Friday 2 October 2015

Foodways, Fiction and the Inquisition - Gillian Polack

One of my favourite things when I read historical novels is reading about the food. I love it when writers get the food wrong, for I can call in my historian self and mentally shout “You cook the honey inside not drizzle it on top if you’re going to eat it with your fingers” or “How can they be eating potatoes in twelfth century England?” I like it even better when writers understand what researching food and writing about it well does to a novel. I mentally create cookbooks and recipes and have been known to check my sources and see if a dish really tastes the way the writer claims. I am a food tragic. 

Because food history is one of my specialisations, I mostly know what I’m doing. This means that I am continually learning and thinking and querying and seldom taking my knowledge for granted. it also means I actively seek out models for my work. Food history is an amazing place, for it’s changing and growing and developing. Food in novels can be equally amazing. Another day I’ll talk about the fiction side of it. Today, I have other plans.

My new novel is called The Time of the Ghosts. It’s a contemporary novel, but food history creeps in everywhere. This novel began as a series of dinner party menus that reflected the food history of the characters doing the cooking. I built up four menus for each character. Two of them were Anglo-Australian, but the characters (Mabel and Ann) are fifteen years apart in age. Mabel cooks the older Australian foodstuffs: very English, very robust. Ann is a more modern cook and is the sort of woman who likes food magazines. The third character, Lil, comes from a quite different background, and her menus had to reflect that. I had to develop a set of research tools that would enable me to create what she cooked.

My novel is released today, which is entirely fortuitous, for my publisher decided on the release date, not me. I want to celebrate,  in my best historian-foodie way: I’m going to introduce you to one of the best pieces of forensic food history I know. This book gave me my method for developing Lil's foodways, on a platter.

It's called A Drizzle of Honey, and it's by David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson. This is the book that made me think “We understand these people because of this work on their food. I want my readers to know my characters from the same direction.” This is the book that spawned my fictional dinner parties as well as giving me a method of handling the more complicated aspects of those dinners. In a way, my novel is a tribute to the men and women introduced by Davidson and Gitlitz. Some of these people were killed because of how the Inquisition interpreted their foodways.

In 1492, the Jews of Spain were given three choices: convert, flee, or die. Many of them converted to Christianity. Converting to Christianity required a profession of faith. I presume conversos were given religious guidance, but they were (as far as I know) not given detailed cultural guidance. They were expected to be fully Christian forthwith. Despite this expectation, they were given a second-class status in Spain. Those who had once been Jews or whose families had been were considered to be of bad lineage. (When I was studying Old French insults, ‘you come of bad lineage’ was an appalling thing to say to someone – this is a serious accusation. )

Then insult was added to injury, and more injury was added to that. Conversion was not sufficient. The Inquisition started looking into the lifestyles of those who had once been Jewish. 

The Inquisition was worried about heretics. It was specifically set up to worry about heretics and to persuade them to return to the Faith. It was 'merely' doing its job. Christians who lapsed back into Judaism were considered heretics. The punishment for heretics relapsing was death. The question over the centuries has been whether the Inquisition was merely doing its job, or whether it was doing more than that; whether it was seeking repentance, seeking punishment, or persecuting. The evidence has come down on the side of persecution. Food helps explain this.

In the early days of the Inquisition the Inquisition was more concerned about form of belief and focussed on the Cathars. The questions devised checked profession of faith and the like. 

The Inquisition that sought to get rid of hidden Jews was different. It wasn’t consistently different: Jews were not universally persecuted. But because Judaism was seen (is still seen) as cultural as well as a religion, Inquisitors and their staff often inquired into daily living habits. If someone had a bath before Friday dinner, they might be Jewish. If a woman met with other women on a Saturday afternoon and they ate salad together, they might be Jewish. 

Sevilla. Picture by Gillian Polack

The Inquisition demanded (as far as I can tell) that their religion where a profession of faith was sufficient to join had also to encompass every element of life. Without being taught the cultural norms (when does one cross oneself, for instance? What does a fast day mean?) families of the converted were expected to conform to them, completely. They were expected to eat meat after funerals, instead of the vegetables and legumes that they were used to. They couldn’t sprinkle cheese on a vegetable dish on a fast day, even if they had no idea that this particular saint’s day was a fast day or that cheese was forbidden. 

Christian culture was complex and required learning. Not only was their lack of teaching not taken into account, conversos were expected to sacrifice much of their daily lives to demonstrate that they were not, in their hearts, still Jewish. This was despite the fact that society regarded them as never being quite fully Christianised. They were discriminated against in employment, in lifestyle, in religion. 

No matter what these people did, it would probably not have been enough. Judaism was seen as a contaminant and culture left over was potentially a sign that the person was a heretic. Burning at the stake was the ultimate sanction, but there were many punishments and daily trials that were lesser and that pushed down into family life and hurt people.

It’s very depressing. 

Society participated in identifying hidden Jews. Neighbour informed on neighbour. Maids said of their employers “They bake eggs in the ashes of a fire.” It led to a society that was persecutorial in the worst possible way. People were killed for their eating habits, their washing habits, for doing things the way their families had. 

The Church was demanding, in effect, that even the way one wore clothes had to be not-Jewish, and obviously not-Jewish. Daily life in a region dominated by this kind of thinking would have been bad for everyone. Is this a Jewish salad? Are you lighting candles secretly on holy days? Are you certain that when you took Mass you swallowed the wafer?

Out of bad things, historians create understanding. David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson used the Inquisition records to find out what food Jews ate before the enforced cultural/religious shift. Without their work in A Drizzle of Honey, I would never have known about salad on Saturday afternoons. I would be missing my favourite doughnut recipe. And I wouldn’t know anything about the men and women who cooked and ate this food.

A Drizzle of Honey doesn’t just recreate foodways and reconstruct possible recipes from the Inquisition record. It gives us back the lives of those lost people. It tells us the methods used to reconstruct and the author give a bunch of information about the cultural contexts, so that we, as readers, can make our own decisions about whether a particular argument holds true and whether a particular recipe is a sensible reconstruction. 

It gave me a process I could use for my own fiction. I followed their research path for the foodways of my characters. It gave me a lot more understanding of my characters’ lives and their families, for food is essential to these things. I made one of my characters Jewish, to remind myself of this path. And this Chanukah, I’ll make one of those recipes for fried pastries,in memory of Jews whose foodways brought them to the attention of the Inquisition.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Gillian! I've just bought the Drizzle ebook, it looks great for research - and just for reading. I'll certainly try some of the recipes. My own ancestors, on my Dad's side, were among those who fled Spain. Dad said there was a Pesach cup that had been handed down over the generations - lost during the Holocaust, of course. I don't know much more. But I believe quite a few did go to Poland at the time.

Gillian Polack said...

It makes me very happy that the work of historians can help fill some of the holes in your family culture. Mine, too, for the English side of ours is probably Sephardi. This is the upside of researching history: some of what is lost can be found again.