right in a gesture of benediction. Bread, however, is not the only food to be consumed at this sacred meal. Carafes of wine (or, possibly, chicha made of fermented maize) as well as two platters laden with fruits and ears of corn are on the table. But the centerpiece – quite literally for it occupies the middle of the table and, hence, the center of the canvas – is a roasted “cuy” or guinea pig. The Peruvian Quechua artist has painted what he knew. Cuy (cuye or curi) was traditionally reserved for ceremonial meals.
The roasted guinea pig – its little clawed feet pointed heavenward – caused Zapata’s “Last Supper” to be imprinted in my visual memory. The detail also encouraged me to take a careful look at what is featured for dinner in other Renaissance and Baroque paintings. And so it was that on a recent trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art I took notice of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta’s oil painting “Supper at Emmaus,” circa 1720. Recounted in the Gospels of Luke and Mark, the story goes like this. Walking towards the town of Emmaus after Jesus’s Crucifixion, two apostles meet a stranger. The pair invites the stranger to join them for dinner. He agrees. It is only when the unrecognized man breaks bread that “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:31). In depicting this story, which is one of the early resurrection appearances of Christ related in the Bible, Piazzetta – like Zapata – decided to set the supper table with food other than the traditional Eucharistic bread and wine. Piazzetta’s supper at Emmaus also includes a plate piled high with asparagus.
Wild and cultivated asparagus has graced tables for centuries. The Roman M. Gavinus Apicius – who, according to Seneca and Martial, made a fortune – provided a couple of recipes for his late 4th and 5th century readers. They involve crushing asparagus tips in wine, draining the mashed tips then adding an assortment of flavoring ingredients: coriander, savory, lovage seeds, and olive oil. The mixture is then baked until it sets.
Apicius’s cookery book was in circulation when Bartolomeo Scappi began to compile his own “L’ arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco,” 1570. Like his ancient predecessor, Scappi offered recipes requiring “the most tender parts” of asparagus to be mashed, seasoned then baked. He, however, liked the idea of combining asparagus with hops. He also added some interesting ingredients.
“Take the tenderest parts [of asparagus and hops] and parboil in water, then take it out and squeeze the water out of it. Beat it… with mint, marjoram and a little parsley, and sauté in butter with raisins.” Place the mixture into a piecrust shell and bake.
(Recipe#103 in book V,
The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, translated and commentary by Terence Scully. Toronto, 2011, page 482.
Besides being tasty, asparagus was recognized as having medicinal value. Scappi offered recipes for “potions” of asparagus and hops as well as thick soup to take to the sick. In his treatise The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro concurred. “Quite apart from being good to eat, asparagus is a most health-giving vegetable; it cannot harm any part of the human body and is positively helpful to those who find urinating painful.” A proud native of Italy who was living in England at the time of the book’s writing, Castelvetro could not help but pass negative judgment on the “weedy specimens of this noble plant for sale in London.”[i]
Not all 16th and early 17th century writers agreed that asparagus was good for you. Alessandro Petronio, who in Del viver delli Romani et di conservar la sanita, 1581, weighted his personal experience far and above the authority of ancient texts by Galen and Hippocrates, argued that the fetid urine that follows the ingestion of asparagus clearly indicates that the vegetable putrefies the body![ii]
Whatever your opinion concerning asparagus might be, for 10 days each year it is unquestionably the cherished vegetable of Santena in the Piedmont region of Italy. http://www.disagrainfesta.it/piemonte/2013/sagra-dellasparago-santena-torino/
[i] Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, translated by Gillian Riley (Blackawton, Totnes: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 46-47.
[ii] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 38. Petronio’s text appeared in Latin in 1581 and then in Italian translation in 1592.