A thought by Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. His poems often mix impressions from his life as a Jewish, homosexual intellectual in modern mid-century USA with Eastern mysticism and literary references.

In his prose poem “A Supermarket in California”, he places two famous poets, American Walt Whitman and Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, alongside himself in the very mundane setting of a contemporary (1950s) supermarket with its neon lights, stacks of cans, frozen foods and shopping families. It is Walt Whitman that he references most in the poem, not just by name, but by the very form, tone and content of the piece. Walt Whitman, who lived from 1810 to 1892, was a whole-heartedly American poet. He revelled in the images, people and landscapes of the young country that in his lifetime increased from 22 to 44 states to eventually cover the entire territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific and also went through the first major crisis of the Civil War, in which Whitman was involved as a nurse. Whitman strove to capture his country in his poetry – to write an American epic. HIs major work Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. It is a collection of poetry written in free verse and a cadence, a rhythmic pacing, based on bible verses. Also its scope is epic, as it covers all manners of professions and people, animals and objects, landscapes and activities of everyday life. Unlike most poets before him, he focused strongly on material objects and the mundane, and particularly the human body.

Ginsberg picks up this cadence and Whitman’s characteristic “enumerations” of objects and people in his own piece, but the images of cans, refrigerators and automobiles bring it forward into the 20th century. And what better place to locate the mid-20th century American soul than in a supermarket, in California? On the cusp of the Space Age, the wide, sunny spaces of California embodied the current American dream of a suburban house with modern appliances and a car  in the driveway the better to reach the clean, cool temples of consumption, the supermarkets. Their abundance (especially in produce-rich California) of endless shelves and “brilliant stacks” of merchandise seem to showcase Whitman’s enumerations in real life.

Ginsberg, however, remains the outsider, fatigued, self-conscious and solitary, not partaking in the feast (“never passing the cashier”) but “shopping for images” only. He even imagines being followed by the store detective, as if not consuming was a crime. This is a veiled critique of the socio-economic paradigm , which also turns people into anonymous masses defined by their domestic roles (“aisles full of husbands, wives in the avocados”). A different country, an “America of love” that Ginsberg may have glimpsed through Whitman’s enthusiastic verses, seems now “lost” to him.

A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955

#quote #quoteoftheday #inspiration #booknerd #books #readinglist #reading #literature #writing #lovetoread #poetry #imagination #foodwriting #USA #america #california #whitman #ginsberg #beatgeneration

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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.

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.

A thought by M.F.K. Fisher

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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.