food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Butter… & curd



Let’s start with the basics. It’s a matter of language… butter versus curd.

“In simple terms butter is an edible fatty solid made from cream and milk by the process of churning.” In fact, it’s quite fatty, containing at least 80% butterfat by current industry standards. By contrast, “curd is a soft, white substance formed when milk coagulates” either because it has soured or been treated with enzymes. This coagulated milk is “used as the basis for cheese.”[i] Just for the record, and with the following rhyme in mind,

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey…,

whey is the liquid that’s left after milk has curdled and been strained in the cheese-making process.[ii]


So much for the basics!

Butter and curd are decidedly not the same thing. And certainly no self-respecting cook or host would substitute one for the other at table! But as obvious as the distinction might seem, the difference between butter and curd is not clear… at least if you read the Bible. In fact, one edition of the Bible uses the word butter while another uses the term curd.

I’m not sure how I started down this path but it began in earnest when I consulted a Concordance, an index of principal terms found in the Bible. My Concordance, a wonderful leather-bound volume that I found years ago at a yard sale, was published in 1845. In it butter has a comparatively impressive presence with no less than ten Old Testament passages cited. With these citations in hand, I began leafing through different editions of this incredible text. It took only moments to discover that I was confronting a challenge. I couldn’t find any of the cited references to “butter” in either the Revised Standard Version of the Catholic Holy Bible or in the Holy Scriptures published by The Jewish Publication Society of America in 1966. In its stead was the word “curd.” Curious and undaunted by this language substitution, I next turned to The Authorized King James Version of the Bible published by Oxford University Press in 1944. In this edition of Holy Scripture the word “butter” did, in fact, appear. Moreover, it did so precisely as my Concordance of 1845 had noted. What’s this all about? An attempt at an explanation is, I think, required.


——– butter churns & firkins used for storage


Before considering this and several of the passages in question, it is, I think, worth mentioning that my Concordance indexed “curd” only once. The passage itself, Job 10:10, doesn’t use the noun curd but rather the verb “curdled.” Notably, all three of the editions of the Bible that I consulted – the Catholic Holy Bible, the Holy Scriptures published by The Jewish Publication Society and the King James Bible – used the same word: “curd”. Here, there are no butter substitutions!

Remember that Thou hast made me of clay [says Job];

And wilt Thou not turn me to dust again?

Didst Thou not [also] pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?[iii]


——- History of Job, manuscript illumination, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Department                        des manuscripts, Latin 15675, folio 5v.

There are two possible ways to read this. One takes into consideration the idiomatic meaning of “to curdle,” as in ‘it made my blood curdle with fear and terror.’ Let’s face it, the “sore boils” that blistered Job’s body from head to toe can be understood as disfigurements that resembled lumps of soured milk that would cause anyone’s blood to curdle with horror!

The second possibility is far more palatable but it also calls for thinking creatively. On the one hand, it requires that we visualize in our mind’s eye what curd looks like. (Think cottage cheese!!!) On the other, it asks us to imagine what butter looks like after it has been shaped and molded in wondrous ways.

For centuries, butter has been a medium for sculpture. Bartolomeo Scappi, for example, made note in 1571 of several butter sculptures featured at a banquet, including “an elephant with a castle on its back” (a personal favorite) and “a unicorn that has its horn in the mouth of a serpent.”[iv]


In more recent history, Caroline Shaw Brooks (1840-1913), the enterprising wife of an Arkansas farmer, produced the greatly celebrated butter sculpture Dreaming Iolanthe, 1873.[v] With that in mind, consider the single biblical reference to curd. To me, it can be read as anticipating the later use of butter as a medium of sculpture. In Job 10:10, God is characterized as a sculptor. Not only is He the creator of Adam and Eve, having modeled both of clay (Genesis 2: 27), He is also cast as a sculptor (if you will) for here he gives shape to poor Job’s face and body by “curdling” it with soured milk!

As for Caroline Brooks, she was by no means the first sculptor to use butter as a material suited to the art of modeling. Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), the artist responsible for the marble statue of a toga-clad and very oratorical George Washington (1832), was said to have displayed his craft of butter sculpting before a coterie of ladies enjoying tea with his mother. Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the master famed for, among other works, a recumbent and suggestively [un]covered statue of Pauline Borghese (1805-08), also was said to have sculpted butter. Working as a lowly scullery boy, he molded a lion that won him some serious financial backing.[vi]


—– Minnesota State Capitol modeled of butter

The stories about Greenough and Canova may belong to the world of myth and conceit but Brooks was the real deal. Instead of wielding a hammer and chisel she shaped and etched figures with butter paddles, cedar sticks, broom straws, and a camel’s hair pencil! Clearly, she was in the vanguard. More than two decades after Brooks’ Dreaming Iolanthe garnered critical acclaim, butter sculpture began to come into its own in the arena of the fair, if not in the world of art. Among the featured exhibits at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901, was a rendering in butter of Minnesota’s State Capitol. Measuring over eleven feet in length and five feet in height, the work had kept John K. Daniels and his brother Hacon Daniels busy for at least fifteen hours a day, every day for more than five weeks. A fitting, albeit ephemeral, tribute to the “bread & butter state,” Minnesota, which sponsored the Exposition project![vii]

But back to butter versus curd.

I will settle the issue of terminology with Pliny the Elder’s first century, encyclopedic compendium concerning “the nature of things,” The Natural History. Butter, or butyrum in Latin and βούτυρον in Greek, means quite simply “cow cheese.” Let’s now face facts. “Cow cheese” is precisely the stuff of curd and butter so let’s go with butter as the catch-all term.

Pliny did more than supply us with a working definition of butter. He addressed the issue of its consumption. Butter, he informs us, is “held as the most delicate of food among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large.”[viii] Writing several decades before Pliny, Strabo put a different spin on butter-eaters. Mysians, who dwelled in ancient northwest Asia Minor, or Anatolia (present day Turkey), abstained from eating meat, preferring to live on honey, milk and cheese. Perhaps because they shunned slaughter, they lived, according to Strabo, “a peaceable life, and for this reason are called… god-fearing.”[ix] Here, Strabo implies that there is something righteous about milk-products, including cow-cheese or curd or butter. So, too, do many of the biblical references noted in my Concordance.


In Genesis 18: 8, for example, butter is one of the comestibles that the God-fearing, devout, and virtuous Abraham set before the angelic strangers who visited him just before the destruction of the sin-ridden city of Sodom. The significance of the meal offered by Abraham is explained in, among other places, Deuteronomy 32: 13-14. Here butter joins honey as well as the “finest of wheat” and “the blood of grape” (wine) as the food that God bestows upon the righteous. No wonder then that in Isaiah 7: 14-15, a passage understood as foretelling the coming of Christ, we read the following.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.

Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son

and shall call him Immanuel.

He shall eat butter and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”

I don’t want to push the equation of butter and godliness too far. Neither do I want to suggest that keeping idle – female – hands busy with the butter churn was a way to keep the fairer sex out of the proverbial playground of the devil. That’s me reading into a text! The truth is that butter, or at least the task of churning milk into butter, had its fair share of devilish overtones and undercurrents. Popular imagination saw pixies in the cream! Hence, for centuries, churners chanted charms when cream proved slow to clot. They did so with the hope of countering any and all spirits that might hinder their labor.

“Come, butter, come,

Come, butter, come;

Peter stands at the gate

Waiting for a butter cake.

Come, butter, come.”

According to Iona and Peter Opie, the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, there is more than a little evidence to suggest chanting while churning was a widespread and long-lived practice. “Supernatural aid has been consistently called upon through more than 400 years of Protestantism. Thomas Ady, writing in 1656, knew an old woman who said the butter would come straight away if it [“butter, come, butter”] was repeated three times, ‘for it was taught [to] my Mother by a learned Church-man in Queen Maries days, when Churchmen had more cunning and could teach people many a trick.’”[x]

If all of this is just too unpalatable for the secular at heart, dump the milk and try the following recipe from Giovanni de Rosselli’s Epilario, or the Italian Banquet…, 1516. “To counterfeit butter,” grind 1 pound of blanched almonds with half a glass of rosewater, add a bit of sugar and, to make it yellow, some saffron. Let the mixture thicken over night and presto![xi]

Otherwise make your “cow cheese” even more delectable by following the recommendation in Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies to Adorn their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distilleries, with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters, 1603, which explains “How to make sundry sorts of most daintie Butter, having a lively taste of Sage, Cinamon [sic.], Nutmegs, Mace, etc.” Simply mix into your churned butter a few drops of oil extracted from one of the above listed herbs and spices. Delicious!

For my part, I’m going to slather some of the creamiest of butters on a slice of bread right now!



Ina Garten’s Recipe  for Herb Butter
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced scallions (white and green parts)
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine the butter, garlic, scallions, dill, parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat until mixed, but do not whip.
2012, Ina Garten, All Rights Reserved




[ii] During the long medieval period, butter was a rarity in winter months when cattle had little to graze upon. The new shoots of spring led ultimately to the sweetest butter being churned in the month of May, as both Mikael Agricola (ca. 1510-1557) and Bartolomeo Scappi (ca. 1500-1577) observed.

[iii] Here, and throughout unless otherwise noted, I use the Holy Bible, revised version, Catholic Edition, 1952 translation for the Old Testament.

[iv] Bartolomeo Scappi, The Art and Craft of a Master Cook in Terence Scully, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) (Toronto University Press, 2011), page 398.

[v] Pamela M. Simpson, “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings. A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 41, no. 1 (2007), pages 1-20.

[vi] Simpson, “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings. A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium,” page 2, note 6.

[vii] Karal Ann Marling, “’She Brought Forth Butter in a Lordly Dish’: The Origins of Minnesota Butter Sculpture,” Minnesota History, vol. 50, no. 6 (1987), pages 218-228, specifically page 223.

[viii] Pliny, The Natural History, translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855), book 28, chapter 35.

[ix] Strabo, Geography, book 7, chapter 3. https://books.google.com/books?id=xjIzAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA454&lpg=PA454&dq=Strabo+%22capnobatae%22&source=bl&ots=h2pANDkj-W&sig=75vWElcxj-sItWzLPgHqBP25ml0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi4o-yokOPRAhWO8oMKHSFqDKQQ6AEIIzAC#v=onepage&q=Strabo%20%22capnobatae%22&f=false

Accessed January 27, 2017.

[x] Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pages 124-125, rhyme no. 85.

[xi] Giovanni de Rosselli, Epilario, or the Italian Banquet Wherein is Shewed the Maner How to Dresse and Prepare all Kind of Flesh, Foules or Fishes. As Also How to Make Sauces, Tartes, Pies. With an Addition of Many Other Profitable and Necessary Things (London: William Barley, 1598), n.p.

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Skeletons on the table!


Think centerpiece… How about a construction of willow, fern, and flowers or perhaps an ensemble of candles artfully arranged around a blown glass figurine, or maybe a small flock of swans carved in ice? All are prosaic when compared with the creations – sometimes revealed as a parade of fanciful dishes – that in fact and fiction graced ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque banquet tables.(1) Consider, for example, this tidbit of culinary performance in Petronius’s mid-1st century Satyricon (36).


“ ‘This is sauce for the dinner.’ As [Trimalchio, the host] spoke, four dancers ran up in time with the music and took off the top part of the dish. Then we saw… fat fowls and sow bellies, and in the middle there was a hare with wings like Pegasus. Four figures of [the satyr] Marsyas positioned at each corner of the plate also caught the eye; they let a spiced sauce run from their wine-skin [flasks] over the fish swimming about in a kind of sauce tide.”

If Petronius’s imagination is too much for one’s credulity to swallow, then consider the elaborate sugar sculptures recorded in etchings by the Dutch artist Arnold van Westerhout (1651-1725) after confectionary creations by Giovanni Battista Lenardi (1656-1704).(2) (see my earlier post, “Sugar… and ingegno)

Westerhout sugar sculpturejpg

To these impressive images-of-record we can add Bartolomeo Scappi’s brief notations concerning some statue di butiro, or butter sculptures, in his Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570:

“An elephant with a castle on its back,” “Hercules wrenching the jaw of a lion,” and “a Moorish king astride a camel.” (3)

But these wonderful molded concoctions and constructions were not the only things placed amid an abundance of dishes, bowls, and platters featuring the diversity and fecundity of nature as well as the creativity of those manipulating it. Again, I turn to Petronius’s Satyricon (34) and the banquet of excess known as the Cena Trimalchionis.


“As we were poring over the labels [proclaiming that the wine had spent ‘100 years in the bottle’], Trimalchio clapped his hands and cried, ‘Ah me, wine lives longer than miserable man. So let us be merry.”

Trimalchio’s declaration was accompanied by an object; a small “silver skeleton made so that its joints and sockets could be moved and bent in every direction.”


These skeletons are noted with a fair amount of frequency in the literature on the ancient Roman table and its customs but I never focused on them until I saw one in the exhibition “Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei” at the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome in the fall of 2015. (4) The small, bronze figure – a larva convivialis – is one of only ten or so that have survived from antiquity into the modern era. As Petronius’s text suggests, the skeleton is meant as a reminder of our mortality, hence carpe diem, seize the day, eat, drink, and be merry! Yet these little skeletons do something else. They are a material example of the close ties that bind food and drink to death in both the ritualized practices surrounding grief and loss and in the carefree frivolity of popular festivals associated with, for example, the Day of the Dead and Lent. (5)


In fact, the Victorian practice of picnicking at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia (where I live) remains alive and well! http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/5891-how-to-picnic-right-at-hollywood-forever-cemetery

The union of joyful feasting and the less than palatable prospect of a death had some interesting iterations over the centuries. In Renaissance Italy young men of patrician rank and some of the most renowned artistic talents of the day organized themselves into compagnie to express youthful exuberance and exhibit impressive talents. Sporting names such as The Company of Hose (as in hosiery), The Company of the [Mason’s] Trowel, and the Company of the Cauldron, these compagnie had a typical “membership” of one or two-dozen men. Imbibing copiously, company members enjoyed banquets worthy of Petronius’s Cena Trimalchionis with its acrobatic performances, mock combats, and poetical recitations. During the 16th century, courses were punctuated with theatrical interludes (intermezzi), short farces, costume contests, and, especially in Venice, masked dances and pageantry (momarie). Humor generally attended such revelry but sometimes the death cast its shadow over an evening’s lightheartedness.

The painter and art critic/historian Giorgio Vasari recounted one such occasion in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 2nd edition, 1568. It was a banquet staged by the men of the Company of the Cazzuola, or mason’s trowel, that had as its theme the myth of Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine, the daughter of the goddess of agriculture and fecundity. That evening, the assembled company had an objective. They were to descend to the “infernal regions” of Hades over which Pluto ruled. Their assigned task was to assist Proserpine’s mother in liberating the maiden from the clutches of lord of death and dark. As Vasari tells the tale,

“The invitation [to assist in the rescue] was accepted. Whereupon, all having entered through that mouth [of Hell], which was full of teeth, and which, being hung on hinges, opened to each couple of men who entered, and then shut again, and which had no light but a very little one in the center… they could hardly see one another. There, having been pushed into their seats with a great fork by a most hideous Devil who was in the middle beside tables draped in black, Pluto commanded” that his marriage to Proserpine be conducted. “Now in that room were painted all the chasms of the regions of the damned, with their pains and their torments.”

As for the food, it appeared to be all manner of “animals vile and most hideous … but within, under the loathly covering” of pastry, were the “most delicate meats of many kinds.”

But “bats,” “lizards,” “toads,” and “scorpions” were not the only thing on the table. So was a Renaissance version of Trimalchio’s skeleton. There were, says Vasari, “dead men’s bones” (ossa di morti), confections set within a reliquary fashioned of sugary fruits!(6)

All of this stands in stark contrast to the decoration and mealtime practices in medieval monasteries.

The refectory, or dining area, in Europe’s 13th century monasteries was a significant place of gathering for cloistered communities. Consequently, the arrangement of the tables in relationship to the art on the walls served a didactic role. At Cluny, Monte Cassino, and other monasteries a refectory was “a place of corporeal punishment.”

“Infractions in the refectory were corrected in front of the abbot’s table often situated before a Majesty or Judgment picture. A painting of the Last Judgment, showing Christ meting out justice, was germane in [this] penitential context.” This, together with images emphasizing abstinence, gluttony was condemned and mortification of the body imposed. (7)

Would the ever-famished Pulcinella have been able to stomach all of this? Regardless of whether it was the fantastically horrific constructs gracing the banquet table at the Company of the Trowel or the monastic meal of meager sustenance (but spiritual fullness) eaten under the critical eye of a painting of a judgmental Christ, I know I would find swallowing a difficult task!



As an addenda, here is a recipe fit for Pulcinella!

Recipe: Cooking-With-Nothing Spaghetti





  1. For a recent, informative survey, see The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed (Los Angeles: The Getty Institute, 2015).
  2. The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed, pages 112-113, figures 1-3. Also see my earlier post “Sugar… and ingegno”.
  3. The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), Terence Scully commentary and translation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), page 398. There is a new and terrific addition to the literature on Scappi. Deborah L. Krohn, Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.
  4. Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei, Claudio Parisi Presicce and Orietta Rossini, eds. (‘L’Erma’ di Bretschneider, 2015), page 214, cat. no. R69. Also see the very informative site: http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/skeletons-on-the-table/
  5. For a brief and wonderful survey, see Jane Levi, “Melancholy and Mourning. Black Banquets and Funerary Feasts,” Gastronomica, vol. 12 (winter 2012), pages 96-103.
  6. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Gaston Du C. de Vere, trans. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), vol. 3, page 1715. The account is included in the biography of Giovan Francesco Rustici. The Italian is in Gaetano Milanesi, editor (Florence: Sansoni, 1906), vol. 6: page 616.
  7. I have relied on the dissertation of Irene Kabala, “Medieval decorated refectories in France, Italy and England until 1250 (The Johns Hopkins University, 2001).