The title of this breathtaking book, Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver, comes from Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” The frontispiece of the book opens with the quote printed next to a black and white image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The subtitle, Stories of Dinner as a Work of Art, completely expresses the purpose of this marvelous read.
Young, who is a specialist in European history, dining history, antique porcelain, silver and glass, characterizes the work as an “aristological history of Western Europe,” where “aristology” means “the art of dining.” In twelve stunning chapters she describe specific unforgettable meals held beginning in the Middle Ages up through the interwar period in the Twentieth Century. These range from the first, dinner with Peter the Venerable and the monks at Cluny in 1132; to a luxuriant picnic held at the home of the painter, Titian, in Venice in 1540; to Talleyrand’s diplomatic dinners in the Nineteenth Century; and finishing with a startling and disturbing Surrealist picnic in 1932.
In each chapter, Young sets the scene for the meal by placing it in a historical and cultural context. She describes the main actors and settings in a vivid style that makes you almost feel that you are there as a silent guest watching the action. The immediacy of the experience is further heightened by many black and white as well as multiple color illustrations depicting French château, porcelain, paintings, table decorations, period kitchens, utensils and so on.
Here you learn much about culinary practices, dining presentation, etc. For example, I had no idea that what we now-a-days call “family style” meals seem to be a casual descendant of “service à la française” and plated dishes, which are all the rage at fine dining establishments even today, were originally “service à la russe.” Apparently the transition from the first to the second only occurred as recently as the Nineteenth Century. Who knew? Prior to that, opulent meals were marked by massive display buffets that were literally edible works of art.
Young delights in nuances in tableware and “scandalous” changes in dietary habits. Here she cites Aretino, who wrote to a friend in 1537 on the wonders of salad during a time when rare delicacies loaded with spices were in fashion.
Certainly, I am amazed that poets don’t wager their pants in order to sing the virtues of salad. And monks and nuns are wrong not to praise it, because the former steal hours away from prayer in order to spend them cleansing it from little stones, and the latter, almost like nursemaids unto it, spend their time washing and caring for it. I think that its inventor must have been Florentine, nor can it be otherwise since the setting of tables, their decoration with roses, the washing of glassware, the little plums in the dip-dishes, the dressing of chopped liver, the making of flour bread-cakes and the serving of fruit after meals all came from Florence. Its little brains, its thirsting ones, its humble hard workers, with all their subtlety and foresight, have grasped all the points by which cuisine can tempt even those who are inappetent.
In the chapter on Casanova and seduction, Young queries, “And yet, what other activity, except for sexual intercourse itself, is as intimate, as voluptuously sensuous, and as engagingly tactile as a shared meal?” Well, maybe reading this book.
I struggle reviewing “Apples of Gold…” as, to me, the book seems incredible in every way without any flaws. It is stunningly written, beautifully illustrated, erudite without being pedantic, fascinating… the list goes on and on. Perhaps my only real cause for regret is that it, well, eventually, it ends. I could have easily devoured another dozen chapters with genuine pleasure.