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…