What if we told you that your bowl of pasta is something of a witches' brew, filled not just with herbs and spices, but with a panoply of spiritually charged ingredients—some inherently evil, others more ambiguous, and some that will literally ward off the devil?
So say occultists, warlocks, and 16th-century hatemongers, all intent on divining the meaning and portent of every bite you take. Pasta al pomodoro will never look the same again after you hear what people have been saying about tomatoes, parsley, and garlic through the ages. And don't even get us started on basil.
Let's start with the lowly tomato, which may seem innocuous or merely delicious, but that's not what witch hunters in early America thought. Romie Stott is an writer and filmmaker who "ran across a throwaway line about tomatoes and werewolves in a motivational text about hypnosis" and took a deep dive into the subject, finding some pretty surprising things. As far back as the 1500s, tomatoes were considered a seriously suspect foodstuff.
Native to Central and South America, the edible fruit of the solanum lycopersicum—a.k.a. the tomato plant—became familiar throughout the world in the days of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Unfortunately for the tomato, its introduction into the American colonies and Europe coincided with the witch craze—you know, those delightful days when thousands of women and plenty of men were burned at the stake or otherwise tortured and killed for their allegedly nefarious proclivities.
Stott says that the witch hunters of the 1500s were intent on finding out how witches oiled up their broomsticks in order to zip around town and create mayhem. The witch hunters took counsel from Andres Laguna—no less than the Pope's physician—who said that the key ingredients in the magical witch goo were hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.
Unfortunately for the tomato, it was the close relative of several of these tainted ingredients; hence the aspersion by association. Carolina M. Capehart, a culinary historian, also told MUNCHIES that the tomato's membership in the nightshade family—many members of which are known to be poisonous—may well be at the heart of the tomato's bad rap.
Now associated with little more than agita, tomatoes have come a long way from broom lubricant and catalyst for lycanthropy to the ubiquitous Caprese of today. But they're not the only pasta-friendly ingredient with a weird occult-related history.
Take the nebulous parsley. You may think of it as the uninspired wallflower of herbs—neither here nor there, taking a backseat to pretty much every other more exciting ingredient. But occultists and herbalists of yore found parsley to be both lucky and unlucky, depending on what seems to be the vagaries of their whim.
According to Vivian A. Rich, who wrote a book on folklore of the garden, "Parsley was associated with evil and black magic, because it was believed to visit the devil in Hell before germinating. In a black magic ritual, parsley was plucked and the victim's name spoken in the belief that the person named would die within 48 hours."
If that isn't creepy enough for you, how about this: "In the Middle Ages, parsley seeds were planted very deep in the ground, for people believed that the seeds must visit Hell three or seven times to obtain permission from the Devil to grow on earth."
Rachel Patterson, a self-identified witch—although "not the green-skinned, warty kind, obviously"—told us that parsley can swing both ways: good and evil. On the one hand, the "Ancient Greeks didn't eat parsley or grow it indoors because they believed it would bring death into the house." In fact, "Parsley seems to have a lot of funereal ties and connections with the dead, so [it] makes a good herb to use for otherworld and spirit work."
But don't be put off by parsley too fast. According to Patterson, you should "rub parsley on your forehead, temple, [and] then heart chakra with the intent of happiness and joy, then burn the parsley to ensure cheerfulness."
Indeed, you'd better "be careful when in the party mood, as parsley can also bring on lust and fertility… possibly not always a good combination." Parsley's association with the spiritual realm and fecundity goes so far that, in Patterson's words, "Folklore says that only pregnant women and witches can grow parsley successfully."
So, yeah, parsley's occult associations are kind of complicated… but garlic's aren't.
Garlic has been prized as a defense against evil forces for millennia, and as Linda Pelaccio, a culinary historian and host of the podcast , told us, "Since 300 BC, garlic was prized for its medicinal value, noted by Aristotle and known as a strengthening herb. In Hippocratic medicine, it was considered one of the hot elements; it 'cooked' foodstuff during digestion, eliminated flatulence, and warded off evil humors."
But Bram Stoker really nailed garlic's reputation in the public imagination when he wrote his 1897 gothic novel Dracula. That novel, as food writer and historian Gary Allen pointed out to MUNCHIES, "described how the peasants in Transylvania used garlic to prevent vampire attacks. He was the first to do so, but probably noticed a lot of garlic in the cooking of the region (while he did his research all in the library of the British Museum; he never visited the Transylvania he described), and decided to make the connection."
In fact, Allen said, "Garlic has long been used to distinguish between social classes (supposedly, only the poor and/or foreigners ate it), so maybe its smell was a way to warn of the presence of the lower classes, so the 'right kind' of people could protect themselves from being contaminated?"
Yes, garlic's smell is so pungent that, as Allen pointed out, "other common names include 'Divel's Dreck,' a colloquial version of the ancient apothecary's term, Stercus Diaboli, meaning 'the devil's own excrement.'"
The smell may well be at the root of garlic's reputation as the "traditional means of warding off evil and witches' curses." Allen said chains of garlic were traditionally placed around the room and, along with cloves, hung over the baby's cradle to ensure the child's welfare. All in all, garlic is not to be underestimated in the world of witchcraft.
From a witch's perspective, Patterson doesn't mince words when it comes to garlic, and has the following recommendations: Carry garlic with you to provide personal protection, and hang bulbs of garlic in your home to protect against thieves and evil spirits (and vampires, cuz sure, why not). Burn garlic skins in your house to keep money coming in, dispel negative energy, and ease depression. You can even cure some illnesses by rubbing a fresh clove of garlic over the body where the problem lies, then throwing the garlic bulb away into running water or burying it at a crossroads.
So where does this leave our bowl of pasta, from an occult perspective? Well, hold on one second: According to Rich's book Cursing the Basil, basil, too, has a complex supernatural side: "The Greeks believed that basil would not grow unless the gardener shouted curses and abuse at the plant. The Romans also believed that basil had to be cursed to make it grow. This idea lives on in the French phrase 'sowing basi' (semer le basilic) which means 'to rant.'"
This Halloween, our advice is this: Steer clear of tomatoes and other nightshades, rub some parsley on your heart chakra, and burn garlic skins in your house. But above all, don't forget to yell at your basil.
Your next bowl of spaghetti bolognese can wait.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October, 2016.