Père Labat Recipes # 1 Food and Fasting

tanlistwa, Menu de maigre et ustensiles de cuisine par Jean Siméon Chardin, 1731, peinture à l'huile

 Reading time: Around 13 minutes.
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In 2020, after two months of difficult lockdown, I had started writing a light post to publish in May. The atypical situation of confinement of a large part of the planetary population had, among other things, resulted in me spending more time in the kitchen. I had tested new recipes, I was looking for safe and comforting values, I had read À table avec les grands personnages de l’histoire by Éric Birlouez (a little gem of a book for those who love history and cooking, with recipes to make!), I had read Casimir Fidèle : un chef noir à Bordeaux à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, a fascinating French article by Julie Duprat. As a result, I wanted to write a post mixing Caribbean history and recipes. But after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Live Matter movement that followed, I felt the need to write about French racism and its long history. So I left the research for my initial post aside; it finally took me several months to dive back into it with relish.

At the time, I was thinking of producing an article on titiris acras, in connection with the upcoming Easter holidays, all based on Father Labat’s accounts; but when I returned to reading Nouveau voyage…, I thought there was material for a whole series of posts! Father Labat does indeed provide a plethora of culinary information from his experience in the islands between 1694 and 1705. So I decided to start a long series to talk about gourmandize, grub, chow, festing, cooking, eating and feeding in the Caribbean from his prolix writings!

Father Labat, a religious chronicler, gourmet and gourmand, even glutton

Portrait en médaillon du Père Labat
Portrait en médaillon du Père Labat

Jean-Baptiste Labat is one of the most important figures in the history of French colonisation. A Dominican missionary, he lived and travelled for several years in the Caribbean. Labat is known for having developed the sugar business of the Fond Saint-Jacques dwelling in Sainte-Marie, Martinique, where hundreds of enslaved people contributed to its wealth through the cultivation of sugar cane; a famous portrait associates him with the production of tafia (guildive). He then published the account of his stays in Nouveau Voyage aux isles de l’Amérique in 1722. A bestseller! As Labat himself wrote for the third edition: « The Paris booksellers had printed two thousand copies, and those of Holland as many; it was a lot, and I did not believe that it should have been sold out in as short a time as it was. » [ Les Libraires de Paris en avoient tiré deux mille Exemplaires, & ceux de Hollande autant ; c’étoit beaucoup, & je ne croyois pas que cela dût être débité en aussi peu de tems qu’il l’a été]* This success can be explained. He was talkative and curious; he was not stingy with details about the people he met, the journeys he undertook, the diseases he fought, what he gardened, the Kalinagos, the enslaved blacks… He was therefore an important chronicler for those who wanted to discover the American islands at the time and for those who are interested today in the colonisation of the French Antilles at the end of the 17th century, even if Labat exposes his opinions and prejudices without hesitation …

But what interests us today about Father Labat is his immoderate interest in food, which runs through his narrative. Not only does he describe the plants and animals, but he is also interested in the different ways of preparing fruits, vegetables and meats in the islands. He tastes everything, even the fried worms of the palm trees. He is a fan of smoked turtle meat. He raves about the « so good » preparations based on sweet fruits, he is obviously familiar with recipes for fermented drinks… The man is a gourmet and a gourmand, not to say a glutton or a greedy person! He is a true culinary critic who delivers « ways of cooking », in other words, recipes that do not yet bear the name and that contribute to our gastronomic heritage.

Today, since we are in the middle of the season of Lent, I propose paradoxically – Labat being rather a worshipper of good food – to start this series on the question of fasting. On the menu: manatee, iguana, diablotin, coffee, tea and chocolate.

The fast

tanlistwa, Menu de maigre et ustensiles de cuisine par Jean Siméon Chardin, 1731, peinture à l'huile
Menu de maigre et ustensiles de cuisine par Jean Siméon Chardin, 1731, peinture à l’huile

In Labat’s time, there were no dietary restrictions among Catholics. Any food could be eaten. On the other hand, there were times of abstinence imposed by the Church, which prohibited the consumption of certain foods. Catholics practised fasting. This practice of voluntary food deprivation is a mark of penitence which manifested itself in the eating of a single meal, the renunciation of meat, and sometimes also of eggs and dairy products. Believers traditionally favoured fish, the symbol of lean flesh. Despite possible dispensations (especially for young children and the sick), the sum of the fasted days could represent a third of the year, and even more so for ecclesiastics. I imagine that at this stage, as for me at the beginning, it seems quite simple to you: no meat, therefore no chicken, pork, beef… fish, that is to say cod, herring, red snapper… Easy, no!

As I read, what seemed simple and obvious became a source of questions and wonder. The foods allowed or forbidden to the faithful may have varied according to place and time (ordinary Friday fasts or specific times of abstinence like Lent). Above all, I realised that foods unknown before colonisation led to discussions about whether or not they could be eaten on lean days. I also discovered the existence of « ambiguous animals », those whose particularities could make one hesitate to classify them as meat or fish; the reasons given left me, at best, doubtful, at worst, laughing. In any case, at the time, they made it possible to circumvent the rigour of the canonical prohibitions by expanding the possibilities of food resources.

Does drinking chocolate break the fast? What about tea and sugar-sweetened coffee?

It is with these questions that Labat mainly evokes the questioning of fasting. Around 1700, not everyone seemed to agree on hot chocolate, the essential drink of our culinary traditions. For Labat the answer was yes. For him, chocolate should not be drunk on fasting days; however, it seems that his choice was not shared. « On Tuesday the twenty-second we went to Mr. Poquet’s house after Mass, we found all the guests there, but unfortunately for them, this Shrove Tuesday was the eve of Saint Mathias, and therefore a Church fast, most of them did allow themselves to take chocolate, based on a decision of some missionaries, who claimed to have it from Rome, and who never failed to warn their parishioners [that] on Fat Sunday or Quinquagesima, chocolate may be eaten without breaking the fast, provided that no milk or eggs are added, as is done almost everywhere on the islands. There was much discussion for and against this decision. As for me, who held in the negative, I based myself on the opinion of the Spanish doctors, who agree that there is more nourishing substance in an ounce of chocolate than in half a pound of beef; and on this principle, I maintained that one could not take it without breaking the fast. » (T.1 p. 59/89) 

To understand this comparison, we need to read the theologian Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in the 13th century: « Fasting was instituted by the Church to repress the lust for the pleasures of the touch, which have food and pleasure as their object. Abstinence must therefore be from the most delectable and exciting foods. » [ le jeûne a été institué par l’Église pour réprimer la convoitise des plaisirs du toucher qui ont pour objet la nourriture et la volupté. L’abstinence doit donc porter sur les aliments les plus délectables et les plus excitants.] The idea I have of a good hot chocolate, slightly sweetened, rich and unctuous, is indeed hardly compatible with fasting. Similarly, Labat wrote that « fasting is instituted to mortify the flesh, to put it down, and to subject it to the spirit », which is why he considered that consuming chocolate was tantamount to « giving it things that sustain it, that sharpen its appetites, that maintain its delicacy, and give it the means to wait without impatience & without pain for a good meal ». (T.1 p. 60/90)

Just after mentioning chocolate, Labat gives his feelings about tea and coffee. « I therefore told them that tea and coffee being only a tincture of these two simples, they gave no substance, or very little substance, to the water in which they were boiled, and that they should therefore be considered as a medicine rather than as food; that in truth the sugar that was put into them was indeed nourishing, but that the quantity that went into them being so small, it seemed that they could be taken especially in a hot country where the pores are always open, giving rise to a great deal of sweating that can only be repaired by food » (T. 1 p. 60/90)

In the debates between the religious communities – the Dominicans being against the chocolate beverage in times of fasting, the Jesuits in favour of its consumption – it was finally the principle of lean food that was retained by the Church, for which the drinks did not break the fast. Thus, the Caribbean colonists could, as with coffee or tea, consume their hot chocolate at any time in a variety of recipes that I will reveal in another post.

Lean meat and ‘ambiguous’ animals

Christian fasting obviously also means abstinence from food around animal species. However, our current methods of classifying animals were not necessarily familiar at the time of Labat’s voyages. Indeed, it was not until the second half of the 17th century that the Englishman John Ray proposed a pioneering zoological classification based on animal anatomical criteria and not on behavioural or environmental aspects. His methodology had not yet been adopted and mastered by everyone in the 18th century. Like many theologians of the time, Labat focused more on the place of life (terrestrial or aquatic) to determine the classification of animal species. Thus he classified the manatee as a fish, since it lives in water! However, the so-called fatty fish, i.e. large marine animals (whales and dolphins) that are not actually fish, were excluded.

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The manatee, a fish that looks like a cow
tanlistwa-Manatee_Florida-wikipediaWhat I find interesting in Labat’s approach to the manatee is that, on the one hand, he considers it to belong to the fish family, but on the other hand, throughout the passage concerning this animal, he compares it to a mammal, whether in its anatomy, its behaviour or the qualities of its flesh consumed at the time. Labat does not hesitate to write that the manatee could have been called a « sea cow »: « Its mouth, its udders, its way of putting out its young and suckling them have much in common with this terrestrial animal. » He also mentions the skin « thick on the back almost like two ox leathers » and compares the flesh to that of a suckling calf which : « The taste and flavour are the same & if I had not seen the fish before it was cut & cooked, it would have been difficult to persuade me that it was not meat. » (T.1 p. 60/290)

Between land and sea: lizards (iguanas) and diablotín (petrels)

tanlistwa-Iguana_delicatissima_in_Coulibistrie_wikipediaThe list of so-called lean meats, and therefore compatible with fasting, included much more than just fish. It also included crustaceans and molluscs (crayfish, lobsters, crabs, shrimps, octopus, etc.), but also the meat of reptiles and amphibians. In 1884, Armand Dubarry, the author of the book Le boire et le manger…, included frogs, turtles, lizards, iguanas, crocodiles and snakes. Labat relates that he had the opportunity to consume in a time of fasting what he calls lizard, which proabably corresponds to our iguanas. « We ate the one that was presented to me, prepared like a chicken fricassee; I would have thought it was a chicken fricassee if I had not seen it prepared, so much does this flesh resemble that of the chicken, by its whiteness, tenderness, good taste and delicacy. It is not to be wondered at that we ate it in Lent, though it is an earthly animal. Our theologians have placed it among the amphibians that can be eaten at any time. » (T.1 p. 105/143)

Labat was aware that certain choices of classification were questionable, particularly because of the place where the animals lived and also because, when tasted, the flesh seemed closer to that of chicken than fish. He therefore felt obliged to justify the astonishment that might arise for the reader. The case of the diables is even more surprising. What Labat calls diables [devils] in French correspond to the species Pterodroma hasitata, more commonly known as black-capped petrel. « Those who read these Memoirs will no doubt be surprised that we eat birds in Lent. But one will be informed that the Missionaries who are in the islands, and who by an Apostolic concession exercise in many things the power of the Bishops, after a measure of deliberation and consultation with the Doctors, have declared that lizards and devils were lean meats and that consequently one could eat them at any time. » (T.1 p. 113/351) However, Labat describes the flesh of the devil as « blackish, & [which] smells a little like fish, but otherwise it is good and nourishing. The cottous [fledglings] are considered to be more delicate, and indeed they are; but they are too fat, so that they render the fat as if they were full of oil. » These are not exactly the words that come to mind when I think of lean meat.

Cooking the diablotin

tanlistwa-Pterodroma_hasitata-wikipediaLabat relates a hunt on the slopes of La Souffrière and the meal that followed. « Our two hunters were happy, they returned quite quickly with fifteen or sixteen devils. Each of them began to pluck. As for me, I made the skewers to roast them. After they are plucked and flamed, they are opened by the back, all the insides are used for the dogs’ supper with the feet, the heads and the wingtips. The bodies are skewered diagonally, i.e. the skewer is passed from one leg to the opposite shoulder. The skewer is placed in the ground in front of the fire; it is turned from time to time to cook the meat on both sides, and when it is almost cooked, salt is thrown on it; a leaf of cachibou [Calathea lutea] or balisier [Canna or Heliconia] serves as a plate. » The man is clearly enjoying the meal as he goes on to add: « I thought I would be satisfied with a devil in my body, but either the cold mountain air or the fatigue of the journey had increased my appetite, or the devils of that particular heathen are more delicate and easier to digest than others, so I had to do as my companions did, and eat a second one. » (T.1 p. 111/349)

Labat further explains how petrel were usually cooked. « The way to cook them when they are large is to boil them in plenty of water with salt and fine herbs until they are half cooked, after which they are removed and left to drain; this half-cooking removes the fat and the fishy taste from them. They are then cooked in a stew or otherwise with orange peel and bay rum tree [bois d’inde] leaves. The little devils or cottous are best roasted on a spit, or on the grill, sprinkled with salt, pepper & bay rum seed beaten together. » (T.1 p. 110/348) This seabird once hunted extensively in Guadeloupe is now in danger of extinction in the Caribbean. If you are planning to try the recipes, I therefore invite you to do so with a non-endangered species!

The assimilation of certain animal species to fish or their classification as lean meat may make us smile today, but it reveals the pragmatism of the people of the time; classifying certain species as lean meat ensured access to food and widened the spectrum of possibilities, even in times of famine. Discussions about these classifications are not unique to the European colonisation of the Americas. The French BNF’s « Eating as a Christian » exhibition reminds us that in the Middle Ages, the beaver was perceived as an « amphibian, whose tail, which remains in the water, is comparable to fish », while the rest of its body was considered to be meat. However, I think that the best of all is the branta, « a small wild Arctic goose that winters on the North Sea coast and is believed to have arisen by spontaneous generation from a tree from which it falls into the water, or from shells formed on rotting wood floating in the sea: this bird therefore manages to appear either as a fruit or as a seafood! ». And you, do you know of any other species in America, whether plant or animal, that have given rise to discussions about whether they are fatty or lean foods? During my wanderings on the web, I read that the cabiai or capybara, which is still eaten in French Guyana, had also obtained the status of lean meat.

* I worked with the 1724 edition, kept at the John Carter Brown Library (in 2 volumes), you will also find the 1722 edition (in 6 volumes), the 1742 edition (in 8 volumes) is on Manioc.

French Bibliography

  • Montanari, Massimo, La chère et l’esprit, Histoire de la culture alimentaire chrétienne, Paris, Alma, 2017.
  • Laurioux, Bruno, Manger au Moyen Age, France, Hachettes littératures, 2002.

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