There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Translated and annotated by Jeremy Parzen
With 50 modernized recipes by Stefania Borzoni
In The Art of Cooking, 15th-century chef Maestro Martino provided detailed instructions on how to roast a peacock so that it looks as if it’s breathing fire: First cut the bird’s throat “like a baby goat.” Then spice the breast with cloves and roast the bird slowly on a spit. (Be sure to wrap a wet towel around the neck so that it doesn’t dry out.) Then “take a quarter ounce of camphor [an herb] with a little cotton wool around it and put it in the beak of the peacock, and also put a little aqua vitae or good, strong wine,” Martino wrote. “When you serve it, light the cotton wool and it will spew fire for a good bit.”
The University of California Press has recently reissued the maestro’s cookbook, in English, as The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book, and for more than just its innovative presentation techniques. Food historians consider The Art of Cooking to be the first modern cookbook; it is the earliest to specify the quantity of ingredients, procedures for mixing them, and required cooking times. It also includes tips on food handling, regional delicacies, and presentation.
Martino was not, of course, the first person to formulate a recipe. Cooks have been writing down how to make meals since the start of, well, writing. The first published recipe dates back at least to the ancient Mesopotamians, who carved rudimentary cooking instructions into a stone tablet around 1700 B.C.E. The Romans particularly enjoyed detailing the ingredients of various meals. The historian Pliny the Elder once even described a dish that called for elephant penis. He was not overly fond of the taste, however. “It is a bit like eating ivory,” he wrote.
But the earliest recipes tended not to include much Martha Stewart–like guidance. Ancient chefs believed that the specifics of a recipe—cooking times, spicing, necessary utensils, and the like—were trade secrets. Only paying apprentices were given such details and taught exactly how to create a dish. And the recipes that were published would not have been much help to a neophyte cook. One Mesopotamian goat-stew recipe, for instance, called simply for goat, spices, onions, garlic, cheese, and leeks to be thrown into a pot and boiled. (The dish was typically placed behind a curtain for the gods to eat.)
Why did Martino decide to spill his culinary beans and kick off the trend that has given us everything from Betty Crocker to Jacques Pépin’s Fast Food My Way? Historians don’t know for sure. But Martino was one of the most privileged cooks of his time: He was the chef for Italy’s powerful Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, who hired him to create sumptuous meals for the Renaissance’s rich and famous at his castle in Como. (In fact, Martino’s dishes were so impressive that they earned Trevisan the nickname “Cardinal Lucullus”—Cardinal Extravagant.) So the chef would have been insulated from many of the negative repercussions of a culinary-arts tell-all.
Some historians have hailed Martino as the first celebrity chef, speculating that he published the cookbook as a means to increase his fame—or perhaps help himself land an even more prestigious cooking gig. During the Renaissance, many used books as an advertising vehicle, most notably Niccolò Machiavelli, who dedicated The Prince to the Medicis in the hope that it might help him gain their favor. But aside from the puffery on the cookbook’s title page—which calls him the “Eminent Maestro Martino of Como, A Most Prudent Expert”—the evidence of Martino’s engaging in self-promotion is tenuous. The historical record is mostly silent on the cook; besides his recipes, he did not leave behind any other writings. Historians don’t even know exactly when or where he was born.
Martino most likely intended the book for other chefs. For one thing, it was written in the vernacular Italian instead of the elites-only Latin. For another, he often noted that recipes should be executed “however your master wishes.” The tone is accessible, if textbooklike. The opening line: “The fatty meat of oxen and that of beef should be boiled, the loin should be roasted, and the haunch made into cutlets.”
But the book is more than just instruction; Martino certainly recognized that great cooking is about creativity, resourcefulness, and taste. For instance, he wrote that chefs should deploy regional delicacies whenever possible. In Lombardy, for instance, he prescribed that cooks should try to add the pike from Lake Garda to the menu. In Rome, chefs should include the local varietal of broccoli.
The chef also helped pioneer the modern dinner gathering. Before Martino, feasts in medieval Italy were typically like Roman orgies, large and hedonistic with as many as a hundred different courses. By contrast, Martino focused on quality over quantity, and the banquets at Trevisan’s castle were typically small, intimate affairs. In his cookbook, Martino advised the reader to pay special attention to the balance of a meal. For instance, he suggested the use of “in-between” course foods, such as a clear, palate-cleansing broth of chicken and eggs.
But there was little appreciation for Martino’s gastronomical accomplishment during his own time, and his innovation remained largely unacknowledged for centuries. Instead, gastronomists largely credited 15th-century Italian humanist Platina with writing the first European cookbook. Platina’s On Right Pleasure and Good Health came with hundreds of recipes as well as a lengthy treatise on good eating. The book became popular and was translated into French and German in part because it tapped into the middle class’s desire to attain the dining habits of the aristocracy—and like so many how-to books right down to our time, it promised gourmet success on the cheap.
Indeed, Platina landed his own success on the cheap. In 1927, Cornell University food historian Joseph Vehling discovered a copy of The Art of Cooking and noticed that Platina had appropriated more than 100 of Martino’s recipes. (Platina did offer Martino some recognition: “What a cook, O immortal Gods, you bestowed in my friend Martino of Como, from whom I have received, in great part, the things of which I am writing.”) Today, food historians have sanctified Martino’s primogeniture, and Vehling’s copy of The Art of Cooking sits in the tombs of the Library of Congress, the jewel of its culinary-arts collection. (Octavo, a California e-publishing house, lists a facsimile-edition Libro de Arte Coquinaria among its forthcoming books for June.)
The University of California Press edition, with 50 of the recipes modernized by Italian chef Stefania Barzini, was translated into English by Jeremy Parzen and also includes a pedantic and tedious introduction by University of California, Los Angeles literature professor Luigi Ballerini. (Note to Ballerini and University of California Press editors: Making humorous asides in Latin is not funny.) The best part of the reissue is the recipes, which provide glimpses into the making of a medieval feast and the delicacies of a different time.
Besides the instructions for roasting a peacock, the cookbook contains recipes for pie with beef testicles, hemp-seed soup, and eel torte. There are even directions for “Flying Pie”—a recipe, the cookbook notes, for amusement only. “[P]ut some live birds [in a pie shell], as many as it will hold,” Martino instructed. “[A]nd the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away.” (A smaller, edible pie was used as a plug at the bottom of the crust.)
The updated recipes are ready for your kitchen. Well, most of them. The Gold of Pleasure Sauce, to be served over fish or boiled vegetables, calls for cider vinegar, crusty bread, red wine, and other spices to be mashed together in a mortar. But the end result is neither golden nor pleasurable nor even a sauce. It’s a purple, stuffing-like substance that tastes painfully sour, like bad horseradish.
But the sole spiced with lemons and oranges is nearly modern in preparation—it takes about 20 minutes to make—and tastes clean and fresh. The Roman-Style Macaroni is also a hit. The dish, which was a favorite of Roman shepherds, calls for spaghetti, pecorino romano cheese, nutmeg, and a large dose of fresh pepper. The result is a zesty, almost spicy pasta dish.
Of course, you can’t expect pizza or lasagna. Martino wrote before Christopher Columbus reached North America, so there is almost no mention of such New World foods as tomatoes and potatoes. (To update the recipes, Barzini did add some New World ingredients to a few of them, perhaps increasing their edibility, though ruining their authenticity.) Instead, popular medieval flavorings such as verjuice, a vinegar made from unripe fruit, and saffron infuse many of the dishes. Martino also made heavy use of salt, which helped prevented spoiling in the era before refrigeration.
If you don’t like some of these medieval flavors, well, that’s not really the point. This is a recipe book that should be appreciated for its place in history; much of the joy these dishes provide comes from knowing that people consumed them over 600 years ago. And as Martino knew as well as anyone, a good meal is never just about the food.CP