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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
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

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system