Learning to Cook with Tomatoes

10 December 2019

What is this book about?

The Modern Steward offers the first ever translation of a book first published in Naples in two volumes in 1692-94.  The book is a sort of how-to guide, instructing the leader of a prominent household’s staff on how best to entertain his master’s guests, with a primary focus on cooking and meals.  It includes many recipes and menus for banquets and other fancy occasions, but it also discusses the healthiness of various foods, proper practices for shopping, cooking, and managing the household staff, etiquette and protocol, and many other matters.

Who was the steward?

The steward was the man responsible for the management of all household provisions, meals, and entertainments.  He supervised an array of cooks, kitchen assistants, wine managers, stock managers, carvers, and servers.

Who was Antonio Latini?

Latini rose through the ranks: born poor and illiterate in central Italy, he made his way through many employments in the service of the high and mighty of his era, and flourished in Rome where he served in the households of prelates and aristocrats.  In 1682 he moved to Naples, then the capital of a separate kingdom ruled by the King of Spain through a viceroy, where he worked for men at the very top of the kingdom’s administration.  He acquired an education – which he proudly displays throughout his book – status, and wealth; by the time of his death in 1696, he had been knighted by the pope, and in his second volume he included a splendid bewigged portrait of himself wearing the cross of knighthood and holding a copy of his own book:

What is significant about this book?

The most famous detail about The Modern Steward is that it includes the first ever printed recipes to use tomatoes – this about two hundred years after Columbus reached America.  Europeans knew tomatoes, and many probably also ate them, but they were long regarded as ornamental more than nutritive plants, and they took a while to make their way onto elite tables.

The book was also the last book in a long Italian tradition of great cookbooks that began in the Late Middle Ages.  Italian style dominated elite European dining, cooking, and entertaining for about three centuries.  Latini’s book was the last one to appear just as the French style of cooking and dining (supposedly more natural and rationalistic, and less ornate and extravagant) was beginning to emerge.  Latini’s approach to cooking and banquets was still fundamentally Baroque in its flamboyant decorations and practices, as one can see in this print from his book showing a table set with banquet ornaments:

At the same time, in his book Latini embraced many trends that were then emerging, such as humane practices for raising and feeding animals, the use of local and natural ingredients, and concern for the healthiness of various foods.

How did you become interested in this book?

I came to this project accidentally.  A colleague who was writing a book about the history of tomatoes told me that the first recipe to include tomatoes had appeared in The Modern Steward, which surprised me, as I knew that tomatoes were known across Italy long before the 1690s.  As a native Neapolitan, I thought I should look into this.  I am a historian of pre-modern Naples and southern Italy, not of food or gastronomy, so initially I had a steep learning curve in studying the history of food and cooking generally in Renaissance and Baroque Europe.  In the meantime, I had another project for which I translated several pre-modern Italian texts into English, and I discovered that I actually quite enjoyed translating.  In the end, with the encouragement of publishers and colleagues, I decided not only to research The Modern Steward, but also to translate it.

What was Naples like in Latini’s time?

With about 300,000 inhabitants, Naples in the late seventeenth century was by far the largest city in Italy, and, with London and Paris, one of the three largest cities in Christian Europe; it was also the largest city in the Spanish monarchy’s global empire, which then spanned from South and Central America to the Philippines.  Its site was famously beautiful, but also constrained by nearby hills, so that the density of its population was very high, with all the resultant problems of crime, dirt, and chaos.  It was also a major center of European art and music, attracting visitors and tourists, who were also eager to see the nearby volcano Vesuvius (the only active volcano in continental Europe).  This image of its hectic market square in mid-century offers us a glimpse of the city’s pulsating life, as well as a view of a place where Latini would have done at least some of his shopping for provisions:

For a general introduction to the city, its kingdom, and their history, see this book.  For a set of scholarly articles about various aspects of Naples in Latini’s time, see this book.

For whom is this book for?

I hope readers will find here something of interest about Naples and Italian life and culture generally.  I also very much hope the book will appeal to any reader (scholars, cooks, and everyone in between) interested in food, cooking, entertaining, and their history.

Can we use Latini’s recipes today?

Adventurous cooks should certainly try!  Some of the recipes are quite simple, in fact, and resemble modern preparations, while many more might seem quite exotic and unusual to us – combining, for instance, sweet and savory ingredients, which was a common practice in Latini’s time.  Latini aimed his book at skilled professionals, so he takes shortcuts, and in his era the practice of providing measurements or clearly outlined lists of ingredients had not yet begun, so many of his recipes might prove a bit daunting – even aside from the rarity of some of his choicest ingredients!

by  Tommaso Astarita