Monday, February 6, 2012

The Forme of Cury

The notion that illness can be eased with food as medicine is an ancient one. We have the sayings which marry foods with health such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” (which sounds like advice dating back to Eden, but is in fact the invention of apple farmers desperate for a way to preserve their livelihoods after Prohibition made cider-making illegal), and “starve a fever, feed a cold” (which people often confuse for the other way around — a bit of bad advice from the 15th century). But the very words we use for both cooking and medicine come from the same source, and recipes for both food and medicines always used to be found (until very recently) in the same place — cookbooks.

The book compiled in 1390 by “the Chief Master Cooks of King Richard II” and published in 1791, was given the name The Forme of Cury, by its author, Samuel Pegge, which gives us an interesting etymological lynchpin with which to explore this link.

The Latin cura means care. The derivative curare means to take care of. The middle English curen from which we get cure means both to heal and to preserve — which are of course one and the same, as both seek to prolong a state of being. To cure is to fix, and to fix is also to set in place. (It is worth noting that we also use the word fix to mean a problem, as in “a right fix.”) To take the time and effort to cure something then — to fix it — takes care. Care implies both thoughtfulness (as in careful) and an investment (as in to care for or about something).

Pegge’s word cury comes directly from the French cuire — to cook, boil or grill (i.e. the application of heat). It is from this root we get cuisine, and culinary, from the Latin culinarius, meaning pertaining to the kitchen (culina being both kitchen and food). Although the word culinary was in use by the 1630s, 160 years later Pegge chose to use cury, which shows us that the language for the pursuits of the kitchen was still hovering between the middle English and the French — with so few literate people, it was primarily oral terminology, especially when used by cooks. The concept that one could both nourish the body and heal it from same source was very much in place, since the ingredients were often the same.

Nowadays we divorce medicine from food into different realms, though both are variations of chemistry. The vitamins and minerals we take as supplements are to be found in food, and indeed, were understood long before we isolated them to figure out why they worked. Foods rich in vitamin C were widely used to prevent scurvy long before we knew that scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C. Penicillin was utilized long before Alexander Fleming discovered it, because people used moldy leather to bandage wounds. Honey is both food an medicine being an antiseptic and antibacterial substance as well as a preservative.

If the words cury and culinary and cuisine remind you of the word curious, it’s because they too come from the same place. In Latin we have curiosus, meaning to be careful, diligent, inquiring and meddlesome — all of which are necessary attitudes to employ when developing recipes and cures. The old French gives us curios, meaning solicitous, anxious, inquisitive, odd and strange. All of these describe someone attempting to diagnose a condition and find a cure for it. A curio is an object of mystery and interest, much like a sick person whom the gods have smitten with an invisible ailment we now know to be a disease. The word curious dates from the 14th century — around the time Richard II was being fed by his master cooks — though by Samuel Pegge’s time in the late 1700s, it had taken on a slightly salacious connotation in that being curious implied wanting to see something forbidden a dangerous and possibly sinful act — after all, curiosity killed the cat. It is no surprise then that in publishing, the word curious is shorthand for erotic or pornographic.

History is littered with people whose curiosity got them in a lot of hot water with the powers that be, for whom accepting things at face value meant stability and the preservation of power. Looking too closely at the stars or into the body meant uncovering the apparatus of life — the province of God. Telescopes and microscopes — made possible by grinding glass to see what was once invisible to the naked eye drew the veil away from the mechanics of things allowing humans to manipulate them instead of leaving it to the cosmos, much like Dorothy coming upon the Wizard of Oz at the controls. Curiosity is what ate at Dorothy, and what cured her. Curiosity is what got Eve into a fix, though the apple has undergone a significant rehabilitation since her story was told as a warning against temptation. 

Glass is made by cooking sand and curing it. It transforms the opaque into the transparent. By cooking, we are able to shed light on ourselves.

The Forme of Cury, Samuel Pegge, 1791

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