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Margaret Visser

Margaret Visser is the author of The Rituals of Dinner among other books.

Modern cuisine

Margaret Visser, 30 November 2000

Rebecca Spang explodes a culinary myth that has lasted nearly two hundred years. The story goes more or less like this. Restaurants as we know them were a product of the French Revolution and came into being in order to ensure that pleasurable eating would not remain the privilege of the wealthy. Kitchenless provincial Revolutionaries crowded into Paris, and at the same time the highly...

Mega-Fish

Margaret Visser, 16 April 1998

‘A species of fish too well known to require any description,’ reads the entry for cod in the Cyclopedia of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1858). ‘It is amazingly prolific,’ the article continues. ‘Leewenhoek counted 9,384,000 eggs in a codfish of a middling size – a number that will baffle all the efforts of man to exterminate.’ People have long enjoyed marvelling at the sheer amount, the endlessness of cod. The vast cod-grazing grounds off the American Atlantic coast may well have drawn the very first Europeans to the continent: Mark Kurlansky provides evidence that not only Viking explorers but Basque fishermen were there long before Columbus – they kept secret the source of their mysterious supplies of fish. Reports, never forgotten, came back from America during the 16th century, of so many cod that there was scarcely room enough for the sea to hold them, so many that they could be fished by scooping with baskets. Admittedly, that was no longer true in the 19th century, but, according to Alexandre Dumas in 1873, ‘calculations’ proved that ‘if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs, and if each cod grew to its full size, it would take only three years for the sea to be full of cod, so that one could walk dry-shod across the Atlantic on their backs.’’‘

Mirabilia

Margaret Visser, 31 October 1996

Reading this plethora of recent translations of Piero Camporesi’s work is rather like getting a book out of a library and being forced to read only the passages heavily underlined by a previous borrower, together with all the angry or thrilled exclamations peppering the margins. Camporesi is professor of Italian literature at the University of Bologna. He gleans quotations from many (justly) obscure Italian works from the past and sorts them into subjects: food, blood, hell, insanity, mutilations and mortifications of the body, carnival customs, the way beggars used their calamities – real or fake – to cause people ‘with bad consciences’ to give them money. Out of this matter he puts together his collections of essays, listing examples and quoting relentlessly, both in snippets and at length. A typical result is this litany from The Land of Hunger:’

Shell Shock

Margaret Visser, 22 February 1996

In landlocked Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia, where I was brought up, oysters were a piece of arcane folklore, one of those memories, precise but inexplicable, of Britain. Oysters were right up there with the Times having no headlines, just adverts on the front page; with Marmite carefully imported and spread on your bread; with little girls’ dresses bearing a rectangle of smocking on the chest. ‘A noise annoys an oyster,’ we sang, ‘But a noisy noise annoys an oyster more.’ What was that? An old music-hall song? How did it reach Central Africa, and why did it stay? Why do I remember it so vividly now, in Canada, forty years later? The British guarded their wanton peculiarities fiercely. It made them seem powerful, to be able to afford to do so.

On wanting to be a diner not a dish

P.N. Furbank, 3 December 1992

If I were offered one wish by a benevolent Providence, mine would be not to be squeamish – a miserable affliction which locks one out from so much within the walls of disgust and shame. It...

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