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Fake & Bake

Faux foods throughout history


Vegetarians have grown to relish—or at least tolerate—fake chicken, mock turkey, soy hot dogs, and flame-grilled tofu burgers. But the noble tradition of fake foods dates back to antiquity. Roman cooks loved to disguise the flavors of their dishes. The ancients relished food games at their banquets, and cooks took great pride in concealing flavors so that one type of meat might taste like another—or like nothing at all. One of the more peculiar recipes that survives from the first extant cookbook, dating to the fourth century A.D., is called, bluntly enough, Anchovy Casserole Without the Anchovies. The author, Apicius, proudly boasted, “No one at the table will know what he is eating.” Artists were employed at banquets to make realistic sculptures of lions out of chicken meat, bulls of fish flesh, camels of venison—anything to tickle the jaded diners.

In the Renaissance, chefs adopted the ancient fantasy theme for Fridays and Lent, when the Church strictly forbade the faithful to devour meat, eggs, or dairy. In aristocratic kitchens, inventive cooks came up with peculiar recipes for “Imitation Ricotta” and “Imitation Butter,” both made from ground almonds. Lenten “Imitation Eggs” involved more elaborate preparation: The egg whites were made from whipped fish broth, while the yolks were made from boiled rice padded into balls and dyed with saffron. As may be guessed, the goal was to recreate the appearance of forbidden foods; how they actually tasted was immaterial.
By the early 1800s, European maestros kept up the emphasis on appearance, and became far more ambitious in transforming food into art. In 1820, the Parisian celebrity chef Carême became famous for his enormous and spectacular edible table settings. He created whole mythical landscapes, with Greek temples and gardens made of spun candy and almond paste, and the winged god Cupid frozen on a swing. There were turreted medieval castles with jam moats; detailed galleons made of hazelnuts. The chef even published architectural drawings based on his meals.

But no history of edible art should leave out a grand event in 1976, when the feisty New York’s Second Avenue Deli owner Abe Lebewohl donated 350 pounds of chopped liver for an artists’ show in Soho. Fascinated Manhattanites crowded the gallery to admire a chopped liver Barbara Streisand and a 6’5” version of the World Trade Center towers straddled by King Kong. Tragically, the art was never even devoured. By the second day of the show, it was deemed “ripe” for destruction.

The need for perpetual motion has always been Tony Perrottet's most obvious personality disorder. While studying history at Sydney University, the Australian-born Perrottet regularly disappeared hitch-hiking through the Outback, sailing the coast of Sumatra or traveling through rural India. After graduation, he moved to South America to work as a "roving correspondent," where he covered the Shining Path war in Peru, drug running in Colombia and several military rebellions in Argentina. A brief visit to Manhattan fifteen years ago convinced him that New York was the ideal place for a rootless wanderer to be based. From his current home in the East Village, he has continued to commute to Iceland, Tierra del Fuego, Wyoming, Tasmania and Zanzibar, while contributing to international publications including Smithsonian Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Esquire, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times and the London Sunday Times. Perrottet is the author of four books - a collection of travel stories, Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers (1997); Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (2002); The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Greek Games (2004); and Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (2008).


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