The Inquisitor and the Jewish Mother: The Role of Food in Creation of Converso Identity in Inquisition Spain
Georgetown University: Calhoun College, Undergraduate Thesis, April 7 (2008)
Peppered with a great deal of wit and humor, Don Quixote is a unique portrait of the cultural, social and political landscape of Spain at the turn of the seventeenth century. The scene in the Toledo market is exemplary of Cervates’ celebrated novel, but the Spanish master’s jokes are a bit lost on the modern reader; why was the Morisco laughing when he read the passage about Dulcinea, and what kind of name is Hamete Benegeli? These references point to a social issue that Cervantes and his contemporaries were acutely aware of; the legacy of Moriscos and Conversos, Muslims and Jews who converted to Christianity in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, continued to be a part of everyday reality in Cervantes’ Spain.
As suggested by how easily the Morisco was identified in the cene from Don Quixote, Spanish converts to Christianity, even two centuries after their conversion, were not well assimilated. Cervantes’ Morisco laughs because Dulcina de Toboso is supposedly a Conversa herself, and as such, it is ironic that she identified as the “best hand for salting pork” because pork was prohibited under Jewish dietary law. Almost contemptuously, the Morisco is amused at Dulcinea’s ridiculous attempt to seamlessly blend into Christian society. But Cervantes’ joke does not stop there; Benengeli, the last name of the imaginary author of the manuscript, is derived from the Spanish word for eggplant, berenjena. Eggplants in this period were associated with Jews and Muslims, and by extension with Conversos and Moriscos, who would often use the vegetable as a substitute for meat if they could not get meat that was slaughtered according to religious guidelines.