This two-part reflection was inspired by my Great Books classes in the last two years, and by this photo from my Pepperdine colleague Donna Plank. Norman Rockwell’s classic illustration “Freedom From Want,” which I showed in the American history survey class last week, reminded me to finish these posts before Thanksgiving. Gobble gobble!
With two exceptions, all of my non-academic jobs have involved foodstuffs to some extent.
- Corn-picking in the summer before ninth grade.
- Washing pots and pans at a large cafeteria during the junior and senior years of high school.
- Kitchen labor during all of college, mostly in serving and cleaning.Work at two L’Arche communities, both of which involved a good deal of grocery shopping and cooking.
- Catering and cafeteria work at a hospital for twenty months.
Throw in a couple of short-term gigs as busboy and waiter before graduate school, and it was lot of food and drinks that I handled during a thirty-year span in and out of academia. (The exceptions were an after-school and summer janitorial job at my high school for a couple of years, and an on-campus summer job in college as part of a paint crew.)
It isn’t a surprise, then, that “food and drinks” has been a favorite topic of mine. Not that one has to have experience on something to have an intellectual interest in it. But experience doesn’t hurt. In this case, it helps and enhances a lot.
I didn’t fully realize this point until discussing Plato‘s Republic with students last year. The section on food regarding the education of the guardians is brief. But it was a lot more fascinating this time around than the first time that I read it, which was in college.
Likewise I’ve been a lot more attentive to eating and drinking in Homer. Book 7 of the Iliad tells the poignant truce where Trojans and Achaeans picked and buried their dead. The book ends with each side slaughter and roast oxen for a meal. Here are the last lines,
They flung wine from their cups and wet the earth
and no fighter would dare drink until he’d poured
an offering to the overwhelming son of Cronus.
Then down they lay at last and took the gift of sleep.
A similar scene is found in the Odyssey, and recounted by Aldous Huxley at the start of a fine essay of his called “Tragedy and the Whole Truth.” Here is the novelist’s description and commentary.
Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went ashore for the night, and, on the Sicilian beach, prepared their supper – prepared it, says Homer, “expertly.” The Twelfth Book of the Odyssey concludes with these words: “When they had satisfied their thirst and hunger, they thought of their dead companions and wept, and in the midst of the tears sleep came gently upon them.”
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – how rarely the older literatures ever told it! Bits of the truth, yes; every good book gives us bits of the truth, would not be a good book if it did not. But the whole truth, no. Of the great writers of the past incredibly few have given us that. Homer – the Homer of the Odyssey – is one of those few.
Supreme praise! The exhausted Ithacans took and cook some of the cattle from Helios. They eat and then recollect their ordeal and cry into sleep until they wake up and continue the journey home. Sustenance makes possible commemoration which makes possible closure which makes possible reaching home. The sequence is as economical in the telling as it is encompassing in its reach.
The Homeric vision offers an ideal of sorts about cooking, eating, and human community. There are plenty of extremes, however, such as gluttony on the one hand and food austerity on the other hand.
An instance of austerity is the aforementioned training program for the guardians. Plato speaks approvingly of plain food and absence of spices because the goal for the guardians is self-discipline and readiness for martial engagement. He even references Homer twice in support of this point.
A different example, a historical one this time, comes from late-medieval women. They are the subject of the historian Caroline Walker Bynum‘s fascinating study Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Bynum’s analysis includes Francis and Clare of Assisi among the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Christians. Francis was more concerned with “nakedness/clothing” as a “metaphor” for poverty. Clare, on the other hand, practiced fasting more frequently and believed more deeply in the association between the Eucharist and food asceticism.
Some other women went beyond abstinence of food and drinks to partake in the suffering of Christ through their service to the sick and poor. For examples,
Catherine of Siena drank [their] pus, Catherine of Genoa ate lice [found on their body], and Angela [of Foligno] drank water that came from washing the sores of lepers. One of the scabs stuck in her throat, she said, and tasted “as sweet as communion.”
Gross, to be sure, but only because ours are different views about theology and different standards about eating and drinking from the ascetics. Asceticism on the whole is quite difficult to comprehend today, leave alone food asceticism. In this case, the combination of materiality, spirituality, and gender conspired to create a unique set of perspectives and experiences from which, as Bynum gently suggests, our post-modern society can learn a thing or two.
Far easier to understand is excess in eating and drinking. In his saucy and salacious biographies of the Caesars, which I assigned this semester, Suetonius offers the following anecdote about Claudius,
He was very greedy for food and wine, no matter what the time or the place. Once, when he was hearing court cases in the Forum of Augustus, he was suddenly struck by the smell of the food which was being prepared for the Salian priests in the adjacent temple of Mars, and left the tribunal, going up to join the priests with whom he lay down to dine.
The episode illustrates Claudius’ bigger habit of gluttony. Suetonius explains,
He hardly ever left the dinner tabled without being stuffed with food and overflowing with wine. He would at once lie down on his back, going to sleep with his mouth open, and a feather would be put into his throat in order that he could relieve his stomach.
The emperor’s behavior is analogous to gambling addicts today who put on adult diapers so they could remain at the blackjack table without having to run to one of the casino’s restrooms.
It comes with the territory that excessive eating and drinking is prominent in comic literature. Shakespeare‘s pairing of drinking partners Sirs Toby and Andrew in Twelfth Night, included in my Great Books class last spring and again next spring, is aligned perhaps a touch too perfectly to the excesses of love and grief and vanity from Orsino and Olivia and Malvolio, respectively.
Is it possible to be excessive in writing about excessive consumption of food? Of course it is, especially in satires and parodies such as Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the marvelous hands of Rabelais, this gargantuan collection of tales satirizes eating and drinking – for a start, the enormous amount of dairy milk to feed the infant giant – alongside low and high topics such as farting and belching, criticism of educators and the Catholic Church, even a parody of sorts of the Odyssey.
Gargantua and Pantagruel is too long for inclusion in a Great Books course. But perhaps a few selections will suffice in demonstrating Rabelais’ enormous talent in using folk humor and fusing the carnivalesque and grotesque, to borrow Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential conceptualization.
Food can be used also for pernicious purposes. During my years in the intellectual wilderness, I stumbled across the twentieth-century writer Italo Calvino and read several of his novels in a row. One is The Baron in the Trees, whose main character is a youngster from an eighteenth-century Ligurian noble family.
His siblings include a younger brother, the narrator of the story; and an older sister Battista, a tough and “rebellious and lonely soul.” Battista had engaged in a love affair that the father gravely disapproved, and was forced into social isolation, “confined to the house,” and “dressed up as a nun.”
She reacted in a passive-aggressive manner, if sickeningly creative.
Her evil schemes found expression in cooking. She was a really excellent cook, for she had the primary gifts in the culinary art: diligence and imagination; but when she put her hand to it, no one ever knew what surprise might appear at table. Once she made some paté toast, really exquisite, of rats’ livers… and some grasshoppers’ claws, crisp and sectioned, laid on an open tart in a mosaic; and pigs’ tails baked as if they were little cakes; and once she cooked a complete porcupine with all its quills – who knows why, probably just to give us all a shock at the raising of the dish cover, for even she, who usually ate everything, however odd, that she had prepared herself, refused to taste it… In fact, most of these horrible dishes of hers were thought out just for effect, rather than for any pleasure in making us eat disgusting food with her.
The brothers became more and more disgusted against “this macabre fantasy” and “were inclined to show our sympathy with the poor tortured creatures.”
One day, the main character refused to eat the snails served by Battista and climbed up to a tree in protest: hence the title and the start of this philosophical story. Cooking could be an act of control, and the refusal to eat could be turned into an act of rebellion.
I realize that this post is dominated by the more extreme aspects of eating and drinking. It isn’t exactly sentimental reading, ha! The next post will be closer to the spirit of Thanksgiving.
Here is part two.