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…

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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.

A thought by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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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…).

A thought from To Kill A Mockingbird

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To Kill A Mockingbird is the 1960 novel by Harper Lee. Set in a small town in Alabama, it tells the story of the trial and wrongful conviction of a black man, seen through the eyes of the six-year-old daughter of the defence lawyer. Through the child’s perspective, we witness a range of prejudices and injustices – racial, sexual, social – that are woven through the social fabric of this fictional town.

Harper Lee came from a family of lawyers and studied law herself, and it shows in the novel. The court scenes are very detailed, and the law and justice are held up throughout the book as important values.

The quote above is said by the little girl when she starts school and a teacher who is dismayed that the girl can read already forbids her to read in school.

A thought by Aldous Huxley

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Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was an English writer and philosopher. He is best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World and his mescaline-fuelled philosophical essay The Doors of Perception, which among other things inspired the equally drug-fuelled band The Doors.

Other novels of his have such fabulous names as Those Barren LeavesEyeless in Gaza and Antic Hay. I have read a few of them, and they generally seem to feature young British expats around the Mediterranean afflicted with boredom and malaise… capturing the spirit of the interwar years in Europe. Good to read by the pool or on the sun-soaked terrace of a Tuscan country villa.