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?
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.
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.
Laura Ward Branca is an African-Armenian American cookbook author and civil rights activist. She is on the board of the Moosewood vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, NY, named by Bon Appetit magazine as ” one of the thirteen most influential restaurants of the 20th Century”, and she works with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an institute offering popular education and training to inspire and support people who want to foster and protect human rights and to advance civic participation for social transformation. Founder Dorothy Cotton worked with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) was one of the first great food writers of the 20th century. She wrote essays, memoir and travel pieces of her life in the USA and France, where she spent several years. Interestingly, though, she did not think of herself as a “food writer”. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me (1943), she explained: “When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”
When I read this line in one of my Food Studies Master’s classes, a door opened for me. Food in itself is wonderful, but what drew me to working in bars and restaurants as a teenager and all through my twenties was the human theatre that played out there every night, celebration, romance, heartbreak, redemption, business. There had been books and scholarly articles examining and affirming my impression, but here for the first time was someone who celebrated it through words, which are after all my other great passion. And I realised I had found my corner in the food world, my tribe.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a US-American philosopher, essayist and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the early 19th century. The Transcendentalists combined Western Romantic and Idealist ideas with Eastern (Hindu) philosophy. They were strongly focused on the human individual, which they believed to be essentially good and true, and saw great value in the communion with Nature, which they viewed also in a spiritual and sometimes even mystic way. Unspoiled nature and the unspoiled, free and self-reliant individual were their ideals. The Transcendentalists were probably the first great intellectual movement in the USA. Other prominent Transcendentalists include Henry David Thoreau (Walden) and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women).
Transcendentalist thought influenced the poet Walt Whitman in the 19th century, and formed a strong legacy for 20th century American art and literature movements, such as the Beat poets (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac…).