Category Archives: Food & Culture

In defence of the epicure

“The epicure is not a man who thinks of, and lives for, his belly alone; he is not a sensualist for whom dinner is merely an elaborate prelude to sexual passion; he is not a hedonist who sees life as a succession of pleasurable sensations obtained by hook, crook, or levitation … He is simply one who cultivates a refined taste of the pleasures of the table.”

A.J.A. Symons. Quoted in the Nancy Quenell’s The Epicure’s Anthology.

Raymond Tallis on hunger

“The complex history of humanity and of our individual lives is most essentially the history of our hungers, and our endeavours to satisfy them. Our accidental and accident-prone lives begin not with a cry of joy, or surprise at our existence, but of need. From our first breath to our last we are enclosed in a fundamental existential truth: that there is a gap between the state that we are in and the state we would like to be in. Hunger is the experience of that gap, from which arises our misery and our joy, our hope and our despair, our wretchedness and our glory.”

41uJHsr4OrL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Raymond Tallis, Hunger, Stocksfield: Acumen, 2008, 1.

A monk and a pig

The 18th century Frenchman Grimod de La Reynière is said to be the father of modern food journalism. He certainly told a good story. He had one about the “subtle Capuchin”, a monk with a quick but less-than-subtle wit.

He was taunted by a group of youthful rascals who provided a spit-roasted suckling pig, warning that whatever the monk did to the pig, they would do to him. If he should lop off a limb, they would remove his, and so on. The unruffled monk promptly stuck his finger in the pig’s anus and sucked it. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I heartily beg of you to carry out your menaces.” 

Michael Symons, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, 49.

Johnson on his belly

“Some people… have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it that he that does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.”

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an English poet, essayist, biographer, editor and lexicographer, and a devout Anglican to boot. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.”

Memory in the kitchen

bwt2In the most recent issue of the wonderful Bread Wine & Thou is a beautifully written piece by Melbourne writer Ramona Barry. In it she recounts her journey with cancer and its impact upon her family’s life at the table.  It is an extraordinarily moving piece, and there is really nothing to do but go and read it.

In the midst of Barry’s piece is this little ode to the virtues of the home cook and her capacity, even in the midst of life at its worst, to hold a family together through the most menial practice of memory in the kitchen.

Nostalgia can play an important part in professional cooking. Just look to Heston Blumenthal trying to recreate summer holidays with his now famously sensorial dish ‘Sounds of the Sea’. On the flip side it is memory that the domestic cook relies on, day in and day out.

Memory helps to get food on the table in a timely manner and take into account everyone’s dietary requirements. These are the details that you need to learn intuitively and over time. There is no explaining to the non-cooks in the family that to do a proper roast dinner you must start preparing at 4pm to get it on the table by 7pm. Nothing is more frustrating than watching kitchen interlopers swanning in at 6.30 and expecting their lamb shanks with the nightly news.

Memory allows you to be able to cook dinner as a staggered meal, taking into account after-school activities, late meetings and extra guests. You need to be able to throw a meal together when the entire family has collapsed on the couch after a road trip, or half of them are in bed with the flu. You rely on memory to manage the juggling act seamlessly and daily.

Barry’s words are a gentle reminder of the primacy of the home cook in the civilisation of our lives. The domestic matters. It reminds me of the thesis of Michael Symon’s masterful The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, in which he demonstrates the oft unrecognised role of the household cook.

Cooks have always been in the background—both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. Cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping-board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.’

Ramona Barry, “An Extra Place at the Table” in Bread Wine & Thou, issue 2, 2016, 86-95.

Michael Symons, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life, Viking, 1998.

Artwork: Jonathan Leaman, ‘A Jan Steen Kitchen’, 1995.

Food: the time of our lives

This morning I had breakfast. At midday or thereabouts I’ll have lunch, and then tonight, once home from work, I’ll make dinner for the family. In between there’ll be breaks for coffee, and then, if I am as undisciplined as usual, a late evening raid on the refrigerator.  No doubt, what I eat and drink from day to day will change, but the rhythm never does. Day in, day out, food sets the hours of my life.

‘Foods, and the meals we make of them, are our clocks,’ says the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy; ‘they are our faithful calendars. In a real sense, they are the time of our life.’ While this certainly encompasses our daily feeding routines, MacClancy’s idea of ‘food as time’ includes more.

As a city dweller—my beloved’s balcony garden of tomatoes, herbs and chilies not withstanding—my daily life is far removed from the agricultural rhythms of the earth. Regardless, they persist. Indeed, for great swathes of people across the earth, still the food they produce and harvest determines their lives. The cultivation of crops and the nurturing of livestock set the calendar year after year.

My grandfather was a wheat farmer in the Mallee of northwestern Victoria. Without the machinery of modern farming, he used horses to pull ploughs and prepare the ground for seed. It was this back-breaking task that determined his life in the late autumn each year. With minimal rains—around 10.5 inches (267 mls) annually—timing was crucial, constant observation of weather patterns and seasonal changes essential. All being well, the harvesting took place in the relentless heat of summer and lasted for two months. Dad recalls Christmas dinner eaten under the shade of a tree in the paddock while the work continued. The harvest would not wait.

HORSES & MACHINERY

Harvesting in Quambatook, c. 1930s

In situations like this, food exercises power. The farmer does not set the pace of life. Rather, he works by a pace set by the earth itself. Food and its production is the time he lives by. My grandfather was not a church-going man, but ‘God fearing’ no less. I suspect that when one is so relentlessly dependent on resources outside of oneself—a dependence that colours every season of life—the possibility of God is much more pressing.

Jeremy MacClancy, Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992, 58.

Gopnik on taste

Cardinal-Sampling-The-Wine

‘The Cardinal sampling the wine’ by Frtiz Wagner

‘None of us can escape the web of competitive, cyclical, counterintuitive, imitative relations that shape the social role of taste. There is no privileged space from which we can look down and say, Your tastes are trends, my tastes are truths. All taste effects depend on contexts. The smell in our nose changes the taste in our mouth, and the length of the line outside the restaurant changes of our view of the taste of the food we’re waiting for, and even how much we’ll spend to eat it. We are what we eat? Probably closer to the truth to say that we eat what we are: the total self we bring to the table shapes the way we choose, and even how we chew. Our morals and our manners together drive our molars.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 105-106.

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