Everyone knows the saying about what the world’s “oldest profession” is, but you will find a very close runner up in the kitchen. The history of those who cook professionally to make their living goes way, way back to the origins of civilization itself.
It’s another epic journey across the ages, this time with a focus on my own chosen profession and day job. This is the long, ancient history of chefs (and restaurants).
Polenta may not sound so exciting, but when made with love, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes you’ve had in some time. When the exotic foreign mystery grain of maize came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange, Europeans treated it like they did every other grain. They ground it and cooked it into porridge, adding their own local ingredients like dairy products. Today, this creamy and cheesy cornmeal porridge is still a favorite staple of Italian, especially northern Italian, cuisine.
A little while after, tomatoes followed to the old world, and though not considered edible at first, gradually evolved into items of culinary interest, onward to a destiny of being a beloved ingredient across the continent today. Salsa Pomodoro just means tomato sauce, but being the original Italian word for tomatoes, it hints that the first of these american fruits to arrive in Europe may have been yellow, and not red.
I’m still using some red tomatoes here because they look better with Polenta, but I’m also using some yellow ones to honor this original appearance. Though the original preparation was a simple but tasty dish of raw tomatoes with olive oil, cooking into sauce must soon have followed. But this is not your every day tomato sauce. Here, onions, mushrooms, a little anchovy, all make for a very rustic, meaty concoction, an acidic umami bomb that is not blended, packed with fresh herbs and resulting in a sauce that is simultaneously deep, bright, chunky and yet saucy, a full of flavor to counterpoint the rich polenta.
Did Europeans suddenly wake up one day, tired of Medieval living, and decide to change course, to rebirth themselves in modern ideas and start creating good art? Or, as usual, is the story something much more complicated, gradual, and subject to the influence of other cultures from outside?
Hmm, I wonder?… Come listen for an extensive tour of the Italian Renaissance, how it began, and what it meant for people and what they ate.