- A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, translated by Anthea Bell
Blackwell, 801 pp, £25.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 631 17741 8
Food, like sex, is mostly in the head. Or, if that seems exaggerated, what about the thought that thinking about food is the modern growth industry? Restaurants, supermarkets, the media – all encourage display, which like the old underwear advertisements in the tube might seem pornographic if we were not so used to them. The Greens should make us sensitive on this issue, no doubt, as feminists did on the other one. The food in the head industry may be an insult to the Third World, but it also encourages contribution to aid programmes. No longer guilty about sex, we are uneasy about anorexia and bulimia, slimness and fatness, soft foodie dreaming ...
Vice may pay its usual debt to virtue, and yet pomposity on this issue would be out of place. There is still an innocence about greed, particularly when the mouth waters at the thought rather than the thing. A foodie once put a small object into my hand and said with reverence ‘bite that’. I bit as directed and received an impression of nothing, no taste, either good or bad. I commented on this. He beamingly agreed. I had missed the point, which was that he had bought this nugget of smoked mushroom in the market at Kiev. He was not unlike the old gardener who waxed eloquent on the virtues of the King Edward potato, adding perfunctorily that it was not ‘an eating potato’. Henry James would have seen the point. In 1870 he wrote to his elder brother William from Malvern, England, where the hotel fed him mostly on mutton and potatoes, to say how much he missed ‘unlimited tomatoes & beans & peas & squash & turnips & carrots & corn – I enjoy merely writing the words’. The words are what counted, and they cheered him. American diners know the same trick, as James Bond observes in the course of one of his adventures. ‘Tenderly selected fillets served with dew-fresh ...’ and so forth. You can taste that if not the food. It must be added that Henry was suffering from impressively obstinate constipation, brought on as he supposed by the English diet. He reported on it in great detail to William, who was equally copious in sympathy and in remedial measures, while characteristically claiming that he suffered from it just as badly himself, if not worse.
Food may have been mostly on the page for Henry James, though he was a big eater too – three or four ‘shirred’ eggs each day for breakfast – but his confrères across the channel had a much more down-to-earth attitude. For Zola as for Rabelais alimentation was for the ventre, not the tête: the French are foodists rather than foodies. So there is no nonsense at all about this admirable history of the stuff. Yet that is not entirely true, for food in France is a mystique, even in its solidest form; this lends liveliness to a treatise which could be on the heavy side without it. Not that Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (the name suggests that of her illustrious compatriot of a former era, Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin) is in any sense a plodder – though her table of contents, like that of a good doctoral thesis, takes us methodically through the history of eating and drinking, from the techniques of hunter-gathering to those of stock-breeding and bread-baking, the history of fish and poultry, the arts of distilling and making wine, the lure of sugar, the tradition of fruits, the evolution of vegetables, preserving by heat and by cold. None of this is dull, and it is served up with all the esprit of the French intellectual tradition.
The metaphysics of eating are briskly acknowledged at the start. ‘At first a purely visceral pleasure, it became an intellectual process when the eyes, which had been laterally placed, moved towards the base of the forehead.’ Eyes became bigger than stomachs, at least metaphorically, and with the gourmand came his more refined cousin, the gourmet. After that, as the author shows herself from time to time to be well aware, comes the transformation of foods into words. The novel gets good on this: Post-Modernism in fiction today often takes the form of a commentary on obsession – most lately food obsession as in Jane Barry’s Hungry and Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. Jane Austen enjoys mentioning ‘fried beef’ and refers to green peas – themselves a late arrival and gobbled as a novelty by the Sun King and by Queen Anne on our side of the channel – while Miss Bates and her mother were once baulked of a nice dish of sweet-breads by Mr Woodhouse’s fear that they were not quite thoroughly cooked. Food becomes an aspect of Dickensian hyperbole, and a compensatory pleasure of the deserving poor, who can revel occasionally on the fattest of geese and the juiciest of beefsteaks, or carouse on porter and oysters. For Proust it had not only the savour of aestheticism – the Combray asparagus qui parfumait mon pot de chambre – but could be a macabre index of the moral life, a domain in which the perfect roast chicken of Françoise is at one with her cruelty to the kitchen-maid. We have heard rather too much of the boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse, but it remains a memorable dish, floating with its brown meats and its yellow meats at the solar plexus of the novel, emblem of Mrs Ramsay’s martyrdom on the family altar, but also of her detachment, for it is not she but the cook who has taken two days to prepare it in the kitchen.
Hazlitt remarks in an essay that he associates books with what he was eating when he read them: La Nouvelle Héloise with pain au beurre and a pot of coffee, Tom Jones with a roasted partridge. The contents of Rat’s picnic basket contains the world of The Wind in the Willows; the aroma of a bubble and squeak prepared by the gaoler’s daughter cheered up Toad in his prison cell; bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding comprised the ‘simple but sustaining meal’ enjoyed by Mole and Rat and Toad and Badger before setting out to reoccupy Toad Hall. The films? There was that caneton à la presse which looked good in Chabrol’s film about the man pursuing the motorist who has run over his son; and of course in Aimez-Vous les Femmes? an entire girl is served up, looking very dishy among slices of lemon and glazed cucumber. But as the cinema has to put the food in front of you, so to speak, it is really in the same vulgar quandary as the theatre, where cold tea has to be drunk as if it were whisky and soda; or as the TV advertisements, where salmon steak and mixed vegetable must be soused with glycerine to look suitably tempting. Food as an art-form should remain spiritual. Realism never pays.
But to get back to the stuff we actually eat. How many of us who know that milk is pasteurised have also heard of the ingenious Irishman, John Tyndall, who in the 1870s discovered that mother bacteria are destroyed by heating food or milk, but that their offspring survive? These sturdy youngsters have had their powers of resistance much reduced, however, so that they succumb to an ensuing bout of freezing. Tyndallisation, as the experts still call it, subjects the microbes to these alternating and quite mild doses of heat and cold, which wear them down without destroying the flavour and goodness of the nourishment. Or how many of us know that in 1914 the Polish Doctor C. Fink proved that the substance of life exists in the husks of cereals, although he was unable to isolate it chemically? He coined the word vitamin, from amine, or bran, though bran has nothing to do with the elements later isolated at Cambridge under the headings ABCD and so forth. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat dismisses out of hand ‘the fashion for vitamin pills, which simply make money for the labs that manufacture them’. What we eat has them all: more of them may do you harm.
Food is a potent source of mythologies, like the pomegranate seeds which Persephone in-advertently ate in gloomy Dis’s underworld; having in consequence to spend half the year there and so bringing about the alternation of the seasons. In Greek tradition women had a monopoly of fishing, as water and the sea were the natural feminine element. When the sea-nymph Amphitrite agreed to marry Zeus’s younger brother Poseidon this marine matriarchy came to an end. Priests succeeded in depriving women of their fishing rights, and fishing to the Achaeans became a masculine and therefore a noble and dignified occupation. Although the person in The Waste Land who is fishing in the dull canal presumably partakes, Tiresias-fashion, of both sexes, how many ladies does one see sitting solitary and meditative by the water’s edge, with that slim rod stuck out in front of them?
But when it comes to the preparation of fish dishes French fervour can stretch almost to the mystical. Jules Michelet could scarcely contain his excitement as he contemplated the phenomenon of the herring.
They live together, hidden in the twilight deeps; they rise together in the spring for their small share of universal happiness, to see the light of day, take their pleasure and die ... they can never be close enough to each other, they swim in dense shoals ... it looks as if a vast island has risen from the seas somewhere between Scotland, Holland and Norway, and a continent is about to emerge ... the sea is solid with herring. Millions of millions of them, billions upon billions. Who would venture to guess the number of those legions?
After this it is something of an anti-climax to enumerate the methods of preparation – the salting, the drying, the discovery that brine, not salt, was the best technique to precede packing in barrels. Wars have been fought for herring, as for cod: ‘The Battle of the Herrings’, a running fight between English archers and French men-at-arms for possession of a precious convoy, was an important episode in the Hundred Years War. (After all this I would maintain with an almost equal fervour that the only way to eat a kipper is raw, scraping the ambrosial flesh from the oily skin. Cooking a kipper, even for a few minutes, makes it dry and hard.)
The subject of fish seems to produce not only fervour but heavy humour. Anaxagoras, a poet addicted to cookery and a member of Alexander the Great’s entourage, used to prepare conger eel stew with such loving care that he was teased by the Macedonian general Antigonus, who demanded what would have become of the Iliad if Homer had spent all his time boiling fish. The poet riposted that General Agamemnon would not have done so many great deeds if he had spent the day hanging about the camp kitchens watching poets cook conger eels. At least the ancient Greek military took fish seriously, whereas for Roman grandees it became merely a matter of conspicuous consumption. A large red mullet was auctioned by Tiberius for £4000, but it was all a question of show-business, in the most horrible sense. The unfortunate fish was boiled alive in a crystal pot on the dining table, the water heated very slowly so that guests could admire how its hues changed colour, ‘as dusk succeeds sunset’.
After that it is a relief to go back to the Greeks and what sounds the most delicious form of pasta ever invented – artolageion, or ‘bread in the pot’. Pounded lettuce is mixed with wine and fine flour, pounded again with pork lard and pepper, rolled flat and cut in strips and thrown in hot oil. An odd feature of cookery is that the same sort of dish crops up everywhere, and yet is claimed as its own invention by every place that does it. So far from Marco Polo bringing back spaghetti to Italy, it seems the Italians invented it themselves, or perhaps the Swiss did, or the Spanish (churros are rather like a sweet and simple form of artolageion), or the Koreans, who claim to have handed the secret to the Japanese. Only the English, in their superior way, put in no claims here, though I don’t see why they shouldn’t make a gesture in the direction of Yorkshire pudding.
Our methodical and encyclopedically learned author, well and even wittily translated by Anthea Bell, lays stress in all her conclusions on the symbolism of food – meat, bread, wine. St Clement of Alexandria observed in an unbuttoned moment that wine is to bread what the contemplative is to the active life. Yet I would suspect that the symbolic resources of food are in the end less memorable than the anecdotal. I shall never forget now when eating asparagus that French ladies in the old days could sometimes tell if a husband was straying in the month of May by taking a discreet sniff at the chamber pot. If she had not fed him asparagus then perhaps some other lady had; for both sexes were convinced that the spruce vegetable possessed infallible aphrodisiac properties. Certainly it is a powerful diuretic, and gives an unmistakable and for many a not disagreeable odour to the urine (Proust’s ‘parfum’), but no more than any other food or drink can it achieve by its chemistry any sexually stimulating effect. Once again suggestibility is what counts. The ultimate food anecdote is much less piquant, and makes the ancient Romans even more unattractive than one has always known them to be. They invented kissing, or so at least the story goes. And why? So that a husband could tell if his wife had been drinking wine. A casual conjugal osculum revealed all; and wine-drinking for women, at least in the stern days of the republic, was a capital offence. Thank goodness society has gone to the dogs since then. Cheers, Madame.