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.