Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dinner Conversations

Another evening, another delightful meal. My wife Bridget does a wonderful job of balancing nutritional requirements against Samantha's medical limitations (i.e., no tomatoes, no dairy, never any foods too high in galactose).

Prompted by who-knows-what, I remembered a book I had seen, possibly during my book store employment phase, about pre-Columbian cooking. No, not what the Mesoamericans ate, but what the Europeans ate before Columbus sailed to the New World and opened a new frontier of cooking and eating and taste.

I'm a garbage gourmand on a non-stop "see food" diet. Samantha, thank God, can't eat sweet breads, so fun things like kidneys and brains will never cross our plates, but beef and potatoes and typical American vegetables (carrots, peas, onions) do. Yum!

So what did the Europeans eat before Columbus? Remember, this was a dinner conversation, so it drifted, rather than flowed. We came up with:

--domesticated meat: beef, pork, chicken, fish (yeah, yeah, what're you gonna do, it's gotta go somewhere)

--game of all kinds: venison, boar, birds, rabbit

--fruit: apples, pears, grapes, berries. Bananas? (Nope.) And no tomatoes!

--vegetables: carrots, turnips, onions--but no potatoes! That and corn are New World foods! No sweet potatoes? No strawberries?

--grains: wheat, oats, barley. Rice?

From the "Home and Garden section of the New York Times, October 9 1991":

WHEN it comes to Columbus, Luisa di Giovanni, a biologist and historian, is less than sanguine. Ms. di Giovanni, a native of Genoa, will acknowledge that the foods brought back from the New World enriched the diets of various countries, but Italy benefited less than others.

As far as she's concerned (the tomato notwithstanding), Columbus's impact has been greatly exaggerated in his native land.

"It could be argued that in the exchange of foods, the newly discovered lands gained more than they gave," said Ms. di Giovanni. "Europe had a much richer variety of food than the Americas. We already had plenty of grains like wheat, rice, millet, rye and barley, so corn did not have that much impact, except to the poor. We also had domesticated animals, which we introduced to the Americas, plus plenty of fruits and vegetables."

To prove her point, and to put a somewhat different spin on the hoopla for the upcoming quincentennial of Columbus's voyage, she has devised an eight-course menu of dishes typical of 14th- and 15th-century Italy. The $45 meal is being served this week at Caffe Bondi, 7 West 20th Street in Manhattan...

Work on this week's pre-Columbian menu began about a year ago. (That's what happens when academics become interested in food.) Sure, there will be pasta, but no tomatoes. Potatoes, beans, sweet and hot peppers, turkey and chocolate are also noticeably absent from the meal.

"Potatoes have never been as important in our diet as in that of other European countries," said Ms. di Giovanni, "and the role of the tomato is exaggerated, especially by Americans whose idea of Italian food is mainly Neapolitan. The fact is that neither of these vegetables gained any acceptance in Europe much before the 18th century."

The meal will begin with fresh fruit -- grapes and figs -- because Ms. di Giovanni said doctors of Columbus's time thought raw fruit could only be eaten before a meal. And it ends not with coffee, which did not become popular in Europe until the 17th century, but with herbs and honey.

She said the difference between today's table and the historical example she developed for Caffe Bondi has more to do with how foods were prepared, combined and presented than with the ingredients. For example, a rich chicken soup is seasoned with pungent spices and thickened with ground almonds and Parmesan cheese. The bread is fragrant with rosemary and studded with raisins. A pudding-like concoction of sweetened and spiced rice with chicken and almond milk called bramagere is served as the third course.

Fried ravioli with a pork-and-cheese filling comes with a dusting of sugar; quail wrapped in pancetta and stuffed with pomegranate seeds has quince jam on the side; fritters of eel with dried fruits and herbs are accompanied by a mellow carrot confit. Wines like Chianti, which Ms. di Giovanni said was first documented around 1400, are served with the dinner but not watered, spiced or sweetened as they probably were in the old days.

The dessert, a kind of fried custard with sweet preserved green squash jam (squash-like edible gourds were common in pre-Columbian Europe), was not much sweeter than the other dishes.

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