Based on approximately 200 surviving manuscript and early printed cookbooks, we have a good idea of the aesthetics of dining before 1600. For the Roman Empire, in contrast, only one cookbook survives, that supposedly by Apicius (a second-century gourmand), but in fact dating from the fifth century. One of the two earliest copies of this unique cookbook, transcribed in the ninth century, is in the Library of The New York Academy of Medicine.
In the days before modern transport, preservation, and production technology, all chickens were local and free-range, and it was difficult to escape the constraints imposed by distance and the seasons. Difficult, but not impossible, as elite dining was defined by the challenge in obtaining ingredients, from hothouse peaches in the north in winter, to ice cream in Syria in the summer. In this talk, historian Dr. Paul Freedman of Yale University focuses on dining through the seasons. Eating was affected by medical theories about the four bodily humors thought to control the body’s health and equilibrium. To maintain a proper balance of the humors, in summer one should eat cold foods and in winter, hot, and beyond this lay many complexities of what physicians considered appropriate. In catholic Europe fasting was another factor affecting diet, especially in Lent, the longest and most rigorous period, but throughout the year as well. Ultimately, medical considerations were bound up in aesthetic judgments—when was the best time to eat certain foods to ensure they tasted best. Information on this is found especially with regard to fish—while available over a range of months, certain fish were thought best at particular times of the year.
Speaker: Paul Freedman, Yale University