We have shared our table with friends these last few days. A reminder of its gift.
by Michael O’Siadhail
Let the meal be simple.
A big plate of mussels,
warm bread with garlic,
and enough mulled wine to celebrate
I open a hinged mussel,
pincering a balloon of plump meat
from the blue angel wings of a shell.
A table’s rising decibels of fun.
Such gossip. A story caps a story.
Banter. Then another pun on a pun.
Iced yoghurt snipes at my temples.
My tongue matches a strawberry’s heart
with its rough skin of goose-pimples.
Conversations fragment. Tête-à-tête,
a confidence passes between two guests.
A munch of oatcake thickness my palate.
Juicy fumes of a mango on my breath.
(A poem with no end but delight.)
I knife to the oblong host of its pith.
Wine sinks its ease to the nerve-ends.
Here are my roots. I feast on faces.
Boundless laughter. A radiance of friends.
Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2013.
Image: Dinner Table by Isaac Rudansky
A couple of weeks back I noted the connection between food and sin in religious art of the late Middle Ages — clearly the business of eating was riddled with spiritual pitfalls. It’s hardly surprising, then, to see the devil commonly cast as a cook.
This 13th century mosaic set in the grand dome of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence depicts the devil in his hellish kitchen roasting, boiling and devouring the damned. In a recent visit to Florence, I imagined the devout looking up to see the implements of their own domestic lives — roasting pots, skewers and spits — turned against them in this chilling representation of life alienated from God.
The connection between cooks and the devil lingered in Western culture. The 17th century English Bishop John Earle wrote, “The kitchen is his hell, and he the devil in it, where his meat and he fry together.” In the same era, the novelist Thomas Deloney declared, “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks.”
I wonder what it is about the process of turning raw ingredients into a delicious repast that elicits such grim associations. Granted, I’ve met a few cooks who could, where character is concerned, give the devil a run for his money. And others who revel in the association. Marco Pierre White’s autobiography The Devil in the Kitchen and the late Anthony Bordain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly play on it. But to associate the depravity of hell with a spit roast or a stew pot simmering in the kitchen seems like a slap in the face to those who feed us, let alone those who, like the angelic Babette, open up vistas to things eternal through the act of cooking.
“Being a restaurant critic is sort of like being put out to stud. There’s no denying that the basic activity is highly pleasurable, but when you have to do it when and with whom somebody else tells you, it loses a lot of its appeal.”
Colman Andrews, Everything On the Table: Plain Talk about Food and Wine, Bantam, 1992.
“Whenever I go to a restaurant I don’t know, I always ask to meet the chef before I eat. For I know that if he is thin, I won’t eat well. And if he is thin and sad, there is nothing for it but to run.”
Fernand Point (1897 – 1955) was the French chef and restaurateur considered to be the father of modern French cuisine. He founded the restaurant La Pyramide in Vienne near Lyon. He was not a skinny cook!
“All human history attests
That happiness for man —
The hungry sinner —
Since Eve ate apples,
Much depends on dinner!”
Don Juan (1823)
The depiction of food in art is telling. In travels to Europe, I’ve been taken by the prevalence of food in great artworks of religious history. Clearly, it’s more than incidental. How food is used says much about Western culture’s historic ambivalence toward eating, as well as food’s close association with the darker sides of human experience.
This image by the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder — a contemporary of the 16th century reformer Martin Luther — embodies what was then the obsession of theologians with sin and its origin. Pride, gluttony and lust were intertwined. While pride may have been at the heart of the fall in Eden, the temptations of gluttony and lust were understood as the most potent lures.
What’s more, it is Eve who entices the fickle Adam, as much with the fruit of her body as that which hangs from the tree. Note the roundness of the apple matching the contour of her breast. This is the classic image of the womanly temptress holding the fate of ‘mankind’ in her seductive hand.
There is much to critique in such attitudes to the female form and to the apple —much that informs dysfunctional theology to the present day: the church’s preoccupation with sexuality; the casting of women as temptresses who cannot be trusted; a spirituality shaped primarily by denial and renunciation.
The spirituality of religious orders that thrived in the artist’s time understood bodily hungers as hindrances to devotion. In regard to sex, the devout were called to abstinence. In regard to food, a meagre diet was required, interspersed with periods of fasting. While much has changed in the last 500 years, so much stays the same. When it comes to our spirituality, we still struggle to reconcile images of abundance, feasting and sensuality with life at its most holy. Type ‘sin’ into Google, and the apple still glistens.
A shot of energy
A lure to wakefulness
A breakfast essential
A pit-stop on the way
A waft of civility
A place to go
A break in the morning
A reason to sit
An excuse to linger
A lubricant for conversation
An opportunity for gossip
An expression of taste
A moment of beauty
A pause to remember
A cup of preference
A gathering of courage
A companion for words
An expression of concern
An excuse for solitude
A meeting of minds
A routine of comfort
A small act of kindness
A ritual of welcome
A liquid procrastination
A request for friendship
A barista’s vocation
A warm object to hold
An afternoon’s pause
An invitation to listen
“Tea! thou soft, thou sober, sage and venerable liquid … thou female tongue-running, smile-toothing, heart opening, wink-tippling cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moments of my life, let me fall prostrate … “
Colley Cibber, The Lady’s Last Stake, or The Wife’s Resentment: A Comedy, 1797.