A thought by Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish playwright, novelist, essayist and poet, enjoyed the good life. He subscribed to the philosophy of aestheticism, of art for art’s sake and for providing refined sensuous pleasures. Living in London, he moved in fashionable social and cultural circles, and this is the world that is reflected in much of his writing, where characters meet in drawing rooms and at garden parties, and amuse themselves with witty banter and, again and again, food and drink. The humour of their dialogue is proof of Wilde’s great talent for wit – he was exceptionally talented at distilling sharp observations about people and about life into brilliant one-liners. His twitter account would have been legendary.

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A thought by Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French novelist, dramatist and poet, and is considered one of the greatest French writers. Outside of France, his best-known novels are Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although many may know them through their adaptations into numerous films, plays and musicals. Hugo was much engaged in the political and social life, elected first into the Académie Française, the council that is the official authority on the French language, and later into the National Assembly, where he campaigned for social justice, the alleviation of poverty as well as the universal right to vote and to free education. The epic Les Misérables addresses exactly these social causes, through the fictional story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, but also through essays on various historical or philosophical topics scattered through the text. They make up over a quarter of the already enormous book – one of the longest novels ever written. The above quote for example comes from Chapter 1 of Book 7 of Volume 4 of Les Misérables, where he calls for the illumination of minds through education and science. Education will not, as he points out, make us live happily ever after, but it gives everybody a chance to make their own choices and shape their own lives. Being left in the dark means not to be able to understand what is happening around us, in the natural as in the social world. It breeds fear and superstition: “It is unintelligible in the dark. It gnashes and whispers, completing the gloom with misery,” as Hugo vividly describes it. He does not believe in determinism, that we are destined to stay in the same situation as we were born in, and thus either fortunate or unfortunate. The real human division, he writes, is between the illuminated and the ones in the dark – and this can be changed. Minds can be illuminated, through education, through reading.

And think about it: Books are like flames also in that they do not diminish when they are shared. When did you last share a book with someone?

 

A thought by Paul Schmidt

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Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was a US American professor of literature and translator of mainly Russian and German authors (Chekhov, Brecht…). He also wrote poems, plays and essays himself.

The above quote was taken from his essay “A Winter’s Feast”, published in Parnassus – Poetry in Review in 1990. The essay reflects on a passage from Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, which was entirely written in verse. In the first chapter, Pushkin describes a New Year’s feast that the novel’s hero, Eugene Onegin, attends at a restaurant. He dines on champagne, roast beef, pineapple, Limpurger cheese, truffles and foie gras. Certainly a festive, even ostentatious, meal – but it is even more than that. Schmidt unveils the multiple layers of meaning Pushkin managed to condense into a few words. As Schmidt writes, “food was a metaphor for the age,” and it is a great lyric and metaphorical tool, because it carries so much meaning within it.

In terms of food writing, I am personally most interested in literary nonfiction food writing, rather than fictional writing featuring food. This essay illustrates my main reason why. The poet or fictional author will put together a menu, dish or meal to suit the needs of the story or poem. This is, in purely food terms, less realistic. Less authentic, to use a much-abused word. Schmidt tells us, for example, that the “roast beef” was bécasse in an earlier draft of Pushkin’s text, which is woodcock, a game bird living in the forests of Central Europe and Russia. Pushkin, Schmidt writes, chose this dish “not because he liked woodcock but because bécasse rhymes with ananas (pineapple)”. The poetic or fictional use of food is of course proof of the lyrical talents of an author, which I appreciate, too, but for different reasons. As a real-life enthusiast and foodnerd, I just personally prefer nonfictional writing – like this essay itself.

After a discussion of the meal as a whole, Schmidt muses in little sub-essays on each of the dishes and their culinary-cultural meanings. The passage on Foie Gras, for instance, begins with the statement: “There is a dark side to food – the inside.” Do not let the slightly pompous tone throw you off – Schmidt tempers it masterfully by throwing, of all things, Arnold Schwarzenegger into the discussion. The subject of Roast Beef brings Schmidt to the topic of human “meditation” on our food, in the sense of meddling, of imposing culture on nature, of making food out of raw materials. The cheese, finally, prompts the thought that has become this week’s quote – the relevance of preserving food for human nutrition, and culture. Food preservation, Schmidt says, is evidence of our cognitive capacities, our big brains, because it shows our awareness of time, which sets us apart from other animals: “To set about preserving food, one must first be aware of time—not merely the fact of it: distinguish day from night, and you can tell time—but rather the effect of time on the world”. Time affects our food, lets it go from unripe to ripe to overripe and rotten. Food preservation means controlling these effects, gaining a small victory over Nature – a thought I have myself reflected on the first time I made jam. Schmidt takes it even further and relates our perception of ripeness with sexuality, the transition from the sweet innocence of milk to the provocative aromas of ripened cheese. Those smells are sometimes downright indecent – which is why we love them, of course…

A thought by Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, playwright, translator and lecturer. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and many other awards besides, honouring his prolific work “of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, the topic of the struggle for civil rights and the sectarian violence in the region often shone through his poems. But he sought to reflect the private and apolitical side of it, describing the lives and voices of the people who lived and died in those troubled times.

His poetry was also evocative of his natural surroundings, of the bogs and seasides and not least the local food and foodways. He wrote of picking blackberries, peeling potatoes and eating oysters, “my palate hung with starlight”. The above quote is taken from his poem “Oysters”. It is a mark of his eye for the lyrical details of everyday life that he not only celebrates the food, “philandering sigh of the ocean”, but also the gift of friendship.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

A thought by G.K. Chesterton

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was an English journalist, writer and critic. He is now best known for his books around the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, but he was a prolific writer on many topics, publishing around 80 books and 4000 essays. He was fond of using humour in his writing, though they often dealt with serious topics such as politics, economics, philosophy and theology. This quote is taken from his essay “Cheese”, from the collection Alarms and Discursions (1910). The essay starts light-heartedly and even nonsensically, bemoaning the “neglect of cheese in European Literature”, but turns into a reflection about civilisation and modern society, and the value of diversity within them. “Good” civilisations are “varying and yielding, because they are alive,” he writes. Like good cheese.

A thought by Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American poet, writer and art collector. Her work is largely experimental and part of the modernist literature and Cubist art scene around her. With her life partner Alice B. Toklas, she hosted regular salons in Paris where she lived for nearly fifty years. Guests included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Henri Matisse. Alice was an accomplished cook and gardener, and they enjoyed eating and drinking well. Gertrude Stein often wrote in stream-of-consciousness style, and her writing tends to loop around repetitions of words and phrases. That makes it harder to read on the page but when read out loud, the writing shows a rhythm and cadence that often reminds me of chants and oral literature like epic ballads, and it becomes much more understandable. She also has a sense of humour that keeps shining through, reminding us to not to take the solemn business of life and literature all that seriously.