food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Abstinence & Disguise

The wanton revelry of carnival is done & the Lenten season has begun. For many the next forty days will be a period of abstinence. Promises to forego chocolate, pledges to resist the temptation to devour sweet-buns and resolutions to withstand the allure of a nightly bowl of ice-cream were uttered as the gastronomic indulgences of Shrove Tuesday – the final day of mardi gras – gave way to the pious solemnity of Ash Wednesday. The transition from feasting to fasting was not, as Carol Field has stated, to be taken lightly.“The [Catholic] Church was serious about Lent: Anyone who ate meat during the designated days was kept from communion at Easter by decree of the Council of Toledo in 653. Charlemagne [ca. 742-814] actually sentenced such miscreants to death.”(1)

As the centuries passed and the Roman Catholic Church splintered into various Protestant faiths, the issue of fasting, which could be as excessive as the rapaciousness associated with feasting, was scrutinized – condemned as “vain religion” by some and defended for its spiritual cleansing effects by others. Giving-up meat meant that for forty days a diet heavy in fish was de rigueur. While this might be spiritually sustaining it was not, some believed, physically fortifying. More than a few physicians counseled that eating something that was by its very nature cold and wet simply made no sense when it was damp and frigid outside. No wonder people suffered from apoplexy, paralysis, catarrh and arthritis! (2) To this we can add that it is no wonder that foods were devised to urge patience – such as the small cookies known as “pazientini” or count down the days and weeks until Easter arrived – as do the seven fingered or seven limbed bread figures which are reduced by one appendage each passing Sunday.

an edible "advent" calendar of sorts... a leg broken off for each passing Sunday of Lent.

an edible “advent” calendar of sorts… a leg broken off for each passing Sunday of Lent.

Perhaps one of Carol Field’s most interesting asides is that had Lent not existed, “it would have had to [be] invent[ed]” since by carnival’s end, larders were low and fields were encased in ice. The bounty of autumn harvest was long gone and the abundance of summer fruits but a mirage.

Detail of a very robust "Carnival" and an emaciated "Lent" from Brueghel's Combat Between Carnival & Lent, 1559

Detail of a very robust “Carnival” and an emaciated “Lent” from Brueghel’s Combat Between Carnival & Lent, 1559


The juxtaposition between the excesses of carnival and the abstemious regimen of Lent is often illustrated by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting The Combat Between Carnival and Lent. For my part, I find the masterfully illuminated calendar pages of “January” and “February” in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, ca. 1412-16, equally eloquent.

"January" Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

"February" Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

But in considering the Très Riches Heures image of “February” it is worth broadening the field. In 1642-43, Joachim von Sandrart (1606-1688) painted a series of works for Prince Maximilian of Bavaria’s dining room in the Old Palace in Schleissheim. Like the calendar pages in the Très Riches Heures, Sandrart’s dining room series devoted a painting to each of the 12 months. Unlike the illuminated calendar pages, which pictured activities associated with each month – feasting in January, dalliance in May, shearing sheep in July, hunting in December – Sandrart used a single figure to embody the essence of each month, its personality if you will. Here, too, we see harvesters and hunters, their expressions and postures conveying much about what they do. As for “February,” the month of frozen fields and empty larders, it is personified as a very prosperous cook. The clear hint of a prideful smile signals his delight in his endeavor… and certainly his corpulence suggests he enjoys consuming the result of his labors. Sandrart’s painting is rich and suggestive in its detail. Fowl and meat in various degrees of wholeness overflow the table in the immediate foreground. Revelers, their glasses raised high, are seen through an arched opening leading to a distant space. A few dance. But it is the portly cook, his eyes meeting ours, who commands our attention. So, too, does the dish he holds up for our inspection. What is all of this abundance? Was Sandrart depicting February as the month of carnival excess? Is this the last cavalier foray into sensorial indulgences before the quieter, meditative, abstemious days of Lent? Perhaps… but perhaps not. Maybe Sandrart was acknowledging the culinary creativity – the sleight-of-spoon-in-hand – that during periods of religious fasting transformed fish into “ham,” mashed turnips into pigeon or even a mélange of root vegetables into a peacock pie… or whatever delicacy is disguised beneath the feathers and pastries held aloft by Sandrart’s “February” chef!

Joachim von Sandraft, "February" from the series "The Months," 1642-43

Joachim von Sandraft, “February” from the series “The Months,” 1642-43

As Jennifer Davis explains, “Religious fast days provided opportunities to display prowess with culinary disguises… François La Varenne included a recipe for “ham” made from salmon farce* in his influential Le cuisinier François. Le cuisinier (The Royal and Bourgeois Cook), first published in 1691 and attributed to the royal cook Massialot, offered instructions for an entire meal of root vegetables, as had been served on Holy Friday, 1690, to Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans. Onions, turnips, and parsnips were sautéed in butter and mashed into a farce… The creative cook would then use this farce to sculpt different white fish…. Carrots and beets could be prepared similarly to imitate pink-fleshed fish, such as salmon or trout.”(3)

What, exactly, lay hidden beneath the crust and plumage that Sandrart’s cook holds up for our inspection must remain a mystery but surely it brought pleasure to the tongue just as Sandrart’s painting brings delight to the eye.

*farce, from the verb ‘farcier, meaning to stuff, it came to mean presenting things in ways that made them appear other than what they were.

  1. Carol Field, Celebrating Italy (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), page 384.
  2. Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 202. Also see, Martha Daas, “Food for the soul: feasting and fasting in the Spanish Middle Ages,” EHumanista (September 2013).
  3. Jennifer J. Davis, “Masters of Disguise: French Cooks Between Art and Nature, 1651-1793,” Gastronomica, vol. 9 (2009), 38.