>Last evening I dropped by the Georgetown home of a local blogger and threw together a fairly simple dinner for him and a couple of friends, using ingredients picked up at two of our local markets, Scheele’s and Sara’s. The first course was garlic toasts with shredded cheese in a chicken stock, and the second a sort of pre-Thanksgiving casserole of turkey and stuffing with sliced pears. Everything took a total of one hour to prepare and cook, and as seconds were taken I can only assume were reasonably satisfactory.
The combination of fruit with poultry and wild game is something typical of Catalan cooking, particularly in autumn and winter, but also something which brings to mind great groaning boards in Medieval and Renaissance times. As one of the dinner guests remarked, Charlemagne was considered particularly abstemious from drink in his time because he only drank about three glasses of wine a day. When one considers that drinking water back then was akin to playing Russian roulette, from a microbial standpoint, it is no surprise that in earlier times people simply ate a great deal more in order to absorb all of the fermented beverages they were forced to consume.
In addition, in the days before refrigeration, things tended to develop a bit of a pong in the larder, and spices were often very heavy to cover up the taste of things which might have been considered a bit “off” by our standards. For Americans, the heavy sensory overload of Thanksgiving, with its liberal use of things like cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, is probably the closest most of us come to a sense of this overwhelming combination of flavors. The sheer amount of food, in combination with the chemicals in turkey, send us off to sleep rather quickly since we are simply unaccustomed to eating in a Tudor fashion.
The description of a famous meal hosted by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, on February 17, 1454 in Lille, Belgium, gives us some impression of dinner parties in this earlier age. Known as “The Banquet of the Pheasant”, because guests made oaths to a live pheasant that they would retake Constantinople from the Turks, numerous accounts exist of what happened at this famous meal, though it is hard to imagine a giant pie with an orchestra playing inside. Unlike our Thanksgiving turkeys, however, the pheasant in this case survived the meal.
A little over fifty years later, when Castiglione began writing “The Book of the Courtier”, perceptions about how to dine were changing. In the book Castiglione’s characters do not describe what they have dined on before beginning their discussion. He does, however, have one of them make the point of avoiding excess when eating, something that many of those of an earlier generation would have found untenable. Castiglione has Cardinal Bibbiena tell the story of how Federico de Mantua was at dinner with a number of other gentlemen, and “one of them said after eating an entire bowl of stew: ‘Pardon me, my lord Marquess,” and so saying he began to gulp down the broth that remained. Then the Marquess said quickly, ‘Ask pardon of the swine, for you do me no wrong at all.'”