Food & Drink: I do not tell the whole truth

It is a curious thing, given the importance of food in culture, that so few primary sources tell us what our ancestors ate, or how. The result of this ignorance is a farrago of conjecture, the stuffing and padding of historical novels, a set of pre-prepared images in our mind: the Roman banquet, the medieval feast and so on.

It is no accident that you can find a pseudo-Roman restaurant in Las Vegas and phoney medieval banqueting halls (complete with warbling minstrels) in many parts of the world. Our desire to conquer impossible time (the unrecoverable past or the unforeseeable future) remains one of the chief expressions of our mortality, and of our being condemned to live in an unsatisfactory present.

I have two suspicions: that things have changed far less than we suppose, and that there always were and always will be two strains (whether by choice or necessity) to our eating - the fasting and the feasting. Recorded history being largely the province of the exceptional (who bothers to write about the ordinary?), our views of the food of the past are greatly distorted: the roasted oxen before Troy, Lucullus's luxurious table, the exaggerations of Louis XIV.

Lucullus is a good case in point. All cooks revere Lucullus, for he is the first man in history to have constructed his later life (after all those snowy campaigns and mishaps at sea) on the basis that wealth exists to be used or, as Plutarch admirably puts it, 'Lucullus's life, like the Old Comedy, presents us at the commencement with acts of policy and of war, at the end offering nothing but good eating and drinking, feastings and revellings and mere play'.

It is clear that Lucullus had a genuinely 'constructed' life. He built palaces suitable for different seasons. 'You think me, then,' he is reported to have said, 'less provident than cranes and storks, not to change my home with the season?' Just so, we think, heading for a winter break in the sun or to the seaside in summer.

But Lucullus excelled, too, in forethought and care. Thus, when Pompey fell ill and his physician told him to eat but a single thrush for his dinner, the only place a thrush could be found in summer was in one of Lucullus's 'fattening coops'. A man, then, who reared his own meat and grew his own vegetables. The rich can afford this excess, but it need not be paraded for all to see. Lucullus also ate alone and enjoyed it no less: 'Did not you know that tonight Lucullus dines with Lucullus?'

But was Lucullus typical? Was he admired and loved for his lifestyle? (That word could have been coined for Lucullus.) No, of course not. Rome was full of prickly people who preached the frugal life, who were abstemious and censorious. That has not changed. Frugality is one of those virtues most often preached by those on whom necessity has enforced it. But it is also the norm for much of the unrecorded world. Lack is infinitely more common than plenty. Think just of love.

My contention is that ordinary eating, the day-by-day stuff, was, in a pre- commercial society, simply beneath recording. It was only when food began to be thought of in terms of money (disposing of crops, having a surplus, trade, etc) that it began to be worthwhile to record our dietary habits. Money says: nothing is so rare that someone will not want it. That is the top of the market. The bottom says: nothing is so common that all will not eat it. Great fortunes are built at both ends of this spectrum: by the resale of Faberge eggs as by marketing sliced white bread.

I very much doubt that in those parts of the world which I know best the diet has changed in any significant way, except in regard to variety (which is certainly much greater, thanks to rapid transport, refrigeration and botanical exploitation), consistency (less alternating feast and famine), and a new form of gastronomic democracy in which it is not Lucullus alone who can enjoy a thrush in summer.

It is perhaps a pity that we cannot exactly imagine a Pleistocene meal, or how the disciples cooked their fish. But I take what is, I fear, a simple-minded view about the whole history of food: that it is fundamental to our lives, has always been high in our minds, cherished as an art in production and preparation, and occupies a far higher place in our culture than such trifling obsessions as power or politics - despite being less recorded.

I also suspect it is not just that in every fat man there is a thin man trying to get out, but that we all possess a natural frugality which we temper with occasional Lucullan interludes; so that in our thin lives there is a fat man trying to get out.

These pages are an expression of that instinct. You will note that we who write on food do not record our snatched sandwiches and our daily bread, our sordid, hunger-induced stops at grotty caffs. Almost all our eating through history has been plain, frugal and touched by necessity. If we wish to share our joys rather than our disappointments, it is so that all may have a touch of Lucullus.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk