Food and Jesuits in the Early Modern Western World

This is the abstract of my last writing job, Food and Jesuits in the Early Modern Western World, published on 2019, December 6th, in the Journal IL CAPITALE CULTURALE. Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage. I believe in Open Access! Full article available at this link:

The large number of Jesuit studies have failed to give due attention to the link between the order and food. This simple point, which I shall try to substantiate in what follows, explains why I have thought fit to propose some areas for research, on the basis of my own investigation, trends in historiography and, last but not least, Jesuit sources (published and otherwise). Starting with an analysis of the ideas connected with historical food studies, I will focus on the Jesuits over a time-span from the 1530s to the second half of the eighteenth century, going deeper into the issue of moderation (first part) and the dietary model that developed within the Society of Jesus (second part). I shall adopt an interdisciplinary perspective, with special attention to the contribution of anthropology.

Questo è l’abstract del mio ultimo saggio, Food and Jesuits in the Early Modern Western World, pubblicato il 6 dicembre 2019 nella rivista IL CAPITALE CULTURALE. Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage. Sono un convinto sostenitore dell’accesso libero e gratuito.

L’articolo completo è disponibile a questo link:

Nella notevole quantità di studi relativi alla Compagnia di Gesù non ha ancora acquisto
uno spazio adeguato la questione del legame tra l’ordine e l’alimentazione. Questa semplice considerazione, che cercherò di precisare nelle pagine che seguono, è la ragione per cui mi è parso opportuno proporre alcune possibili prospettive di ricerca, sulla base di indagini personali, linee storiografiche, e, non ultime, fonti gesuitiche (edite e inedite). Partendo da un’analisi dei concetti storiografici legati ai food studies, mi concentrerò sull’ambito gesuitico in uno spazio cronologico compreso tra gli anni Trenta del XVI secolo e la seconda metà del XVIII secolo, approfondendo il tema della moderazione (prima parte) e il modello dell’alimentazione sviluppato all’interno della Society of Jesus (seconda parte), utilizzando una prospettiva interdisciplinare, attenta soprattutto ai contributi dell’antropologia.


Chocolate on Friday

Leaving Berkeley to go back to Brazil at the end of their visiting period, a family of friends gave us some food and beverages. Among them, there was obviously cacao, a symbolic food of the so-called New World, which became part of the theological and canonical debate between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries because of its uncertain identity.

Any reflection on relationships between Christian missionary culture and food needs to address an extremely important question, especially when it came to regulating canonically legitimate behaviors in the New World: in the face of unfamiliar eating habits, alien food and drink, it was also necessary to determine what constituted food and what did not. Was cacao a drink that did not interrupt ecclesiastical fasting or, on the contrary, a solid food incompatible with the rules of the Church? It may seem weird, but the issue has dragged itself for centuries. In 1569, according to a tradition invented presumably by a chocolate lover, pope Pius V tasted it, considered it disgusting and decided that one could take it in fasting times. From this time on, many theologians and jurists debated the topic. And not only in the Americas.

Let us leave aside theologians and jurists for the moment. The physician Juan de Cardenas in his work (1591) devoted to the wonders of the Indies sought an answer to a question whether the consumption of chocolate, cacao and other liquid foodstuffs constituted breaking a fast. Cardenas made it clear he had wanted to write a chapter about the topic to combat the “terrible” ignorance of the “people of these lands” who were convinced that neither chocolate nor other beverages considered to be similar (pinole, chicha, yerba mate) interrupted a fast. What could one legitimately define as a “beverage” (bebida)? It is a liquid with the properties of refreshing and relieving the body’s excessive heat, of reducing the dryness of the blood vessels and limbs, and of aiding the distribution of food from the stomach to the veins and pores, without providing any sustenance to the members. Given this state of affairs, the only true beverage, Cardenas concluded, was water. Chocolate is not a beverage because it restores the substances that had been lost through natural heat and ordinary exercise, in whatever form this was ingested: liquid, solid or chewable.

With all due respect to Cardenas and those who preceded and followed him, the reality of things is that the overwhelming majority of Christians continued to sip in large numbers cocoa beans dissolved in water even on Fridays or during Lent.

I am ready to try our friends’ gift, even at Friday breakfast. Am I guilty?

Reference: Juan de Cardenas (1591), Primera parte de los problemas, y secretos maravillosos de las Indias, México, Imprenta del Museo de Arqueología, Historia y Etnología, 1913.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil

One more step in our journey through documents about food and its history.

We are probably in 1589 at a Jesuit college in Padua. “Probably” because the source I am referring to is not dated, but the clues suggest that year.

After all, historians sometimes act like the protagonists of mystery novels. We collect clues while looking for answers. Ok, let us stay on topic.

How far are we capable to go to get good food?

The Venetian Jesuits would never stop face to some difficulties like a mule back trip across the Adriatic coast: from October to November, somebody left Padua to go to Lecce to take olive oil. There are almost 600 miles between the two cities. If the oil was at a good price, it was reasonable to buy a good stock, good for a couple of years. You can save a trip, but just if it is worth it.

How to use this extra virgin olive oil? It was a perfect dressing on the salad, of course, as well as on spinach, beans and fava beans. There was an appetizing recipe too: the guazzetto di pesce (fish stew). This dish required, as a seasoning, saffron, onion, parsley and spices.

Olive oil was especially necessary on days of abstinence and fasting, like the season of Lent or other Christian festivals, when the canonical rules banned butter and lard.

Unless you want to give credit to the Aachen Council in 816. In this case, bishops and theologians gave the French monks the permission to use the oleum lardinum, a strange seasoning!  We must take into account that those poor people did not have olives.

There is always an answer.

For further information on the Jesuits, you have to wait for me to publish something, or go to the ARSI (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu), ask for the Veneta 93 folder and read it. As for the oleum lardinum, you can refer to Monumenta Germaniae Historica, I, 832. Otherwise write me, we can talk about it.

olio d'oliva


Seafood Dish at the Renaissance – Venetian “Sarde in Saor”

Bartolomeo Scappi (c. 1500 – 1577) was the chef of pope Pius V. An ecclesiastical chef needs to take care of the Ecclesiastical Fasting rules. For this reason, in this cookbook Opera dell’arte del cucinare (1570) he listed 286 meatfree recipes. Two-Hundred-Eighty-Six. Nobody could run away from the fury of the chef: all kinds of fishes, of course, but also eels, crabs, frogs, oysters, slugs. There are many tasty meals, but if I had to pick one I would give you an example of Lean Dish, the Venetian “Sarde in Saor”:

To fry, souse and marinate sardines

Get fresh sardines, scale and wash them, set them on a table mixed with a little white salt, then flour them and fry them in olive oil because it will always be better than rendered fat or butter. When they have fried, serve them garnished with orange juice or sliced limes or fried parsley. And after they have fried, they can be kept in bay leaves or myrtle leaves.

If, after they have been fried, you want to marinate them, put them into vinegar with sugar or must syrup in it along with saffron, and keep them in that marinade until you want to serve them. In summer instead of vinegar you can use verjuice thickened with egg yolks or breadcrumb. And also, after they have been fried, they are dressed with green sauce.

(L’opera di Bartolomeo Scappi, translated with Commentary by Terence Scully, Book III, Recipe 73)

Hard penance, but somebody has to do it, right?