Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cheese, Pears and History in a Proverb

I don't think anyone will mind if I repost this charming review from The Medieval Review.

Montanari, Massimo. Cheese, Pears, and History in a Proverb.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Pp. 128. $26.50/£18.50.
ISBN: 978-0-231-15250-1.

 Reviewed by Paul Freedman
      Yale University

Even in an age of narcissism and first-person journalism it isn't
customary for reviewers of scholarly literature to put themselves
forward before getting around to reviewing the book at hand.
Nevertheless I feel compelled to say at the outset that this short
study (90 pages plus bibliographic references), for all that its
subject is completely new to me, encapsulates almost uncannily my own
interests over the last few years as it concerns gastronomy
(especially its social symbolism), seigneurial representations of the
peasantry (along with some attention to peasant opinions of their
masters as well), and the peculiar power and durability of proverbs.
Montanari starts out as if he is going to offer a micro-history of one
somewhat puzzling maxim, but the book turns into something
considerably more complex as it describes the reversibility and
circularity of our perceptions and articulations of reality.

Along with the late Jean-Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari has been a
pioneer in the study of medieval as well as modern cuisine.  He has
discussed changing fashions in food and how these tastes were shaped
by considerations of social distinction. Food conveyed social claims
and status in the Middle Ages and this remains true now even if the
specific items have taken on new symbolic meanings.  One era's fish
waste might be another's caviar; organ meats and root vegetables are
suddenly chic after decades of lowliness.

We begin with an old but still current Italian aphorism: "Do not let
the peasant know how good cheese is with pears".  The ensuing
investigation analyzes this bit of advice whose actual meaning is not
at all clear, despite the widespread popularity of the saying
throughout Italy and similar formulations elsewhere in Europe.
Proverbs are usually supposed to be distillations of folk or lower-
class wisdom. Sancho Panza is given to proverbial observations, so
much so that the usually oblivious Don Quixote curses him and asks for
sixty thousand devils to take him away along with his irritating
sayings.  Sam Gamgee doesn't annoy Frodo to the same degree in Lord
of the Rings
, although he makes frequent down-to-earth gnomic
observations, sometimes citing his father's authority for them. Yet
the humorous warning about cheese and the pears expresses contempt for
ordinary people voiced by a person of superior rank even if
historically its use was not limited to the privileged classes but
rather was always well-known to peasants.

The combination of pears and cheese is hardly counter-intuitive nor an
intrinsic mystery. As early as the thirteenth century a French saying
asserts that God never made such a blessed marriage (Onques Deus ne
fist tel mariage / Comme de poire et de fromage
). Montanari notes
that in 2007, a town in Friuli famous for its cheese was twinned with
one in Emilia-Romagna noted for pears. The first introduction of an
anti-peasant aspect to this pairing comes in the late sixteenth
century: "May you never know, peasant, what it is to eat bread, cheese
and pears" (Non possa tu mai villano sapere / Cio ch'è mangiar
pane, cacio e pere

However tasty pears and cheese are, setting them side-by-side is odd
for a proverb with explicit class implications because cheese was a
typical peasant food while pears were aristocratic delicacies.
Montanari devotes the first part of the book to the medieval attitudes
towards the two items.  Cheese was avoided by the upper classes as a
crude and unhealthful peasant staple until the fifteenth century when
in Italy a fashion for dressing up simple dishes and hierarchical
ranking of certain cheeses as prestigious made cheese more common in
aristocratic entertaining.  Noble consumption of cheese remained
distinct from peasant patterns since for the latter cheese was a main
ingredient of a meal while for the well-off, cheese and fruit
comprised a small course to close a meal.

Unlike cheese, pears were always considered desirable, as were all
tree fruit.  They are, or at least seemed to be, particularly
delicate, easily bruised and spoiled and so prized for their
fragility.  In fact, however, some varieties are tough enough to be
stored in winter, but these hardy fruit were avoided by those with
some choice in the matter.  Pears were commonly gifts made between
nobles, so that for example the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua gave away
their own early-ripening precoce di Moglia pears to their

Different in social cachet, pears and cheese were nevertheless equal
objects of medical disapproval, cheese because of its heaviness and
supposed indigestibility (common to most peasant fare such as beans or
root vegetables), and pears because of their humorally cold nature
which endangered the stomach. Doctors reluctantly allowed the
consumption of cooked fruit while cheese also achieved a grudgingly
accorded medical respectability.  Cheese came to be seen as variable
in its properties and so capable of being matched with different
personal temperaments as argued by Pantaleone da Confienza in his
late-fifteenth century Summa laticiniorum whose composition
marks the advance of cheese into elite consideration.

The turning point of Montanari's intricate book is the introduction of
the social differentiation of gastronomic taste.  The notion of fixed,
class- appropriate foods is particularly important to the seigneurial
image of the lowly, even bestial rustic.  It's not only that peasants
depend on porridge, dairy products or onions for their sustenance, but
that this is their "natural" fodder.  Even when given the opportunity
to consume better fare they cannot tolerate refined food any more than
nobles can readily digest the crude provender of agricultural
laborers.  There are many medieval stories about well-off peasants who
marry into the upper classes and cannot adapt themselves to the diet
appropriate to their new status.  Montanari cites the example of the
wily Bertraldo, a successful rustic who met a bad end at court because
of the exquisite food he had to eat.  Once he fell ill he begged the
doctors to bring him beans simmered with onions and turnips cooked
under ashes, but as they did not comply, he died.  Other examples have
a happier ending as the upstart peasant's wasting indigestion is
suddenly relieved when he is provided with beans and peas with soaked
bread, or cheese, or leeks and onions.

Taste and social status are, in fact, malleable and shifting despite
the efforts of medieval anecdotes to present food preference as fixed
by nature and class.  On a basic level it would seem that cheese is a
rustic staple while pears are an aristocratic fancy, but the ascent of
cheese to a position of gustatory prestige shows that reputations can
change.  The real fear seems to have been that the more successful
peasants would be able not only to tolerate but enjoy things deemed
inappropriate to their rank.  The proverb about the pears and cheese
expresses a common noble and urban dislike of peasants not so much in
their traditional rural squalor but as socially mobile and newly

The proverb is a bit more complicated, however.  It is not as if the
peasants didn't know what pears were, after all.  Medieval and early
modern rustics were responsible not only for cheese-making but for
taking care of fruit trees as well.  Pears were not like spices,
purchased as imported luxuries and so relatively (but by no means
completely) unavailable to the lower orders.  Even if peasants had
somehow discovered that cloves were delicious, they could hardly have
done anything with this knowledge, while if they knew how felicitous
the matching of pears and cheese was, they would start stealing,
holding back or otherwise appropriating the pears in their custody.

There are still additional layers to this seemingly simple saying and
in a final section Montanari shows us something about the flexibility
of this maxim and indeed of all proverbial wisdom despite, or because
of the aphorisms' pithily authoritative statements of the way the
world is.  It is not enough to find out the "origin" of a saying but
to see who says it, who can say it and with what polyvalent
overtones.  If the peasants already know about pears and cheese, then
in their enunciation the proverb has a rather amusing set of meanings
that might range from the fatuousness of upper-class claims to special
knowledge to expressing the comic degradation of worldly wisdom too
widely disseminated (consider the fate of the modern American cliché
that the three most important price factors in real estate are
"location, location, location," which once counted as serious advice
but is now risible).

This brief summary of the ins and outs of Montanari's argument only
peels the skin off the proverbial pear.  Cheese, Pears, and
is a marvelous book whose brevity reveals twists and
surprises in its carefully reasoned observations and conclusions.

Image:  Blue cheese, pears...and choclate!  From

No comments:

Post a Comment