Parrot tongues, monkey brains and seventy-seven desserts


Edward White’s monthly series, The Lives Of Others, in The Paris Review is always interesting fun. Don’t miss his piece about about how the two Fox sisters’ talent at cracking their toes led to a heady career in spiritualism:

But the most recent one, about Bartolomeo Scappi, author of the world’s first illustrated cookbook, went right to Gert’s food-loving heart. Scappi wasn’t just a great cook, he was a sort of Liberace of the dinner party:

It was never enough for Scappi to please diners: he set out to amuse, astonish, and confuse them with vast menus of pungent flavors and retina-searing colors, presented in displays more akin to a performance art piece than a dinner party. His banquets were the talk of royal and ecclesiastical courts throughout Christendom; one of them comprised hundreds of dishes, including seventy-seven different desserts and edible statues of weird beasts from the Orient, Greek gods, and cavorting nymphs…

Scappi started out working for rich and powerful cardinals and rose to be Pope Pius IV’s cook. Unfortunately for this showman, Pius wasn’t a patch on his predecessor Leo X when it came to extravagance. Leo went in for feasts of monkey brains, parrot tongues and puddings containing naked young men, and liked to throw the empty silver plates out the window at the end of the meal (An official more sensitive to his Holiness’s mounting debts apparently arranged to have nets fixed beneath the windows to save the platters from the Tiber.) In Pius’ time the Vatican was trying to look modest, chaste and prudent in the fact of the shocking reputation that was providing fodder for the Protestants. So poor old Bartolomeo never got the chance to shine.

Realizing that his life’s work would soon be only a memory lingering on the taste buds of a chosen few, in the last years of his life he recorded his genius in “Opera dell’arte del cucinare”. Published in 1570, the year of Scappi’s seventieth birthday, it was the world’s first illustrated cookbook, a colossal nine-hundred-page tome that includes a thousand recipes and serves as a treatise on cooking as an art form, a courtly pursuit, and a domestic science. It’s virtually the only record of Scappi’s existence; a fragmentary account of his lifelong enchantment with food, and a veiled lamentation that the old sensibility of sensory delight was being mashed to tasteless pulp under the weight of puritanism.

Could this be material for yet another food programme on TV? It’s one I might actually watch.


7 thoughts on “Parrot tongues, monkey brains and seventy-seven desserts

  1. Fascunating. The descriptions of the feasts put me in mind of that one recounted in Petronius’ Satyricon. (Haven’t read that since the 70s, must dig my copy out sometime. Ho hum.)

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