Updated: Aug 5, 2018
By Tyrone Shaw
The Inquisition was a nasty time for innovation. For those practicing the dark arts of alchemy, the risks were especially considerable. No matter that the most illustrious of the practitioners were deeply religious and saw their mission as more than changing base metal to gold; the real miracle would be in transforming the human spirit into something more worthy of God’s love. We can only guess what Da Vinci and Galileo attempted in their secret laboratories of the Brotherhood. We know for certain, however, that thousands of these metaphysical explorers during medieval times perished on the rack or at the stake, mortal enemies of the Church.
Even chefs were not immune, and particularly gruesome was the fate of Gasparo de Lusa, a Neapolitan who followed his employer, Catherine de Medici, to Paris when she was forced to marry the Duke of Orleans, destined to be the next king of France.
Plain and slight at fourteen, de Medici underwent a miraculous change upon arriving at the French court, a transformation some said was not unlike alchemy itself. For suddenly, at her debut before the French nobility, Catherine was said to possess dazzling charm and grace, and many men fell in love with her simply because of her undulating, fluid walk. The secret to that was the handiwork of an unnamed Florentine cobbler who, historians surmise, created the first high-heeled shoe to bolster his timid employer’s confidence.
Even more important to de Medici, however, was her chef, for only he had the power to lift her from the crippling despair of homesickness for her beloved Italy. His crepes were
reportedly so light they defied the laws of nature as they were understood at the time and were known to float freely over the table. De Lusa’s culinary magic, however, was ultimately his undoing, and rumors spread by jealous rivals began to circulate: only the heretical manipulation of the elements could explain the dishes he provided for de Medici’s table. Particularly incriminating was his signature swan’s neck pudding, which some claimed had strong aphrodisiac qualities. Some [others]said he had created food fit for God himself, and the real sin was in the eating of it.
In 1537 De Lusa was burned at the stake, a particularly odious death for a man who preferred his meat blood-rare and believed overcooking anything was a mortal sin. De Medici was forced to stand by helplessly as the church took its revenge, well done.
We live in more tolerant times, so I will not die for alchemy’s sake, but I do practice it when I transform the base ingredients of flour, eggs, milk, baking powder and oil into a delicacy so pure, and so gentle that it transforms me, albeit briefly, to a place of pure peace and light.
For a few sacred moments I am five years old again and with my first girlfriend, Jill. She was, even by the totally accepting standards of a very young boy in love for the first time, fat. She was also incredibly sweet and the happiest soul I had ever met. Her laughter was as abundant as her flesh, and we would sit for hours giggling at the sheer wonder of being alive and five-years old in the soft, mellow summer on elm-lined Mountain Avenue.
The memories are clear and fresh. It is a time before worry, doubt or sorrow enters my life. We sit on her front steps eating pancakes soaked in Log Cabin syrup. They are thin ones, lightly browned with a delicate, latticed pattern on the tops, etched by butter and heat and cast iron. They are totally saturated with that thick, ersatz concoction many poor souls prefer to the real thing. This chubby, brown-haired girl sits next to me, both of us totally at peace in each other’s presence. She is, as always, giggling. We stuff pancakes into our mouths, [note we are eating with our hands] and I watch in wonder as the syrup drips down her bare, ample forearms, which glisten in the sunlight.
About the author: Tyrone Shaw is the author of Bastard Republic (Lost Nation Books, 2016). He is an associate professor of writing and literature at Johnson State College, where he directs the Communications and Community Media program. He received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College and has taught overseas in Romania, Serbia, Moldova, and Latvia, sometimes as a Fulbright Specialist. His work as appeared in Saranac Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Truth About the Fact. Shaw lives in Bakersfield, Vermont, with his wife Nancy.