Consumers

About 20 years ago I gave my copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating to a couple of friends employed by a university in DeKalb, Illinois, which as everyone knows is the Barbed Wire Capital of the World. The book had been prized, but what else could you do for people in such straits? More recently, another couple took my measure, and when I celebrated their wedding they gave me a later edition of that work. Not everyone would think this an innocent action, but I choose to see it so.

***
Gwen Harwood, as wise as she was good, produced late in life a buoyant poem ‘In Praise of Food’, in which as usual she was flying the flag of an enthusiasm. In it she writes, ‘Preserve us from indifferent cooking/by those who have no love of food,/who never spend a moment looking/with firm desire, in solitude,/at the great marvels earth produces,/its grains and nuts and oils and juices,/its fowls, its fish, its eggs, its meat,/reflecting that the food we eat/is what we will be: living tissue/that paints and chisels, writes and sings/the splendour of substantial things/and immaterial thoughts that issue/as if from some angelic birth/but are in fact the fruits of earth.’

Writing like this, Harwood is of course singing ‘the splendour of substantial things’, and in so doing is joining in the concert audible when one reads a multitude of writers, in prose and in verse, over the centuries.

The present American Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, for instance, has a poem called ‘Osso Buco’ which begins, ‘I love the sound of the bone against the plate/and the fortress-like look of it/lying before me in a moat of risotto,/the meat soft as the leg of an angel/who has lived a purely airborne existence./And best of all, the secret marrow,/the invaded privacy of the animal/prized out with a knife and swallowed down/with cold, exhilarating wine.’

I know that thousands of advertisements for foods which we have all encountered dilate, on the one hand, on the sensuous reality of their products, and on the other on the supposedly visionary


virtues of the confections: but it needs a certain deftness of touch—comical or not—really to give the senses and the mind the run they would both like. Collins the fantasist is also Collins the listening, watching, tool-wielding creature, and as such he is too a standard-bearer for others. Glad to be for a while at home in the world, at the world’s table, he finds that even then he is a congenial stranger. Forking in reality, he is also plying a wand of a kind.

***

Another friend, the cancer heavy upon him, says to me, ‘You don’t know food until you can’t eat’. True as it stands, this is also a chastening reminder of the precariousness which has always been ours and always will be, here under the moon. By the same token, on a planet where, as Auden said, ‘to most people/I’m the wrong color’ and where for many if not for most hunger is a harrying neighbour, the gourmand stands self-condemned. But none of that changes the fact that food—its providing, its transforming, its sharing—is potentially eloquent of ‘immaterial thoughts that issue/as if from some angelic birth’, and of the great good that may warrant those thoughts. It is God himself who, in the Christian tradition, is called ‘bread of angels’, and the metaphor loses most of its pungency unless one takes bread and its earthiness, its carnality, seriously.

***

In a Book of Hours made in Burgundy in the 1430s for Catherine of Cleves, a portrayal of St Bartholomew, and a prayer to him, are surrounded by a chain of pretzels and biscuit breads. The foods are there because of the standard medieval likening of reading to eating. The ‘bread of the word’ is almost as widespread and obvious a metaphor to those readers as the ‘journey of life’ is to us. For many nowadays, that confidence in reading as nutriment has pretty well vanished—or so it is said. But the old notion that the tongue’s two works—speaking and tasting—are somehow allied ought to survive, and often does.

‘Tasting’ is allied as a word with ‘testing’, and there is a good deal of word-testing in contemporary Australia, especially among the ironic and the sardonic. It was part of the monastic discipline in the Middle Ages that one should ‘ruminate’ language, should chew it over to extract all of its juicy significance. I presume that some of them, whether the writers who left records or the readers who did not, also developed an expertise at spitting out the tainted language. It is a proficiency always desirable for the sake of good intellectual, and emotional, health.

***

Nubar Gulbenkian, the oil tycoon, said once that the ideal number for a dinner party was two—‘myself and a damn good head waiter.’ I hope that such a view never becomes orthodoxy. If it threatened to do so, the visual artists would surely mount a revolt: for even those thousands of gustatory ‘still lifes’ usually carry the trace of vanished guests—companions, ‘bread-sharers’, for a while. The motif of mortality may be powerful in such paintings, granted a toppled glass or flies about the fruit, but even that is received as part of the common lot, ‘the way of all the earth’. And of course there exists as well a cornucopia of paintings and the like which exult in the whole affair of our being ‘convivers’, a word which deserves to exist.

In the Art Institute of Chicago there is a painting, ‘Thanksgiving’, by the American artist Doris Lee, who died in 1983. It is a work of about 30 inches by 40, in which, with great brio, a band of women bustle about a kitchen, with children as witnesses, the floor a bright checkerboard of red and white, and the hulking range a magician’s chest of transformations. It might be the theatre of the world in little, and indeed it is, where turkey and pumpkin, vividly themselves, are also the tokens both of our needs and of our converging to address them. A little girl, crouching on a stool and clinging to a table’s edge, offers a morsel to a cat. This is the human comedy; and acting it out, Lee’s lively figures are giving thanks indeed. 

Peter Steele sj has a personal chair at the University of Melbourne.

 

 

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