Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews    entry Sept 2015    Allegro ma non troppo #2     original pub. date, Lion Magazine  Jan 1995

I get by with a ladle help from my friends

Well, it’s that time of the year again: the beginning. Time to look ahead. First, however, let’s see just what other ninety-fifth years in various centuries have accomplished, in order that we might have a “target” for 1995. This is an invaluable exercise and occasionally a valuable one.

For example, religious intolerance moved into the big-time in 1095, when the First Crusade was proclaimed. So far, we seem to be meeting those high standards, but I think we can do better. We certainly can do better than 1395, when, according to my little historical timetable, absolutely nothing happened. This may strike you as unfair, but life is unfair. History is unfair. I am unfair. (Anyway, I think “nothing” is something to shoot for in the coming year).

Looking at 1895 I see that there were great advances in medicine, such as the discovery of x-rays by Röntgen, and, in technology, the invention of the Diesel engine. These pale, however, beside the great innovation of “planned obsolescence”; for 1895 was the year in which King Camp Gillette invented “something which will be used once and thrown away, so the customer will come back for more”. That throw-away convenience was, of course, the disposable razor-blade. Thanks to Gillette’s foresight, we are now free to view air, water and the tropical rain forest as throw-aways! A tough year to beat!
In 1795 the “Limey” was born when the British Navy started passing out lime juice rations aboard all naval vessels at sea after confirmation of James Lind’s theory that citrus juice would prevent scurvy. Also in this year, Ludwig van Beethoven made his debut as composer and piano virtuoso, performing his own Piano Concerto #2 in Vienna’s Burgtheater. Beethoven never contracted scurvy, either —a fascinating historical coincidence. A good year.

So was 1595, when William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1495 The Diet of Worms proclaimed Perpetual Peace! That particular bit of potential  benevolence was, however, outweighed by the fact that, also in 1495, syphilis struck Naples in the first recorded outbreak of the disease. The disease infected the army of Charles VIII, which had just taken the city. It was the beginning of verbal sniping which continues to this day: the French call the malady the “Neapolitan disease,” and the Italians call it the “French disease”.

As momentous as some of this things are, they are truly nothing next to the events of 1695, for I see that in that year, “the duc de Montaussier invented the soup ladle, an advance over the two-handled soup bowl passed round the table to be sipped from in turn.”

Students of culinary science will recall that the problem of how to imbibe soup had stumped even the great minds of the Renaissance. Knives, of course, had been around almost as long as fingers, but spoons and forks, not to mention the exotic spatula and ladle confounded even Leonardo da Vinci. Sure, his helicopter prototype was eventually the model for our modern egg-beater, but the Big L cagily avoided the real problem: soup! Then, in the mid-1600s, came the first philosophical inklings with Descartes’ famous dictum on bowl sharing (the first known combination of an inkling and a dictum, by the way): “I think, therefore I am going to throw up.” The great Pascal, too, tackled the soup problem. At dinner one night he  said: “Hey, you oinkers, what’s with the trough?! Don’t you realize that the gauge pressure of a liquid is the difference between the pressure of the liquid measured at a point in the liquid and the atmospheric pressure?” This should have led to the invention of the straw right there on the spot, totally preempting the ladle, except that no one could figure out what Pascal was talking about. As it was, soupophiles blundered through years of misadventure, trying to suck liquid up through a solid stick, failing miserably and producing little more than lots of drool and many lips with splinters in them. The problem seemed intractable.

Finally on the right track by the 1690s, kitchen tinkerers came up with the first of many ladle prototypes. There was the early version of the ladle: it was entirely flat and was great for splashing soup on your neighbor across the table simply by slapping it down onto the surface of the liquid. “Hey, Pierre, look up for a second, will you?” Splat!  You sure had fun, but you didn’t get much soup. Shortly thereafter came the profoundly interesting convex ladle: shaped like the surface of a hemisphere, it was perhaps centuries ahead of its time in design, but it dripped almost all of the soup back down into the bowl. Finally, de Montaussier stumbled upon the ladle. Really. A cook left the convex version lying around and the duc tripped over it, damned near breaking his neck; however, when he looked down, the implement had flipped over into the now familiar hollow configuration! Intellectual lightning doesn’t strike like that more than once in a life-time, friends. “Sacre-bleu,”  said the duc, “that looks like one souped up ladle to me!”

Happy New Year.

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