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What We Eat During a Plague

By Michael Snyder

Vegetables, grains and meats popular during pandemics past and present, including (clockwise from left): green cabbage, red cabbage, garlic scapes, purple beets, beef brisket, red lentils, pinto beans, farro, golden beets and yellow chard, arrayed atop an antique plaster bust.
Patricia Heal. Prop Stylist: Martin Bourne
Vegetables, grains and meats popular during pandemics past and present, including (clockwise from left): green cabbage, red cabbage, garlic scapes, purple beets, beef brisket, red lentils, pinto beans, farro, golden beets and yellow chard, arrayed atop an antique plaster bust.

AT THE OUTSET of “The Decameron,” the 14th-century story collection by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, a group of 10 young nobles — seven women and three men — flee “the death-dealing pestilence” sweeping through Florence and make their way to a country repast in the Tuscan hills. “Using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence,” Boccaccio writes, as translated by John Payne, of their carefree, 10-day idyll, “they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk.” They dined off “tables laid with the whitest of cloths and beakers that seemed of silver,” sustaining themselves according to the common medical wisdom of the day, which held that a cheerful disposition was as necessary to keep the plague at bay as the right kind of food.

Boccaccio never describes these feasts in detail, but it’s easy to guess what his nobles might have eaten: rich banquets of wild birds and veal spiced with pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg imported at great expense from Asia — and white bread, sliced and crustless, the only kind considered suitable for the wealthy. Vegetables, deemed lowly and unwholesome, and thus fit for the laity, might have been missing from the table. Diets at the time, for rich and poor alike, were based off the humoural science of the ancient Greeks, which held that unevenness between the body’s four humours — blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile) — caused every kind of ailment. Once consumed, food was thought to become blood and then flesh, having the potential to recalibrate the body’s humoural balance, which could affect, or indeed transform, a person’s constitution. Every food possessed fixed humoural qualities — fennel was hot and dry, cucumber was cold and wet — and assigned a place in a rigid cosmic hierarchy. While peasants ate foods like cabbages and turnips that grew near the ground, along with whole-grain breads and thick, stodgy gruels, aristocrats feasted on airborne fowl, sometimes dressed, says Ken Albala, a historian at the University of the Pacific, “in completely whimsical, shocking disguises” — tinged with dye, suspended in aspic (a medieval invention) or stitched together into fantastical creatures. Those underlying principles didn’t change at the height of the Black Death, which arrived in Europe around 1347, but dietary recommendations did “become less daring,” Albala adds, with physicians at the time suggesting “mild foods unlikely to corrupt into melancholy or upset the system in any way, which is, coincidentally, what people do psychologically in any time of stress.” Even centuries ago, times of crisis induced a return to the familiar.

Patricia Heal. Prop Stylist: Martin BourneA quarantine haul including (from top): acorn squash, charred sourdough, cous cous and a chicken wing.
A quarantine haul including (from top): acorn squash, charred sourdough, cous cous and a chicken wing.

SINCE MARCH, NEWSPAPERS, magazines, lifestyle websites and, of course, social media feeds have bloated with images of focaccia and sourdoughbeans and ferments, glossy-skinned chickens and fat-slicked pot roasts: rich, flavourful dishes that, for the most part, Boccaccio might have recognised. Following the recent shift toward plant-based cooking and the boom in boutique dietary restrictions — sales of gluten-free products, for instance, have grown enormously over the last decade, while the past several years have seen immense investments in tech-fuelled meat replacements — these images are striking in their apparent indifference to the dogmas of so-called “clean” eating. Indeed, in their flagrant carnality, the comfort foods of the novel coronavirus crisis can seem practically medieval, particularly in their flouting of health trends in favour of comfort.

Such comfort foods, according to the dominant paradigm of Anglo-American food culture, are almost invariably bad for us — balms for the soul but never what the body needs, at least not nutritionally. But there’s a paradox therein: In medieval Europe, as in many of the world’s food cultures today, comfort and health were inseparable; pleasure and familiarity were among the guideposts to maintaining the body’s equilibrium, a notion that persisted in popular thought even as medical science transformed over the centuries.

When Spanish invaders brought a catastrophic outbreak of smallpox and measles to the Americas in the 16th century, for instance, some colonisers blamed the unfathomable crisis that ensued not on disease, but on the same unfamiliar meats and wines introduced from Europe that they claimed would “civilise” native populations (deaths among their own kind, meanwhile, were attributed to local ingredients like corn and chillies). To the Spaniards, eating unfamiliar foods could either transform you or kill you. By the end of the 18th century, the Enlightenment idea that all bodies — at least all white male bodies — were fundamentally the same made humoural medicine seem largely outdated, yet outside a small medical elite, food remained a principal tool for treating disease. In the antebellum South, says Carolyn Roberts, a Yale historian focused on medicine and the slave trade, enslaved Black healers remained a first line of defence against disease in their communities, combining food-based medical knowledge with local botanicals to blend healing traditions from Africa and the Americas, even after hospitals became more common. In his “An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever, as it Appeared in the City of Philadelphia, in the Year 1793,” the physician Benjamin Rush, a proponent of modern medicine, nevertheless prescribes “lemonade, tamarind, jelly, and raw apple water, toast and water … and camomile tea,” along with mercury-based treatments, during the early stages of the illness and, as healing progressed, a course of “rich broths, the flesh of poultry, oysters, thick gruel, mush and milk and chocolate.” Recommended diets during the 1918 influenza pandemic were practically identical, including meat broths and citrus juices to stave off fever and oatmeal, potato soups, custards and toast as the patient recovered. Even the folk adage to “feed a cold, starve a fever” contains vestiges of that humoural sensibility.

AlamyAn anonymous miniature entitled “The Meal” from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (1432) at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
An anonymous miniature entitled “The Meal” from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (1432) at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

But what did change was the way that many Europeans and Americans related to their bodies outside of illness. The same Enlightenment ideals that yielded political revolutions and, on the flip side, justified colonialism on the basis of European superiority as a supposed biological imperative, later remade how the aristocracy dined: Coursed meals, where every diner ate the same thing at the same time, replaced vast banquets, where everyone chose the food that best suited his or her constitution. Later, in the 19th century, breakthroughs in chemistry and the discovery of germs as a vector for disease broke humans down into agglomerations of fats and proteins. “You no longer had a right to have views on what your body required: what is required is a scientific fact,” says Rebecca Earle, a food historian at the University of Warwick. “And your appetite is just a problem as far as nutritional science is concerned.”

That same authoritative attitude persisted in the 20th century in the form of diet culture, which still treats having the “wrong” body as a sign of moral sickness. In the early days of the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic, the assimilationist wing of the gay community relied on a similar philosophy, recalls the Oakland-based food writer John Birdsall, the argument being that, if you eat well then that will stave off the infection. Hedonism, the wider culture insisted, had brought this plague down upon gay people; austerity, in the form of fatless macrobiotic diets and then-nascent American vegetarianism, could prevent it.

At the same time, the more radical side of the queer movement insisted that gustatory pleasure could save queer bodies, just as claiming a right to sexual pleasure had saved their souls. In his 1990s-era cooking column “Get Fat, Don’t Die!” published for nearly a decade in the darkly humourous San Francisco zine “Diseased Pariah News,” the activist Beowulf Thorne, writing under the pseudonym Biffy Mae, prescribed meals of cereal with cream or half-and-half, gingerbread puddings and Thai curries with the same enthusiasm that Rush reserved for meat broths and weak tea. As Jonathan Kauffman wrote in his recent article for Hazlitt, Thorne “mocked nutritional supplements marketed to people with AIDS, and leaned into Bisquick, his tastes alternately cosmopolitan and straight-from-the-box comforting.”

“ALTERNATELY COSMOPOLITAN AND straight-from-the-box comforting” more or less encapsulates the core of today’s quarantine home-cooking. The foods that have come to dominate social media — from lasagna to congee, Tamil omelette curry to huevos rancheros, sourdough pancakes to kimchi jjigae (with homemade kimchi, of course) — combine the limited ingredients available at grocery stores with the one commodity that is still in ample supply: time. Birdsall, after a few weeks of elaborate meals, has returned in recent months to thrift and simplicity, imbuing his back-to-basics dinners of braised greens and perfectly seared hamburger patties with a monastic attention to detail that, he says, “creates a halo around these limited ingredients.” Sandor Ellix Katz, whose books “Wild Fermentation” (2003) and “The Art of Fermentation” (2012) helped drive the fermentation revival of the last 15 years — and who came to fermentation himself in the early 1990s — says his online sourdough classes now draw up to 1,000 students each session. In this time of disease and uncertainty, the making of artisanal foodstuffs that many people would previously have left to professionals — buying their bread at a bakery, their pickles from a deli, their kimchi from a Korean grocer — has replaced physical fitness as one sign of aspirational care. Corporeal pleasure has once again become a signal, if not of physical health, then at least of mental health, as fundamental to surviving this plague as it was to surviving the Black Death.

But while cooking has brought comfort and meaning into countless homes, it has also highlighted stark global disparities. One recent study out of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health found that 44 percent of 1,500 low-income American households surveyed in late March were already experiencing food insecurity. In Mexico, where a nominally leftist president has suggested that eating healthy foods instead of junk could prevent contagion, dozens of merchants have died in Latin America’s largest wholesale produce market. In India, millions starve as they flee cities for villages, even while the government stockpiles unprecedented quantities of grain. Like previous pandemics, Covid-19 has killed the poor quicker and in greater numbers. If the foods we crave and cook have come to resemble a medieval feast, maybe it’s because our society has been medieval all along.

AlamyA woodcut by Leonhard Thurneysser (1531-1596), circa the 16th century, depicting the four elements of ancient Greek humouralism — blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile) — on which diets were based in the 14th century.
A woodcut by Leonhard Thurneysser (1531-1596), circa the 16th century, depicting the four elements of ancient Greek humouralism — blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile) — on which diets were based in the 14th century.

Still, the bubonic plague, for all its horror, was no apocalypse — and Europe’s Middle Ages were not actually a time of darkness or stagnation. The tragic deaths of tens of millions in Europe generated a labour shortage that, over the course of more than a century, allowed the labour class to demand higher wages, accumulate modest family wealth and even change their diets, incorporating meat that had previously been accessible only to the aristocracy. The 15th century heralded the proliferation of Europe’s first published cookbooks as people of middling ranks sought to emulate the cooking of the aristocracy, complete with spices such as clove, galangal and long pepper that were previously beyond their reach. The innovations often associated with the Renaissance emerged out of revolutions in politics, education, art and philosophy set in motion centuries before, often inspired and fed by the same commercial and cultural exchanges that facilitated the spread of disease in the first place.

Our generation’s pandemic has come with a revolution of its own, one that has spread even faster than the virus. Calls for justice and political change replaced the loving pictures of split sourdough loaves, dan dan noodles gleaming with chile oil and turmeric-stained bowls of khichdi, the rice-and-lentil porridge served in countless variations across South Asia as both an iconic comfort food and, in times of illness, a tonic. In the last couple months, we’ve witnessed the toppling of bastions of white food culture along with monuments that commemorate a shameful history of racism and colonisation, a movement — led by people of colour — that demands, yet again, the sort of political equality that the Enlightenment failed to deliver. It also seems to require a return to a much older understanding of our bodies as fluid and changeable, each with its own way of healing, its own individual kind of comfort. Restricted as they were by class and access, perhaps the foods that unfurled across Instagram for all those months were a glimpse of a food culture that matches a new society, one that relies not on self-denial or appropriation or facile notions of unity, but looks instead like a medieval banquet refracted through Thorne’s proposed comfort and cosmopolitanism: an endless table, a fantastical bounty, with space for every kind of body and every kind of desire.