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Birth of the Modern Diet [Preview]

Ever wonder why dessert is served after dinner? The origins of modern Western cooking can be traced to ideas about diet and nutrition that arose during the 17th century

Were we to attend a 16th-century court banquet in France or England, the food would seem strange indeed to anyone accustomed to traditional Western cooking. Dishes might include blancmange--a thick puree of rice and chicken moistened with milk from ground almonds, then sprinkled with sugar and fried pork fat. Roast suckling pig might be accompanied by a cameline sauce, a side dish made of sour grape juice thickened with bread crumbs, ground raisins and crushed almonds, and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. Other offerings might consist of fava beans cooked in meat stock and sprinkled with chopped mint or quince paste, a sweetmeat of quinces and sugar or honey. And to wash it all down, we would probably drink hypocras, a mulled red wine seasoned with ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves and sugar.

Fast-forward 100 years, though, and the food would be reassuringly familiar. On the table might be beef bouillon, oysters, anchovies and a roast turkey with gravy. These dishes might be served alongside mushrooms cooked in cream and parsley, a green salad with a dressing of oil and vinegar, fresh pears, lemon sherbet, and sparkling white wine.

Before 1650, the elite classes throughout the Islamic and Christian worlds from Delhi to London shared pretty much the same diet: thick purees, lots of spices, sweet and sour sauces, cooked vegetables, and warmed wines. Sugar was ubiquitous as a seasoning in savory dishes. But in the middle of the 17th century, the northern European diet began to change. This new regimen relied on fewer spices, based its sauces on fats such as butter and olive oil, and incorporated raw fruits and vegetables. Sugar appeared only at the end of a meal.

What happened? Economic considerations cannot account for the difference: for the upper class, money was no object. For the poor, both meals would have been far out of reach. Well into the 19th century, they subsisted on vegetable soups and gruels with bread or porridge. Novel foodstuffs from the New World do not explain the shift in diet either, because with the exception of turkey, the dishes at the second banquet depended not on new ingredients but on new uses of long familiar ones. The clue to this transformation in eating habits between the 16th and 17th centuries must be sought instead in evolving ideas about diet and nutrition--which is to say, in the history of chemistry and medicine.

Medicine in the 16th Century
EATING healthy food was extremely important to people of earlier eras, perhaps even more so than it is today. Activity in the kitchen mattered so much because physicians had so few other options. To avoid resorting to unpleasant therapies such as purging or bloodletting, doctors carefully monitored their wealthy patients daily habits: their emotional state, for example, or how much sleep, exercise and fresh air they got. Most crucially, doctors advised their patients on the food and drink they should consume. Every court had a bevy of physicians who were schooled in the physiology of digestion, the nutritive properties of foodstuffs and the nature of a healthy meal. Offering dietary advice to their affluent patrons was a major part of their work.

The actual task of transforming abstract dietary theory into dishes appropriate for the courtly table fell to the head chefs, or majordomos, as they were often called. In a popular medical text written in 1547, Breviary of Health, author Andrew Boorde noted, "A good coke is halfe a physycyon." Sixteenth-century cooks, physicians and their patrons shared a common notion of diet and nutrition that can be traced to classical antiquity. First formulated around 400 B.C. as part of the Hippocratic Collection, the ideas were systematized by the great Roman doctor Galen in the early second century A.D. After the collapse of classical civilization, Islamic intellectuals eagerly took up these notions (along with many other scientific theories of the ancient world).

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