What Would Nietzsche Eat? Why Bagna Càoda, Of Course.

In his final work Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche reviews his life, draws conclusions, and emphasizes what he has learned about the art of living.  In this context, he writes about nutrition.

I am much more interested in a question on which the “salvation of humanity” depends far more than on any theologians’ curio: the question of nutrition.  For ordinary use, one may formulate it thus: “how do you, among all people, have to eat to attain your maximum strength, of virtu in the Renaissance style, of moraline-free virtue?

Many questions here, but let’s address the last first–what is Renaissance virtu?

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Niccolò Machiavelli in Chapter VIII of The Prince considers the meaning of “virtu” through the example of Agathocles, King of Syracuse.

That man, who was born of a potter, always led a wicked life at every stage; nevertheless, he accompanied his wickedness with such virtue of mind and body that, when he joined the militia, he rose through the ranks and became the praetor of Syracuse. (51)

What happens next?  Agathocles decides to become a prince at all costs, plots with an invading army, slaughters senators and wealthy families, and then seizes the principate; eventually turning on and defeating the armies from Carthage which had originally assisted him.  Then, Machiavelli writes,

Whoever might consider then the actions and life of that man will see nothing or little which can be attributed to fortune; for that which he gained, as was said above, was not through the favor of anyone, but by his ascent through the ranks of the militia with a thousand hardships and dangers–which principate he the, moreover, maintained with many spirited and dangerous decisions.  Still, one cannot call it virtue to kill his fellow citizens, to betray his friends, to be without faith, without pity, without religion; which modes enabled him to acquire imperium, but not glory.  For if one considers the virtue of Agathocles in entering in and escaping from dangers and the greatness of his mind in standing up to and overcoming adverse things, one does not see why he should have to be judged inferior to any of the most excellent captains . . . . (52)

Different definitions of “virtu”–one exhibits and celebrates the ability to gain what is desired by any means necessary, and the other emphasizes only those actions committed under the banner of “morality.”  Machiavelli welcomes both, complicates both, and I believe this is the Renaissance virtu of which Nietzsche writes.  Leaping over the second part of Nietzsche’s quote and focusing on the first, exactly what does it mean to write “salvation of humanity?”

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I think Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper counts as a “theologians’ curio” as Nietzsche offers–symbols claiming to explain and exult existence, saving humanity; however, actually falling far short and instead imprisoning in a “herd mentality” those who pick up the symbols.  But what does Nietzsche mean when he writes, By means of Leipzig cuisine, for example, I very earnestly denied my ‘will to life’ at the time when I first read Schopenhauer.  (693)

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Leipiziger Allerlei which features asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi, morel mushrooms, crayfish and dumplings.  Maybe an array of sausages like Brägenwurst or Kohlwurst served with boiled potatoes and kale covered in a variety of gravies and sauces. And, of course, there’s the beer–Radeberger and Wernesgrüner.  Followed by cakes, chocolate and coffee.  All which proved a bit too heavy for Nietzsche.

But German cuisine quite generally–what doesn’t it have on its conscience!  Soup before the meal (in Venetian cookbooks of the sixteenth century this is still alla tedesca); overcooked meats, vegetables cooked with fat and flour; the degeneration of pastries and puddings into paperweights!  Add to this the virtually bestial prandial drinking habits of the ancient, and by no means only the ancient Germans, and you will understand the origin of the German spirit–from distressed intestines.  (693-94)

English cuisine also gives Nietzsche “heavy feet,” so the question needs to be asked, what sort of bread and fishes appeals to this skeptical German gourmand?

The best cuisine is that of Piedmont.

As Walter Kaufmann’s footnote tells us,

The north-westermost province of Italy, which borders on France and Switzerland.  its biggest city is Turin, where Nietzsche lived for two months in the spring of 1888, and again from September 21, 1888 until his collapse in January 1889.  (694)

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Garden Corner by Morbelli Angelo (1910) offers a view of Piedmont via a vase of red flowers, blue sky and green vegetation in the Divisionist style of separating colors into individual dots and patches.  A perfect setting for Bagna Càoda and a Barolo from Costa di Bussia.

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Marcella Hazan writes of Bagna Càoda in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,

The flavors and sensation of the winter season are nowhere more affectingly celebrated than as a Piedmontese table when the bagna càoda is brought out . . . Càoda is the Piedmontese word for hot, and heat, in the sense of temperature, not spice, is an essential feature of this sauce.

I begin with garlic and anchovies.

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Dice the garlic and slice the anchovies.

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Then add to melted butter and olive oil that has already been simmering for a few minutes.  I stir until the anchovies dissolve.  The next step is fairly easy.

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Set out the Bagna Càoda with an array of vegetables, including asparagus, beets, celery, parsnips, and prosciutto and breadsticks–and then just dip.  A very filling, rich tasting meal that Nietzsche would have enjoyed avoiding heavy meat and potato dishes covered in sauce.  This is a table to inspire a “revaluation of values,” to lead to a “spiritual diet.”  However, the next step he would not have taken.

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A beautiful bottle of Costa di Bussia Barolo featuring Nebbiolo grapes.  From vines set in sand and clay on the lower slopes of a hill to oak barrels to my table–a perfect complement to Bagna Càoda.  Nietzsche avoided alcohol unless he wanted to tear the evening up, so this will just be our addition.  Bon Appétit!

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