I think it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when I say that I’m a skeptic by nature. It’s difficult for me to take things at face value, especially when something is repeated in the news as, if you’ll pardon the phrase, gospel.
Let’s take the latest news report that has made its way around the internet last week: A report in April’s International Journal of Obesity that claims that over a 1,000-year period, the main course size increased by 69%, plate size 66% and loaves of bread 23%. The biggest increases in size came after 1500.
Their evidence? Paintings of the Last Supper. Their archaeological evidence for a theory that covers a milleneum..is rigorous study of fifty-two paintings representing the same event.
As far as skepticism goes, this one doesn’t even pass the sniff test.
There are so many ways to look at serving size and its reflection upon our food culture today, but looking at paintings that seek to glorify a Religious Moment (capitalization intended) doesn’t really seem to be the best one.
For example, let me ask the following questions:
Do these paintings of the Last Supper clearly illustrate exactly how much food comprised the diet of a seventh century Byzantine merchant who lived in Constantinople?
Do these paintings of the Last Supper clearly illustrate exactly how much food comprised the diet of an eleventh century Norman soldier who lived in Palermo?
Do these paintings of the Last Supper clearly illustrate exactly how much food comprised the diet of an thirteenth century Venetian fisherman?
The answers to these questions are no, no, and no. If your unconvinced by this approach, I can think of at least fifty similar questions off the top of my head.
Food history is a complex subject, one rife with variables from one’s environment. Everything from the resources one had available within fifty miles, to how benevolent the local government was, to how the average person dealt with their idea of what comprised “nutrition” all played a part in diet. It’s unlikely the artists who used the Last Supper as their subject considered any of this.
(Note – For a more reasoned and direct take down of this report, check out Got Medieval).