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culinary mythology

Source:
The Oxford Companion to Food
Author(s):

Alan Davidson

, Tom JaineTom Jaine

culinary mythology 

potentially a subject for a whole book, is here confined to a small number of notorious examples. The historian Andrew Smith (in Walker, 2001) calls them culinary ‘fakelore’ and points out just how many tie broad movements or phenomena to a single individual, such as the tomato which was first eaten in the USA by one Robert Gibbon Johnson on the court-house steps of Salem in 1820, or the ring that was put into doughnuts by Hanson Crockett Gregory in 1847. Other examples of persistent myths can be found under the entries for aphrodisiacs, banana, chips & crisps, feet, lutefisk, monkey, pancake, pretzel, and water ices. Their persistence and their shared characteristics may also be compared to those of urban or contemporary legends. (Urban legends do not, however, have much relevance to food matters, save those myths relating to the presence of taboo ingredients in fast-food or ethnic food dishes.) The frequency with which particular foods are linked to individuals or, sometimes, businesses or corporations is very marked. It happens in every culture (as does myth and folklore), not only in Europe, witness the myths surrounding the adoption of ramen in Japan. There are also, to give balance to the whole argument, plenty of instances of the creation of a particular dish, or even a style of cooking, which really were due to the activity of an identifiable single agency (see banoffi pie for just one).

Catherine de’ Medici transformed French cookery

Catherine de’ Medici arrived in France from Italy in 1533, as the 14-year-old fiancée of the future Henri II of France. She was accompanied by a train of servants including cooks. The myth consists in the idea that she and her retinue between them transformed what had been a rather primitive cuisine at the French court into something much more elegant and sophisticated, on Italian lines.

Barbara Ketcham Wheaton (1983) is not alone in demolishing this myth—far from it, since it has become an almost routine activity for food historians. However, she has mustered more evidence and more detail on this matter than most of her colleagues. She shows that French court cuisine was not transformed (in any direction) in the 1530s and 1540s, and that in any case the interchange of ideas of people between France and Italy had begun before Catherine was born and continued after her death. Italian culinary practice could exert such influence as it may have had on the French by means of the steady traffic and also through books (e.g. platina); but the French in the 16th century had a conservative outlook which in any case immunized them against sudden and foreign influences. Where Catherine did eventually have an effect, it was less on the cooking and more on the attitudes and expectations of the diners, for the wonderful festivals or masquerades which she planned and executed (this was after the death of her husband Henri II) developed into an institution of great visual and dramatic significance.

Marco Polo’s supposed introduction of pasta from China to the western world

This durable myth, which requires that nothing should have been known of pasta in Italy until 1295, when Marco Polo returned from the Far East, can easily be shown to be wrong by citing references in Italy to pasta of an earlier date. How did this firmly held myth arise? The famous Italian authority Massimo Alberini cited an article that appeared in the American magazine Macaroni Journal in 1929. This, according to the American scholar Charles Perry is itself a myth. Although originating in Macaroni Journal, it was not in an article. It appeared as an advertisement; in the 1920s, advertisements often had lengthy texts (the idea seemed to be, ‘you’ve bought a magazine, you must like reading’) which could be jests or fairy tales. This one was clearly intended as both. Marco Polo is sailing in the China Sea with an Italian crew (evidently having discovered the way around Africa centuries before Magellan). One of the crew members goes ashore to fill a cask of water and reports seeing women making threads of dough, so Polo and the captain ask for a demonstration. And the crew member’s name is Macaroni! It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this and not seeing it as a pleasantry, but something about the tale touched a nerve in the public psyche.

The question of interaction between oriental and occidental forms of pasta and the extent to which particular forms may have travelled either eastwards or westwards, through C. Asia, is a different one, of a subtlety and complexity sufficient to deter myth-makers from trying to intervene in it. (To be effective, a myth must be comprehensible at the lowest level of intelligence.)

Purpose of spicing in medieval times

As Gillian Riley(1993) has written: ‘The idea that spices were used in the Middle Ages to mask the flavour of tainted meat has been expressed with considerable conviction by many writers about food and cookery.’

The same author demonstrates that:

  1. (a) no convincing evidence has been produced to support this idea;

  2. (b) in particular, the alleged recommendations in medieval texts to use spices for this purpose cannot be found;

  3. (c) the supposition that the ‘tainted meat’ theory is the only way of accounting for heavy consumption of spices in the Middle Ages is based simply on a misconception, since consumption of spices in that period was not unduly heavy—and indeed could not have been, given their cost;

  4. (d) detailed evidence about how cattle were slaughtered, how meat was sold, how cooks kept it and cooked it in particular places at particular times—all this can now be studied in detail and produces no evidence in support of the myth.

Riley believes that the frequent use of the words ‘tainted meat’ is significant in implying a derogatory and backward glance at cultures less fortunate than our own; and that the ‘disguising’ role allocated to spices betrays a killjoy attitude which could not acknowledge the simple fact that they add to the pleasure of eating and were so perceived by people in the Middle Ages.

Origin of the croissant

According to one of a group of similar legends, which vary only in detail, a baker of the 17th century, working through the night at a time when his city (either Vienna in 1683 or Budapest in 1686) was under siege by the Turks, heard faint underground rumbling sounds which, on investigation, proved to be caused by a Turkish attempt to invade the city by tunnelling under the walls. The tunnel was blown up. The baker asked no reward other than the exclusive right to bake crescent-shaped pastries commemorating the incident, the crescent being the symbol of Islam. He was duly rewarded in this way, and the croissant was born.

This story seems to owe its origin, or at least its wide diffusion, to Alfred Gottschalk, who wrote about the croissant for the first edition of the Larousse gastronomique (1938) and there gave the legend in the ‘Turkish attack on Budapest in 1686’ version; but who subsequently, in his own book (1948) on the history of food, opted for the ‘siege of Vienna in 1683’ version.

In fact, the world-famous croissant of Paris (and France) cannot be traced back beyond the latter half of the 19th century, at the very earliest. The first relevant mention in any dictionary definition of the word was in 1863, the first recipe under the name ‘croissant’ (but describing an oriental pastry) in c.1905, and the earliest recipe which corresponds to the modern croissant in 1906.

Effect of searing meat

The constant reiteration of the myth that searing meat seals the outside and prevents moisture loss is extensively discussed under searing.

The origin of chop suey

This is discussed under chop suey and is a fine example of a culinary myth gone wrong. In other words, we have presumed the dish to be a creation of immigrant cooks seeking to gull us into thinking it was authentically Chinese when, in point of fact, it was authentically Chinese. A more classic example of immigrant creativity may be the chicken tikka masala of Great Britain, or perhaps General Tso’s chicken, a soi-disant Hunanese dish created in Taiwan which spread throughout the US, but which had very little to do with the real General Tso.