How the Inquisition found secret Jews in Spain: by sniffing their kitchen smells, and rooting through their garbage
If Christianity was defined by its seasonal dietary rules, so were other medieval religions.
The Jews of medieval Europe also had strict dietary laws. Those who, willingly or not, adopted Christianity in the Spain and Portugal of the Inquisition years experienced conversion not just as a change of faith but, crucially, as a change of diet. So, more sinisterly, did their Catholic neighbours, who were prone to denouncing conversos to the Inquisition for backsliding if they weren’t, visibly, eating in Catholic fashion: pork, not lamb or olive oil. The wrong cookpot smell, at the wrong time, could damn a suspect. Inquisitors haunted kitchens.
I’ve just found this fascinating, if chilling, passage of detail about how converted Jews had to eat in medieval Spain, and what the consequences might be if they didn’t, in Claudia Roden’s beautiful cooking-and-history book, The Food of Spain: A Celebration.
There were many Jews in Spain in 1492, Roden explains, when they were given the choice of either being banished or converting to Christianity and remaining as Conversos, as they and their descendants were called…During the earlier Muslim occupation of Spain, large numbers of Jews had migrated to al-Andalus from different parts of the Islamic Empire. They spoke Arabic, dressed like Arabs and cooked Arab foods with a special Jewish touch.They prospered economically and culturally. It was here that they rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew as a literary language and here tha the most beautiful Hebre poetry was written. When the fanatic Almohads took control of al-Andalus and tried to convert the Jews to Islam in the 12th century, many fled north to the Christian kingdoms.This is how some typical Moorish dishes spread to all parts of the peninsula. The Jews settled in many cities,where they lived in quarters kown as aljamas or juderias. They included artisans and physicians, scientists and scholars, merchants, moneylenders and roya tax collectors. Some were humble and poor. A few were bankers and courtiers who financed the wars against the Moors, and Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492. Many rose to high rank. In 1391, hostility against their perceived privileged status and relationship with the king ended in riots and massacres and the forcible baptism of thousands of Jews in many cities.
The Holy Office of the Inquisition was used to pursue those converts (Conversos) who kept up the Jewish faith in secret. In 1492, when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile gave Jews who had not yet converted the choice to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain, in some towns the entire community left, in others the entire community converted. There were large numbers of Conversos in Castile, Aragon, Andalusia and Valencia. Within a century the majority had melted into the Christian population, but until the early 19th century they continued to be suspected of being secret Jews (Marranos). If denounced, they were interrogated and could be burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fe, or be imprisoned and have their property confiscated and their families would be stigmatized for generations. Inquisitors visited homes on Fridays to see if families put white tablecloths and candlesticks on the table to celebrate the Sabbath. The dreaded Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada – himself a Converso – would stand on a hill above a city on Saturdays to identify the houses where there was no smoke coming out of the chimneys (Jewish laws prohibit any work, including cooking and lighting a fire, on the Sabbath). Records of the Inquisition show that food was used as evidence of Judaizing when women were brought to trial.
Because of the many religious rules related to food, cooking was central to the Jewish identity. So as not to use pork fat as Christians did for cooking, and to avoid clarified butter, which the Muslims used (their dietary laws forbid mixing meat with dairy products), jews used olive oil exclusively for all their cooking. THe smell of frying with olive oil became so strongly associated with Jewishness that even Old Christians of non-Jewish descent avoided it for fear of being mistaken for secret Jews.
The Jewish Sabbath dish adafina, a stew which was left to cook in a pot overnight in the ashes of a fire from Friday to Sunday, was regularly cited as a sign of Judaizing. It was made with meat, usually lamb and chicken, cut into large pieces – some of it minced and rolled into large oval balls – chickpeas, onions and vegetables such as cabbage, spinach or chard, or with aubergines. Sausages made of sheep’s intestines stuffed with minced meat were added to the pot, as were hard-boiled eggs in their shells. They were called huevos haminados. To prove their true conversion to Christianity, Conversos put in ham, pork sausages and morcilla (Spanish blood sausage). The memory of adafina lives on in today’s Spanish cocidos. In Asturias, there is a saying: ‘cocido de garbanzos, guiso de marranos’ (which means ‘cocido made with chickpeas,stew of the Marranos,’ – secret Jews). The pelotas, big balls of minced meat or chicken with bread, almonds and pine nuts,sometimes wrapped in cabbage leaves, that go into the cocidos of Valencia, Murcia and Catalonia are similar to those small meat loaves added to the Sabbath cooking pots of North AfricanJews today.
Conversos ate pork ostentatiously. The word marrano also literally means ‘pig’. In Majorca, families of Converso origin are known by the derogatory name xuetes (xua means bacon) because they cooked and ate large quantities of bacon out of doors for everyone to see. For some it felt like a betrayal of their ancestry. Antoni Campins Chaler, author of En un fogon de La Mancha: La ingeniosa cocina de Don Quijote y Sancho (‘In a fireside kitchen in La Mancha: the ingenious cooking of Don Quixote and Sancho’) sent me a story and a poem written in the fifteenth century by the Converso troubadour Anton de Montoro, known as ‘el Ropero’. One day,when the troubadour went to the butcher he found only pork meat for sale and this inspired him to write verse addressed to the mayor of Cordoba, complaining that the butcher who sold only pork caused him deep sorrow by obliging him to relieve his hunger by breaking his ancestors’ oath.
Almondrote de berejena, a dish of mashed aubergines baked with cheese and eggs, which was made on Friday to be eaten cold on Saturday, was another food that compromised Jews. Other typical Sabbath dishes included aubergine fritters dipped in flour or batter, fritadas (omelettes with vegetables) adn empanada and empanadilla (pies filled with minced meat or fish). Jews in Turkey continued to call these pies empanadillas up until the middle of the twentieth century, when they began to call them borekitas – a mark of integration into Turkish culture. Boronia was a dish of fried aubergines, courgettes and other vegetables. Sponge cakes, various almond pastries, marzipan and membrillo (quince paste) were traditional Sabbath sweets. Flourless cakes made with almonds, eggs and sugar, and flavoured with organe, were baked for Passover, when Jews could not use flour. Jews were known for their frequent use of minced meat – to make meatballs and as stuffings for vegetables and pies. Aubergines, quinces, fennel, onions and garlic were associated with Jews and were mentioned in plays and poems that satirized and outed Conversos, usually written by Conversos themselves. Spices such as cinnamon, saffron, cumin, caraway and coriander also held these associations. Jews were said to smell of onion and garlic, and their homes to smell of frying onion and garlic. Fried onion and garlic became the basis of the Spanish sofrito, the start of so many dishes in Spain, to which tomatoes were added later.
Foods that were once associated with Jews are today common in many parts of Spain. Some of the pastries that nuns make in convents, such as the almond cake from Santiago de Compostela, are of Jewish origin. In the early days of the Inquisition, having priests and nuns in the family was a way that Converso families protected themselves from persecution. There were many nuns of Jewish origin: Saint Teresa of Avila was one. That may be how Jewish pastries were taken up in convents. Another pastry that is of Jewish origin is the famous coil-shaped ensaimada of Majorca made wtih pork fat (saim means lard in the local Majorcan language). A Jewish equivalent today is made with butter or butter substitute.The roast baby lamb eaten in Castile and Leon with only a simple lettuce salad represents the ritual Passover lamb eaten with bitter herbs and lettuce dipped in salted water (symbolizing the bitter tears of the Jews who were slaves in Egypt).
Sephardi legacies (of Jews whose ancestors came from Spain) are celebrated now in Spain after centuries of silence and denial. Something of a recovery of a collective historic memory is going on with conferences and music festivals, and ‘Sefardi’ dishes appear on restaurant menus. People confide that they believe they are of Converso origin because of their names or known family history, because they lit candles in a secret room on Friday nights, or their family hung their hamon (ham) outside or they always cleaned the house on Saturdays (it showed that they were contravening Jewish laws). With the once-Jewish and once-Christian eating patterns intermingled, and the secret faith of most Conversos forgotten outside family legend, these beliefs can be hard to substantiate in detail. But, as Roden ends by noting, widely publicised recent studies into the DNA of the Spanish population have established that at least 20% of them have Jewish ancestry while 11% have Berber ancestry.
(If you would like to read more about the hidden Jews of Spain, an American journalist called Doreen Carvajal has written about her discovery that her Catholic family, from Arcos de la Frontera in Andalucia, may have been of Jewish origin, a secret passed down, elliptically, from generation to generation through the family’s women. Her intriguing book is called “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition.”)