According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being the way to a man’s heart was apparently through a tomato. Advice given in the Tacuinum was based on an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise, the Taqwīm as‑siḥḥahتقويم الصحة (“Maintenance of Health”), and describes detailed accounts of the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants including a veiled reference to the tomato.
During the 14th century manuscripts of the handbook were commissioned by northern Italian nobility during the 14th century as a practical guide for improving health. Lavishly decorated manuscripts illustrate nobles engaged in work, play and romance and the cultivation of all manner of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Directions for the use, preparation and experience of the plant is explained through an elaborate iconography of meaning. Feudal lords, ladies and laborers engage in the work of the estate in a world where horticulture, health and personal relationships are intertwined.
Medieval gardens with wattled fences are carefully tended to bring out the best attributes of the fruits, vegetables and those who ate and tended them. In one scene a couple embraces in a garden of eggplants implicating their aphrodisiac properties. Inanother carrots are harvested and described in the Latin text to stimulate sexual relations but slow down digestion, and that the purple type, ripe in winter, are the best. Other scenes depict harvesting dill, picking chestnuts, the usefulness and dangers of cabbage, tending marjoram and making soup.
A mixture of medicine and myth where tomatoes become botanically related to the mandrake or “love plant”, believed to inflame a man’s amorous intentions and said to be able to “lead a man like a dog”. As dogs were often used to pull out the root of the believed-to-be-bewitched mandrake with a man standing in wait to see if the dog survived the mandrake’s deathly curse, it may have seemed like the mandrake and related tomato had powers to lead a man.
When the Spanish brought the first tomato seeds to Southern Europe in the early 16th century, a large percentage of Europeans feared the perceived properties of the fruit. But around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato’s popularity grew. The Italian pomodoro (pom d’or) apple of gold was becoming a sought after ingredient, juicy, full of flavor, both tangy and sweet. Italian cooks embraced it’s use in sauces that would eventually catch the eye (and taste buds) of a Queen named Margherita. Every Italian Nonna has her favorite recipe for a tomato ragu’ or marinara that keep her sons and grandsons close to home. So it may not be so far fetched to think that the tomato has powers both in and out of the kitchen.
In the world to come, a person will be asked to give an account for that which, being excellent to eat, she gazed at and did not eat. (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin)
Food is a celebration and a pleasure. Taken together, they make the everyday act of eating more than a blip on the radar of life.Whatever we eat or drink should bring health to the body and joy to our day. I believe this because after eating, shopping, cooking and traveling in Italy with our Italian family and friends I’ve learned that every plate of food and every bottle of wine brings life to the Italian table. I’ve come to realize the pivotal place food has in Italian culture.
Italians take time and effort to prepare a well-laid table where there is beauty and grace in the smallest detail. Meals are an essential part of Italian life. Not that they obsess about food or over indulge. Italians truly value food and its preparation. Generational family recipes bring meaning to what is eaten. Shoppers rely on traditional and local ingredients. Excellent ingredients stand out in a dish providing both taste and nutrition and bright lively flavors.
Back in the States, the mediocrity of eating is a well traveled road we take everyday. Lower food priorities and less inspiring ingredients and options often cause us to settle for less. We eat and say the food was ok, it was good, but was it great. We generally don’t expect it to be so. Our busy lives, filled with multi-tasking, can feel really uncomfortable to do anything else but simply eat and accept what is put before us.
It’s been said that we are what we eat. It’s been shown that mindfully eating with attention to the ingredients, methods and preparation of the food has positive satisfying benefits. Spending time sourcing your ingredients impacts food choices far beyond a single table. It sends a message to suppliers that you value what they do and encourages them, many of whom our small producers and generational families, to continue bringing their products to the market.
Eating all that is excellent is about choices. Commit your time, effort and food budget to better ingredients and better preparation. Preparing a well-laid table to share and enjoy with your family and friends in a relaxed and tranquil manner is a lost pleasure that must be found again and one thing we can do to make a better life.
The scale and scope of the Renaissance was huge so it’s no surprise that keeping a calendar of the months of the year would be any different. The fresco artists of Italy’s quattrocento were masters at large scale installations and often used their art to interpret the months of the year and bring attention to the passage of time and its implications. Fresco cycles with symbols and designs that represent the astrological horoscope and seasons can be found in the salons and halls of Italy’s most renown palazzi and villas. Many 15th century fresco artists interpreted the months of the year with such stunning results that their work is among the great art of the western world.
One of my favorites is in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Painted by Francesco del Cossa and Cosimo Tura, the frescoes line the walls of the Salone dei Mese(Room of Months) in the main hall. Designed for the Estense Court of Ferrara as a retreat for pleasure and diversions (schiafonia is thought to originate from the word schivar la noia meaning “escape from boredom”) Palazzo Schifanoia is a hidden jewel on a side street of Ferrara. With a rather plain and unassuming façade, the elegant marble entry with the Estense coat of arms may be the only sign that you are about to enter into a pleasure palace filled with rare beauty and earthly delights. The allegorical frescoes of the Ciclo de Mesi (cycle of months) are considered to be one of the greatest examples of humanistic astrological Italian art making it the most glorious wall calendar I ever saw.