Reading about food is great fun, stimulating, even sometimes revealing, and generally a lot less expensive, and a lot less fattening than actually eating the stuff. Obviously, you like to read about food, or you wouldn’t be peering at these words right now, but there’s a very special kind of reading about food which can be a complete delight. I’m talking about the great literary feasts, those moments in fiction and poetry when some delightful eating experience or another is presented with all the skill of a gifted writer. (This is to be distinguished from those wonderful writings by food experts or gastronomes, such as Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher) So, right now, I thought I’d share a few of those famous mo-ments with you, and maybe re-mind you of passages you’ve forgotten or call your attention to some you don’t know.
I will pass up a friend’s sug-gestion to begin with Saturn de-vouring his children and start with another famous classical moment, Trimalchio’s feast. In The Satyricon, that rather deca-dent proto-novel of the Roman genius, Gaius Petronius Arbiter, there is a feast of feasts. Tri-malchio is a kind of nouveau riche vulgarian who serves dor-mice seasoned with honey and poppyseed, pastry eggshells enclosing egg yolk and a kind of cooked marsh bird, a big plate representing the signs of the zodiac with food appropriate to each sign Not to mention a boar stuffed with live thrushes that fly out when its sides are slashed, dessert thrushes made of pastry and stuffed with nuts and raisins, quinces stuck full of thorns to represent hedgehogs, and so on ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
The key here is a kind of creative illusionism and theatricality. Why not take a leaf from Trimalchio’s fig tree and prepare your own decadent feast for the next holiday? You could stuff your turkey with live parakeets and surprise your guests with a fish-shaped sow’s paunch, or a chicken made out of marzipan. Clearly, you would be the sensation of the neighbourhood, although it might be difficult to put your hands on a hundred year old Falernian optimum to wash it down.
But the Greeks and Romans weren’t always decadent. There’s that wonderful passage in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus comes back to Ithaka disguised as a poor stranger, meets his own swineherd and is offered a delicious but simple meal of tender pork roasted on a spit, and generous cups of wine in ivy-wood vessels. (Odysseus does a lot of sailing and swimming, but never eats fish). It’s surely the nicest barbecue in literature, and reminds us that simplicity can sometimes be fit for kings.
Speaking of barbecues, Roy Campell, the South African poet, in his lively autobiography describes his eating habits in the Camargue in the South of France. There he liked to roast chunks of lamb with freshly picked rosemary and thyme. He began the feast with home-cured black mullet, green olives scented with fennel, or even better, ripe black olives from the region, or from Italy. He cooked the lamb with slices of bacon in the open air on a fire of fine stems and vine roots, waiting for the moment when “their glare has faded from bright yellow to deep orange but has not yet gone red.” The poet suggested washing it down with a few bottles of Chateauneuf du pape, and urged that you, the reader, make sure that your arm is “around some beautiful living torso” as you feast. Certainly, life could be worse!
Continuing in this vein of sensuous simplicity, there’s the fine erotic feast in John Cowper Powys’s novel A Glastonbury Romance when Nell, the young buxom beauty waits for her lover in one of those marvelous English cottages that we all dream about. “Wise had Nell been to restrict their portion that night to the simplest elements,” writes Powys. “Tea, eggs, butter, bread, honey and black-current jam. The taste of each of these things carried nothing but the very poetry of mortal sustenance into their amorous blood.” Since Nell “keeps pulling the loose front of her blue dressing gown tightly around her classical breasts,” and has “stripped herself naked save for her flimsy nightgown,” it’s a wonder her poor lover Sam can swallow a morsel.
More grimly self-reliant and solo masculine are the feasts of Ernest Hemingway’s heroes. In “Big Two-Hearted River” we find Nick Adams emptying a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into his camp frying pan. He waits for them to bubble up, then pours the mess out into a tin plate and lets it cool. Then he adds some tomato ketchup and wipes the plate clean with four slices of bread, He follows this up with a small can of apricots, drinking the juice, and then makes coffee, pouring it off to cool in the empty apricot tin. (Pappa’s hero was obviously concerned not to burn his mouth on anything!) The next morning he has more coffee and buckwheat flapjacks, taking onion sandwiches with him to eat while he goes fishing. He is planning to spend the day alone, a very sensible idea when you have onion sandwiches for lunch.
J.K. Huysmans, the French Naturalist-turned-Symbolist novelist takes us back, gastronomically, to the good old days of late nineteenth century decadence. In A Rebours he writes of a marvellous feast created to memorialize his hero Des Esseintes’ temporary loss of virility. The meal takes place in a dining room draped in black, opening out on a garden, the paths of which are strewn with charcoal. The black basalt pond is filled with ink, and the shrubberies replaced with cypresses and pines. The dinner is served on a black cloth, a hidden orchestra plays funeral marches, and the guests are waited on by “naked negresses wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears.”
The food consists of turtle soup, Russian rye bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviare, mullet botargo, black puddings from Frankfurt, game served in sauces the colour of boot polish and licorice, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, plum puddings, nectarines, pears in grape juice syrup, mulberries and black heart-cherries. All the wines are appropriately dark-tinted, and coffee, walnut cordial. kvass, porter and stout follow. (Good black puddings–hard to find–are among my favourite foods, by the way).
Contrast this thematic indulgence with the pleasant poem by Gary Snyder from the American Southwest of the 1950s. describing an improvised desert feast, one that, although pretty simple, sounds a lot more digestible than the camp-out fare of poor Nick Adams.
After buying some meat and vegetables in the local chain supermarket the poet heads out to the desert where he builds a fire in an open ring of lava and sets up his “fourteen-inch Dutch oven with three legs across the embers.” He puts strips of bacon in a pan, and in another “vegetables cleaned up and peeled and sliced.” He cuts up the beef shank and fries it very hot, adds water from the jeep can to the big pot, plus “a little bag of herbs” (tarragon and chili, four bay leaves, black peppercorns and basil, powdered oregano, some salt) and throws in the vegetables with the seared meat. While this cooks he drinks a “budweiser beer,” mixes up the dough for the dumplings and pretty soon drops them in the stew pot with the rest. He lifts the black pot off the fire after ten minutes and lets it sit for another ten. Then he dishes it up, eating with a spoon, “sitting on a poncho in the dark.”
I could go on and on, but as these near-random instances suggest, literature offers us examples of every kind of feast, meals suggesting a rough and primitive energy, half-digestible meals cooked up by a foppish imagination, good homely meals hatched out of everyday living. The role of food in the western imagination is of course enormous and central, ranging from ancient ritual feasts, simple manna in the desert, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the transformation of bread and wine at the mass, to the sumptuous secular indulgences of the characters of Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola, Thomas Wolfe, and other expansive and celebrated fiction-mongers. Nor should we forget, the gluttony of the eighteenth century travellers, the snacks and tidbits of Lear, the Beatrix Potterish high teas, the Holmes-Watson breakfasts served by Mrs. Hudson at 221B, or the cannibalism that haunts the pages of writers like H.G. Wells and Jonathan Swift.
Speaking of H.G. Wells, there is one rather shocking passage in his science fiction tale “A Story of Days to Come” in which he offers us one of the first glimpses in literature of a society that has completely given up the sensual pleasure of food. In Wells’s twenty-third century, eating is simply a matter of swallowing nourishing but essentially tasteless little coloured pills. Of all the food nightmares that may afflict us, from starvation to cannibalism, that is one of the worst. Of course it is not the worst, because in our present world, in which millions starve, the nightmare is not “literary” or “fanciful” but all too horribly real. It takes us far beyond literature, fashion, or aesthetics to questions of mass suffering and survival. In this connection, one must hope that human conscience and ingenuity will bring an end to hunger everywhere so that the next centuries will know nothing of starvation, or coloured pills either, but will offer us visions of an abundance of good food, including food that is organically grown, and unspoiled by foolish additives. Let us wish that all may enjoy fare suitable to celebrate life and invoke not only earthly pleasures, but also higher, more spiritual things–hospitality, fellowship, love, an in-touchness with the deeper life of nature and the environment that sustains us.