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Let the Meatballs Rest

Let the Meatballs Rest
And Other Stories About Food and Culture
by Massimo Montanari

Columbia University Press, 2012

This is a collection of 100 brief essays discussing specific foodstuffs, their histories and how they have helped shape the human societies that include them in their diets
Let the Meatballs Rest

Potatoes, for instance, were introduced to Europe in the 16th century but their bland flavor and "subterranean nature" made them unappealing. Only when other crops had failed and starvation loomed did farmers turn to widescale production of the easy-to-grow spuds.

Garlic, likewise, was once considered fit only for peasants. Eating 
such strong and foul-smelling food was a damning mark of poverty in the 10th century.

And eggplant,
first brought to Europe by Arabs, was long associated with "the lower class and Jews." Yet the peasant cuisine that emerged from their use would later be co-opted by the upper classes.

In his chapter, "The Beautiful and the Good," Montanari argues that beauty and beautiful food shouldn't be the privilege of the few.

"It is a primary need of the individual and of society. Beauty is natural, but it has to be
cultivated and is therefore also culture. Beauty makes things more acceptable, more pleasing, more desirable.

"The ancient Greeks thought that the body and the spirit were fundamentally the same and that a truly beautiful man could not be other that truly good... And so it is for food. To be be really good it has to be really beautiful. Not only the rich food of grand occasions, but even humble, ordinary, daily food. Beauty is needed every day."

A wide-ranging collection brought together at the dining table, Montanari's essays cover the gastronomy of famine, the science of flavors, the customs of the table, cooking methods, and eating habits throughout history.

Death by Melons

Speaking of unusual papal successions... Montanari recounts the peculiar demise of Pope Paul II who died of a sudden apoplectic attack on a summer night in 1471.

"His doctors attributed this to a melon binge the evening before. After having spent the day in consistory, the pontiff dined late (around ten) on 'three melons, not too large' and other things 'of meager substance, as had become his habit over the past few months.' The account of this event, written in these words by Nicodemo di Pontremoli in a letter to the Duke of Milan, reveals and attitude of great suspicion toward this fruit, capable of causing not only indigestion but even death."

Medieval physicians disapproved of cold and juicy fruit, believing it could undermine the body's natural heat and upset its equilibrium. They commonly advised people to eat very little melon and, if possible, avoid them entirely.

"Melons in particular were held to be the most toxic of all fruits."

Resting the Meatballs

A leading authority on the history of food, Montanari recalls making meatballs from boiled beef, cooked cardoons, parmesan, bread crumbs, eggs, salt and paper one evening and after shaping them and placing them on a plate, "Marina" cautioned:

"Now, before cooking them, let us leave them to rest for a few hours. That way they firm up and get thoroughly blended."

Montari associates the phrase "letting the meatballs rest" with the creative process in his mind. 

"Ideas are the result of experiences, encounters, reflections, suggestions: many ingredients that come together and then turn into a new thought. Before that can happen, it is useful to let those ingredients rest, to give them time to settle, to become blended, to firm up. The resting of meatballs is like the resting of thoughts: After a while they turn out better."

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