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.

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