Monday, October 11, 2010

Food of the the Literary Gods.

Once upon a time, food, or rather thinking and writing about food, was considered not just unimportant, but rather shameful. In classical literature, food was a trivial thing, beneath the consideration of philosophers and historians. Plutarch, a founding member of the anti-fun brigade, disapproved severely of those who could recall their past meals too clearly. Such was not the mark of a freeborn man, he thundered, for whom pleasure was found in the perennially fresh feasts of philosophical argument.

Seutonius, in his life of the emperor Augusutus included his diet only as an afterthought. The emperor was 'frugal' in his dining habits. He liked small figs and second-class bread and usually turned up late to his own state dinners.

But of course the Romans also left us the idea of the orgy and vomitorium, where dozens if not hundreds debauched themselves on the likes of boiled goose in anchovy sauce, dormouse and poppy pie, fricasseed snails and stuffed pigs stomach, all washed down with gigantic amphora of wine. The empire turned Rome into an emporium, where anything could be contained and consumed, but of course, only if one had the denarii. Many poets and writers, who did not, often wrote for patrons who fed them. Persius, one of the prettier Roman poets, who lived all his life with female relatives, thought a rumbling stomach was the real muse of most poetry.

Two thousand years later, the same chasm yawns between power and hunger. In Pablo Neruda's poem, The Great Tablecloth, tyrants come rushing to the table with their temporary ladies, all looking like wasps with big bosoms. Meanwhile the peasant in the field eats only 'his poor quota of bread,' alone, surrounded by wheat, he chews with grim teeth, looking at it with hard eyes.' For him:

Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a child of fish-hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.

George Orwell understood that for the poor of England, poor food was a type of opium. A subsistence wage might just stretch to enough nutrients to keep a man alive if he stuck only to raw vegetables and wholemeal loaves. But as Orwell wrote in the Road to Wigan Pier, 'The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots.' Their diet, consisting of tinned peas and milk, stale white bread and rotten meat, was 'appalling' he noted a physical wasting away of the entire population of the working class.

He had discovered what it was to be down and out while in Paris, sharing his poverty with thousands of struggling artists and students.'

'You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.'

And, so, my little grouplets, let us away to the shop window, where we shall press our noses lightly, frosting the glass with our breath as we feast our eyes upon a link salad inspired by love of food.

A simple love, caught in Amanda Stewart’s

Ockham's Pasta

pepper and parsley
add one primate and butter

And more complex love, like that between a father and son in Brendan Doyle’s

Lunch with my boy

I’d bought the best brie
and real French baguette
for lunch with my son.
I see him rarely these days.
He stood tall and smiling in the doorway,
orthodontically perfect
but otherwise with some of my imperfections.
We sat at the window in the winter sun
and he showed me his latest designs
proudly – he’d taken all the photos himself,
written the business plan
and wants to launch himself into the world.
He ate with relish and a man’s appetite
and asked if he could borrow the laptop.
I’d have gladly given him all I own.
Declined a wine.
Unlike me,
he doesn’t drink in the middle of the day.

But first to Thailand, with the blog Elephant Woman, named after ‘a great track by Blonde Redhead’. Here we find a rejoinder to Orwell’s opinion that most people would sooner starve than live on leaves and twigs, but also some evidence that perhaps George might have been right.

Staying with the travel, lets join Masako Fukui, as she attempts to plumb the meaning of food and her own need to ‘be consumed,’ all while putting to together a seven course haute cuisine Japanese feast.

It is inevitable, isn’t it, that a food ise will bring out the Group’s would be masterchefs, but if, after Masako’s efforts you’re feeling a little bloated and in need of a simpler, cleansing meal, perhaps start the day with Larry Buttrose’s ‘best breakfast’. (Although be aware there is no bacon to be had here). I had very much wanted to link to my old blog at this point, to a long entry I once composed on my yearly feast of cassoulet. Unfortunately that host has gone the way of all things and the article is lost.

No mind. We always have memory, as Proust reminds us. He is famous of course for dwelling on food at length and almost unbelievable depth, as a narrative mechanism for accessing the infinite reserves of memory. Some of these you can taste in jenjewelbrown’s

when the juice flows

these summer days keep ripening
into a lemon bleached strange-world like when you walk
out of a dark kitchen into the zenith blind as Daniel into the den
mice click and rustle under the boards against the fence

she reaches up to peg the shirts
cracks around the washing line
mynas yack and muscle from the desert ash
: the dacks
she’s thinking of the mango juiced-up
on the chopping board

the quickening streaks overhead
whipping her with cold wind up
beach of sky
clouds that tear and rumble
on radio women mutter
thunder a tin roof falling down a mine

smelling the rain
the girls will see a snake swimming the flood

Food does more than disappear from the plate in literature. It signifies. It dramatizes.
It becomes freighted with emotion. Just ask neilwrites. It lends imagery and metaphor to the author, accentuates action, creates spectacle, sets mood, provides ritual, builds a stage around the dinner table, denotes rank and relative status. It confirms ethnicity or suggest hidden meaning. It is sensuality made manifest.

For a man of action as well as letters, someone like Hemingway for instance, a meal on the page could be existentially empowering. In ‘A Moveable Feast’ he sits down
to eat, burdened by ennui. Sucking oysters from the shell, savouring their strong briny
tang, ‘that the cold wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent
texture,’ he is reborn. ‘I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans.’

Hungry poets know only too well about this. PJ Ryan will tell you.

Most writing about food, however, is more utilitarian. Guides to finding the best muffins, or the most dunkable biscuit. In this category I happily include Billy Marshall Stoneking’s guide to best dives, gin joint greasy spoons. And Mark Mordue’s cautionary thoughts on the spread of food fetishmism.