What would Jesus eat? Eels?
Just in time for Easter, the blogosphere has been alight with the research from the International Journal of Obesity that analyses the growth in portion size in depictions of The Last Supper over the last thousand years. Interviewed in the LA Times, the author comments:
"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,' is a recent phenomenon," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."
Using the heads in the picture as a guide, the researchers measured both the relative size of plates and bread on the table to come to their result.
It is uncontested that portion sizes in real meals have grown, especially so over the past 30 years but the depictions in The Last Supper over the past few hundred years may be a little distorted. Is it increasing portion size or just the tightening grip that artists have had on the depiction of perspective, especially over the past 500 years?
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that Western artists began to get a real grip on geometrical perspective. Food in the foreground of the painting may not be in proportion to heads prior to the Renaissance depictions simply because it was not painted in the correct perspective. Prior to the Renaissance the food may also have been painted as smaller because it was not as important as the subjects of the painting.
The book from where the researchers measured their paintings, Phaidon Press’s The Last Supper, contains “over 100 of the finest representations of the subject, each demonstrating how the artist has responded to the complex challenge of creating a convincing group of individual personalities, and expressing the relationships between them”. The researchers only selected 52 of this one hundred to measure. Was there a selection bias towards paintings that confirmed their result?
The food of the Last Supper in the Bible receives little attention – it was Passover but there were no details of the fixings of this particular seder. So everyone that painted it either made it up as they went along or copied the previous painter. For Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic depiction, that menu was not exactly kosher. It included eel.
John Fornaio writes an exhaustive account on the food that Leonardo placed on the table in food mag Gastronomica. Despite the wear and tear to the picture, the 1997 restoration of the painting revealed “three small serving dishes on the right side of the composition is sufficiently good to suggest that we are looking at, in fact, sections of grilled eel garnished with orange slices.”. Fornaio goes on to establish the presence of eel in the Da Vinci household via grocery receipts and uncovers the following recipe from Leonardo’s library:
When an eel is captured, skinned, and gutted, cut it up into large enough pieces and cook well on a spit near the hearth, with bay leaves and sage placed between the pieces, always moistening the meat with the brine they call salimola. When it is nearly cooked, add some meal or ground bread, sprinkling with cinnamon and salt, encrusting it all around. If you want it boiled, cook thoroughly with parsley, sage, and a few bay leaves and cover with verjuice and pepper.
The orange slices as garnish was popular during the era.