Wonders in Italian Renaissance Cookery

As early as the 1st century C.E., food writers and cooks were devising illusions and theatrical presentations using food and culinary formulas. Roman gourmet Apicius' famous dish "Anchovies without Anchovies" and his utterance that "no one will know what he is eating" are (literally) classic examples of such "culinary wonders."

In recent memory, illustrious chefs like Escoffier at the Savoy in London (who recreated a naval tragedy using poached chicken escalopes) and Abe Lebewohl of the Second Avenue Deli in New York City (who built a replica of the World Trade Center Twin Towers using chopped chicken livers) have made truly extraordinary--if not tasteful--contributions in this field of culinary arts.

Such artifice and conceits found what was perhaps their greatest expression during the Italian Renaissance when the author of the "first modern cookery book," Maestro Martino of Como, documented a series of mirabilia gulae or "wonders of culinary indulgence," including a roast peacock that appears to be alive and spews fire and fishes that appear to swim in a suspended gelatin aquarium.

A survey of his and his contemporaries' recipes reveals that the wholly new genre of culinary writing emerged together with the many other "secret books" of the Italian Renaissance, including miscellanea by famous Renaissance figures like Luca Pacioli.

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