The word made flesh, fowl and fricassee

As we prepare for the annual ritual of over-eating, Kevin Jackson savours the delicious relationship between literature and food
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The Independent Culture
'Tis the season to be gluttonous; and the sacred text which lays down a template for all such indulgence will be familiar not only to every literate Briton but also - such was the peculiar myth-making force of its author's imagination - to millions of those who have not once opened its pages:

There was never guch a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there was ever such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family: indeed as MrsCrachit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish) they hadn't ate it all at last! ...

One must have a palate of stone to read about the Crachits' holiday feast, or any other huge feed in Dickens's fiction, without feeling the early prickles of saliva. (Dickens is surely the world's leading Foodie novelist: you can scarcely flick through 10 consecutive pages without bumping into a steaming veal pie, succulent oysters, slabs of beefsteak, wedding cake, mulled wine or - curious fellow that he was - threatened cannibalism.) Such scenes are magnificent folklore, and yet some readers would hesitate to admit that they are great literature, partly because A Christmas Carol is condescendingly regarded as Dickens Lite, partly because earnest readers seem to feel that snacks are beneath the dignity of serious writers.

"We are ambivalent", wrote the American critic Lionel Trilling, "in our conception of the moral status of eating and drinking", and though many of our most intense experiences can be conveyed in images of food and drink, we start to get queasy if writers spend too much time hanging round the kitchen; it's simply not genteel.

For example, a couple of decades ago, Gore Vidal wrote a gloriously pungent review of the 10 novels then on the New York Times bestseller list, noting the common rube-tickling elements that had earned them their place at the top of the heap: the Mirror Scene (young heroine gazes into looking- glass and likes what she sees), the Nubile Scene (as above, but with more prominent nipples), the Confrontation With Mr Big Scene ... and, inevitably, the Food Scene. "Miss Holt", Vidal observes of one successful authoress, "knows her readers like a good din from time to time along with romance."

One smirks at Mr Vidal's dig, but its snobbery leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. As the case of Dickens shows, pulp novels aren't the only kind of books designed for drooling over: the form of writing Vidal waggishly refers to as "Quality Lit." has seldom been any less keen to lay on a good spread for readers than the pulp stuff. In fact Thackeray, a bestselling writer of his day now safely established as Quality Lit., wrote that "Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind must like, I think, to read about them".

True to his principle, Thackeray treated his customers to the splendid "white dinner" of Pendennis ("potage a la reine blanche confectioned with the most fragrant cream and almonds ... a dish of opal-coloured plover's eggs, which I called Nid de toutereaux a la Roucoule ... and a jelly of marasquin, bland, insinuating, intoxicating as the glance of beauty") and Becky Sharp's first disastrous encounter with a blisteringly hot curry in Vanity Fair - a scene, incidentally, which has its modern-day counterparts in Keith Talent's self-lacerating Indian meal in Martin Amis's London Fields and in Les Murray's moving (aficionados of spicy curry will know just how moving) poem about his close encounter with a rogue Vindaloo in South Wales. Nor is it just the robust British novelists who are conspicuously fond of their grub. You can find feasting in Flaubert ("whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, camels' and buffaloes' haunches, hedgehogs in garum sauce, fried grasshoppers and pickled doormice...": Salammbo) and in Proust; in Homer (Fielding, in Tom Jones, calls the Odyssey "That eating poem") and in Rimbaud.

This is a five-star lineage, and it is only a taster. Why, then, has the notion that food is a rather low subject for literature proved so tenacious? The art historian E.H. Gombrich gave one good answer: because the Platonic, "spiritual" senses of the eye and ear have traditionally enjoyed far higher prestige than the supposedly grosser ones of tongue and nose. The literary critic Christopher Ricks gave another, in his inspired discussion of Keats's "The Eve of St Agnes" in Keats and Embarrassment. Among the suggestions Ricks brings into play are anthropological writings about tribes who try to hide their acts of ingestion from public gaze as Westerners hide their acts of copulation.

Eating is our earliest sensual pleasure. If as adults we feel a bit ashamed of being seen to like our food too much, it's because we fear we may be slipping back into childish things. Moreover, reading about eating is one of our earliest literary pleasures. (And we learn to read aloud before we learn to read silently: literature is originally an oral gratification.) Between "once upon a time" and "happily ever after", we want to know what's for supper. Hence all the chocolate factories and tuck shops and midnight feasts in children's books; hence the amiable bears with their porridge; hence all the picnic baskets, of which one - Rat's, from The Wind in the Willows - may stand in its unpunctuated, groaning splendour for all the others:

"What's inside it?" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

"There's cold chicken inside it", replied the Rat briefly, "coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscress- sandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater -"

"O stop stop," cried the Mole in ecstacies; "this is too much!"

Mole is an acute critic: it is just this greedy-child quality of gorging on "too much" that delights some readers and disconcerts others when offered a good verbal tuck-in. As Ricks points out, Keats was sneered at from all sides for his sweet poetic tooth: "Keats is a miserable creature, hungering after sweets which he can't get", Carlyle groused, while Leigh Hunt's nickname for John Keats was "Junkets". The jibes had a point. Any bright GCSE candidate can tell you all about the transferred eroticism of Keats's goodies:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,

In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,

While he from forth the closet brought a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrops, tinct with cinammon...

One of the many things which is extraordinary about Keats's poetry is its ability to convey an unabashed, Mole-ish ecstasy about luxuriant edibles. This is rare. For the most part, whenever a writer starts dwelling on outlandish fare in unfeasibly large quantities, it's a fair bet he's a satirist: Juvenal, for example, or Petronius in the Satyricon, boggling at "a Dish of cramm'd Fowl and the hinder Paps of a Sow that had farrowed but a day before, well Powdered, and in the middle a Hare, stuck in with Finns of Fish in his side, that he looked like a Flying Horse..."

What Keats recognises and rises above in his accounts of food is what puritanical writers have made a meal of: the faint but undeniable element of disgust that enters into all eating, whether it be in all that slurping and saliva, or in some dismaying element of a particular foodstuff. It was Jonathan Swift who declared "It was a bold man who first ate an oyster". It was also Swift who conceived the most potent of all Foodie satires: his Modest Proposal that the babies of the Irish poor might best be approached with knife and fork: "a young, healthy child, well nursed, is at one year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout." Gruesome grub continues to be a staple of the satirist, and readers with strong stomachs might care to browse on the "Swiftian" passages in, say, William Burroughs's Naked Lunch; or they may prefer to check out what the narrator of American Psycho gets up to with a jar of Grey Poupon mustard.

Such grisly fare rapidly stales, though: the best modern fiction about food, high and low, has the capacity to combine revulsion and delight into a single course, often by means of comedy. At the one end of the menu, Mr Bloom's fried kidney from Joyce's Ulysses or Belacqua's carbonised sandwich from More Pricks Than Kicks; at the other, the gleeful, highly seductive gourmandising of Charlie Mortdecai in Kyril Bonfiglioli's Mortdecai Trilogy.

Toothsome as all these modern writers are, there is one quality they tend to be less deft at conveying than the writers of earlier times: the sense that one virtue which can redeem hearty group eating from mere gluttony is the chance it affords to give and accept hospitality, to use the mouth for good talking as well as vigorous mastication. No poem in the English language captures the civilisation or the civility of eating quite so engagingly as Ben Jonson's lines inviting a friend to supper:

Yet shall you have, to rectifie your palate

An onion, capers, or some better sallade

Ushring the mutton; with a short-leg'd hen

If we can get her, full of egs, and then,

Limons, and wine for sauce: to these, a coney

Is not to be despair'd of, for our money;

And, though fowle, now, be scarce, yet there are clarkes,

The skie not falling, think we may have larkes...

And what larks. Bon appetit.