Mediterranean Take-Out Food in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, eating “take-out,” was a popular, common, and in some cases necessary way of eating in both the Muslim and Christian Mediterranean. Street food is just as popular today.

In the fourteenth century European travelers to Cairo speak of 10,000 cooks in the streets who sold a wide range of foods, such as the naqāniqiyyūn, who sold grilled sausages, the sharācihiyyūn, who sold slices of meat, the halwāniyyūn, who sold sweets, and the bawāridiyyūn, who made and sold cooked green vegetables preserved in vinegar. These cold dishes formed a category of foods called bawārid and could also include meat, fowl, and fish.

Some of the more popular street cooks, known as tabbākhūn, “keepers of the cook-shops,” were the harācisiyyūn, who sold harīsa, a porridge of wheat and ground meat cooked in fat. Chicken was also sold from street stalls by itinerant cooks, but it was expensive in fourteenth-century Cairo. People still take out food in the Middle East and one of the more popular street foods that can be found throughout the Levant today, with different names, is what the Arabs call shāwarma, a log of spiced ground meat that grills by turning slowly on a vertical rotisserie and is eaten wrapped in flatbread.

In the fourteenth century, it is likely that the very poor of Sicily had no cuisine. Medieval Sicilian inventories for the most part mention the caldaria (a spit with a tripod), padella (a pan), or sartago (a fryer), but the rarity of the foculàri (slow brasiers) and the number of tricfizarii (taxes), for instance on prepared foods (that is, already-cooked foods for take-out) like heads, stomachs, and feet rather than food for home consumption, suggests the absence or quasi-absence of a cuisine among the poorest. The fact that there were high taxes on prepared foods sold by vendors indicates that a majority of homes might not have had kitchens and, at the very least, that home cooking was not prevalent.

One difference between medieval Europe and the ancient world were cakes that bore little resemblance to ancient foods. Stuffed cakes seem to have enjoyed a particular success. They were known by a variety of names (pastello, pastero, enpanada, crosta ). They were actually pies. These kinds of dishes required an oven, typically not found in the home but only in cities where professional bakers were constantly baking such products with public ovens. There were rotisseries and “cook’s shops” and people had “take-out” food where people could buy ready made foods. By the thirteenth century cakes were a constant feature in European cuisine.

In medieval Venice, the banquets of the doges and princely courts have received most of the attention of food writers, but a close look at the merriment of bourgeois eating can be had in the Ca’Rezzonico, a museum of sixteenth-century Venice housed in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. On the second floor is the Pietro Longhi (1702-1785) room. Longhi was a genre painter of domestic life and here you can see La venditrice di fritole, a vendor selling her fried food, La polenta showing a woman dumping a huge mound of polenta onto the table for two men, and L’allegra coppia, the merry cup, with a voluptuous woman serving wine to some men. In Gaspare Diziani’s the Festival of Santa Marita men are pan-frying food over an open fire while women in a nearby boat eat fish fillets (or are they eggplant slices?) with wine. Many of these sumptuous dishes are impossible to find in today’s Venice. But the frying of foods in oil is more ubiquitous in the Mediterranean than the proponents of the “Mediterranean diet” would like to admit. Street vendors in Italian cities sold a variety of “take-out” foods, especially fritters of one kind or another. And in Venice a favorite food since at least Roman times and certainly during the era of the doges of the Venetian Republic is veal liver, often fried in olive or grape seed oil and sold on the streets.



Fry-vendor in Venice, Pietro Longhi (1702-1785) in Ca’Rezzonico, Venice