Mad cats and knights errant: Roberto De Nola and Don Quixote
Among the many bibliographical and cultural treasures preserved in
the Eliot-Phelips collection is a fine copy of one of the most
influential books about food, cookery and diet from sixteenth-century
Spain: Roberto de Nola's Libro de cocina.
Little is known about the author, whom I will refer to by the
Castilian form of his name, although there are a number of reasons to
believe that he may have been Catalan or Neapolitan by birth: several
early editions of the Libro de cocina describe him as
cook to King Ferdinand of Naples, and the first known edition was
published in Catalan.
Altogether, there were some 14 or 15 Catalan and Spanish editions of the
Libro in the sixteenth century, making it one of the most
widely read books of its time. The Eliot-Phelips copy is of the first
Castilian edition, printed in Toledo by Ramón de Petras in 1525.
It is handsomely bound in full calf gilt, with inlays and onlays, in
green, tan, black and red, with a figure of a chef in a lozenge on the
upper cover, and a waiter on the lower cover. The copy appears never to
have been used in earnest, for there is not a floury or oily thumb print
to be seen on it.
As its long title indicates,
the book covers several aspects of household management, including the
roles and functions of members of staff, the proper laying of table and
conduct of service, and the correct methods of carving meat and pouring
wine. In these respects, Nola shares something of Mrs Beeton's
perception of the kitchen as microcosm, of food as central to the order
of things. Some of Nola's strictures are eloquent for what they tell us
about contemporary conditions: the kitchen should be kept tidy, and the
utensils clean; when serving wine, the glass should be held head-high in
case the waiter should sneeze; and the kitchen staff should be well
dressed and look smart at all times.
Nola also sheds considerable light on one of the great social and
culinary debates of the sixteenth century: should a meal be served one
dish at a time, in the traditional Mediterranean manner, or should they
all be put on the table at once, which was the modern, Habsburg
Nola prefers the traditional ways, and has firm views on the correct
sequence of dishes. It is interesting to note that this is still one of
the main differences between northern and southern Europe. The English
continue to find it odd that the Spaniards can make three courses out of
meat and two vegetables; and in Spain the plato
combinado is still something which is not to be countenanced
in the best restaurants.
As to the recipes themselves, Nola divides them broadly into four
groups: soups and meat dishes 'para tiempo de la carnal'; fish dishes
for 'cuaresma'; pastries and desserts ('frutas de sartén y marçapanes');
and, interestingly, recipes for invalids, who are well provided for with
a wide range of broths, soups and infusions, some of them designated for
specific medicinal purposes such as the cure of colds or fevers.
But Nola is best known for one dish above all others, his infamous
recipe for barbecued cat. 'Gato asado como se quiere comer', to give it
its full title, is quite easy to do. First catch your cat ('el gato que
esté gordo tomarás'), slit its throat, cut off the head and throw it
away; skin the cat, gut it, wrap it in a clean cloth and bury it under
the ground for 24 hours. Nola does not say why it should be buried, but
this may have been to assist the tenderising process. Dig up the cat,
baste it with oil and garlic, and roast it on an open fire. While it is
cooking, beat it from time to time with fresh twigs (again, one imagines
that this is part of the tenderising process). When cooked, place it in
a large dish and serve with an oil and garlic sauce 'y puedes comer de
él porque es muy buena vianda'.
Delicious or not, why does the method specify that the head should be
thrown away? The temptation to explain this as squeamishness would
almost certainly be anachronistic; and reference to the traditional
injunction against selling 'gato por liebre' would seem to be ruled out
by the fact that the recipe is specifically for cat, not rabbit or hare.
The explanation which Nola gives is interesting because it has its basis
in diet and hygiene: 'se dice que comiendo los sesos podría perder el
seso y juicio el que la comiese'.
The idea that human consumption of cats' brains can cause madness is
not unique to Roberto de Nola. Gerónimo de Passamonte attributes a
delirious episode in his own life to the fact that he had been fed with
eggs and bread which had been maliciously poisoned with cats' brains.
For Guzmán de Alfarache, eating brains is such a taboo that he likens it
to eating his own flesh.
These injunctions, explicit and implied, against eating brains may offer
an interesting gloss on the physiological origins of another celebrated
case of mental illness, that of Don Quixote. I have argued elsewhere
that Don Quixote's frugal, monotonous and unappetising diet, which is
described in some detail in the second sentence of the novel, is more
than just colourful background.
As the novel progresses Cervantes creates a strong parallel between Don
Quixote's lifestyle on the one hand and the incidence of lucidity and
madness on the other. Hunger, malnutrition and sleep deprivation appear
to correlate closely with episodes of bizarre behaviour and
Even before Don Quixote embarks on his chivalric career, the run-down
and neglected character of his estate and household is reflected in the
five staple elements of his miserable diet:
'olla', the classic slow-cooked stew made with beans and sausages known
as 'olla podrida', eaten as the main midday meal;
'salpicón' or cold meat sliced thinly with onions and vinegar for
'lantejas' or lentils on Fridays;
'duelos y quebrantos', of which more later, on Saturdays; and the
occasional pigeon on Sundays. In real life, Alonso Quijano would have
supplemented this diet with bread and wine, and he may possibly, but not
necessarily, have also eaten some fruit and vegetables;
but the conventions of literary analysis do not allow us to take into
account what is not in the text.
However, there are reasons other than malnutrition for concern about
Don Quixote's diet, and they have to do with the 'duelos y quebrantos'
he ate every Saturday. This dish, assuming that it is a dish, since some
commentators and translators have taken the phrase to refer either to
hunger or to wind, has given rise to much discussion (Rodríguez Marín
1916: 21-8). The earliest authorities define it as an omelette made with
brains, brains being one of the parts of an animal permitted to be eaten
on days of semi-abstinence. The Diccionario de
autoridades (1732) explains that 'llaman en la Mancha a la
tortilla de huevos y sesos' and gives Don Quijote as the
only source. Nowadays it is more customary to find the dish made with
bacon, and this practice is reflected in more modern authorities such as
María Moliner (1987) who broaden the range of ingredients, but only to
those parts of the animal that could be consumed on days of
semi-abstinence: 'Fritada que se hacía con huevos y alguna parte de
animal, como torreznos o sesos; antiguamente se solía comer los sábados,
por ser comida de semiabstinencia.'
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An obvious question arises from this feature of Don Quixote's diet:
could it be that the regular consumption of offal, and more particularly
brains, on days of semi-abstinence, provides a further explanation for
Don Quixote's unstable mental condition? Tempting though it would be to
argue along these lines, there is no direct evidence, even if such an
approach did not pose real methodological difficulties. What is
interesting, however, is the underlying issue of food safety, which has
been given a new significance by recent concerns about public health and
the consumption of animal products in Britain.
The outbreak in 1986 of an epidemic of bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (known as BSE, or 'mad cow disease'), and its similarity
to other neurodegenerative diseases such as scrapie in sheep, and kuru
and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD) in human beings, has raised the
question of whether and, if so, how these diseases are transmitted
within and between species (Lacey 1998: 34-41). What they appear to have
in common is an unusual pathogenic agent called a prion, a deviant form
of a normally harmless protein found in the brains of mammals and birds.
Victims of CJD, kuru and scrapie all exhibit the characteristic
spongelike pattern of neuronal destruction that leaves brain tissue
pitted with holes. In the case of kuru, which is found only among the
Fore people and related groups in Papua New Guinea, the unusual
transmission patterns affecting adult females and children of both
sexes, but rarely adult males, have been traced to the Fore's
cannibalistic rituals of mourning in which the brain of the dead person
was eaten by women and children.
The parallel between Roberto de Nola's throwaway remark and Britain's
recent outbreak of BSE is intriguing. We know that spongiform
encephalopathy can strike a range of mammals, including cats, and we
know that the consumption of the brain of an infected person or animal
is one way in which the disease is transmitted. We also know that early
modern societies, including Spain, had highly developed systems of
regulation governing the rearing, slaughter, sale and preparation of
meat to protect public health.
Nola may have been relying on an old wives' tale when he told readers of
his cookbook to throw away the cat's head, but, equally well, he may
have known full well what the dangers of eating the cat's brains might
be. And as for Cervantes, it is always unwise to underestimate how much
he knew about the world he lived in.
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- Mateo Alemán (1987) Guzmán de Alfarache, ed. José
María Micó. 2 vols. (Madrid: Cátedra)
- Miguel de Cervantes (1998) Don Quijote de la
Mancha, ed. Francisco Rico. 2 vols. (Barcelona: Crítica).
- B.W. Ife (2000) Don Quixote's Diet (Bristol:
University of Bristol).
- Richard Lacey (1998) 'Mad Cows and Englishmen', in
Consuming Passions. Food in the Age of Anxiety, ed. Sian
Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin), 34-41.
- Roberto de Nola (1929) Libro de guisados, ed.
Dionisio Pérez. Los Clásicos Olvidados. Nueva Biblioteca de Autores
Españoles, IX (Madrid: Compañía Ibero-Americana de
- --- (1977) Libre de coch, ed. Veronika Leimgruber
(Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona, Departament de Filologia
- --- (1982) Libre de coch, ed. Veronika Leimgruber
(Barcelona: Curial Edicions Catalanes).
- --- (1985) Libro de guisados (Valencia: Librerías
- Gerónimo de Passamonte (1922) Vida y travajos de Gerónimo
de Passamonte, ed. R. Foulché-Delbosc, Revue
Hispanique LV, 311-446.
- Sara Paston-Williams (1993) The Art of Dining: a History of
Cooking and Eating (London: The National Trust).
- Richard Rhodes (1998) Deadly Feasts. Tracking the Secrets
of a Terrifying New Plague (London: Touchstone Books).
- Francisco Rodríguez Marín (1916) El yantar de Alonso
Quijano (Madrid: Real Academia Española).
- Matilde Santamaría Arnaíz (1986) La alimentación de los
españoles bajo el reino de los Austrias(Madrid: Universidad