I love history and folklore, in part because they are full of things that fiction writers could never get away with. Here’s an example, taken from J. A. Cuddon’s masterly introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. I was previously aware of Bacon’s experiment in early refrigeration techniques and its fatal outcome for him, but I must admit I had never considered the poor chicken.
“My personal favourite non-human ghost is ‘The Phantom Chicken of Highgate’, the victim of an experiment in the theory of refrigeration conducted by Sir Francis Bacon in the winter of 1626. During a blizzard Sir Francis went out to the duckpond on top of Highgate Hill and stuffed frozen snow into the carcass of a freshly plucked chicken. The enterprise was too much for Bacon, then in his sixtieth year. He caught a cold, developed bronchitis, and died. The spectre of the luckless fowl, featherless, squawking, and agitating the stubs of its wings, has ever since sporadically haunted Pond Square. Observers remark that it disappears through a brick wall.”
It’s not often that a ghost story makes me laugh out loud, but this one did. I thought it was worth sharing.
Around 25 years ago, I took part in a play-by-mail En Garde campaign run by the Small Furry Creatures Press. In addition to En Garde, they ran many other games through their eponymous magazine, and one I particularly enjoyed was Bluff My Call.
It was based on a BBC panel show named Call My Bluff, where one of the two celebrity teams was given an obscure word from what presenter Robert Robinson sometimes called “the haunted wing of the Oxford English Dictionary.” One team member was secretly given the correct definition: the other two had to bluff, and the members of the opposing team had to decide which definition was correct.
The Small Furry Creatures version used less obscure words, often with a small and furry connotation: I remember lambast, ratatouille, and dogmatic, among others. The player who submitted the most entertaining false definition of the word was rewarded with a free turn in all the games running at the time.
I enjoyed the game immensely. Following the success of Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff I was even tempted to collect my entries together and add more until I had a book, but I haven’t yet worked up a decent proposal to send to an agent or publisher. It’s still on my mind, though, along with a hundred other projects.
For now, here’s one of my earlier entries. I recall that I wrote it shortly after I encountered cassata siciliana for the first time in an Italian restaurant in Nottingham.
Renaissance Italy was fragmented in more ways than one. Even before the coming of the Ostrogoths, it had been held together only by the staggeringly complex and occasionally effective provincial administration of the Roman Empire. By the late fifth century everything had fallen apart, and it was not until the days of Garibaldi that one could truly speak of Italy as a single entity.
As it was with politics, so too with cuisine. Once the last of the Roman orgies had finished, it was barley bread, warm gruel, and warm Ostrogoth beer for everyone until the Renaissance dawned. Even then, things scarcely improved. The new age of reason and inquiry led to a flourishing of experimental cookery, to be sure, but as in many other fields of endeavor a boundless enthusiasm coupled with an incomplete grasp of essential scientific principles led to one disaster after another.
It was well known, for example, that Lucrezia Borgia’s enthusiasm in the kitchen outstripped her ability by some way, and more than one Roman noble took his own life upon receiving an invitation to dine with her. The peasant on a leash became a vital accessory for any Renaissance gourmand, the food remaining untouched until it was clear that the taster was not about to turn green and make a dash for the garderobe. The situation became so bad that in 1503 Pope Pius III was obliged to issue a Papal Bull making it clear that Grace was a prayer of thanksgiving for the food, not a plea to the Almighty that it might be edible. His own time on the throne of St. Peter was cut short, for he succumbed shortly after an inuagural dinner thrown by the Florentine ambassador.
Across the Alps, French cuisine was making immense strides. A moderately stable soufflé recipe had been developed in 1482, and in 1505 the royal chef Armand de Roquefort was elevated to the rank of Marquis after his invention of the first truly lump-free cheese sauce. Once the gastronomic hub of Europe, Italy stood on the brink of humiliation. The Italian nobles reacted with characteristic subtlety, launching a campaign of misinformation that has many scholars convinced to this day that the rash of mysterious dinner-party deaths had a political, rather than culinary, origin.
Finally, in 1525, a glimmer of light dawned. It was in that year that Fra Angelico Tortellini, a traveling Franciscan friar, chanced upon a small village in Sicily and there discovered a confection known to the peasants as cassata. Based upon ice-cream, this dish was enhanced by the addition of dried and crystallized fruits and a selection of aromatic herbs. Like many monastics of his day, Tortellini (who would go on to make his own mark upon Italian cuisine) was a skilled herbalist, and recognized at once the healing and soothing properties of the mixture of fruit and herbs used in the dish. As any devout Catholic would have done, he set out immediately for Rome with the stolen recipe concealed beneath his habit.
Italy was saved. Tortellini became a Cardinal within the week of his arrival at the Holy See, and the Church distributed the recipe for cassata throughout the land. The promise of the recipe alone was instrumental in turning many recusant nobles away from the influence of Luther, and within two years one could eat without fear in any noble house the length and breadth of Italy.
Provided that the cassata was taken as the final course, its healing herbs would avert the effects of all but the most spectacularly extreme culinary disasters. A number of petty wars were swiftly brought to an end, having been started in the first place only to give an air of political significance to the rash of dinner-party deaths.
England, at that time more than any other, was cut off from the mainstream of events on the Continent. Under the vigorous guidance of Henry VIII, with his preference for good, plain food and his tendency to have dissenters beheaded, the English diet had not undergone any of the ambitious but deadly changes which had affected Italian cuisine.
Thus, when cassata eventually reached England’s shores in the reign of his daughter Elizabeth, its properties as a means of surviving lavish experimental cookery were not especially noted. Chroniclers of the day, most notably Geoffrey of Pontefract in his Gastronomia Mundi, mention its soothing properties in a general way and list it as ‘a tonick for the jaded pallette.’ The name cassata undergoes a degree of change in translation, becoming casta or catta, and from here the name took on the form under which it finally entered the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary: catta-tonick or catatonic.