Writing of Food

Writing of Food

John Hollander

Bertolt Brecht’s famous insistence that “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral”–“Chow first, then moralizing” might be an epigraph to the matter of our discussion on this panel of a conference with such a broad and deep range of concerns. But considering the intertwined dialectics of nature and culture, base and superstructure, thought and action, embedded in that injunction, we might want to modify it with regard to our present agenda. “Fressen”–as Paul Rozin reminded us in his paper–means “to feed on, particularly with regard to animal behavior,” as opposed to “essen,” to eat. We might thus want to observe that “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann das Essen, und dann die Moral”–“first the feed-bag, then the dinner table, and only then the theorizing.” We have been looking, throughout this conference, at the significance of some of the transitions and modifications of Fressen [right arrow] Essen and certainly a good deal of die Moral subsequent to both.

But the particular focus of this panel is on the representation of food, at least by two traditional modes of mimesis–word and image. It might be argued that there is enough of die Moral embedded in the very move from Fressen to Essen itself. I mean the transition from food as subsistence to what is eaten when–for some in any society, whether a smaller or more numerous subset of the population–there is too much food and of too many kinds and with too much access to new and strange foods and ways of preparing and consuming them. We eat food for sustenance; for pleasures additional to the basic satisfaction attendant upon having eaten when one was hungry; as part of cultic or otherwise culturally disseminated ritual, social and otherwise; as medicine. The planet provides a vast array of potential provender for omnivores, and yet one of the things we mean by a “culture” can be partially characterized by what in this vast array it acknowledges to be edible, and in what ways, and when.

Such a process of selection is in itself a kind of representational one, to this degree: a conception of authentic, appropriate and even enjoyable food is metonymic of the very vast corpus of the potentially edible. The classifications and taxonomies built by language itself frequently reflect who among the speakers of a language ate what and how and when. One has only to consider the nouns in two parallel lists to see that the cultural history of food embedded in them: beef, veal, pork, mutton on the one hand, and cow, calf, pig or swine and sheep, on the other, the words denoting butcher’s meat being in the Norman French of those who ate it, and the others being in the Anglo-Saxon of those who provided but did not consume it. (But notice that we keep lamb rather than agneau.)(1)

But these remarks will be concerned with the highly organized and complicatedly functional language of what we call literature, and the fascinating history of visual images that we call art. They provide a rich array of situations analogous to those of the culture of eating itself: what in the way of food is talked about or shown, and how, and where, and when, parallels the very selections and arrangements of what is considered the edible in various particular cultural milieux. The archaeology of represented food might extend as far back as paleolithic cave-painting–of meat on the hoof, as it were–or to those early possible candidates, at the dawn of writing, for icons on boxes that may label the foodstuffs contained therein.

But I shall leap way ahead into the relative modernity of later Roman times, and into representational complexity as well. A lot of food is depicted in Hellenistic and Roman still-life painting. Consider, for example, a Pompeiian still-life showing various comestibles. It might have been entitled XENIA [“hospitable or friendly gifts”]. The Roman architectural historian Vitruvius (writing ca. 20 BCE) observed that

when the Greeks became more luxurious, they began to provide … stores of

provisions for their guests from abroad, and on the first day they would

invite them to dinner, sending them on the next [day] chickens, eggs,

vegetables, fruits and other country produce. That is why artists called

pictures representing things sent to guests `xenia’ (Vitruvius, VI.7.4.)

Let us consider a discussion (Philostratus, II,26,) not of this painting but of some actual or even imaginary one like it, by the third-century CE writer Philostratus, whose Eikones was a collection of interpretive commentaries on a supposed collection of paintings. It begins “It is a good thing to gather figs and also not to pass over in silence the figs in this picture …” It might be observed that the writer associates the gathering of fruit and of food for thought, of relishing of the palate and the eye. Philostratus then continues:

Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped on the vine-leaves; and they are

depicted with breaks in the skin, some-just cracking apart to disgorge

their honey, some split apart, they are so ripe. Near them lies a branch,

not bare, by Zeus, nor empty of fruit, but under the shade of its leaves

are figs, some still green and “untimely” [figs that are pickled while

green and usually don’t ripen], some with wrinkled skin and over-ripe,

while on the tip of the branch a sparrow buries its bill in what seems the

very sweetest of the figs. All the ground is strewn with chestnuts, some of

which are rubbed free of the burr, others lie quite shut up, and others

show the burr breaking at the lines of division.

See, too, the pears on pears, apples on apples, both heaps of them and

piles of ten, all fragrant and golden. You will say that their redness has

not been put on from outside, but has bloomed from within. Here are gifts

of the cherry tree, here is fruit in clusters heaped in a basket, and the

basket is woven, not from alien twigs, but from branches of the plant

itself. And if you look at the vine-sprays woven together, and at the

clusters hanging from them and how the grapes stand out one by one, you

will certainly hymn Dionysus and speak of the vine as [and here

Aristophanes’ Peace is being quoted] “Queenly giver of grapes.” You would

say that even the grapes in the painting are good to eat and full of winey

juice. And the most charming point of all this is: on a leafy branch is

yellow honey already within the comb and ripe to stream forth if the comb

is pressed; and on another leaf is cheese new curdled and quivering; and

there are bowl of milk not merely white but gleaming, for the cream

floating on it makes it seem to gleam.(2)

This passage is full of praise for the lusciousness of the fruit and of the skill, of the painter, and the two are intertwined with some bravura flourishing of the art of the writer as well.(3) There is an implicit parable in this representation of a representation of what is in fact a representative serving of food; and of the way in which the writer relishes his description of the relished painting of the relished fruit. This issue lurks behind many literary descriptions or narratives of food, whether implicit in produce, being prepared for eating, or being served and consumed under a variety of circumstances. It is certainly always there for the painter, even when particular modes of still-life signify differently, as when bread, an egg, an apple or cherry or pomegranate or quince can be emblematic in the iconography of Christian art. A profusion of comestibles elaborately displayed may in Dutch seventeenth-century art indicate vanitas, with a fly on a gleaming apple suggesting corruption of worldly goods and interests; or it may simply flaunt both the skill of the artist and the wealth of the purchaser, in which case the fly–line the sparrow in the imaginary still-life of Philostratus–might be part of a trompe-l’oeil allusion (this painted apple is so lifelike that a fly has settled on its virtual rind). Or a Dutch painting of the sort called breakfast still-life (or ont-bijte) might, in displaying both cheeses and herrings, be representing therein both the natural bounty of Holland, its produce (the herrings) and the products of its manufacture (the cheeses.)

But why, even when more directly than in second-order descriptions like this, do we represent food at all? The sheer joy of naming?–literature affords many occasions for detailed catalogues of foodstuffs in various forms: produce, prepared, configured as courses or serving in set meals, and so forth. As a way of defining a particular mode of commensality? As a way of authenticating the veracity, as well as the very powers of representation, of the speaker or narrator? Early kinds of narrative are most often sparing in detail except at highly charged moments, which is why we remember those outstanding examples of biblical food, for example: the locusts and wild honey on which John the Baptist subsisted; the “milk and honey” of the land of Canaan, emblematic of its wealth (Exodus 3.8); “mess of red pottage” for which Esau sells his birthright. Biblical foods become emblematic through quotation without understanding necessarily what the words meant: “mess of red pottage” = a serving of lentils (probably a sort of dall).

Aside from actual food that is manifestly or latently construed as symbolic in rituals, Western tradition at least presents instances of what might be called transcendental food: the ambrosia and nectar of the Olympian gods may be the purest instance of this, since it never showed up on earth. The manna that fell presumably from heaven onto the encampments of the Hebrews in Sinai, (and at least perhaps from the tamarisk trees) was actual food (described as looking like coriander seeds but tasting like honeywafers). Likewise, the Eucharist retains both a natural and a transcendent character. The fruit of tree of Paradise is, as Milton elaborates on its nature, literally fruit but only figuratively food, and Satan’s gross literalization of it in his overtures to Eve causes her, and hence to Adam, to eat what was indeed edible but should have remained above and beyond–rather than “below”–consumption. Eating it entailed a sin–disobedience–but constituted in itself some kind of metaphysical travesty.

This leads us to consider ceremonial and taboo foods, and their interrelations, sacred food that one must not eat/unclean food that one must not eat, and so forth. Persephone’s pomegranate seeds come to mind, too, that perverse bit of forbidden food (eating anything in Pluto’s underworld would cause her to remain imprisoned there forever, and she the daughter of the Goddess of grain and agriculture generally.) Classical scholars have considered the relation between what was fit to eat in connection with what was fit to sacrifice, in an attempt to explain why no fish is mentioned in the Iliad (see Davidson). But in the Odyssey there is a moment, toward the beginning of Book XIII, in which hunger is made metaphoric in a telling way. In Phaeacia, after Odysseus has recounted all his adventures theretofore, there is a feast on the thigh-meat of a bull that had been sacrificed, with festivity and song. But Odysseus keeps turning his head toward the blazing sun, eager to see it go down, for he really wants to get home. And Homer’s simile here is remarkable sophisticated [we must remember that everyone has feasted to satiety at this point]: “And as someone longs for his dinner–someone who has spent all day following the plough that his wine-dark oxen have dragged across the field–and welcomes the the sinking of the sun because it bring him nearer to dinner-time, and his legs sink under him; even so did Odysseus welcome the sinking sun …” (Odyssey, XIII 26-35)

The dormouse tells a tale, at the Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland, of three sisters who lived at the bottom of a well. “`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.” And so are we, as readers of fiction, and when any repast is mentioned in a novel, we tend to hunger for specification. It is Latin literature, in particular, which abounds in writing about food. Both Martial and Juvenal wrote poems of invitation to a dinner which lovingly catalogues what will be served, and these are imitated considerably in Renaissance poetry. We can trace the persistence of many modes and topics which persist in later literature. A writer can delight in describing the food at a shared meal as much as he or she can in creating the characters and the relationships among the consumers, the occasion for the meal and the consequences of it. That meal can be a humble repast, described with and for the delectation of the sophisticated. Ovid in the Metamorphoses tells the story of Philemon and Baucis, the poor country people visited by Jupiter and Mercury in disguise, and how they provide for their guests as well as they can. Baucis starts a fire,

and then she took the cabbage Her man had brought from the well-watered

garden, And stripped the outer leaves off. And Philemon Reached up, with a

forked stick, for the side of bacon, That hung below the smoky beam, and

cut it, Saved up so long, a fair-sized chunk, and dumped it In the boiling

water …

[then later on when their guests are seated]

One table leg was wobbly; A piece of shell fixed that. She scoured the

table, Made level now, with a handful of green mint, Put on the olives,

black or green, and cherries Preserved in dregs of wine, endive and radish,

And cottage cheese, and eggs, turned over lightly In the warm ash, with

shells unbroken. The dishes, Of course, were earthenware, and the mixing

bowl For wine was the same silver, and the goblets Were beech, the inside

coated with yellow wax. No time at all, and the warm food was ready, And

wine brought out, of no particular vintage, And pretty soon they had to

clear the table For the second course: here there were nuts and figs And

dates and plums and apples in wide baskets–Remember how apples smell?–and

purple grapes Fresh from the vines, and a white honeycomb As centerpiece,

and all round the table Shone kindly faces, nothing mean or poor Or skimpy

in good will….

(Metamorphoses, VIII, tr. Rolfe Humphries)(4)

One might compare this with the warm sympathy spiced with a pinch of condescension in this famous description in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of the preparation of another meal:

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all

birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of

course; and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs.

Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing

hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda

sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates … [and on to

the eating of the goose and the pudding …]

What we seldom notice is the effect of all the definite articles here (the gravy … the potatoes … the apple sauce … the hot plates) which mark out a sort of structural anthropological distinction: “the” instead of “some”–suppose the same poor white-collar London family’s Christmas dinner preparations included mention of “the pemmican” “the bok choy” “the straciatella”–it would be ludicrous, because the “the” designates “the customary” “the conventionally appropriate,” where “some” would be just that, and the unusualness of the composition of the dinner would be handled without the tiny melodrama of the terms just used. On the other hand, here is another but analogous mode of the writer distancing himself from the food, but in this case delighting in its profusion and its cultural bracketing. It is from Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820, but dealing with Dutch farmers on the Hudson in the post-revolutionary period). Irving invokes

the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table, in the sumptuous

time of autumn. Such heaped-up platters of cakes of various and almost

indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! There was

the doughty dough-nut, the tenderer oely-koek [a kind of cruller], and the

crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes; ginger cakes and

honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple pies

and peach pies and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and

moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and

quinces; not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens; together with

bowls of milk and cream all mingled higgledy-piggledy, pretty much as I

have enumerated them, with he motherly tea-pot sending up its clouds of

vapor from the midst Heaven bless the mark. I want breath and time to

discuss this banquet as it deserves, and am too eager to get on with my

story …

This passage may remind us, too, that whereas catalogues like this were to be found in Latin poetry, it was prose fiction that, in modernity, has attended to the matter of food. The rise of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries presented many occasions for the description of food, its preparation and presentation, the occasions of its consumption and so forth. Listing, cataloguing, has been a favorite device of verse from antiquity through Walt Whitman and after; but inventories of food in short poems tended to be occur in occasions of offering and invitation, save occasionally in poetic narrative, as in this stanza (#30) from Keats’ “The Eve of St Agnes” describing

a heap Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd, With jellies

soother than the creamy curd, And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon; Manna

and dates, in argosy transferred From Fez, and spiced dainties, every one,

From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon.

But for poetry from the Renaissance on questions of eating have been largely limited to comic verse,(5) The most memorable literary meals, scenes of dining whether pleasant or unpleasant recounted in varying kinds of detail, abound in the novel, We think of these as ranging from Rabelais’ ecstatic celebratory catalogues of food and drink in a general context of physical size equated with moral size, if only to the exquisite minutia of Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea–a sort of secular eucharist in celebration of his personal muse, Involuntary Memory.(6) My time being limited, I can only cite briefly a few further instances of descriptions of food, presented in various tones. In Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) he has previously implicitly praised the Scots for their elevations of oats over wheat. Now, he describes a feast that was

made up of a parcel of kickshaws, contrived by a French cook, without one

substantial article adapted to the satisfaction of an English appetite. The

pottage was little better than bread soaked in dishwashings, lukewarm. The

ragouts looked as if they had been once half-eaten and half-digested: the

fricasees were involved in a nasty yellow poultice; and the rotis were

scorched and and stinking, for the honor of the fumet. The desert consisted

of faded fruit and iced froth, a good emblem of our landlady’s character;

the table-beer was sour, the water foul, and the wine vapid; but there was

a parade of plate and china, and a powdered laquey stood behind every

chair, except those of the master and mistress of the house, who were

served by two valets dressed like gentlemen. (Smollett, p. 335)

One may compare the tone of this passage with the mixture of wonder and distaste which marks Nick Carraway’s report of Gatsby’s huge parties (The Great Gatsby, chapter III, [paragraph] 2):

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in

New York–every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in

a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which

could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little

button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several

hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree

of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening

hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin

designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the

stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most

of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

A number of questions arising in Roman satiric poetry continue to remain of literary interest, among them those relating food to eros, and it is likewise amusing and instructive to compare ancient and modern treatments of them. Here, for example, is Ovid, in his The Remedies for Love, warning against aphrodisiac foods, like onions and arugala and, as for wine, to avoid just enough:

Fire can be fanned by a wind, as fire, by a wind, is extinguished, A

gentler breeze fans the flame, a heavier puts it to death. Either get

thoroughly drunk, or be a total abstainer: Anything in between causes the

passions to rise.

(tr. Humphries, ll. 807-10)

It is engaging to compare these lines with an equally urbane passage almost 2,000 years later. Here is M. E K. Fisher, that splendid writer on food and the rest of life (Fisher, 1963) giving advice to a single woman cooking a dinner for a man whose postprandial advances she wishes to avoid without manifestly having to stave off:

I would serve too many Martinis, that is, about three. Then while his

appetite raged, thus whipped with alcohol, I would serve generous, salty

Italian hors d’oeuvres; prosciutto, little chilled marinated shrimps,

olives stuffed with anchovy, spiced and pickled tomatoes–things that would

lead him on. Next would something he no longer wanted but couldn’t resist,

something like a ragout of venison, or squabs stuffed with mushrooms and

wild rice, and plenty of red wine, sure danger after the cocktails and

highly spiced appetisers. I would waste no time on a salad, unless perhaps

a freakish and rich one, treacherously containing truffles and new

potatoes. The desert would be cold, superficially refreshing and tempting,

but venomous; a chilled bowl of figs soaked in kirsch with heavy cream.

There would be small bottle of Sauterne [sic!] sly and icy, or a judicious

bit of champagne, and then a small cup of coffee so black and bitter that

my victim could not down it, even therapeutically.

When it comes to the explorations of commensality, ancient writing can be as attentive as the modern novel. Ovid’s scene of the hospitality of Philemon and Baucis quoted earlier must have been evoked by Milton’s fable of the First Commensal Meal in Paradise Lost, when the Angel Raphael comes to Paradise to instruct Adam and Eve. In their unfallen world, there is no technology of any kind, no gap between nature and culture, no fire, no cooking, no distinction between the cooked and the raw. Raphael is served what his hosts normally eat, a “savoury dinner … of herbs and other country messes”:

Rais’d of grassy turf Their table was, and mossy seats had round And on

her ample square from side to side All Autumn pil’d, though Spring and

Autumn here Danc’d hand in hand. A While discourse thy hold, No fear lest

dinner cool …

(Paradise Lost, V, 391-6)

And no fear that Eve, the cook, will plunge the scene into low comedy by complaining that while the men chatter, her culinary efforts will go to waste, etc. A modern reader must think, too, o that canonical moment of natural, or, in Milton’s terms, fallen commensality, perpetuated in the most widely known quatrain o Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

A book of verses underneath a bough A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and

thou Beside me singing in the wilderness. Ah wilderness, were Paradise


Singing aside, Milton’s episode does remind us that discourse accompanying eating is a significant matter. For example, even when actual food is being enjoyed, there is often talk about it ant about other food. I shall conclude by citing a celebrated instance of such discourse. It occurs in the midst of a detailed narrative o a grossly over-wrought banquet in Petronius’ Satyricon. Habbinas, the guest of honor at this grotesquely elaborate feast laid out by Trimalchio, the nouveau-fiche freedman, arrives half drunk from another party, a funeral spread in honor of another friend’s dead slave. “`What did they give you to eat?’ Trimalchio [his host pressed him.”

“`If I can remember, I’ll tell you,” said Habinnas. “But my memory’s so

bad these days, I sometimes can’t even remember my own name. Let’s see,

first off we had some roast pork garnished with loops of sausage and

flanked with more sausages and some giblets done to a turn. And there were

pickled beets and some wholewheat bread made without bleach. I prefer it to

white, you know. It’s better for you and less constipating too. Then came a

course of cold tart with a mixture of some wonderful Spanish wine and hot

honey … Then there were chickpeas and lupins, no end of filberts, and an

apple apiece. I took two apples and I’ve got one wrapped up in my napkin

here. If I forgot to bring a present to my pet slave, I’d be in hot water.

And oh yes, my wife reminds me: the main course was a roast of bearmeat.

Scintilla was silly enough to try some and almost chucked up her supper.

But it reminds me of roast boar, so I put down about a pound of it.

Besides, I’d like to know, if bears eat men, why shouldn’t men eat bears?

To wind up, we had some soft cheese steeped in fresh wine, a snail apiece,

some tripe hash, livers in pastry boats and eggs topped with more pastry

and turnips and mustard and beans boiled in the pod–but enough’s enough.

Oh yes, and they passed around a dish of olives pickled in caraway, and

some of the guests had the nerve to walk off with three fistfuls. But we

sent the ham back untasted.'” (Petronius, 64-5)(7)


(1) My generation’s youthful introduction to this came from the pages of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The very mention of “meat” brings up other linguistic questions: the word in Old English means food generally; it is derived ultimately from a word meaning moist or wet. This sense continues up through the eighteenth century, some time after the specific sense of “flesh of animals” develops. In English, the derivations and semantic histories of words like meat, meal and mess map out a good deal of economic history as well. It might seem that meal, for example, changed its meaning of “ground grain” to “repast” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even as meat lost that same sense. But meal can be either of two full homonyms: meal [1] < Middle English mele < Old English melu = flour < Indo-European *mele=grind; meal[2] < Middle English < meel Old English mael = mark, measure, time [and thus, "piecemeal"] < Indo-European*me = measure. On the other hand, mess < Middle English mes = course of a meal, a particular dish < Old French < Latin mittere, missus = put, place.

(2) Reprinted by permission of the publisher and the Loeb Classical Library.

(3) There may be some allusive reference in the sparrow to Pliny’s anecdote of the birds deceived by the painted grapes in his discussion of the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Natural History, XXXV, xxxvi.

(4) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

(5) Save, perhaps, for poets of the half-century after World War II, who have more and more bought and prepared their own food, and for whom culinary affairs could become the objects of serious meditation.

(6) Memorable as well are Leopold Bloom’s various modes of attention to food in Ulysses.

(7) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


Davidson, James, “On the Fish Missing from Homer,” in Food in European Literature, Wilkins, John, ed. (Exeter: 1996), pp. 57-64.

Fisher, M. F. K., The Art of Eating 1963, quoted by W. H. Auden, Forewords and Afterwords (New York: Random House, 1973), pp. 489-90.

Humphries, Rolfe (tr.), Ovid: The Loves (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).

Petronius, The Satyricon, Arrowsmith, William, trans. (Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1959).

Philostratus, Imagines, Fairbanks, Morgan, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), pp. 123-25.

Smollett, Tobias, Humphry Clinker (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1985).

Vitruvius, De Architectura, Morgan, Morris Hicky, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914).

John Hollander is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, and Secretary of the American Institute of Arts and Letters. He is the author of The Gazer’s Spirit (1995), The Work of Poetry (1997) and The Poetry of Everyday Life (forthcoming from U. of Michigan Press).

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