The paper I published in the journal East-West Cultural Passage entitled ‘”My Palate Hung With Starlight” – A Gastrocritical Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry’ is now available online! You can find it here: https://doi.org/10.2478/ewcp-2019-0010
Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney is celebrated for his rich verses recalling his home in the Northern Irish countryside of County Derry. Yet while the imaginative links to nature in his poetry have already been critically explored, little attention has been paid so far to his rendering of local food and foodways. From ploughing, digging potatoes and butter-churning to picking blackberries, Heaney sketches not only the everyday activities of mid-20th century rural Ireland, but also the social dynamics of community and identity and the socio-cultural symbiosis embedded in those practices. Larger questions of love, life and death also infiltrate the scenes, as they might in life, through hints of sectarian divisions and memories of famine.
This essay proposes a gastrocritical reading of Heaney’s poetry to study these topics in particularly meaningful ways. Gastrocriticism is a nascent critical approach to literature that applies the insights gained in Food Studies to literary writings, investigating the relationship of humans to each other and to nature as played out through the prism of food, or as Heaney wrote: “Things looming large and at the same time […] pinned down in the smallest detail”.
A grey and drizzly Sunday is perfect for visiting a museum or gallery, so my friend and I went to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin today. The current special exhibition of Vermeer was sold out, but we were actually more curious about the new wing of the Gallery, which has been done very nicely and now houses part of their permanent exhibition of Irish artists (and entrance is free, so go have a look!).
I am fond of modern art (say, from the last 150 years), and I particularly liked this painting above: Frying Pan, Eggs and Napkin (1950) by Irish-Scottish artist William Scott (1913-1989). The colours and lines remind me of retro fabrics (the painting is from 1950, so that is not far off), but I also like the everyday subject matter, of food, no less. Scott, as I have learned, painted almost exclusively everyday items, mostly food and kitchen tools, with different levels of abstractions. Some of his works consist of colourful shapes only, reminiscent of the outlines of cups and pans; in others, the fish, eggs, fruits and forks are more clearly visible.
William Scott apparently said that for French Cubist painter Georges Braque, “the guitar was his Madonna” and that “the frying pan could be [Scott’s] guitar” – his muse or artistic theme that never stopped urging him to paint. I find this rather similar to the creative urge behind literary non-fiction with its focus on the patterns and dynamics of everyday life.
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. Continue reading →
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) was an anthropologist and ethnologist and is sometimes considered the “father of modern anthropology”. In his work The Raw and the Cooked, he points to culture as the transforming factor from the natural raw state to the cooked, or otherwise processed, state.
This connection between cooking food and human civilisation is also strongly argued in the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. Spoiler alert: cooking makes digesting food easier, so we can use the nutrients faster and can put more energy into our brains rather than our stomachs. That is the reason why I don’t support all-raw diets… that, and taste.
Julia Child (1912-2004) was an American chef, author and TV personality. Actually, her first career was in the Secret Service, which is pretty cool. She met her husband in the Service, who became a diplomat and was posted to Paris. That’s where Julia decided to learn cooking. She began also to teach cooking and eventually published her debut cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is famous for making complex French dishes accessible. Her personal style helped matters greatly: she is hilarious and did not take herself too seriously, not even on TV.