Thursday, January 16, 2014

The meals of heaven

A noble lady's dinner, image from A Feast for the Eyes

We know a little, dear things, about the gigantic universe of wine blogs. We know a little about the gigantic universe of food blogs, only because we have been dabbling in them, both of them, for more than four years. Curious that there are few wine and food blogs. Do I perhaps help fill that niche?

Anyway, we must now acknowledge another universe: food history blogs. We won't talk about beer and cocktail blogs just yet, since one new universe a day seems enough.

I began clicking links and opening new tabs, and of course thumbing through actual books on this topic too, because I thought, ah-hah -- wouldn't it be nice, wouldn't it be most interesting, to write a book called The Meals of Heaven? Its conceit would be, that when we foodies die and (with luck) go to heaven, we are privileged to meet the great figures of the past, and to share the meals they knew. Imagine sitting down to a banquet with Henry VIII, or to a little intime champagne supper with Napoleon and Josephine; imagine dinner with Thomas Jefferson, or in ancient Rome, or -- who knows? perhaps a trepidatious plunge into the cavernous palaces of the Comneni, to taste some of the lavish eating that must have gone on amid walls of porphyry and glimmering candles in twelfth-century Byzantium. Good news here! In the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia Anna Comnena, historian and princess, "loves to describe scenes of splendour, great state-actions, audiences, and feasts, whatever is concrete and picturesque." Emphasis mine. So we may look forward to knowing at first hand all about meals with her, even though, as the Encyclopedia goes on to sniff, "profounder matters, financial, military, and constitutional, escape her purview."

Yes, wouldn't it be interesting to wallow in this purview, to write my Meals of Heaven, unprofound and all. The first duty in its creation would simply be to open this very door to food history research. When we do, we find not just her Imperial Highness, Anna, but the new universe. Even if we are already familiar with a few building-block basics such as Waverley Root's Food (1980), with Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food (1999), and Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (revised, 2004), we still are utter neophytes when it comes to the sources these masters use. We won't know, for example, Darby et al.'s Food: The Gift of Osiris (2 vols.), or Redon et al.'s The Medieval Kitchen. We won't yet know Apicius or La Varenne, only that they are essential.

And who could have expected there was so much more? These food history blogs -- there is no end to them, and each one's blog roll leads on to more, some of them heroically, humblingly well-done. Just about the most heroic website I have ever seen is Sean Thackrey's The Thackrey Library: An Archaeology of Pleasures.  Do you need to consult Xenophon's Oeconomicus (Treatise on the household), translated from the Greek by Gentian Hervet circa 1534, and reprinted in 1767? If so, be glad Sean Thackrey has transcribed it for you, transcribed it I say, on a keyboard, letter by letter as if it were a new document, and not scanned it page by page from the book he's got in his possession. He has even chosen to type it in a font style that matches the look of the eighteenth-century copy, so that you get at least a whiff of the quaintness of reading a thick little book by your fireside two hundred and forty years ago. The same is true, -- I mean, what he has done for Hervet's Oeconomicus, -- he has also done for Marcus Vitruvuis Pollio's treatise on architecture, wine, and terroir, translated into Renaissance French by a Renaissance Frenchman in 1547. Ditto, Philemon Holland's translation, 1601, of Pliny the elder's Historie of the World

There's more, even beyond Mr. Thackrey's Archaeology. There is The Old Foodie, who merely writes on food history, and includes recipes, faithfully five days a week. There is Historic Food by Ivan Day, who cooks and teaches in his seventeenth-century farmhouse in England's Lake District. There is Sandy Oliver's Food History News, not updated for a year and a half now, but still packed with enough information to repay many months of neophyte application. It was here that I decided I must read C. Anne Wilson's Food and Drink in Britain (1973), brazenly subtitled From the Stone Age to the Present. Not the least important of Ms. Oliver's other sources is a list of culinary history associations, because who should be the founding president of Chicago's such group but Bruce Kraig, a professor of mine from Roosevelt University, and therefore from another lifetime? He's Emeritus now.

Of course there's more, there will ever be more. The Historic Foodie. The Art and Mystery of Food, whose creator seems to be less a historian than a traveler. In March of this year he was in Florence, taking photos of market stalls and of all the strange and interesting things for sale there. I think I would decline to buy and cook Florentine cow diaphragms (diaframma manzo), but the schiacciata con uva (bread baked with grapes) looks delicious.

In a word, then, shall I, dear things, consider following such hard-working and expert company in a trepidatious plunge into the meals of heaven, and click away, and take notes and at least start to catalogue perhaps the ten people I'd like to sup with beyond the veil? Shall I consider what we'll eat and why, and who else would be there with us and why? I wonder if heavenly feasts might not often turn rather awkward, being all full of souls who loathed one another on earth. For myself I know nothing at all about it, except the small detail that lemons were so rare in Tudor England that Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor showed off one, once, at a banquet, but dared not touch it. This minor note comes I think from a paperback copy of the Paston Letters, which I gave away to a castoff book sale many years ago, reasoning I would never have use for it again. You see from what depths I must climb.

By the by. It wouldn't be heaven without fictional characters.Were I there, I would want to taste Lucia's Lobster a la Riseholme, and have a swig of Major Benjy's "chota peg" and Georgie's "gin and French." Talking of being "beyond the veil" reminds me of this, since the characters in E.F. Benson's marvelous books are great hobbyists of spiritualism and table-turning. And I would want to eat the "fish baked cunningly in oiled paper and limes" from Scarlett O'Hara's New Orleans honeymoon ...

Well. If I am to undertake this project it appears I shall have to adopt Lucia's motto. She had several to suit various occasions, but her "Always appreciate, always admire. Be busy -- work, work, work," seems to fit today's bill.

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