In Pictures: Food Art – Painting on Toast


What Did 17th Century Food Taste Like?

From Res Obscura . . . . . . .

As the official portraitist for the Spanish monarchy at the height of its glory, Diego Velázquez painted queens, emperors, and gods. But one of his most famous paintings is a window into a much humbler world. A woman is frying eggs in hot oil, ready to scoop them out with a simple wooden spoon. Behind her, a servant boy carries a half-full jug of wine and a melon tied up in a loop of twine.

This painting is the type of thing historians love. A profoundly talented artist with a knack for realism, choosing the type of subject matter that is so normal that it rarely gets preserved (the same is true today—how many contemporary painters choose to depict taquerias or bagel shops?) Scholars suspect that Velazquez’s own family members may have served as models in his early paintings. It’s possible that the woman in this painting numbered among them, since she also appears in a religious painting he produced in the same year.

But this post is not about Velazquez. It’s not even about art history. It’s about food.

What can we learn about how people ate in the seventeenth century? And even if we can piece together historical recipes, can we ever really know what their food tasted like?

This might seem like a relatively unimportant question. For one thing, the senses of other people are always going to be, at some level, unknowable, because they are so deeply subjective. Not only can I not know what Velázquez’s fried eggs tasted like three hundred years ago, I arguably can’t know what my neighbor’s taste like. And why does the question matter, anyway? A very clear case can be made for the importance of the history of medicine and disease, or the histories of slavery, global commerce, warfare, and social change.

By comparison, the taste of food doesn’t seem to have the same stature. Fried eggs don’t change the course of history.

But taste does change history.

One example, chosen at random: the Mexican chili peppers hiding in the bottom edges of both paintings.

The pepper family (genus Capsicum) is native to the Americas, and it was still a relatively new arrival in the cuisines of Asia, Africa, and Europe when Velazquez was alive. As a non-elite person born in 1599, we can guess that his grandparents would not have been familiar with the taste of peppers and that his parents still thought of them as an exotic plant from across the seas. Even the name he, and we, apply to the plant was a foreign import: the word ‘chili’ is from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. So is ‘avocado’ (Nahuatl ahuacatl), ‘tomato’ (tomatl) and chocolate (chocolatl).

The taste for these foods was a significant factor in the series of global ecological movements between the Old and New Worlds that historians call the Columbian Exchange. Any time we eat kimchi, or kung pao chicken, or pasta with red sauce, we are eating foods that are direct results of the Columbian Exchange.

Someone really needs to make a better map of the Columbian Exchange. This one, from a public-domain resource for teachers from UT Austin, is one of the best I could find, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the full range of exchanges.

But we’re also eating modern foods. That’s not to say that there aren’t older correlates to these dishes—there undoubtedly are. But food has changed since the early modern period. Globalization of food crops has transformed the flavors of regional cuisines. Meanwhile, factory farming has led to a homogenization of some of the varietals available to us, while also creating a huge variety of new strains and hybrids.

One example: I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it” was “still rather rare in France.” Likewise, Brussels sprouts don’t appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.

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In Pictures: Fried-egg Art