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In the Devil's Garden - A Sinful History of Forbidden Foodby Stewart Lee Allen

Ballantine Books

ISBN 978-0345440167

hardcover, 315 pages, $24.00


I received the book from the publisher and at first glance found the title intriguing, "The Devil’s Garden." More seriously, the Library of Congress categorized the book as "1. Gastronomy—History, 2.Food habits—History, 3. Cookery—History" and perhaps hopefully, "4. Menus." Not only is this book is an amusing look at historical foods prohibitions and attitudes, it’s topical, too.

That topicality was immediately apparent. The California Legislature and Governor have recently forbidden selling candy and fatty snacks to children in schools; another bill would have taxed sweetened soda pop. The "evils" of fast food and too hot coffee have been litigated. One California city is considering banning sales of coffee made from beans which do not meet its fair trade and environmental standards.

Those are relatively recent occurrences in the long history of legal or religious authorities and food. Human history started with "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." King James Bible, Genesis Book 3, Verse 17. We all know how that warning turned out. On the other hand, Adam and Eve’s failure to heed the warning led us to our relationship to each other and food. If it’s forbidden, doesn’t that make it more interesting?

Allen tells the history of how certain foods became forbidden. He does it in a way that the reader participates in how the history was uncovered. On his way to a remote monastery in Greece he and his guide become lost in a snowstorm and happen upon the hut of two religious hermits one of whom offers an apple to the lost travelers. The hermit delivers a short speech on how the apple can be seen as a representation of the evil female genitalia. After laughing that this is only taught by the Roman Church, the hermit says it is just an apple so eat it, advice probably gratefully taken after having been hungry and lost in the snow.

However, Mr. Allen does not let us wonder whether the hermit was right. He tells us how and when apples were declared out-of-bounds. Why had apples and cider been written out by the Catholics from below the Alps? Because they were much beloved of the Celtic Catholics whose pagan forebears treasured the apple and its products. A political, doctrinal and liturgical issue takes shape in an attack on the apple. Is this why we are taught that Eve bit the apple in the Garden of Eden and started all humankind on its way?

The book has a chapter devoted to each of the deadly or capital sins -- pride, gluttony, avarice, lust, sloth, blasphemy and anger. Just in case someone reading the book hasn’t sinned to a deadly extent Mr. Allen produces a menu which represents each of the sins. At least as far as food may help you get there. Some of the menus may actually be included for mockery of the cook and the eater such as the gluttony menu which features a pie of songbirds called ortolans which were reputedly served to the late French President Mitterand. There are limits even for the French. Allen tells us eating these songbirds is contrary to French law.

In this and the other chapters the author gives us historical anecdotes about why and how a foodstuff or a preparation was forbidden to some. Even into the present, Indians eschew cooking with basil. Fortunately, the same is untrue of Italians. In Aztec culture the only time commoners were allowed chocolate was when it was mixed with human blood, and if that wasn’t bad enough you only got that treat before you were sacrificed to the gods.

Tomatoes, which are commonplace in the contemporary American kitchen and garden, were once feared as poisonous. Allen tells this story well. Tomatoes have a strong botanical relationship to nightshade and mandrake whose alkaloids make those plants deadly poisonous. Was that the reason or was it because the tomatoes were a representation of body parts and acts, which we are not supposed to discuss?

There are also recipes for some dishes from across the world’s cuisines. They are an indication of the wanderings and varied tastes of the author. Is seared foie gras your taste? Perhaps Five Angry Vegetables done in Chinese style? More to my taste, how about Crostini di Fegato a traditional Tuscan style liver pate on toast? The range of the recipes from poached eggs done in the style of the ancient Romans to the modern Hudson Valley foie gras gives you a good notion that this author loves food -- no matter whether in the garden, on the table, or in a story well researched and told.

In spite of the menus and recipes, this is not a how-to book. It is an interesting look at how the powerful have tried to limit the behavior of people in their realms, temporal or spiritual, throughout human history.

On something as important and fun as food our behavior can be manipulated. Sometime people of political and religious power tell us what to do with our food as related in Mr. Allen’s book. On occasion, other authorities including ourselves can be manipulated into certain attitudes about food which have little or no basis in science or reality. Look at the contemporary view that fatty foods can cause fat and cholesterol to increase in the body. Is it based on faith, manipulation or science? "In the Devil’s Garden" is a book that is fun and thought provoking.


--Reviewer Mike Petersen is an attorney employed at the state capitol who travels whenever he can to try new foods and wines in California and Europe. He especially enjoys cooking and eating Italian, Spanish, French, German and other dishes that he has sampled with the locals here and abroad. Mike is a founder and chair of Mr. P’s Wine Club, a no-load wine club whose members love trying new wines and foods. He also searches for Chicago-style, kosher hot dogs wherever he may be.

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