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.

ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
  • 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

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

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

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    '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