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. Continue reading
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
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!
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.
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…).
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.
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.
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 Leaves, Eyeless 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.